10 June 2010

The perils of polymathy

Polymathy (also known as Incontinent Polymathic Affective Disorder, or IPAD) is a compelling candidate for inclusion in the forthcoming DSM-V. It is a debilitating illness, often alienating the sufferer from friends and family, and leading to social dysphoria. Many polymaths are unable to hold a steady job. Symptoms may include extreme bibliophilia, obsessive information hoarding, and logorrhea. Often co-occurs with “Lorenz Syndrome” (Besserwisserei). Polymathy may lead to tabmania, the obsessive multiplication of browser tabs.

Research on this hitherto neglected condition is still in its early stages. Opinion in the literature is divided over the most effective treatment. Many believe that permanent sequestration on a remote Pacific island is the only socially responsible option. Others recommend returning to leucotomy, and yet others suggest simply securing the sufferer in a tightly bound canvas bag along with two or three concrete blocks and tossing him in the river.


“Hi, my name is Dexter, and I’m a polymath.”

"Hi, Dexter!”

“I first realized I was a polymath when I woke up one morning and noticed that I had 12 windows open in Firefox, each with an average of a dozen tabs. The fan on the MacBook was running full speed all the time, battery life had plummeted from the normal 1 hour and 45 minutes to about 25 minutes, and the computer seemed to have developed one hell of a swap file—at any rate, roughly 6 GB had gone missing in just a few days, and I hadn’t really been downloading anything. ‘This can’t be good,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I really do have a polymath problem.’ Yet, later that morning, I found that I had opened yet another window, and had opened 22 tabs before lunch.

Sure, I’d been telling myself (like all addicts do) that I’d get around to blogging about all those old tabs from yesterday and the day before, just as soon as I’d finished blogging about the 22 from this morning. But then suddenly there were a dozen new posts in Google Reader that I just had to look at right away. I found myself opening window 13 right after lunch, and opening yet more tabs. ‘This has got to stop,’ I told myself, ‘Get help.’ So here I am.”


“Hey Dexter, why don’t you just try using Chrome for a while? That way, you can keep all your old tabs preserved in Firefox, while continuing to open new ones in a different browser, without causing the MacBook to burn out the mother board....”


According to the OED, a polymath is:

[ad. Gr. πολυµαθής having learnt much, f. πολυ- much + µαθ-, stem of µανθάνειν to learn. So F. polymathe.]

a. A person of much or varied learning; one acquainted with various subjects of study.

The OED also leads me to the wonderful synonym,


[a. Gr. πολυΐστωρ very learned, f. πολυ-, poly- + ἵστωρ (see history).]

A man of much or varied learning; a great scholar.

(The OED does not provide links to the term for a “woman of much or varied learning,” so perhaps readers can enlighten me....)

There will be more on polymathy (and also on expertise and specialization) later. But right now, I’ve got to start trying to close some of those tabs.
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  1. That's definitely you! I can relate to the obsessive information hoarding;)

  2. You think it's bad downstairs in my house? You should see the upstairs....

  3. David in Chicago writes with the following helpful suggestion: if you've maxed out the number of open windows and tabs in all the browers that will run on your hardware, simply buy a second computer for the overflow.

    Thanks David!