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A Brilliant Madness | Article

Interview with John Nash


According to Aristotle, the best tragedies are conflicts between a hero and his destiny. They contain reversals of fortune, moments of recognition, and, ultimately, a catharsis. Dr. John Nash's life — his early brilliance, his struggle with mental illness, and his slow, willful recovery -- is definitely the stuff of Greek tragedy. He describes his experiences, in these excerpts from an in-depth interview.

In addition to these selected video clips, the full interview transcript is available.

Chapter 1 — Discovering Math
I was in grade school. I would be doing arithmetic, and I found myself working with larger numbers than other students would be using. I would have several digits, and they would have maybe two or three digits. I would do multiplication and basic operation, but with larger numbers.

Later on in adolescence, I got some practice in using a calculator machine, where you could multiply and add, subtract and divide really large numbers like 10 digits.

You don't have to be a mathematician to have a feel for numbers. A movie, by the way, was made — sort of a small-scale offbeat movie — called Pi recently. I think it starts off with a big string of digits running across the screen, and then there are people who get concerned with various things, and in the end this Bible code idea comes up. And that ties in with numbers, so the relation to numbers is not necessarily scientific, and even when I was mentally disturbed, I had a lot of interest in numbers.

I began to think more scientifically as to the years like the 80s, and maybe the later 70s. And so there's a transition from really having more of an enthusiasm for the numbers, like maybe magical or representing a divine revelation, and just a more scientific appreciation of numbers, and these not necessarily entirely far apart.

Chapter 2 — Alicia
She [Alicia] was in a class that I was teaching. I think it was advanced calculus. She, of course, was one of the few girls that attracted my attention. But as she was, she didn't do well in the class; she had done better in other courses. But she sort of managed to cultivate my attention and so we began to get involved. I don't remember all the details. Of course, this sort of thing is in a way what is not supposed to happen. But of course it does happen to teachers and students. It's just a way you may meet people. Otherwise you don't meet enough.

Chapter 3 — Misconceptions about Mental Illness
I think mental illness or madness can be an escape also. People don't develop a mental illness because they are in the happiest of situations usually. One doctor observed that it was rare when people were rich to become schizophrenic. If they were poor or didn't have too much money, then it was more likely. And this is natural, if things are very good, you can find satisfaction with the world as it is, as it seems to be. If things are not so good, you may be one to imagine something better.

For me, I was able to imagine myself as in a role of greater importance than I would seem to be ordinarily. At the time, I had some recognition. I was making some progress professionally, but I wasn't really at the top. I didn't have top level recognition, and so when I started thinking irrationally, I imagined myself as really on a Number 1 level. I was the most important person of the world, and people like the Pope would be just like enemies, who would try to put me down in some way or another, or the president.

People are always selling the idea that people who have mental illness are suffering. And that the therapist and doctors, all the establishment, everyone who is working with them can do the good of releasing their suffering in one way or another, that maybe if they're given some drugs, then it will make them less suffering and they can be brought to another level of existence.

Chapter 4 — Being Institutionalized
I never went voluntarily. I only went voluntarily to sort of outpatient visits afterwards — things that had been agreed. You come out of hospital but you see the psychiatrist regularly — that sort of thing. While I would be working on mathematics and research I would be seeing, maybe once a week or something like that, a psychiatrist. I was seeing someone in the Boston area when I had gone back there around '65 or '66. And I think after a while I stopped seeing him while I was still there.

I didn't feel that I belonged locked up. If I'm going to be locked up one can be locked up there as well as some other place. In fact, it's the best place to be locked up if you're locked up as an insane person because they have better circumstances there. You have better occupational therapy, maybe, and nice grounds and stuff to do. Maybe the food is even better. I don't know about that, though.

It was an escape. I tried to get out earlier and it was delayed. I think I got out after 50 days. I had a lawyer, you see. I was arguing about it. You always argue on the basis of habeas corpus, but it isn't necessarily accepted. It's a tradition.

There was the first time in New Jersey. The policeman came. Officially my mother and my sister were acting as next of kin. But, of course, Alicia was around. She wasn't officially involved with it, but she had been officially involved on the first occasion. There was some conflict. She felt it was better not to be officially involved. Effectively a lot of people were thinking that that was what I needed, all these colleagues. And they were discussing it privately. So it wasn't simply the idea of my mother and my sister, who had to come up from Virginia for the purpose. They would come up and make an appearance at the time. But they were just providing a legal basis, so it was being done.

I don't think it's such a bad place. Of course, McLean is better. I don't know what it would be like to be there a long time. A person would be sort of privileged to have a longer-term period there.

Chapter 5 -- Delusional Thinking
In madness, I thought I had a very important role, and, of course, that includes the messenger-type function. That is a Muslim concept particularly with Muhammad. He's the messenger of Allah. That's, I think, a standard phrase. So I saw myself as being a messenger or having a special function. I saw it in terms of there being supporters, but also of opponents, and so I would think that if I was put in the hospital, it would be a coup d'etat by the opponents.

I had this feeling of persecution. I had the idea that some of the people — I think Eisenhower was still president then -- and the Pope and the powers that be might be unsympathetic to me. I envisioned a hidden world where the Communists and the non-Cmmunists were into this thing — they were sort of schemers.

At a very early time I got the idea that I would receive a message somehow. Later on I felt that I might get a divine revelation by seeing a certain number that would appear. A great coincidence could be interpreted as a message from heaven.

Chapter 6 — The Nobel Prize — and the Future
The Nobel Price opened up other types of recognition. I would get this honor or that honor. I would be elected to a membership in an honorary society; that sort of thing. And these would flow as direct consequences. So it was quite clear that nothing would have happened without the Nobel Prize. I had one recognition that came before the Nobel Prize. It sort of made it possible for that. Something called the Econometric Society. They have two levels of membership for that; their regular members and their fellows. You have to be elected to be a fellow. A regular member is someone who pays dues; maybe he's an economist or somebody with an interest in economics, and particularly maybe statistics and that sort of thing.

So I was proposed for that. And as soon as it was suggested, the nomination that I could be elected, then I was elected. And that brought my name to attention as someone who had some recognition, some professional status. So I think that was the thing that made it possible for me to get the Nobel Prize in economics, which occurred just maybe a year or two earlier; I forget when it occurred.

I don't know what the future holds exactly, even if it's not such a long future, for me. Of course, the future in general is presumably long, unless things really go bad or unless some miracle happens.

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