Excerpt from A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Beautiful Mind

The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash

by Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind
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  • First Published:
    Jun 1998, 464 pages
    Dec 2001, 464 pages

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More than any symptom, the defining characteristic of the illness is the profound feeling of incomprehensibility and inaccessibility that sufferers provoke in other people. Psychiatrists describe the person's sense of being separated by a "gulf which defies description" from individuals who seem "totally strange, puzzling, inconceivable, uncanny and incapable of empathy, even to the point of being sinister and frightening." For Nash, the onset of the illness dramatically intensified a pre-existing feeling, on the part of many who knew him, that he was essentially disconnected from them and deeply unknowable. As Storr writes:

However melancholy a depressive may be, the observer generally feels there is some possibility of emotional contact. The schizoid person, on the other hand, appears withdrawn and inaccessible. His remoteness from human contact makes his state of mind less humanly comprehensible, since his feelings are not communicated. If such a person becomes psychotic (schizophrenic) this lack of connection with people and the external world becomes more obvious; with the result that the sufferer's behavior and utterances appear inconsequential and unpredictable.

Schizophrenia contradicts popular but incorrect views of madness as consisting solely of wild gyrations of mood, or fevered delirium. Someone with schizophrenia is not permanently disoriented or confused, for example, the way that an individual with a brain injury or Alzheimer's might be. He may have, indeed usually does have, a firm grip on certain aspects of present reality. While he was ill, Nash traveled all over Europe and America, got legal help, and learned to write sophisticated computer programs. Schizophrenia is also distinct from manic depressive illness (currently known as bipolar disorder), the illness with which it has most often been confounded in the past.

If anything, schizophrenia can be a ratiocinating illness, particularly in its early phases. From the turn of the century, the great students of schizophrenia noted that its sufferers included people with fine minds and that the delusions which often, though not always, come with the disorder involve subtle, sophisticated, complex flights of thought. Emil Kraepelin, who defined the disorder for the first time in 1896, described "dementia praecox," as he called the illness, not as the shattering of reason but as causing "predominant damage to the emotional life and the will." Louis A, Sass, a psychologist at Rutgers University, calls it "not an escape from reason but an exacerbation of that thoroughgoing illness Dostoevsky imagined...at least in some of its forms...a heightening rather than a dimming of conscious awareness, and an alienation not from reason but from emotion, instinct and the will."

Nash's mood in the early days of his illness can be described, not as manic or melancholic, but rather as one of heightened awareness, insomniac wakefulness and watchfulness. He began to believe that a great many things that he saw -- a telephone number, a red necktie, a dog trotting along the sidewalk, a Hebrew letter, a birthplace, a sentence in The New York Times -- had a hidden significance, apparent only to him. He found such signs increasingly compelling, so much so that they drove from his consciousness his usual concerns and preoccupations. At the same time, he believed he was on the brink of cosmic insights. He claimed he had found a solution to the greatest unsolved problem in pure mathematics, the so-called Riemann Hypothesis. Later he said he was engaged in an effort to "rewrite the foundations of quantum physics." Still later, he claimed, in a torrent of letters to former colleagues, to have discovered vast conspiracies and the secret meaning of numbers and biblical texts. In a letter to the algebraist Emil Artin, whom he addressed as "a great necromancer and numerologist," Nash wrote:

I have been considering Algerbiac [sic] questions and have noticed some interesting things that might also interest you...I, a while ago, was seized with the concept that numerological calculations dependent on the decimal system might not be sufficiently intrinsic also that language and alphabet structure might contain ancient cultural stereotypes interfering with clear understands [sic] or unbiased thinking....I quickly wrote down a new sequence of symbols....These were associated with (in fact natural, but perhaps not computationally ideal but suited for mystical rituals, incantations and such) system for representing the integers via symbols, based on the products of successive primes.

A predisposition to schizophrenia was probably integral to Nash's exotic style of thought as a mathematician, but the full-blown disease devastated his ability to do creative work. His once-illuminating visions became increasingly obscure, self-contradictory, and full of purely private meanings, accessible only to himself. His longstanding conviction that the universe was rational evolved into a caricature of itself, turning into an unshakable belief that everything had meaning, everything had a reason, nothing was random or coincidental. For much of the time, his grandiose delusions insulated him from the painful reality of all that he had lost. But then would come terrible flashes of awareness. He complained bitterly from time to time of his inability to concentrate and to remember mathematics, which he attributed to shock treatments. He sometimes told others that his enforced idleness made him feel ashamed of himself, worthless. More often, he expressed his suffering wordlessly. On one occasion, sometime during the 1970s, he was sitting at a table in the dining hall at the Institute for Advanced Study -- the scholarly haven where he had once discussed his ideas with the likes of Einstein, von Neumann, and Robert Oppenheimer -- alone as usual. That morning, an institute staff member recalled, Nash got up, walked over to a wall, and stood there for many minutes, banging his head against the wall, slowly, over and over, eyes tightly shut, fists clenched, his face contorted with anguish.

Copyright © 1998 by Sylvia Nasar.

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