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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

Commitments : A Different Drummer : Eccentrics are not necessarily crazy. In fact, a new book argues that they're actually happier and healthier than the rest of us.

November 13, 1995|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ann Atkin keeps 7,500 gnome figurines in her garden, and knits tiny caps for her entourage.

* Marvin Staples walks everywhere backward, proclaiming that life in reverse is more spiritual--and easier on his aching back and arthritic knees.

* John Ward invents such things as an electric spoon, a brassiere warmer and a catamaran made of welded-together bathtubs.

* Californians Bill and Charlotte Steed run Croaker College in Emeryville, "the only institution of higher learning for frogs." To prepare for jumping contests, the amphibians undergo hypnosis and psychoanalysis "to free them of their anxieties," listen to Norman Vincent Peale motivational tapes and pump themselves up in a froggy gym. "We are trying to raise the self-image of frogs," says Steed. "Green is beautiful."

Time was when such batty folk would have been roundly dismissed as half-cracked, one maraca short of a band or pedaling next to their bicycle. But a new book argues that eccentrics like these are actually happier and healthier than the rest of us normal, stodgy puds. The wildly weird are not necessarily mentally ill or chasing after chimera, writes David Weeks, a neuropsychologist at Scotland's Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

"Eccentrics experience much lower levels of stress because they do not feel the need to conform and lower stress levels mean that their immune-response systems can function more efficiently," he writes in "Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness," (Villard Books, 1995), co-authored with writer Jamie James.

What's more, Weeks argues, eccentrics are beneficial to the evolution of the human species. The earliest eccentric may have been that nutty Neanderthal fiercely rubbing two sticks together.

"Eccentrics are essential for the health of the social organism, for they provide the variety of ideas and behavior that permits the group to adapt successfully to changing conditions," writes Weeks. "All intellectual evolution depends on new ideas: They are the essence of science, of exciting new art, indeed of all intellectual progress."

Weeks, 51, spent 10 years interviewing 1,000 British and American individuals who fit a new rubric: eccentric personality type . (Only one proved seriously psychotic.)

"Eccentrics were to psychology what black holes once were to astronomy," said Weeks during an interview in Los Angeles, adding that we all can find our inner eccentric if we just let go and get weird.

"I was trying to think of an operational definition of eccentric. These people describe themselves, especially English aristocrats, as individualists. The behavior is intrinsically rewarding and it's driven by curiosity . . . most motivation is based on instincts and emotion."

Eccentrics happily revel in their strange proclivities--unlike schizophrenics, who hallucinate and are delusional, and sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder, who are racked at turns by anxiety and depression, says Weeks.

*

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer," Thoreau wrote in "Walden." "Let him step to the music he hears."

Weeks says some hear that drummer as young as 8, the age at which numerous study subjects say they knew they were a breed apart. Studies show that curiosity plateaus for roughly 70% of adolescents, but, for youthful eccentrics, adolescence is where they take the unconventional path over more normal pursuit.

"Inflexible, sometimes eccentrics choose paths intellectually or otherwise even when they are told that it will be a dead end, but they remain true to their personality type," Weeks says.

Generally, Weeks found that eccentrics are usually the oldest or only child (70% of study), are middle class and are above average intelligence (a mean IQ of 120). Many opt to live alone (several in caves, one in a shoreline cave where high tide makes it a tad uncomfortable) and they tend to be healthier than their conformist peers. The eccentrics in Weeks' sample visit doctors eight times less than non-eccentrics, wield a "mischievous" sense of humor and tend to be lousy spellers.

Not surprisingly, eccentrics can be difficult. Single-minded, tirelessly optimistic and opinionated, Weeks' eccentrics had a 5% higher divorce rate than the general population (the high-tide dwelling caveman is on his fourth wife) and report experiencing dissension with bosses and colleagues because of their lack of conformity.

"Their social intelligence is not as acute," says Weeks. "They have rough edges, blurt things out and are low on tact and diplomacy."

Roughly one in 10,000 people is an eccentric, according to Weeks' research. While eccentricity shows up in men early in life, a common pattern is that "a female eccentric holds back until her children grow up, then she may get rid of her husband and there is a blossoming of her eccentricity and creativity."

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