Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for practitioners, researchers, and students in cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, and psychiatry. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I am a professional mathematician, and I regularly meet other mathematicians.
I have come to wonder if there is something like a slight neurosis, specific to this activity.

To be more precise, let me grossly describe the mathematician's activity:
The mathematician tries to solve a problem. This problem is usually sufficiently hard to not be solvable without an intense concentration. There are two types of concentration here:

  • A local type: the intensity in the moment (i.e., all the thoughts are focused on this single problem).
  • A global type: the commitment in time (i.e., work on this problem for months, even years).

Usually, the local concentration can be sufficiently intense so that the mathematician loses the feeling of hunger, thirst or sleep. In this state, there is usually no room for a healthy relationship with others.
It is almost as if the mathematician has a state near that of autism (see Asperger syndrome).

The global concentration permits one to develop in the time a more and more intense concentration on the problem. The mathematician is committed "body and soul" into solving the problem and could neglect all other aspects of his life like social relationships, married life, children...
It is almost as if the mathematician has become more and more autistic.

So ok, autism is a severe neurosis and it's usually irreversible. It's the reason why I speak about a slight neurosis specific to mathematicians, because it's usually reversible...

In light of what I wrote:

Is the mathematician's activity psychologically healthy ?

share|improve this question
This is an awesome question, genius. You could substitute mathematician's with other very complex high cognitive load activities. When I walk across campus from the engineering to the liberal arts section, I become more aware of how different the mental expression is in the people studying the different fields. Of course one can argue their autism is why they are in the complex field in the first place but I like the part of the question that asks if it creates more of it. – Greg McNulty Jul 3 '13 at 0:54
I don't know why you think of mental disorders and autism. Your description reminds me most of meditation and the lives of Indian sannyasin or Chinese hermits. – what Sep 14 '13 at 20:35
@what: I like your comment. What do you think of the following: In some sense, be extremely focused on spirituality is like be a Sannyasin, and be extremely focused on something else is like autism. – Sebastien Palcoux Jul 17 '14 at 13:31
@SébastienPalcoux In clinical psychology there is one criterion that almost all behaviors have to fulfill to be considered pathological: they have to prevent normal everyday functioning. Many writers close themselves up for a few weeks to finish their novels. They don't sleep, wash or eat. But then they come out, take a shower, play with their kids, socialize etc. It would only be considered pathological, if you don't have any friends at all, no family, never wash or cut your hair, etc. Being extremely focussed on what you do is called "flow" and it causes a state of bliss. It is very healthy. – what Jul 17 '14 at 14:13
@what: see the following documentary Paul Erdos - N is a number (Mathematics Asperger) The man made of Maths. Extract of the abstract: << If he were alive today he would be diagnosed with aspergers, but he had fully productive aspergers. >> – Sebastien Palcoux Jul 28 '14 at 10:22

Well that looks like the behavior of any person with a strong passion and focus for his work. There are plenty of these around!

I guess it would be more common in any field of work were people already have dedicated a significant part of their life to it, and where it is almost a prerequisite. Being a mathematician selects and cultivates people able to display consistently that kind of behavior. Otherwise you just don't succesfully study high level maths, or fail at it. That is why you may observe many occurences of this phenomenon in your environment, when you work with other mathematicians.

Nothing to worry much about i think, there are plenty of people like you around, and this is not directly related to mathematics.

share|improve this answer
Thank you for your answer. I'm agree with you on the point that mathematics attract people predisposed to this behavior. – Sebastien Palcoux Jun 30 '13 at 17:58
But my point is also that mathematics promote and develop particularly this behavior, without limit, because contrarily to others domains, the mathematicians access easily to infinite areas ! – Sebastien Palcoux Jun 30 '13 at 18:09
If this behavior is characteristic of a slight neurosis, it may not be a good idea to develop it into a serious one, isn't it ? – Sebastien Palcoux Jun 30 '13 at 18:16

This kind of behaviour also occurs in fields that use/rely on mathematics, such as my 2 of my main fields - physics and programming. Both employ a significant amount of maths concepts to understood and applied, often overlapping in places.

As an example, I have been known to work for over 12 hours in a single block to solve a problem.

Is this healthy? If it impinges on necessities such as sleep, eating, social life - then yes, it can potentially be somewhat harmful; however, people with a passion for what they do, often achieve great results that no only benefit themselves, but potentially others too.

share|improve this answer
Is there a term for "being intensely into something to miss meals, do not leave house and intensely believe that the work is important, meaningful, etc?" Is it (hypo)mania? – Alex Stone Jul 1 '13 at 0:04
@AlexStone - yes, it does seem like a good fit. – user3554 Jul 1 '13 at 0:10
It is not hypomania. It is more like OCD. – guest43434 Jul 1 '13 at 1:20

There's a very small percent of people who enjoy the adrenaline of mental exhaustion. While that signals most people to stop, there are people who will continue exhausting themselves. This isn't physiologically healthy. You need to recognize when you're worn out and rest. Don't get hyper-focused on your problem.

share|improve this answer
Thank you for your answer, I'm so agree with you ! – Sebastien Palcoux Jun 30 '13 at 20:32
Your answer is about what I call the concentration of "local type", there is also an equivalent for the "global type". Anyway, the mathematician's activity seems more perverse that we believe : in general, without an hyper-commitment of our mental and our life, it seems not possible to be creative and productive. – Sebastien Palcoux Jun 30 '13 at 21:02

If you define mental disorder as any behavior not applying to (more or less arbitrary) social norms, then yes, the activity you describe would probably be considered mental disorder. However, the same would apply for example to:

  • homosexualism
  • most hobbies
  • asceticism and religious devotion
  • playing and listening to music

The last may seem odd, but Plato have written in 'The Republic' that musicians are not needed in his ideal state, because there's no use of them.

As for now, being common or being social norm is not the crucial part of determining if something is mental disorder or not. The most important parts are that some behavior is causing objective suffering and it has the nature of disability.

Is your mathematical drive causing you objective suffering? Well, sometimes you are frustrated for sure, but objectively it makes you happy and gives you aim in life. Has it disabiliating nature? No way, mathematics are so important in contemporary society!

Some symptoms are similar, but it's just like suspecting ADHD because you don't sleep a half of the day.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.