John Nash and Schizophrenia

John F. Nash Jr. might be the most famous contemporary schizophrenic. After all, he did win a Noble Prize and had a popular movie, A Beautiful Mind, made about his life. If any single individual could be held up as a well-documented example of a productive life, despite severe schizophrenic episodes, it has to be Mr. Nash.

What’s more, he comes off as a likeable individual who is capable of looking back on his life with humor and warm memories. It is hard to say if that is more surprising coming from a genius or an individual who has battled with severe mental illness. Instead of expressing any bitterness or arrogance, his writing seems hopeful, modest, and even a little humorous.

Searching For Schizophrenia Clues in the John F. Nash Nobel Prize Biography

John Nash won the Noble Prize for for economic science in 1994.  If you ever get a chance, read the short John F. Nash biography on his Noble Prize page. He spends a lot of time remembering his parents and early family life. He even talks about his grandparents, sister, and the elementary school he attended.

At any rate, he hardly describes any sort of stressful childhood or what a doctor might call “triggers.” His only mild complaint was that his childhood home in the Appalachians was not a very intellectual place, and he had to become an avid reader to learn what could not be taught in his own community. This hardly seems like the type of childhood trauma that some researchers associate with later schizophrenic episodes.

In fact, Mr. Nash seems proud of his public school achievements. He goes on to modestly state that he was “lucky enough” to earn a scholarship to Carnegie (Now Carnegie Mellon University). He began his studies as a chemical engineering student, to follow in his engineer father’s footsteps, and again, he only mildly complained that he did not care for studying chemistry. Since the mathematics faculty encouraged him to study mathematics, he switched.

It was at Carnegie that he took an elective course in International Economics, and it was the papers and ideas he began formulating for that class that led to his later work and recognition for his work on game theory.

The Onset of John Nash’s Schizophrenia

John Nash says that his “mental disturbances” began when his wife became pregnant in 1959. He spent almost 2 months in the hospital under “observation” (his quotes). After that, he says that he went to Europe and tried to gain refugee status. It is unclear what he means by this until he goes on to say that he returned to the states and spent several months involuntarily confined to residential treatment hospitals.

You have to read between the lines here. Apparently he can look back now and realize that he was under the delusion that the hospital confinements were a means of persecuting him, and he did not then view them as attempts to help him. He continues to report that after periods of delustions and confinement, he would revert back to what he calls thinking of himself as a human with more “conventional circumstances.” Again, it seems amazing that John Nash could remember those obviously painful days with a bit of dry wit.

It was during the periods of rationality, between his schizophrenic episodes, that he performed some of his most amazing work. Then, he says that he returned to delusional thinking, but he eventually managed to display moderate behavior. Thus, he says he avoided confinement in hospitals and the attention of psychiatrists. It is almost as if he is telling us that he could will himself to act sane and intellectually reject his delusions.

Does John Nash Just Have A Better Mind, Despite His Mental Illness?

Did John F. Nash cure himself of schizophrenia? Like many mentally ill people, and most people in general, he did not like hospital incarceration. He also disliked psychiatric visits and medication However, it is hard to imagine what sort of mind could actually reject his delusions enough to put on the daily pretense that he pretty much thought, saw, and heard the same things that everybody else did.

He almost admits to relieving his disorder with a “faking it until you’re making it” strategy. As he began to force himself to act more conventionally, he seems to believe he actually could intellectually force himself to think more conventionally. Maybe he could. Who can argue with John F. Nash?

At the time John Nash received his Nobel Prize in Economic Science, he almost seemed as nostalgic for his delusional episodes as he did for his childhood family. He said that he did not greet his return to good mental health with the same happiness that a physically disabled person might greet the return to good health. He seems to believe that he is able to think more like a typical scientist now, but that he lacks a certain aspect to his thought process because he has to impose rationality. Maybe he was saying that he lost part of his ability to think outside the box in a way that separates geniuses from ordinary people.

A Beautiful Mind

Of course, it would be hard to leave the movie, A Beautiful Mind, out of any discussion of John F. Nash. It is loosely based upon the early years of the Nobel Laureate, was directed by Ron Howard, and stars Russell Crowe. The successful film got a good reception from critics and the public, but did not really accurately portray Mr. Nash’s life.

The filmmakers said that they never intended to make a literal record of the genius’s life, and it was difficult to portray the feelings and experiences of mental illness. So they worked out a way to communicate the idea of what Mr. Nash went through, even if the story is not literally true.

Recent Life

If John Nash still suffers from schizophrenic delusions, it has not interrupted his current career as a guest speaker at many world-class events. His latest achievement was becoming a fellow in the American Mathematical Society in 2012.