Wednesday, February 29, 2012

John Nash: Champion of Reason

This month I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see in person a truly remarkable man and a hero of mine: Dr. John Forbes Nash, Jr.

As a teenager, I saw the film, A Beautiful Mind, and found it deeply affecting--subsequently I read Dr. Nash’s autobiographical essay and an interview with him and discovered the movie was only loosely based on his life--but the most remarkable aspects were true: he began a brilliant career, developed some extremely important new mathematical theories, then descended into severe schizophrenic illness, and after many years recovered, was awarded a Nobel Prize and is now doing serious mathematical research again.

It’s an incredible story, both because Dr. Nash is one of very few who really recover from severe mental illness, and because he demonstrates the “fine line between genius and madness.” He saw problems in a new and different way that enabled him to come up with solutions no one had thought of before--but this “strange” way of thinking devolved into insanity.

Dr. Nash came to a symposium on helping people with schizophrenia, held by Fuller’s School of Psychology, and at the closing banquet on the last day of the symposium he spoke with an interviewer. Dr. Nash is 83 now. He speaks in a soft, slow voice, and still has a “different” perspective.

The interviewing psychologist, who had helped organize the event and had given presentations himself on how professionals and communities can help people with mental illness, really wanted to talk about the importance of the support of Dr. Nash’s wife and academic community in his recovery.

Dr. Nash just sort of nodded at this, but he himself did not discuss those things at all. In speaking of his recovery, he did not mention how his devoted wife never gave up on him, nor that the community at Princeton accepted him, nor did he express any gratitude for the wonders of modern medicine. None of the interventions highlighted at the symposium figured into the way he described his recovery. Rather, he framed it as a deliberate return to rational thinking--because his delusions did not stand up in the light of careful reasoning.

When asked if his mathematical insights really came in intuitive flashes, as depicted in the film, he replied, no, breakthroughs in mathematics come the same way as in other fields: through long hours of careful research.

Dr. Nash has said the delusions came to him in the same way as his mathematical ideas--but it seems the sieve through which he discovered which ideas were dross, and which gold was the same process of deliberate intellectual discipline.

At the banquet, Dr. Nash observed there had been a lot of talk about how the mentally ill suffer--and he challenged that notion by saying he thought many in mental institutions do not want to leave--he called them “minds on strike”--refusing to do the intellectual work that is normally expected of people. I wonder how many psychologists in the room actually heard him, and how many were simply unwilling to hear a perspective so “different.”

In his autobiographical essay, Dr. Nash says that his rejection of delusional thinking “began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically-oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.” I assume this is because his political thinking was stuff along the lines of “the pope and the president are plotting against me.” But it’s an interesting quote, because so much of the current political discourse on a variety of issues is indeed highly, highly irrational and yes, at times even delusional and paranoid.

How I wish that society at large would turn from its insanity and submit to the discipline of rational thinking!

In any case, it was indeed an incredible honor and thrill to see and to hear speaking in person that unusual champion and beleaguered hero of rationality, Dr. John Nash.

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