Friday, March 5, 2010

A Beautiful Mind

I just finished reading A Beautiful Mind, the 1998 biography of mathematician John Nash by Sylvia Nasar. It’s an interesting account of a highly intelligent and creative man who suffered from schizophrenia. I’ll discuss information I gleaned from the book in this post. I’m assuming the biography is accurate, although I haven’t done any independent checking.

Like many people, I first heard of Nash by watching the movie starring Russell Crowe. The movie is true to the basic outline of the biography, but omits or fudges many relevant details. For example, the movie didn’t mention Nash’s travels to Europe or his divorce. From the movie, one would think that Nash’s disorder began at graduate school at Princeton, since that is when he first “sees” his imaginary roommate. This imaginary roommate isn’t mentioned in the book.

Although eccentric and strange, Nash didn’t suffer his first breakdown until age 30, which is relatively late for schizophrenia. If Nash had developed this disorder when he was 20, no one would have heard of him, and there would be no biography to read. It’s important to emphasize this point. For every famous person like Nash, there are thousands of talented people who, due to mental illness, never get a chance to exercise their talents.

What precipitated Nash’s initial breakdown? It could have been his marriage that occurred two years before, along with his wife’s pregnancy. Stress is known to precipitate psychiatric symptoms, and major life changes like getting married and having a child are significant sources of stress. It could have been a European honeymoon trip that Nash and his wife went on about 6 months prior to his breakdown. There’s no way to know for sure.

After his breakdown and initial hospitalization, Nash gave up his tenured position at MIT and headed to Europe, where he would spend the next 9 months, attempting to renounce his U.S. citizenship and become a “world citizen.” This behavior exemplifies that the severe mental illnesses are primarily disorders of instability. Who in his right mind would give up a tenured faculty position at MIT? Most normal people crave stability, and there’s nothing more stable than a tenured position. Mentally ill people crave the opposite; for them the stability of a tenured position is both frightening and undesirable. Nash’s travels are further indications of instability.

After Nash returned to the U.S., he had temporary episodes of sanity alternating with psychotic episodes. With some brief exceptions, he wasn’t able to resume his career until he had a remission in his fifties. This remission occurred after having lived a relatively quiet and stable life at Princeton for over ten years. Nash won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994.

Nasar’s biography convinces me that schizophrenia is closer to bipolar disorder than Alzheimer’s Disease. Schizophrenia is an episodic disease, characterized by alternating sanity and insanity, of rational thought and delusions. At least in Nash’s case, it doesn’t appear to be degenerative.

There’s no evidence from the biography supporting my hypothesis that schizophrenia is connected to the Earth’s magnetic field. Before he developed schizophrenia, Nash traveled within the U.S., including working for a time at Rand in Santa Monica, California. If Nash were sensitive to the geomagnetic field, he should have developed a breakdown while living in California. The fact that his first breakdown occurred soon after a trip to Europe doesn’t imply that the different geomagnetic in Europe precipitated his schizophrenia.

Whether or not schizophrenia is connected to the geomagnetic field, there’s no question that it is a severely disabling disorder, probably the most disabling psychiatric disorder. That Nash was able to accomplish what he did despite the disorder, and the fact that he was able to achieve remission, is amazing.

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