Thursday 3 April 2014


A Beautiful Mind is the film of the book by Sylvia Nasar about John Nash, a brilliant young mathematician at Princeton in the 1950s who won the Nobel prize for economics in 1994.  At Princeton his brilliance was tinged  eccentricity which eventually blossomed into decades of paranoid schizophrenia.  This tragic development certainly wasn’t discouraged by the weirdly widespread sense of paranoia in Cold War America.  The film hints at the horror of being mad, and the double horror of seeing your beloved go that way.  Internal horror was matched by dreadful “treatments” meted out in those days on the certified insane, including in this case insulin shock therapy, which gives the recipient convulsions and coma but has no scientifically demonstrable benefit.  The part of the psychiatrist in charge of Nash (played by “Gladiator” Russell Crowe) is taken by Christopher “Captain von Trapp”  Plummer, so one is primed to ask which of the two is really bonkers. Plummer narrated the wolf & water parable cited at the end of the Jean Giono trib. Jennifer “Labyrinth” Connelly plays Nash’s long-suffering, loyal and courageous wife.  I guess serious actresses can’t play teens in a cartoon world forever. Paul Bettany takes the part of Nash's invisible friend: the Crowe-Bettany partnership was developed in Master and Commander.

While grotesquely invasive therapies didn’t help bring Nash back to Stockholm, Planet Earth in 1994, three factors worked together to bring about the rehabilitation of his Beautiful Mind.
a) Although his schizophrenia was manifestly a problem with his mind, Nash was able to mobilise other rational parts of his brain to face up to his delusions and help bootstrap them under control.  Not unlike the famous story of the autistic university professor who was told that students preferred it if lecturers faced the audience rather than the equations on the blackboard.  She was smart enough (professor after all) to be able to modify her lecturing style (scribble scribble turn scribble scribble) appropriately without really having a clue why folks would prefer things that way.  So Nash’s achievement is a triumph for the power of rational thought.

b) Alicia Nash, no intellectual slouch herself, fell in love with John when they were both young and brilliant and stuck in there for more than forty years holding down a job, or two, to keep her family together and whenever possible to de-institutionalise her husband.  Someone with fewer inner resources and less courage would have bowed to pressure from family, friends, neighbours and the medical profession and abandoned her husband in hospital.  Unconditional love was thus a very significant factor in the miraculous redemption.

c) Finally, the Nashes moved back to Princeton and the University was sufficiently tolerant to allow Nash the run of the campus where he regularly hung out in a corner of the library and at a particular table in the canteen when he wasn’t talking to invisible people.  This gave him a reason to get up in the morning and a familiar place to operate in.   Eventually he started to talk maths again to students and faculty.

Now, we’re all of us exceptional because Blobbies are a teeny minority of the population.  Let’s hope that, like Nash in Princeton, we can be allowed to pursue our own path without being compelled to conform.  We chose the minority sport of  home educating our two daughters. Like Nash’s cure, this option must be treated as a long-haul, strategic choice. It turned out that we the parents did very little of the education.  We cleared some space for Dau.I and Dau.II to educate themselves. The benefits were rarely obvious as measured by demonstrable short-term “achievements” like being able to read at age six or knowing the capitals of all South and Central American countries. But several of our home-ed friends, when they are troubled by the consequences of their choice, look to our girls and say "if my kids turn out like that, I won't be ashamed".

The world of economics would be more deeply flawed than it is without John Nash: he brought light and insight to the dismal science.  His eccentricity was the well-spring of his creative contributions, but he needed space and time to pursue his original ideas without being nagged by the normal median world.

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