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A Beautiful Mind | Sparks of Genius

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The real John Nash, from the Nobel Museum Web site.

I keep watching the film A Beautiful Mind because I have this idea that to see it only once is to miss a great deal and would prevent any real understanding of The Great John Nash! It’s a phrase that is repeated often in the film – a film adapted from Nasar’s unauthorized biography, and it’s a phrase used by persons real and unreal and always mockingly.

The truth, the truth that would finally be acknowledged a great many years later in 1994, was that, in fact, John Nash is indeed great and a true genius. Winning the Noble Prize was simply the public acknowledgement of this and by then, no one was mocking John Nash anymore. It’s hard to imagine though that anyone who took the time to know John Nash, could not see his brilliance, the beauty in the very way in which he thought. The film does convey this – that much one can say, but still, there is that underlying mockery and although this supposed to be, one gather’s a “sympathetic” portrait, that’s just it; it seems to look down on Nash, as though he were a child, incapable of taking care of himself and oh, gosh, thank god for Alicia, were it not for her, he’d never have achieved greatness. There’s a real martyr thing going on here and at a price to John Nash.

I have to confess too, that part of my atttraction to the film is that all too often i’ve felt as i imagine Nash must have felt at times, because although the origin and cause are different, temporal lobe epilepsy can often make you “different” in ways that others cannot quite pinpoint. And although epilepsy is a neurological illness often caused by mesial lesions in the brain (such as I have), the effects are similar. More – when researching Nash for another article, I found a relation between Nash and my friend Ian, also a mathematician and also with roots in the South (suffice to say he not only resembles Nash, particularly in the ears, which i happen to like, but also in the way he thinks,) and so here I am, drawn in.

It was John Nash, who, as a student at Princeton, turned Adam Smith on his head. Smith had said, to paraphrase, that you do what is right for the individual, and the group will benefit It became the equilibrium of modern mathematics. And it was Nash who, as a graduate student, refused to attend class because he felt that it deadened the mind and stood in the way of original thought and ideas. During this time, Nash developed his theory which became the cornerstone of mathematics today and is even used in antitrust cases. He said, in short, do what is right for the group, then the individual and the group will all benefit. This was his theory of what he called Governing Dynamics. Nash is also known for his work concerning Game Theory, using which, he believed and proved many times that he could predict the outcome of any game (which would be most useful now, for what is war if not a game? John Nash might be the only guy in the world right now who could tell us how to best play our hand and get out of this alive, and am I saying, victorious, whatever that would mean.)

Nada’s film succeeds in illustrating how Nash was an original thinker. Portrayed by Russell Crowe (who is very unRussell Crow in this film), he can be seen in the university courtyard taking notes as a group of pigeons feed, pecking at breadcrumbs as he tries to extract an “algorithm” from their behavior. This algorithm and other equations, written with grease pencil on his dorm room and school library window. Whether Nash really wrote his equilibriums on windows or not, I don’t know. Regardless, as a visual, the elaborate etchings are a marvelous way of showing how Nash’s mind weaves such extraordinary and complex patterns. We see the algorithm of the pigeons, shaped like intersecting diamonds that criss cross back and forth, mirroring the path of the pigeons. Another equation illustrates a woman being mugged, the path of the mugger breaking into Ys, end to end, as he tries to flee, the woman’s running indicated by a broken line of white dashes.

Nash’s ability to see mathematics in most everything is astounding and actually does reveal the underlying beauty and precision of the world.. To Nash, the world is not random, which is interesting for a man who ultimately, was at various points unable to reason for himself because of the chaos in his head. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world so mathematically precise and then have the bits and equations come raining all over you as they fell apart and broke and you drowned in a sea of x, y, and z and schizophrenia.

Too often, we stereotype and assume, and one such assumption seems to surround the mentally ill. And other, those who have neurological illnesses like epilepsy that are not mental illnesses, yet the ignorance of frankly, far too fucking many, label epileptics as such. Which is not to say that there is something awful about being mentally sick or manic depressive; there isn’t. What bothers me though is the ignorance, and then, not only are you stigmatized, but it’s the wrong stigma, which is just dumb and really aggravating. If you’re going to marginalize me, at least put me in the right category. If you’re going to label me, be smart enough to know which label and where you can stick it, because I’ve got a few of my own and know exactly what you can do with those labels.

