John F. Nash, Jr., won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1994 for his early work in developing game theory, but he is best known for being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and for being the subject of the film "A Beautiful Mind," which won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2001.
Thousands of attendees at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in San Diego crowded into a huge hall to see John Nash in person and to listen to him present a lecture.
There was a standing ovation as he walked up to the podium. He proceeded to read a lengthy speech that was difficult to follow at times. He had a somewhat awkward manner and tended to speak in a monotone. However, there was a little humor in his talk.
The focus of Dr. Nash's lecture was what he called "minds on strike," which he described as minds not doing their duty of thinking in an acceptable fashion. In his wide-ranging remarks, he talked about the nervous system, evolution, economics, and a grand design for terrestrial species.
As species evolved on Earth into more complex organisms, he said, there arose a need for a differentiation of roles. He tied this together with appropriate social behaviors, noting that society is the collective of individuals interacting with nature.
Nash pointed out that even non-standard behaviors may involve roles that are important for society, and he offered the clergy as an example. He suggested that medical doctors do not produce food, but ultimately are important for society, as well.
Nash went on to discuss insanity from an economic standpoint, noting that because insane people might not be able to perform their expected social roles, their minds are unable to function properly for society and are, therefore, "on strike." He said that his mind, for instance, had gone on strike repeatedly; however, his message was one of hope because he left open the possibility of the mind functioning properly again.
He did speak about his own delusions and suggested that these beliefs were as real as anything else he had experienced. The delusional thoughts came to him as naturally as other information. He had both paranoid and grandiose delusional thoughts.
At his most delusional, he believed that there was a conspiracy and that he was being monitored in a police-state world like that described in George Orwell's novel "1984." He believed that family members who had aided in having him placed in psychiatric hospitals were simply duped by the authorities. He also sensed that he was a very important person, and he noted that when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, history finally caught up with his grandiose delusion.
Especially interesting were his thoughts about mental health counselors. During the years that his psychotic symptoms were very pronounced, he believed that if he could communicate with a real angel, then everything would be clarified for him. He now thinks that someday a very complex computer program will be able to simulate a counselor and be useful for some therapy sessions.
At the end of his remarks, he argued that nature favors diversity. The inevitable result of diversity in human behavior is that the human being is vulnerable to insanity. It is a price that society pays for progress in other ways.
An important lesson of John Nash's life is that genius does not protect one against mental illness.