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Games of a beautiful mind

Thanks to John Howard’s 2001 flick A Beautiful Mind, John Nash became known to even those who had no interest in mathematics or economics

Games of a beautiful mind

Hallucinations and delusions, schizophrenia and paranoia, mathematics and economics, game theory and ingenuity, cold war and hot love — you mix all these and you get a beautiful mind. Thanks to John Howard’s 2001 flick A Beautiful Mind, John Nash — the Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician — became known to even those who had no interest in these subjects. Nash, 86, died with his wife Alicia on May 23 in a car crash in New Jersey on his way back home after a visit to Norway where he had received Abel Prize for mathematics.

German-born American writer Sylvia Nasar — with Uzbek and German parents and a degree in economics — had written Nash’s biography A Beautiful Mind in 1998. With critical acclaim, the book attracted the attention of Ron Howard who transformed it into one of the most inspiring movies of all times that was nominated for eight Oscars and managed to win four, including the best picture and best director awards for 2001.

Russell Crowe who gave a memorable performance in the movie as John Nash failed to impress the Oscar committee for the best actor award, probably because he had won the previous year for Gladiator (2000) directed by Ridley Scott.

The story begins in mid-1947 at Princeton University as John Nash listens to a pep talk encouraging students to work against the Soviets whose goal was global communism. A paranoia among students is being created with the following words: “In medicine or economics, in technology or space, battle lines are being drawn. To triumph, we need results. Publishable, applicable results. Who among you will be the next Einstein? Who among you will be the vanguard of democracy, freedom, and discovery?”

Sounds familiar! Here we see the post-war America where the young minds are incited against an enemy that is threatening their supposed core values of freedom and democracy. This is a crucial scene that sets the tone for young Nash who comes back to his room to find an unexpected roommate, Charles, a literature student who is about to become his best friend. Nash has a knack for numbers and discovers patterns everywhere, be it in a necktie design or a pigeons’ party; he draws figures and solves equations on unlikely surfaces including table tops and window panes and occasionally makes unsuccessful attempts at conversations with the women at the local bar.

Earning a PhD degree in 1950 at the age of 22 with just a 28-page dissertation on non-cooperative games, he ultimately develops what is known as the Nash equilibrium. He regularly meets his former roommate Charles and his young niece Marcee. While serving as a professor of mathematics, when Nash is invited to a secret US Department of Defence facility in the Pentagon to crack a complex encryption, he deciphers the code mentally and astonishes other code breakers. He also encounters a mysterious US defence agent William Parcher who involves him in a new assignment to look for patterns in newspapers and magazines to thwart a Soviet plot. Nash keeps reporting his findings and placing them in a specified mailbox. The Russians chase him and he becomes increasingly paranoid and begins to behave erratically.

His interactions with Charles, Marcee and Parcher become frequent and his wife Alicia worries about him as his condition deteriorates into a psychological mess. He does not tell his wife anything else other than his engagement with a secret mission to save his country from the Soviets. Ultimately Alicia (Jennifer Connelly who won the Oscar for best actress) informs a psychiatric hospital that decides to detain him for treatment. This internment confirms for Nash his belief that the Soviets were trying to extract information from him and considers his doctors as Soviet kidnappers.

John and Alicia Nash

John and Alicia Nash

The film is so well-directed that a first-time viewer is unable to see through Nash’s schizophrenia up until Alicia, his wife, visits the mailbox and retrieves the ‘classified’ documents that Nash delivered but nobody opened. Gradually Nash is convinced that he has been hallucinating and his interactions with Charles, Marcee, and Parcher were all delusions.

If you have seen the so called ‘mad’ people on streets standing alone and talking loudly or, at times, arguing vociferously, you don’t realise that they are in fact hallucinating and their mind has actually produced a person who they can see and communicate with. This phenomenon is so brilliantly captured in A Beautiful Mind that probably many books on psychology cannot accurately explain.

For a normal person it is not easy to comprehend a mental disorder that usually begins with abnormal social behavior and failure to recognise what is real; we start thinking that the person has confused thinking and simply does not know how to engage socially. This film dispels many such perceptions and helps us understand the undercurrents that shape a schizophrenic personality.

After painful shock therapy sessions, Nash is conditionally released with a promise to take antipsychotic medication; he is back home but fails to respond to his wife’s desires and goes into depression again causing him a relapse of psychosis affecting his intellectual capacity. He resumes his meetings with his fictional friends and converts an old shed behind his house into an office for his secret work for defense. When that shed is discovered by his wife, the scene presents a devastating impact on viewers; the walls are plastered with newspaper cuttings ostensibly containing hidden codes that the Soviets would use to destroy America.

In a way, this depicts an entire generation that was brought up under the threat of a Soviet invasion; the creation of new threats such as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and various terrorist outfits has a striking similarity with what is shown in the film.

Again with psychiatric help, Nash is made to understand that his whole assignment is a figment of his hallucinations. Finally, he tries to say goodbye to the three characters that had interacted with him; they appear and reappear but he learns to ignore his hallucinations. Nash grows older and gets permission to work out of the library at Princeton where he always humorously checks to ensure that any new person who talks to him is actually a real person. In 1994, Nash is awarded Nobel Prize in economics for his revolutionary work that he had begun in 1950s on the mathematics of game theory that examines the rivalries among competitors with mixed interests.

With the death of John Nash, an interesting chapter has ended. He remains an icon of strength and personal efforts to overcome a psychological illness. A Beautiful Mind has many messages for discerning viewers, probably the most important being the fact that a paranoia created under a real or imaginary threat can lead us to hallucinations that start controlling our behaviour.

Imagine a nation where this kind of paranoia is deliberately created to serve certain purposes and you end up with people around you who constantly look for conspiracies, ultimately reaching a state where one is cut off socially from the realities and creates a whole new delusional world that only the victim person or nation sees and interacts with.

For movie lovers who are interested in more films on psychological issues A Street Car Named Desire, Psycho, Sling Blade, and Shining are recommended; for code breaking, the new film on Alan Turing, Imitation Games, is an obvious choice.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.

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