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Memorial for a beautiful mind

May 26, 2015
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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On Sunday, I was watching television reports about the Memorial Day holiday and the numbers of U.S. soldiers who had died.

Also within the day’s broadcast was the news that mathematician John F. Nash, Jr. had died at the age of 86. He and his wife died in an auto accident, when their taxi driver apparently lost control.

Although Nash did not serve in the military, his recent death is worth memorializing. He taught us much. So, here is a blog dedicated to him.

At the time of the accident, Nash was returning from Norway, where he had received yet another award for his mathematical discoveries. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Prize in economics. That prize was presented to him belatedly, only when the committee decided that he was mentally stable enough to receive it. Nash says in his autobiography that his delusional thinking began in 1959.

No schizophrenia award

There are no awards that I know of for living with schizophrenia, yet Nash’s struggle with the brain disease may have deserved an award. He taught us so much, and still can.

Much of his life up to 2001 was covered in the book and the movie, "A Beautiful Mind." Now, a bit more about his life over the last couple of decades is being updated in his obituaries.

Though he was always considered an odd child and young adult, Nash made groundbreaking mathematical discoveries in competitive game theory by the age of 30. However, his creative thought processes seemed to dissipate into the paranoid delusions that he would continue to battle for the rest of his life.

For the next 15 to 20 years, he went through the gamut of available psychiatric treatment of the time, from insulin coma treatment to antipsychotic medication. Some interventions seemed to help somewhat, but with side effects. Although privacy prevents us from knowing for sure how his treatment evolved over the last 20 years of his life, he reportedly made a partial recovery.

Though he never made groundbreaking discoveries parallel to his initial work, he did go on to investigate an additional aspect of game theory. He always thought that there was some link between his discoveries and his delusions, that they came from the same source in his mind.

By the way: What little I understand about his game theory reminds me a bit of the negotiations a psychiatrist has with a cooperative versus a resistant patient.

Perhaps we should process the death and life of Nash the way Israel celebrates its Memorial Day: commemoration one day, followed the next day by the joyful celebration of Independence Day. Mourn his loss briefly, then celebrate his accomplishments:

  • Major economic discoveries;
  • Partial recovery from schizophrenia late in life;
  • A remarriage to a woman who provided so much essential support to him; and
  • Intriguing connections between creativity and "madness."

The good stuff

Your fitting tribute to Nash might include reading the book and watching the movie "A Beautiful Mind." Discuss them in your institution.

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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...