Chess and Mental Illness



Morphy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the game of chess. Over the years I have enjoyed playing in tournaments and in informal games at chess clubs and other venues. Now I do not believe there is any necessary relationship between any particular game and mental illness. It does happen to be the case that in studying the history of the game, one finds a number of cases of brilliant players who became mentally ill. Paul Morphy, the great nineteenth century American player and unofficial world champion, is one classic example. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion and, since he became a United States citizen in 1888, the first U.S. world champion, sadly, became mentally ill in old age, allegedly offering God odds of pawn and move in a game. Akiba Rubenstein, a great player from the early twentieth century, also became mentally ill in his old age. The most famous contemporary example of mental illness in a chess player is Bobby Fischer, the first U.S.-born world champion. After he won his championship match with Boris Spassky, Fischer’s behavior became increasingly unstable, and his rabid antisemitism seemed to be a strange form of self-hatred given that his mother was Jewish, and recent evidence indicates his father may have been Jewish as well. Shortly before he died in 2008, I looked at Bobby Fischer’s personal website–it was clearly the work of a sick man–paranoid, raving, and incoherent. I disagreed with the U.S. Chess Federation’s throwing Mr. Fischer out after he supported the 9-11 attacks because those were not the statements of someone who was mentally “all there”. Why is the case that many chess geniuses suffer from mental illness?

Such problems are not unique to chessplayers–mathematical and musical geniuses sometimes have similar problems with mental illness. It is as if the brain is wired for one type of thinking and does that thing at a genius-level, but other forms of thinking are truncated. I am reminded of the extreme of savants, who can do one thing well, but are profoundly mentally handicapped in other areas.

I would venture a guess that more geniuses have high-functioning autism (which I do not consider to be a mental illness) than other people. It is well known that people on the autistic spectrum tend to focus on one (or only a few) special interests, and they tend to excel at those. In other areas of life, such as social ability, they do not do as well. I am not chess genius, but only an average tournament player of around the 1500-level, but I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now called high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder). When I go to chess tournaments, many of the players seem more socially inept than I am–that’s saying a lot. I have also noticed some players having interests upon which they focused almost exclusively–chess, of course, but also collecting fantasy action figures, Dungeons & Dragons, war games (board games), science fiction, science, and mathematics. This is not a bad thing–society needs people with talent in many areas who can channel their interests in a positive direction. If that tendency to be antisocial goes too far, however, to the point of debilitating autism or true mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, as well as personality disorders, then that results in players such as Mr. Morphy or Mr. Fischer.  These serious cases are sad, and such individuals require treatment which is all too hard to come by these days. Plus, the person or person’s family must take the initiative for the individual to get treatment. I do not believe chess itself will do them harm–it may do them much good in channeling their energies into one of the great strategy games of history and an intellectual contest par excellence.

I will continue to enjoy chess, and continue to enjoy playing over the games of the great players of history regardless of their mental difficulties. Morphy’s and Fischer’s games are masterpieces and are a great joy to go over. I believe that the contributions and beautiful games of chess these men offered more than make up for anything they may have said due to their illnesses. In the end, they have made the world a richer and more joyful place by creating objects of beauty.

The Unpredictability of Human Behavior

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When you think of mental illness, is this what...

When you think of mental illness, is this what you see? (Photo credit: JenXer)

Some of the comments on Internet discussion boards suggest that mental health professionals should have been able to tell that Adam Lanza was dangerous and that they should have had him detained at a mental health facility. Such statements reflect a fundamental ignorance about the nature of mental illness and the predictability of human behavior. There are a few–and only a few–cases in which mental health professionals can be reasonably certain that a person will break the law and/or harm another person. Pedophiles are notoriously difficult to treat–it is well known that their recidivism rate is high. Psychopaths, who lack empathy, often hurt people, although most do not become murderers. A person known to have a violent temper who has behaved violently all his life is likely to engage in violent behavior again. However, in most cases of mental illness, no one can predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not a person will engage in violent behavior. The vast majority of mentally ill individuals, even those with psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, never engage in violent behavior. Even a paranoid schizophrenic who is aware of his condition and realizes that any hallucinations he has are not real may not be at serious risk for violent behavior. Sometimes “normal” people engage in terrible acts of violence, such as a North Carolina man a few years ago who, without warning, beheaded his eight-year-old son. To say that psychologists and psychiatrists and others around Mr. Lanza should have predicted that he would become violent is both unrealistic and ignorant. Mental health professionals cannot read people’s minds. There are many unusual or quiet individuals who do not fit into society’s pigeon holes of normality, and almost all of them will lead peaceful lives. On the other hand, someone who robs and murders multiple people over a period of time may do so without any sign of mental illness per se.

