There’s an old maxim, often wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein, that I absolutely cannot stand.
Funnily enough, the prevalent misquote that drives me crazy pertains to insanity.
The insufferable adage generally goes something like this: “Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”
However, there is absolutely no evidence Einstein ever said anything remotely similar to that. Similarly, there is nothing to suggest the sentiment originated in the writings of Benjamin Franklin, sprung forth from the mind of Mark Twain or was coined by Rita Mae Brown.
Pretending for a moment Einstein did originate this insipid utterance, it still wouldn’t lend much credence to the phrase.
Einstein was a brilliant mind, but that does not mean he has particular insight into how the mind operates.
Proficiency in the areas of theoretical physics and advanced mathematics does not dictate someone would also create a credible, working definition of insanity.
Plus, it’s always worth considering Einstein was a bit nutty. He presented his wife with a list of conditions that has to be met for their marriage to remain in tact.
The conditions included such reasonable, sane requests as to not ever expect intimacy and to never reproach Einstein in anyway. Throughout both of his marriages, Einstein kept several mistresses, and after his divorce, Einstein married his first cousin.
If there’s anyone I want mental health advice from it’s an egotistical cousin-marrying serial-adulterer.
Of course, even if the quote could be certifiably attributed to a notable intellectual, it would still be an asinine thought.
Interestingly, the origin of this quote is as closely tied to drug-addled minds as I suspected.
One of the earliest verifiable written references to insanity as repeated action with varied expectation was a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous text.
There is definitely wisdom to be found in recovery, and “Cold Turkey” by John Lennon is a tremendous song, but generally speaking there is a hard cap to the amount of information I am in the habit of taking from reformed junkies.
The outlook of someone who has overcome an addiction is certainly a perspective worth mining for insight, but this definition of insanity makes a lot of sense in the context of an admission of powerlessness to the cycle of relapse or the misguided notion an addict’s preferred poison will be used sparingly or recreationally.
Removed from that context, it’s one of the most philosophically troubling statements a human being can espouse.
If you don’t like the first book you read, better quit reading, they’ll all end the same way. Did you get sun burned even though you slathered on sunscreen? Better abandon the idea of ever going outdoors again. Did you have a tough day? Better not harbor any hope that any particular day of your existence will be any less miserable.
The idea that doing the same thing will never have a different outcome also completely ignores mitigating factors — lurking variables — that impact events.
For example, under this working definition, I would be insane for attempting to fly a kite on a windy day after failing to achieve any measurable success on a still day.
It also thumbs its nose at the idea of self-betterment.
Practice is literally doing the same thing over and over again to ultimately achieve a better result.
The more one meditates upon this definition of insanity the more patently false it becomes.
Scientific experiments are designed to be repeatable, because occasionally, doing the exact same thing yields spectacularly different results.
Ben Hohenstatt is a staff writer for The Herald Independent and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.