Homeostatic envelope

The November 2003 issue of The Believer had an interview with David Foster Wallace, and one part, by the interviewer, Dave Eggers, caught my attention. After talking about how after stories like A Beautiful Mind mathematicians “might even be supplanting artists as the presumed sufferers of a sort of ‘mad genius’ syndrome” he goes on to say:

The G.K. Chesterton quote you [David Foster Wallace] cite [in Everything and More]: “Poets do not go mad; but chess players do…” echoes something my Evolution prof said at U of Illinois (where your dad taught). He was talking about something called the homeostatic envelope, loosely defined (I think) as the limits of one’s normal experience, from joy to depression — he drew a long rectangle and made a zig-zag lie-detector kind of line inside — with the ideal being that one would stay within this envelope, avoiding the lines exceeding it with too much joy or too much sadness. Anyway, the point he also made was that artists tend to stay more within the envelope, because of what I’m presuming he meant as the natural vents and releases built into their work, whereas the cashiers of the world [and, Eggers implies, mathematicians] might not have those. (Boy, I wonder if this makes any sense!)

The idea of trying to avoid too much joy or depression, and the chances and effects of not doing so, makes sense to me. I haven’t had any luck Googling for more information though. Intriguing nonetheless.


  • Cashiers, now that’s an English term. When I was a Teller with the Midland Bank, now HSBC, I found myself stretched beyond the limits of my normal experience when I saw the Ramones in 1978 at Leeds University. Took me right outside the envelope, an excursion for which I will be permananently gratefull.