Epileptics are “spastic” or “mouthing idiots”. Schizophrenics have multiple personality disorder and are just “nuts” and “wacko paranoiac freaks”. And Nash sadly, had far too much experience in this world of, yes, now it’s my turn, idiots who labeled and taunted him. He was vastly underestimated by both fellow students and professors who mocked Nash’s confidence, his belief in himself, so much so that Nash himself began to doubt the merit of his own thought and ideas – which is to question your very existence and why you are even alive. Put it this way: if you’re mission in life is to write, to write things that will change the world and you fully believe you can, and those you trusted tell you absolutely not, it will never ever ever happen, what would you do? These are those who are closest to you. And that is what happened to John Nash. He was undermined and bullied and teased and taunted into submission, the way people like to humiliate those who are smarter than they are because it’s just to fucking threatening to really know and accept that someone who is not you is capable of doing something truly original and great. That they are a genius.

It was too much for anyone to assume, let alone prove, that Adam Smith was not completely right and had not accounted for every variable. Yet is there any doubt that even in his day there were those who even mocked Adam Smith. He too was no doubt a genius, and sure, so he missed a few things, but that doesn’t diminish the incredible impact of his work to this day. Without Smith, John Nash wouldn’t have accomplished what he did in that specific way. Maybe some other way, but we can never know. All we know is that it began with Smith. If one is to extrapolate a logic equation from this type of human behavior – this mocking and mockery making – it is a simple one. When you are alive and young and you fly in the face of convention with an idea so bright it scintillates but flies in the face of all that is known, the pre-existing, then you are wrong and a madman or just self-absorbed and arrogant and nuts, like Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Gauguin, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf and this list could go on for ever, and note that of those listed, more than half of them had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or Manic Depression.

There are an astounding number of epileptics who are now confirmed geniuses. Infact, it has been proven that up to 35 percent of people with temporal lobe epilepsy have a genius level IQ, which is significantly higher than in the general population. No wonder such people are mocked. That’s a pretty threatening statistic. Note also, that of those with temporal lobe epilepsy, we are up to almost forty or fifty percent more likely than the general population to commit suicide and something like four out of five people with temporal lobe epilepsy has made some type of suicide attempt or suicidal gesture and suffer from depression. I don’t think it’s crazy that we’re speaking of. I think this stems from living in a world that cannot accept a person because they are different and they are different in a way that is shiny and new. People like Lewis Carroll or Sylvia Plath were and sometimes still are, so universally hated and yet loved that one wonders what that is about. In life, they were pretty much hated and treated poorly. In death, they are revered and mythologized.

John Nash, for all that he went through, was lucky because in the end he was vindicated with his Nobel Prize, thank god. He gets to have his last laugh, should he want it. But what of those who never knew – like Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Plath, etc etc. – who will tell these incredibly driven and talented people who wanted only and so much to succeed that , in the end, they did more than that. They became almost legendary.

Nash’s brilliance, like Carroll, like Pythagoras (also epileptic), Alfred Noble (again) is born of an ability to see what for others is overlaid and hidden. That all can see through the physical world somehow to the metaphysical underpinnings where nothing is as random as it seems on the surface. Nash can and did work out an equation for almost every possible situation where there are winners and there are loser. He could apply his theory used to model behavior such that one gets the best outcome for the group. How fitting that a prize named after an epileptic (Alfred Nobel) should go to one they labeled a madman. A prize that celebrates those who have been mocked and written off, and in the end, are recognized for the very things they were renounced for in the first place.

It is mystifying that no one in our present government has talked to John Nash about our present and possibly fatal circumstance with the present wars we are in. who better than the master of Game Theory to help us achieve the best result for everyone. Have we written him off again because of his schizophrenia? Is this all that people see? Was Pythagoras, Socrates, Nobel, Alexander the Great, and on and on… were they all just crazy? Napoleon? Sure, some of these are debatable, but isn’t it just possible that one can be both mad and a genius – an epileptic genius or schizophrenic genius? Are the two mutually exclusive, and why is it so fucking threatening that one or many can be both?

