In a recent video, Jason Silva says the goal of humanity is to turn our minds inside out, to actualize our imaginations in the real world through technology. He terms humankind’s unique ability to imagine and create a “secondary force of evolution.”

“Human beings take in matter of low organization,” Silva says, “We put it through the filters of the human mind, and we extrude space shuttles and wireless communications networks and smartphones.”

I know Silva is talking technology, but if you want to experience this idea at its most primal, go see a van Gogh exhibit.

Van Gogh’s art exemplifies a human mind turned completely inside out. Visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam recently, I was struck by the fact that, over a century later, his canvases still crackle with meaning and emotion. But more than that, van Gogh symbolizes the uneasy coexistence of genius and madness in the human mind.

Our imagination actualized isn’t just cities, space shuttles and smartphones—it’s also atom bombs, AK-47s and Agent Orange. Great works are born in minds wide open to experience, minds able to split and remix ideas and compose something new. But in their full glory, creatives switch off some basic controls. And this, it seems, can break the psyche.

As Ernest Becker wrote, “The road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there.”

In van Gogh’s work, you can see these two forces at odds. He made 70 paintings in 70 days just before committing suicide. He painted from an asylum before that. These are luminous beauties and works of desolation and despair.

In technology, we want to carefully control creation, and only give birth to safe and sterile works. We worry the power of our inventions will grow so formidable they’ll destroy us. Artificial intelligence is viewed by some as a great good with some risk, and by others a great threat, with some benefits. Biotechnology and nanotechnology are no less divisive.

Perhaps there is no great human creation without a touch of the asylum. Maybe that’s what makes the human condition tragic and beautiful. And maybe that’s why a future scrubbed of emotion, dark and light, is often depicted as dystopian.

None of this is news to Silva, by the way. Check out his video (one of my favorites) “Creativity Is Madness” below.

Image Credit: Wheat Field with Crows/Vincent van Gogh/Wikimedia Commons

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.