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A Brilliant Madness
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Primary Sources: Nash's Autobiography

When John Nash was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize, he provided the Nobel organization with an autobiography tracing his life as a mathematician. In it, he did not shy away from discussing his mental illness and subsequent recovery, as this excerpt reveals.

...By the time I was a student in high school I was reading the classic Men of Mathematics by E. T. Bell and I remember succeeding in proving the classic Fermat theorem about an integer multiplied by itself p times where p is a prime....

...As a graduate student I studied mathematics fairly broadly and I was fortunate enough, besides developing the idea which led to "Non-Cooperative Games," also to make a nice discovery relating to manifolds and real algebraic varieties. So I was prepared actually for the possibility that the game theory work would not be regarded as acceptable as a thesis in the mathematics department and then that I could realize the objective of a Ph. D. thesis with the other results....

...Now I must arrive at the time of my change from scientific rationality of thinking into the delusional thinking characteristic of persons who are psychiatrically diagnosed as "schizophrenic" or "paranoid schizophrenic." But I will not really attempt to describe this long period of time but rather avoid embarrassment by simply omitting to give the details of truly personal type.

While I was on the academic sabbatical of 1956 - 1957 I also entered into marriage. Alicia had graduated as a physics major from M.I.T. where we had met and she had a job in the New York City area in 1956 - 1957. She had been born in El Salvador but came at an early age to the U.S. and she and her parents had long been U.S. citizens, her father being an M. D. and ultimately employed at a hospital operated by the federal government in Maryland.

The mental disturbances originated in the early months of 1959 at a time when Alicia happened to be pregnant. And as a consequence I resigned my position as a faculty member at M.I.T. and, ultimately, after spending 50 days under "observation" at the McLean Hospital, travelled to Europe and attempted to gain status there as a refugee.

I later spent times of the order of five to eight months in hospitals in New Jersey, always on an involuntary basis and always attempting a legal argument for release.

And it did happen that when I had been long enough hospitalized that I would finally renounce my delusional hypotheses and revert to thinking of myself as a human of more conventional circumstances and return to mathematical research. In these interludes of, as it were, enforced rationality, I did succeed in doing some respectable mathematical research....

...But after my return to the dream-like delusional hypotheses in the later 60s I became a person of delusionally influenced thinking but of relatively moderate behavior and thus tended to avoid hospitalization and the direct attention of psychiatrists.

Thus further time passed. Then gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation. This began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically-oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.

So at the present time I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists. However this is not entirely a matter of joy as if someone returned from physical disability to good physical health. One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person's concept of his relation to the cosmos. For example, a non-Zoroastrian could think of Zarathustra as simply a madman who led millions of naive followers to adopt a cult of ritual fire worship. But without his "madness" Zarathustra would necessarily have been only another of the millions or billions of human individuals who have lived and then been forgotten....

Excerpted from Les Prix Nobel 1994. Full text available on line at http://www.nobel.se/economics/laureates/1994/nash-autobio.html.



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