Director Ron Howard called Nash “Delusional” and noted that Nash didn’t “achieve much at Princeton.” Which in reality, was the where Nash formed the seed of the idea that would make him who he is today. He turned Adam Smith and 150 years of economic theory on its head, but other than that, he didn’t do much at Princeton. Sure.

How unfortunate that when we see a person as delusional and indeed they may be, that that blinds us to those other things that make them genius. Van Gogh and his paintings, those he had trouble selling and he died and lived always poor, largely supported by his brother Theo. Yet years after his death, we see Starry, Starry Night and we see a vision that is unlike any other. It is a world slightly out of focus and one that swirls and spins to dizzying effect – the same world, surely, that Van Gogh experienced during seizures. The same epilepsy that caused him to cut off part of his own ear because he couldn’t suffer the auditory hallucinations and that caused him to take his own life – all of this is part and parcel of what made him great and these things cannot be separated.

There is the mathematician Pythagoras who had a cult around him. People who at the time recognized his genius and wanted in. He too was written off as mad and eccentric, and to note, he is rumored to be one of the first animal rights advocates as well, another group that is still written off as mad.

One could go on with such examples but the point is made. Schizophrenics, Epileptics, though with disease of different origin and different path will always see the world in a different way. They are drawn to rigidity, discipline, and pattern. They will seek logic and pattern in everything and they will find it. Perhaps this is a way of making sense of a world that otherwise, makes no sense because of seizures or other spells that dizzy and stupefy. When the brain betrays you seek logic.

You are drawn to the clean and sharp lines of geometry, liner equations and calculus where shapes and equations can exist on an imagined plane – where the possible is impossible. A world where even though a thing person should not exist or succeed does so nonetheless.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • srp

    eric…my codes for books aren’t posting…durrrrr….srp

  • Eric Olsen

    fixed – two spaces and a line break after the last one – very temperamental system.

    exceptional essay, though the film made me somewhat uneasy, that has little to do with those who see the world differently whether they want to or not

  • srp

    i agree with you about the film — it was, to me anyway, i felt a degrading portrait of Nash. That it infantilized him a great deal and i had issues iwth that. Alicia was going through this real martyr thing – like her life was so hard, which i don’t doubt, but i felt that she really lacked empathy and was more concerned with being seen as the sort of savior madonna — just my opinion, but i felt it didn’t do Nash justice….. interesting that you saw something similar, it sounds…


  • anonymous

    I have had a strange experience which confirms what you are talking about, of course fear is a natural emotion when your personal autonomy is threathened, I wish I could get hold of Dr. Nash and show him what happened to me, I have incredible personal info on a hrt web site from medical records plus errors in fact,my complaint was accepted by privacy act but then dismissed since they said that the hrt act has a clause which allows them to not correct errors of fact after a decision is made, so it makes me wonder how often this kind of thing happens to people, I have taken 3rd year economics because I didnt give up my seat, sort of like Dr. Nash did, he went back regardless of what he had or what they said, and that is why he is so important as a role model for whatever a person may have or be perceived to have.

  • anonymous

    I would like to add once you are trapped into having to legitimize yourself to people who are walking away, after projecting negative attributes on to you that aren’t even true and then not even have to be accountable for the effect this has on a person’s state of mind. This is cited definition of discrimination in disablity case law, but it is a joke, no none cares what the law is. I really think if someone with power looked at my case and saw the way I was mocked when I was trying to fight for my seat, the same way Dr. Nash was mocked, maybe they could help me sue, how can a government body publish something like that about someone knowing it is not true and is harmful, especially when the person is already vulnerable, it is a horrible feeling, to see that up there, the frame is there to make a person appear disfunctional because there is no interaction, I had no hearing, the decision was made, they said I could go to supreme court with if I could get the money or find a lawyer who would talk to me like a normal person and take my case against 3 doctors and the ministry of health services, I have documentation that the facts were wrong or the privacy act would have not originally taken my case. I think the privacy thing or the lack of contributes to the break down too. Of course anyone can break down. Look at New Orleans, once a person is displaced something inside breaks, it is your identity I suppose, once you are accused of a “negative” state of mind it is the same thing. Your identity is taken away, no one takes or interacts with you seriously so how could Dr. Nash progress, it is amazing he went back at all despite it all. That is part is incredible, that is what keeps me going. They stare, that horrible stare, it is real. If people cared about another person’s mental health and knew the damage they were doing when they destroy a person’s hope to live a normal life. I think anything can go psychotic if it is treated a certain way, it is a form of psychological warfare, to isolate and break down a person. Scary huh??

