A Beautiful Mind

by Sylvia Nasar

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What stressor precipitated John Nash's first episode of schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind?

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At the age of 30, mathematician John Nash suffered his first episode of schizophrenia. In the biography A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar describes several pressures and stressors combined to shatter his fragile mental state.

Nash’s genius was evident from his first entrance into the academic world as he pondered the most complex mathematical questions with the greatest minds of his time. He received numerous accolades for his work as s a young professor, including being identified by Fortune magazine as one of the brightest young mathematicians by the time he turned 30. As gratifying as these honors were, they also produced significant pressure to live up to expectations.

Simultaneous with his successes, Nash experienced major disappointments in a career that was not taking off as he had expected. In 1957, Nash was working on proving a continuity theorem. Unbeknownst to him, an obscure Italian mathematician, Ennio DeGiorgi, was working on the same project and succeeded in publishing his proof ahead of Nash. This was a double blow, because not only did Nash have to share credit for this discovery, not publishing an innovative mathematical breakthrough jeopardized his candidacy for receiving the Fields medal. As there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics; this award serves as the equivalent. Nash was never awarded the Fields medal and felt acute disappointment for the rest of his life. Furthermore—

Nash’s thirtieth year was thus looking very bright. He had scored a major success. He was adulated and lionized as never before. Fortune magazine was about to feature him as one of the brightest young stars of mathematics in an upcoming series on the “New Math” ... Yet his good fortune seemed at times only to highlight the gap between his ambitions and what he had achieved.. He had hoped for an appointment at Harvard or Princeton. As it was, he was not yet a full professor at MIT, nor did he have tenure ... A number of people in the department felt he was a poor teacher and an even worse colleague.

Nash’s disappointments only served to drive him to even more ambitious aspirations.

“I embarked on [a project] to revise quantum theory,” Nash said in his 1996 Madrid lecture. “It was not a priori absurd for a non-physicist. Einstein had criticized the indeterminacy of the quantum mechanics of Heisenberg”… ... It was this attempt that Nash would blame, decades later in a lecture to psychiatrists, for triggering his mental illness—calling his attempt to resolve the contradictions in quantum theory, on which he embarked in the summer of 1957, “possibly overreaching and psychologically destabilizing.”

Nash’s lofty goal of attempting to revise quantum theory eventually became his undoing.

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John Nash, the subject of Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind, was a Nobel prize winner, an economist, and a mathematician. Nash was famous for pushing his mind to its limits, a feat which eventually lead him to his first schizophrenic episode in 1959 at age 30.

Nash took his career very seriously, working hard to crack some of the biggest questions math had to offer. Nash was experiencing great professional success in the late 1950s, which lead to a great amount of pressure to live up to the accolades being thrust upon him. It was during a lecture in front of the members of the American Mathematical Society that Nash had his first true schizophrenic episode. His speech was incoherent causing the audience members concern for his health.

Nash was admitted to a local hospital where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He spent nearly 10 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. He was notorious for disliking his medication and taking it only when pressured to do so. He ultimately refused further treatment, opting for a quiet life at Princeton with less pressure.

Nash had shown signs of mental illness prior to the infamous lecture. His wife described him as paranoid. He believed that every man wearing a red tie was part of a communist conspiracy. While they divorced in the 1960s, she was supportive of his recovery from his disease, encouraging his choice to live a simple life.

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In Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind, she tells the story of the mental and social decline of genius John Nash into schizophrenia.

John Nash has always been viewed as an eccentric and nontraditional man, but this is not a red flag due to his genius and his connection with the mathematical community. People with that level of genius often exhibit social idiosyncrasies. However, this genius is also used to juxtapose the sadness associated with mental decline, because it has attacked a mind with so much to offer the world.

Nash’s first episode of schizophrenia occurs at the age of 30, a notoriously late age for a first episode. Nash was giving a lecture at Columbia University on the topic of the Riemann hypothesis. His speech become impossible to understand and the points he used to support his lecture were completely incorrect.

Prior to this episode, there were a few noted stressors. First, Nash was named by Fortune as the most promising upcoming mathematician in the world. This put a lot of pressure on Nash. Additionally, Nash began revising the contradictions in the principles of quantum theory, which was an incredibly taxing and difficult undertaking. This professional pressure, combined with the desire to live up to the highest standards, eventually led to the onset of schizophrenia.

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For his entire life, Nash had been considered by many around him to be eccentric and even strange. This is not considered to be an uncommon trait of those in the mathematical community, particularly among minds as brilliant as Nash. However, the first signs of a very serious mental illness in the mind of Nash manifested in the symptom of extreme and irrational paranoia. Nash became convinced of a conspiracy against him, complaining that men who were red ties were part of a plot by a foreign government.

However, in what is called his first true "episode" of schizophrenia, Nash was attempting to give a lecture on the Riemann hypothesis at Columbia University. Not only were the points he was attempting to make complete fallacies, but his speech began to degenerate into non-sequitur gibberish.

This episode occurred at age 30, an extraordinarily late age for paranoid schizophrenia to develop. This event was precluded by several instances of professional pressure, including Nash being named as the most promising upcoming mathematician in the world by Fortune magazine. Furthermore, Nash had recently attempted a highly ambitious revision of the principals of quantum theory, an undertaking to which he would later attribute the onset of his mental decline.

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John Nash had long been considered to be eccentric, but it was not until he was thirty years old that he suffered his "first shattering episode of paranoid schizophrenia" (Prologue).  In the summer of 1957, Nash began work on a project to "revise quantum theory".  Decades later, Nash would blame this attempt to "resolve the contradictions in quantum theory", as the stressor that precipitated his mental illness.  He called his efforts to explore the depth of the science "possibly overreaching and psychologically destabilizing" (Chapter 30).

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