Does ‘A Beautiful Mind’ reveal the real John Nash?
by Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud FRCPsych
Most winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics remain much more obscure than John Nash, who along with his wife, recently died in a car crash tragedy.
Nash shot to fame following the Russell Crowe film, ‘‘A Beautiful Mind’’, based loosely on Sylvia Nasar’s biography, charting the great mathematician’s struggle with a psychotic disorder.
Donald Capps is Professor of Pastoral Psychology (Emeritus) and has investigated John Nash’s struggle with mental illness possibly more than anyone else in the world.
His academic papers include ‘John Nash’s Pre-delusional Phase: A Case of Acute Identity Confusion’, ‘John Nash’s Delusional Decade: A Case of Paranoid Schizophrenia’, ‘John Nash’s Post-delusional Phase: A Case of Transformed Narcissism’, all published in the academic journal, ‘Pastoral Psychology’; and ‘John Nash: Three Phases in the Career of a Beautiful Mind’, and ‘John Nash, Game Theory, and the Schizophrenic Brain’, both published in the ‘Journal of Religion and Health’.
His book ‘Understanding Psychosis’ (2010) concludes with a chapter on Nash titled, “Achieving Equilibrium: Personal Strengths and Social Supports”.
Capps cites objections to the film ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ from which most people will know of John Nash, including the grounds that Hollywood’s handling of the mathematician’s delusional experiences are inaccurate as his delusions and hallucinations were auditory, not visual.
Key events not in the movie include past traumas that may account for the later development of Nash’s psychological problems, and make them more understandable psychologically, as opposed to bizarrely inexplicable.
When Nash was 15 he and two other boys were messing about with homemade explosives, but one friend was killed when a pipe bomb exploded in his lap. Nash and the third boy were not there at the time, but the third boy’s parents placed their son in a boarding school, as if to shield him from Nash’s influence.
For an introverted character, the trauma of losing two friends was, in Donald Capps’ view, profound, and included survivor guilt.
The second key trauma, Capps argues, appears to be when Nash’s father ordered his son to marry a woman with whom he had a child out of wedlock, on the grounds that this was the honourable thing to do, but Nash did not comply.
John Nash Sr. died of a massive heart attack 2 months later—and Nash’s mother attributed his death to the emotional effects of his discovery that he had an illegitimate grandchild.
Nash then married Alicia Larde who became pregnant with his child, and it is around this time that he begins to become so psychotic that he is hospitalised for severe mental illness. This son, John Charles, has also suffered from schizophrenia and has continued to live with his parents.
Some psychiatrists would contend this perhaps lends weight to a genetic vulnerability in the case of John Nash’s own disorder, on top of which traumatic events might have more impact.
The film ‘‘A Beautiful Mind,’’ emphasized his letter writing to various foreign embassies and his delusional involvement in claimed secret political activities, but neglects what may be more important, his religious delusions, that he was a ‘‘messianic figure’’, to replace the Pope as the earthly sovereign over all Christendom.
Donald Capps contends that this delusion may be understood in the light of his wife Alicia being a Roman Catholic, and Nash had refused to be married in a Catholic ceremony. Capps points out that the mathematician believed that his own photograph on the cover of Life magazine had been disguised to look as though it were a photo of Pope John.
In the letter he wrote declining the offer of a Chair at the University of Chicago, he said that he was soon to become the Emperor of Antarctica. Nash later said that he took these delusions seriously because they came to him ‘‘the same way’’ his mathematical ideas had come.
Capps points out that Nash’s interest in numerology could be because of the attraction of the ‘order of numbers’ when your internal world falls apart.
Capps quotes an example of Nash’s obsession with numerology – he once phoned the mathematics department chairman and beginning with Nikita Khrushchev’s birth-date, working through the Dow Jones average, he eventually came out at the end with the chairman’s Social Security number.
It is this tendency to see connections and significance in the random which partly characterises psychosis and schizophrenia – a diagnosis which has been attached to John Nash.
But Donald Capps contends that schizophrenic thinking might also explain Nash’s creative genius, as well as when he was too ill to work productively.
Nash’s dissertation on game theory was the basis for the Nobel Award in Economics in 1994.
Game theory is an approach to studying decision-making in situations where one actor’s best options depend on what others do. It did not come into its own until World War II when the British navy used the theory to improve hit rates against German submarines.
Nash’s Princeton professor, John von Neumann, had developed game theory, but focused exclusively on so-called ‘zero-sum’ games, where there is one winner and one loser (as, for example, in most U.S. presidential elections).
Nash focused instead on games that are a mixture of cooperative and non-cooperative elements – for example when you negotiate to buy a car from a dealer. This new direction did not immediately find favour with the faculty at Princeton, yet was Nash’s ability to break with his department’s way of thinking linked with his schizophrenic mind?
Nash freed game theory from the constraints of von Neumann’s two-person, zero-sum theory, in which one person’s gain is the other person’s loss.
Although many games fit this model (two sports teams competing against one another), there are situations in which this assumption does not hold – was nuclear war one of these?
Nash arrived at the RAND Corporation in the 1950’s , when this secretive nuclear think tank in Santa Monica was being mainly funded by the United States Air Force.
The spectre of a fissile Armageddon, disastrous for the victor and vanquished alike was the focus of RAND’s mathematicians, military strategists and economists. Could they come up with a winning strategy in the nuclear conflict between two superpowers?
Donald Capps points out that as weapons became more destructive, all-out hostilities had ceased to be a situation of pure conflict in which opponents had no common interest whatsoever. Inflicting the greatest damage on an enemy was senseless when doing so would result in one’s own destruction.
For RAND, the biggest appeal of the Nash ‘equilibrium’ concept was its promise of liberation from the two-person zero-sum game.
There is a sense in which John Nash could have saved the world from nuclear war with his game theory, and it’s possible that this arose out of his schizophrenic or psychotic mind-set. In which case, it is possible that the mental illness which received a series of psychiatric hospitalisations, as John Nash endured, in fact helped saved the world from the ‘madness’ of leaders pressing the nuclear button.
Donald Capps contends that John Nash’s equilibrium theory is also linked to contemporary neuroscience understanding of the brain.
He points out that in schizophrenia it is not the brain’s two hemispheres that are necessarily malfunctioning; rather, it might be the connections between them. The equilibrium theory suggests that optimum results occur when two persons work cooperatively together for their mutual benefit, but in order to do so, they need to be in communication with one another.
Thus, Capps suggests that Nash’s equilibrium theory could also represent a powerful contribution to the neuroscience study of psychosis and its treatment.
The Nobel Prize committee sent a representative to Princeton to determine whether Nash was likely to behave abnormally at the awards ceremony, but instead of expressing anger or disdain towards the awards committee for checking him out before making the award, Nash treated their worries humorously.
That they were still so worried about his behaviour at the awards ceremony so long after his last hospitalisation, is possibly testament to the enduring stigma surrounding severe mental illness. A taboo that even today means that many suffering from similar psychological problems are not treated with the sympathy, understanding and optimism that recovery is not just possible, but that sufferers contribute to society.
John Nash later observed with some regret there was a price to be paid for becoming more rational, as opposed to his previous messianic perspective.
But Donald Capps suggests that his recognition of this very fact was in itself an expression of his recovery.
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