  • cheats mcgee

    i just copy your whole essay and pasted it onto miine, LOL!, i just did a project that would’ve taken 5 hours in 2 minutes LOL! thanks for the help cool sesh.
    it looks reallly boring LOL and i hate mathLOL

  • JohnRJ

    I believed that once I was free from temporal lobe epilepsy that times would be better after having been denied opportunity worthy of my capabilities because of my disability and denied support for my disability because of my capability resulting in prolonged poverty and waste of talent through no development of my potential, but although not a prisoner through disability any more I am a prisoner of society with just as many constraints inflicted upon me as I was when disabled since I am over qualified for any assistance in spite of having no experience or financial assets to support myself in 1998 and others who were earning over twice what I was who were under qualified could get some support. Those who are overpaid and incompetent get support, disadvantaged underpaid gifted people get nothing. I am twenty years behind financially and lost fifteen years of my career because of Labour & the DWP and I didn’t qualify for any assistance as they make me the scapegoat for their abuse, betrayal, defamation of character, neglect and prejudice.

    Blair & Brown say “A fair deal for all and the chance to make the most of one’s potential” – who are they trying to bluff? I have never been treated fairly nor had the chance to make the most of my potential so it is not worth me trying now.

    While people are granted preference and gain at the expense of others i.e. something which cannot be passed across to all in a fair way, then the reason for those who get preference must be because they are relatively inferior and with Labour in power it reflects the domination by the inferior classes using deception, manipulation, unfairness, cheating – Labour is out to aid the inferior classes and add insult to injury to the disadvantaged gifted.

    Disability Allowance is not necessarily an allowance for disability – not in my experience because I was denied it due to my capability whereas many people who aren’t disabled but incompetent get it. All I can conclude from this is that having a disability but being denied it because of my intelligence, whereas someone who isn’t disabled but has inferior intelligence can get it, then I now see it as ‘Inferiority Allowance’ where no disability can justify it.

    This shows how Labour & the DWP are comforting the inferior and persecuting the superior. For every bit I suffer I will make anyone who inflicts an inferiority on me suffer in return for their negative infliction. I have been involved in many confrontations, arguments, punch ups, etc. over thirty years after being provoked by inferiorists expecting me to suffer for their gains.

    I am hated by inferiorists because I can win the arguments on facts and logic whereas they have to use beliefs and assumptions tailored in their way which is often corrupt and try to make small look bigger than big. They may have more money than me but that is because of the help they get – I emphasise I could do some A-level maths before secondary school with no help as I was born a mathematical genius and it is lined to the temporal lobe epilepsy I had. So I have capability which no money or any man made accessory can match. They try to bring me down aggressively but that is because they cannot accept the truth of their relative inferiority. This is my way of persecuting them for their failure to be honest and accept the truth. After all, they try to invert the fact against me to make me scapegoat for their relatively inferiorities.

    The only thing which Blair has increased for me is the chance of committing suicide as I am more likely to do this now than ever before, especially as I have been treated worst than a criminal and valued as worthless in spite of having talents and capabilities unique to naturally born geniuses.

    I could do some A-level maths before I went to secondary school without any private tuition and had the mental age of an adult before I was a teenager as I was admitted into an adults psychiatric hospital at the age of twelve in 1973 after suffering a nervous breakdown caused by excessive bullying and emotional abuse by local authority staff and pupils. (Yes, Labour stronghold and authorities.)

    I have never been able to control my emotions or temper since then and when things go against me or society is tailored to be unfair to me I get very belligerent and disruptive by behaving in accordance with how I am being treated. If I am treated unfairly with everyone else treated better I behave as if I am bottom of the class and behave the worst.