Eccentrics often are the most creative people in a society–Beethoven, Einstein, Thelonious Monk–all were eccentric people who made incredible contributions to science and to music. To say that people who are different or who have certain “mental disorders” should be locked up because of an alleged potential for violence is a view that is not based on facts. Americans want predictability, want order–they want reality to fit into a pigeonhole. Evil actions are often what philosophers call a “surd,” something that cannot be explained. How can someone, without getting into Mr. Lanza’s mind, have possibly known he was going to commit such an act. If his mother had heard him brag about specific violent acts, then there would a problem, but thus far, there is little evidence of that occurring. These murders point out the limits of human knowledge, limits that people do not want to acknowledge–and such a failure to acknowledge limits is used to justify stereotyping the mentally ill (including, as I noted in my previous post, people with Asperger’s Syndrome) as violent. People should do good research before expression opinions that are both wrong and potentially subversive to the rights of entire classes of people.

Asperger’s Syndrome is not Why Adam Lanza Committed Murder


Autism Awareness

Autism Awareness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Members of the media often love simplistic thinking–it makes it easier to create headlines and “talking points.” As I have watched and read the media coverage of Adam Lanza’s horrific murders of young children and adults, including his mother, there are more stories about Mr. Lanza’s having Asperger’s Syndrome. Although, to be fair, some of the stories have a disclaimer that points out there is no causal connection nor any correlation between Asperger’s Syndrome (soon to be labeled as high functioning autism spectrum disorder) and violence. From the online comments sections, it is clear that many people do not read the disclaimer, nor do they have any understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome may account for Mr. Lanza’s shyness and his membership in his high school “Tech Club,” but it does not account for his committing murder. He clearly had other, much more serious, mental problems that were heightened by his parents’ divorce. God only knows Mr. Lanza’s motivation for sure. The act was that of a twisted mind–Mr. Lanza may not have been legally insane, but his view of reality was skewed. I believe he retained free will and was thus morally responsible for his actions. His actions were evil and represent a mind so utterly focused on self that the lives of twenty-seven human beings did not matter to him. The cold-blooded way in which the murders were carried out reflects a mind that was most likely incapable of feeling emotional empathy for another person–the classic sign of a psychopath.

Although some individuals on the autism spectrum have less empathy, at least that is visible to others, people with Asperger’s Syndrome often have a great deal of empathy, and children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome are capable of great love. They share the tendencies to good and evil that all human beings have, but their levels of crime and violent crime are no higher than the rest of the U.S. population. What I fear is that the news stories that lead people to falsely believe that Asperger’s is a sign of a tendency to violence will encourage mistreatment by civilians and by law enforcement of individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. The coverage may also cause children who are “different” or “strange” to be signaled out for surveillance. Adults may face the same treatment–and that would raise problems of civil liberties. It is simplistic, ignorant, and dangerous to link Asperger’s Syndrome with the brutal murders in Connecticut. The press has a moral responsibility not to mislead, even if unintentionally, people to falsely associate Asperger’s Syndrome with a tendency toward violence.

Should the Label “Asperger’s Syndrome” Have Been Removed from the DSM?


Published by the American Psychiatric Associat...

Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-IV-TR provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association will be without the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” Instead, what was once called Asperger’s will be grouped under “Autistic Spectrum Disorders” without a specific name attached to it. Although there will not be an “official” label, it will most likely be informally considered “high-functioning autism,” or “mild autism.”

As someone formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, it makes no difference in my condition whether I am labeled as “Asperger’s” or as being a high-functioning person (or someone with “mild autism spectrum disorder”) on the scale of Autism Spectrum Disorders. It was difficult to distinguish between patients diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and those diagnosed with “high functioning autism,” so the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to simply matters by grouping Asperger’s as a form of autism.

