Beautiful Mind by Silvia Nasar: The Real Story Of Schizophrenia
For anyone who has seen the film A Beautiful Mind John Nash comes across as a man troubled by schizophrenia, yet able to achieve success in his life. While his illness does cause him significant problems, he is still able to achieve greatness via his game theory, to manage a long-lasting relationship where his wife loves him unconditionally, to achieve social acceptance where his colleagues accept his condition, and to receive the ultimate career achievement in winning the Nobel prize. The film even shows Nash succeeding over his schizophrenia and become able to control it and cure himself. This depiction presents Nash's story as one full of positives where his struggle with schizophrenia and his life is seen in a romantic light. To see the real truth of schizophrenia, it is better to read Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash titled A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash. In this researched account of Nash's life, Nasar describes the truth of Nash's life and his schizophrenia. An analysis of the book will show that Nash's life is far from a romantic story with a happy ending and that schizophrenia is a far more serious condition than the film suggests.
The first significant detail relates to Nash's accomplishments as a mathematician. His major achievement was a thesis he completed while studying at Princeton. This thesis contributed to the development of game theory. Nash received the Nobel Prize for this work in 1994. The most important point is that Nasar shows that Nash developed this theory in 1950. At this time, he was 21 and was not yet experiencing any symptoms of schizophrenia. In the film, this is depicted differently with the film visualizing how Nash came up with the theory. The book shows that this visualization is not correct and that Nash's schizophrenia was not the reason he was able to develop the theory. Andy Seiler makes the same point in his article titled "Beautiful' movie skips ugly truths." He describes how the timing of Nash's schizophrenia is misrepresented in the film. He also describes how Nash was not able to complete any more significant work once he began to develop schizophrenia. Seiler also quotes experts in schizophrenia describing how individuals suffering from schizophrenic delusions are not capable of being productive. This point is supported by Nasar's book because it shows that Nash completed his thesis before he began to suffer from schizophrenia. This shows that there is not a real link between schizophrenia and creative brilliance as the film suggests. Nasar also supports this idea because of the way she describes Nash's life after he develops the symptoms of schizophrenia. At one point Nasar describes Nash's life in Princeton as follows:
Nash spent most of his time hanging around the university, including fine hall. Most days he wore a smocklike Russian peasant garment. He seemed, as one graduate student at the time remembered, to "talk to the squirrels." He carried around a notebook, a scrapbook entitled ABSOLUTE ZERO in which he pasted all sorts of things, presumably a reference to the rock-bottom temperature at which all activity ceases. He was fascinated by bright colors (Nasar 285).
This is hardly a description of a functioning mathematician still contributing to scholarly research. Instead, it shows that Nash's creative genius was now only being used in ways that made him eccentric, with Nash no longer able to contribute anything significant. This is exactly how Seiler's experts describe schizophrenia, where sufferers are too out of touch with reality to be productive. It must also be noted that Nash's initial thesis that contributed to the development of game theory is the only significant achievement he made in his career. This suggests that Nash's future achievements were limited because of his struggle with schizophrenia. Considering this and considering that Nash made his contribution while not suffering from schizophrenia, it can be seen that the book does not provide any suggestion that schizophrenia can have a positive effect.
This point can be highlighted further by briefly considering Nash's achievement in relation to game theory. It must be noted that Nash did not develop game theory on his own. He developed an original idea, but this idea was then built upon and developed by other theorists. This is explained in The Essential John Nash, saying that "Nash provided the foundations for the analysis, while Selten developed it with respect to dynamics, and Harsanyi with respect to incomplete information" (Nash 3). Considering that Nash originally pioneered the idea of game theory when he was 21, the question is raised as to why Nash never achieved anything more. Since the basic ideas behind game theory were his, why wasn't Nash the one further developing game theory and finding out how to apply it? The answer is that Nash's schizophrenia made him incapable of contributing anything further. This also explains why Nasar goes into detail about Nash's accomplishments and how the game theory had a significant impact for years to come, but does not provide any details of any further accomplishments. As Nasar describes the impact of game theory, it can sometimes appear like Nash continued achieving for decades. In reality, he made his one major contribute to mathematics when he was 21. His original ideas were expanded upon to become working theories and were then applied in various areas. Despite how long the theories continued to impact mathematics and economics, Nash was no longer actively contributing. The reason he made no further contribution is that his schizophrenia prevented him from doing so. This illustrates that schizophrenia is not something that contributes to greatness or to creative thought. It also shows that Nash was not able to achieve because of his schizophrenia. Instead, schizophrenia ruined his capacity for greatness and for creative thought, and made him incapable of achieving anything more. Looked at in this way, Nasar's account of Nash's life shows that schizophrenia has tragic consequences, not positive ones.
The next area where the book and film differs relates to Nash's social acceptance. The film suggests that Nash is eventually able to gain the respect of his peers, despite his schizophrenia. The real story as told by Nasar is very different. It shows how Nash is excluded from society because of his condition. Nasar describes Nash's life in Princeton after he developed schizophrenic symptoms as follows,
Everyone around fine knew who he was, of course. The senior faculty tended to avoid him, and the fine hall secretaries were slightly afraid of him, as his size and strange manner gave him a somewhat threatening air (Nasar 285).
This shows that Nash was largely ignored by his peers, rather than being socially accepted. Nasar also includes an anecdote describing how Nash asks a secretary for a sharp pair of scissors. The secretary is not sure whether to give them to Nash and asks Albert Tucker what to do. Tucker tells the secretary to give Nash the scissors but decides to keep an eye on him. Nasar (285) describes Nash's use for the scissors saying, "nash grabbed the scissors, walked over to a phone book that was lying out, and cut out the cover, a map of the Princeton area in primary colors. He pasted it in his notebook." This anecdote is actually quite revealing of how Nash is seen by his peers. It shows that his peers are wary of Nash and a little scared of him. At the same time, it shows that they treat him much like they might treat a child. The secretary does not simply give him the scissors, say no, or ask him what he wants them for. Instead, asking Tucker what to do is like asking a child's parent what to do. This illustrates that while Nash may not have been actually thrown out of the university or completely rejected, he was belittled by way of the opinion that people had of him. Nasar shows that Nash was largely ignored, with people only paying any attention to him when he interacted with them directly, such as in the case where he asks for sharp scissors. Nasar (17) emphasizes Nash's social status where she describes him as a "sad phantom who haunted the Princeton University campus where he had once been a brilliant graduate student." This reference to Nash as a phantom shows that he was considered unwanted by his peers. This illustrates that Nash was not able to fit into society while he suffered from schizophrenia. Instead, people simply tolerated him because it was easier to ignore him than to deal with him. This shows that Nash's story is not one where he is able to gain the acceptance of others. Instead, it is one where he remains socially isolated and ignored because of his condition.
Nasar's account of Nash's life also shows the many other social problems he faced on account of his condition. In the article "Drama in four acts:…