    I am not going to try my best when circumstances are grossly unfair since many less intelligent people are above me but act as limitations on my progress because I am beyond their capability and I don’t get the recognition I deserve. None of them were born geniuses but are just standing on a higher platform. If I had given to me what they had I would naturally be looking down on them.

    But then pretentious idiots in power don’t like us do they?

    Here is a summary of Labour failures – at local authority level while Conservatives were in power as well as by civil servant when Labour was in power at national level. You will see the localised things linked to the local authority were caused by the labour county council and the civil service failures were when Labour were in power. The four major failures by Labour are as follows:

    1. 1973-1974 My secondary education was ruined due to bullying and being taken out of mainstream school and placed in an institution with subnormal children. This was after being admitted into adults’ psychiatric hospital at the age of twelve. I lost at least two years and there are some subjects I have no idea in and had I not been gifted and focused on my mathematical talents I would have ended up with no qualifications.

    2. 1976 & 1978 In 1976 a welfare officer from the DHSS visited us and knew of my care needs but made an assumption that I wasn’t in need of care and didn’t get his facts right. In 1978 at the local social security office a civil servant misled me about my entitlements judging me by my capability to overshadow my care needs. These resulted in seventeen years conned out of entitlements.

    3. 1985 – 1993 I faced the hurdle of obtaining employment and experienced discrimination. An unscrupulous employer, the local labour county council who was prepared to take me on at school-leaver level, said that if I could prove myself, I would progress. I accepted this as I had no other choice and outperformed many when it came to mathematical and computational work, but my employer used my epilepsy as an excuse to prevent me progressing and not paying me at the level I was performing at. So I started applying for jobs elsewhere, but got nowhere. To find out what my employer was stating about me, I planned with someone to obtain a reference and forward it on to me. My suspicions were true — my employer didn’t credit me worthy of what I was doing but emphasized my so-called inability due to epilepsy, which was defamation of character since epilepsy doesn’t cause any mental or physical inabilities. In 1993, I finally decided that I was not going to be held to ransom by this unscrupulous employer and I resigned.

    4. 1998 – 2000 After undergoing brain surgery in 1996, which was 100 per cent successful, and by 1998 I was ready to kick-start my career no longer disabled. Due to all the prejudice and lack of experience I went through and my age I had to take on poverty paid jobs worthy of idiots’ intelligence. I enquired about doing an Open University course to get another more appropriate degree in order to give me better career opportunities but was turned down for financial assistance because I was over qualified. Yet someone on over twice what I was earning who didn’t have any qualifications could get financial support. Hence I haven’t had the chance from the State to make the most of my potential.

    I have moved on but my employer cannot make up for all the failures of the State and as a result I am not getting the chance to make the most of my potential. I have progressed a bit more than in the past but this is in line with someone of slightly higher than average intelligence, not a gifted person.

    I have never been treated fairly or had the chance to make the most of my potential with Labour as they use my capability to deny me everything I should have had for my disadvantages and my disability to deny me everything I should have had for my capability.

    Just read what shortage of talent there is and authorities waste high potential of ones like us. Governments only have themselves to blame for failing to recognise it.


    The world’s most valuable commodity is getting harder to find

    The Economist has published a special report on talent. In modern business, talent has become a synonym for brainpower and the ability to think creatively, both of huge importance in the modern economy.

    As The Economist’s report shows, there is a huge concern in the business world that there is not enough talent to go around, that companies are battling for the worlds best employees and that once they have found them, they fight like hell to keep them.

    The Economist points to evidence that the talent shortage is likely to get worse. Nobody really disputes the idea that the demand for talent-intensive skills is rising – in America the proportion of workers doing jobs that call for complex skills has grown three times as fast as employment in general. As other economies move in the same direction, the global demand is rising quickly. As for supply, in much of the developed world the working population is predicted to fall. Even in still growing America, the imminent retirement of the baby-boomers means that companies will lose large numbers of experienced workers in a short space of time.

    To add to these woes, companies have seen a collapse of loyalty amongst their employees and most Western countries are not producing enough scientists, engineers or workers skilled to work in a modern economy. Again, in India and China they are suffering from acute skills shortages at the more sophisticated end of their economies.