Although I understand the reasons for the change in diagnostic terminology, the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” served a useful purpose by distinguishing individuals who could function well overall, yet who had excessive interests and quirks, the inability to look people in the eye, the “little professor syndrome” and so forth, from those individuals with more severe forms of autism.

The new labeling system wreaks havoc on the various Asperger’s social groups online, and some say that they will continue to use the older label. In addition, although autistic people deserve the same respect that any other individual deserves, sadly, there is a stigma attached to the word “autism” that has not yet been attached to the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” If someone were to notice eccentric behavior and ask me, “What in the world is wrong with you? Are you having a complete conversation with yourself?” it would be difficult to say, “I’m sorry I disturbed you. I’m mildly autistic.” The natural reaction is either to (1) consider me a liar since “everyone knows that autistic people can’t communicate with others, or to (2) think that autistic people are “crazy” and back away. The implications for encounters between law enforcement and individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome–which has been a mixed experience at best with some people with Asperger’s being shot to death–are unknown. How would a police officer react to a self-report of high-functioning or mild autism? Would the reaction be different from an officer who hears the words “Asperger’s Syndrome?” In the case of students, would teachers use a different methodology teaching a student with “mild autism” vs. teaching a child with “Asperger’s Syndrome?” Would parents react differently? What about companies–would they be less likely to hire someone diagnosed as “autisic” than someone diagnosed with Asperger’s? Although autism has an organic basis in structural changes in the brain, the classification of conditions and diseases by medicine is in part objective, in part subjective. Labels may have a basis in reality, but they also help shape public perception of a disease or a condition. Consider the term “AIDS” and the negative connotations it brings. “Autism” also has emotional connotations that are not as evident in the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.

Overall, I see no need for the new changes in the DSM to go into effect. It would be better to keep the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” with all its ambiguity rather than to replace it with another, even broader label.

Living with Asperger’s Syndrome


Autism spectrum

Image via Wikipedia

My name is Michael and I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. I was formally diagnosed about five years ago by my psychologist–and I knew that the diagnosis fit. “Aspies,” as we are sometimes called, often feel like aliens around other people. Rather than go through a list of characteristics of Asperger’s, in this post I will focus on what it has been like growing up Asperger’s.

As a child, I was different. Unlike other children, I preferred to be around adults, especially older people, more than I preferred to be around people my own age. I talked much like an adult, and imitated their words, expressions, and intonations. Things had to be accurate; I thought I was being helpful when I informed my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Christman, that “You forgot to change your calendar!” She did not find that statement as helpful as I thought.

Change was frightening; I hated change. When, in second grade, I was moved up from Mrs. McNeal’s class to Mrs. Lowry’s, I cried because I was in an unfamiliar environment. I would get attached to toys or objects–when I lost a golf ball I’d found, it felt like the world had ended. When I forgot the title of a song my dad had played on the harmonica, somehow that forgetting was traumatic. If my parents put me in a new bed, I hated it since I wanted my old bed back.

I loved to rock in rocking chairs. Unlike many children with full-blown autism, I did not spin around on the floor. But I could rock for hours, and I still can. At an academic conference, if there is a chair that rocks, I probably drive my fellow academics mad, since I will rock for hours.

As an Asperger’s child, I focused on interests to the point of obsession. I did not care for conversation that was not over a serious topic, and that hurt the process of making friends with other children. But I had friends: Melvin in the first three grades; I was sad when he had to move to another state; Paul, who used to talk with me during play period about becoming an astronaut. My interested then was in space, and I obsessed over it, checking out every book on space and astronomy from the public library in Smyrna.

Aspies tend to live in their own little world, and for that reason it is easy for us to talk a lot–to ourselves. I remember in my high school days stopping at the drive through at a Wendy’s (which is still at the same location–some things don’t change!). I was calculating whether I had enough change so I would get only bills back, but I did so out loud. The woman at the counter gave me a look like I was stark raving mad. I can laugh about it now, but at the time it really hurt–and on a bad day if I have this memory it still hurts.