    The Economist points to the different challenges this shortage will pose for companies, governments and individuals –

    For companies the main task is simply to end up with more talented people than their competitors. Human-resource managers, once second tier figures, now often rank among the highest paid people at American firms; they will have to justify that status.

    Governments will need to act now. They need to remove barriers to help the flow of highly skilled workers and concentrate on education so that schools and universities produce more talent for the future.

    Individuals should also be aware that the hunt for talent is bound to create even greater inequality. A global meritocracy is in all our interests, says The Economist. Be prepared to fight for it.

    Source – Onrec

  • A_Young_Unknown_Traveler

    First and foremost, I will wholeheartedly admit that I am young but I don’t believe I am naïve or ignorant thus take what I have to say accordingly. I agree somewhat with the general themes of this article but I find that some of its practical merits are lacking. I have never personally experienced the trials and tribulations that people with neurological and psychiatric disorders face on a daily basis, but I feel it is wrong to try to draw modern parallels to Sylvia Plath and others as psychiatry has come a long way since then. For example in the 50s parents could place unruly teenagers in a mental institute at will and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classified homosexuality as a mental disorder until the early 70s. I can see how there is a general stigma still prevalent in almost all societies but we have made leaps and bounds both in treatment and acceptance for the most part (i.e. not South Korea). Another point of contention I would like to address is that though there has been a proven link with schizophrenia and creativity and some correlation with higher average IQs, this trend follows a normal distribution with only a small percentage of people with mental illnesses or neurological conditions qualifying as “geniuses”. (The Intelligence quotient only takes into account a few aspects of the multi-faceted brain and ignores other important factors such as kinesthetic intelligence(athletes, surgeons),spatial cognizance (painters, architects), creative intelligence (musicians, writers), and emotional intelligence). My older brother is a schizophrenic whose story shares some similarities with John Nash’s life. He is a recent Ivy League grad, published poet, writer, gifted artist and overall a very intelligent person. Within minutes of people meeting him they are astounded by his intelligence and talents and immediately draw parallels to John Nash. As the writer mentioned when your brain turns on itself you seek out logic. This has been my brother’s biggest problem. His thoughts torment him- racing at a million miles per hour- keeping him up at night seeing if he can will it away like Nash supposedly did. He does not what to accept his disease and tries to rationalize his psychosomatic pain through extensive research which only furthers his delusions. A persistent and psychosomatic (doctors believe) pain becomes ,in his mind, caused by brain damage to his posterior parietal cortex and parts of the temporal lobe. He becomes entranced in his thoughts writing in his wall theorems and proofs pertaining to everything from quantum entanglement to the multiple levels of infinity. The process causes him only more pain and distress in the form of debilitating headaches. He tries to justify his actions and increasingly erratic behavior by logic as perceived through the filter of his reality. For all his expounding of the virtues of logic, he rejects logical arguments that conflict with his preconceived notions. This is the burden of intelligence as I would call it. Thus while I have nothing but admiration and respect for the groundbreaking ideas of John Nash(he was a personal hero of mine before the movie as well), I reject the overly romantic notion the author conveys about his schizophrenic condition. I side with Alicia in this case. My brother is currently in an inpatient facility where he will hopefully stabilize within a couple days. It only happened yesterday and this is my way to vent so I apologize if I have offended anyone and if my thought process is less than coherent. The problem is he refuses to take medication as it dulls his intellect. If any of you could offer some insight I would greatly appreciate it.

    P.S. My brother noticed an interesting trend in his research that shows that the famous people with schizophrenia and other mental disorders are more likely to commit suicide based on the side of the brain they were more inclined to use. Thus those who used there left-side of the brain (the side that deals with math, logic, strategies, safety) in their profession are less likely to commit suicide then those who use the right side of the brain (feelings, imagination, risk-taking, fantasy). This means artistic geniuses are exponentially more likely to kill themselves than there mathematical counterparts. Considering the specialized differences in neural connections formed in these individuals in order to give them there immense talent in one respective field that is usually heavily weighed to one side of the brain, it makes sense that immensely creative people run a higher risk of suicide. Just a thought. I appreciate any comments or feedback.

  • Olivia esddms

    Having recently discovered my occasional fits were, in fact, temporal lobe epilepsy, I have to admit this piece does hit some chord.