The ultimate change in life is death, and it is no surprise that this became my ultimate obsessive interest. My fraternal twin brother, Jeffrey, died two hours after birth from a bilateral pulmonary hemorrhage. I heard about his death as a child, and at that time thought of death as sheer nothingness. In 1967, when I was only five-years-old, I watched the Easter episode of the show, “Davy and Goliath.” In the episode, Davy plays with his grandmother in the attic, and later, outside. But the next day, after coming home from a ball game, Davy’s father told him, “Grandmother died this morning.” I fell apart, ran to my grandparent’s kitchen, and cried, asking “When will I died,” and thinking of death as a black hole, as absolute nothingness. This fear continues despite my Christian faith–that religion is wrong and that death will mark the total end. My interest in philosophy ultimately arose out of this focus on death, and my recent interest in parapsychology also arose from this obsession.

A related interest/obsession is with the heart–the physical organ. As the organ which best symbolizes life–and death–I became fascinated, especially after my dad brought a stethoscope home from work. That interest continues–to the point that at times I force myself to focus on other interests or on boring projects at school to get away from it. I read everything I could, from anatomy textbooks to my dad’s notes from work when he took his EKG course. I read about causes of death, not to be morbid, but out of pure curiosity–how does this disease or this injury cause the heart to stop? And I would listen to my own hearts and others’ hearts to hear the precious life within, the life that is God’s gift to us, that ends all too soon. (Having lost my best friend to cancer this past May, the reality of how soon life ends hit me full-force). To most people, my obsession is bizarre; to me, it is a way of controlling and coping with a deep fear of death. Of course my faith is the most important way–but like the Apostle Thomas, I have to say, “Lord, I believe; pardon my unbelief!”

I suppose my interest in paranormal investigation and ghosts arises from this fear/fascination with death. I have always loved horror movies, to the classic “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” movies I saw on “The Big Show” on Channel 5 in Nashville as a child to the Japanese “Ringu” and “Ju-on” horror series today. And in my own paranormal investigations, I get lots of electronic voice phenomena (EVP)–more than other group members. I leave the source of those voices a mystery; I just don’t know. I wish they were unambiguous evidence of life after death, but I could be causing them with my own mind–or someone else living could be. Oh, to be certain about what is intrinsically uncertain!

Asperger’s Syndrome has a few advantages. I can focus on a project obsessively, so that I have an impressive number of academic publications given a heavy teaching load at a church-related university. I love learning and love to read, especially sitting in my rocking chair beside the book case I built in Mr. Sims’ ninth-grade shop class, the case that holds my books I obtained from early childhood on through high school. Again, it’s a familiar space.

There is a painful social awkwardness that arises from Asperger’s Syndrome–I often do not know the right things to say in a social situation, though I have improved over time. Even in e-mails, which I read over before I send it, it is easy for me to be misunderstood, something that is always painful. It’s a risk to be social, scary as hec, but to refuse being social is to refuse all love and human companionship–and that is hell. Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” but I would say, “Hell is being totally alone.”

What would be heaven for an Asperger’s individual? In my case, it would start with something as familiar as tying my shoes in the morning. I spend the night at my late grandparents’ house. They are alive again. I wake up to the aroma of bacon frying on the kitchen stove. A breeze cools my skin. Dappled sunlight shifts as branches sway. Today, I will pick a watermelon from Granddaddy’s garden. I will ride my bicycle around the driveway and underneath a tree full of pears. My Spitz, Fuzzy, is barking, and I release him from his chain and hug him. He thinks he can lick me to death, but I love it. Later, I will run to the swing chained to one of two large maples in the front yard and swing back and forth across the drive in the cool shade. Granddaddy and I will bring out chairs and sit by the Old Nashville Highway, guessing which color the next passing car will be. Granny will call us inside for supper and iced tea. I’ll read one of Patrick Moore’s books on astronomy, watch “To Tell the Truth” at 6:30 that night with Garry Moore as host. I lie on the tile floor next to the fan, feel the late summer heat stream from my back. Above is a schoolhouse light; I stare at it, close my eyes, face the fan, feel its air on my face, and go to sleep–the next day will be a new, but also an old, adventure–and God willing, after seeing the face of Jesus in my loved ones and in familiar places, one day I will have the strength to see Jesus Christ face to face.