A Brilliant Madness
The life of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash
A Brilliant Madness is the story of a mathematical genius whose career was cut short by a descent into madness. At the age of 30, John Nash, a stunningly original and famously eccentric MIT mathematician, suddenly began claiming that aliens were communicating with him and that he was a special messenger. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Nash spent the next three decades in and out of mental hospitals, all but forgotten.
During that time, a proof he had written at the age of 20 became a foundation of modern economic theory. In 1994, as Nash began to show signs of emerging from his delusions, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics.
The program features interviews with John Nash, his wife Alicia, his friends and colleagues, and experts in game theory and mental illness.
The life of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash — the inspiration for the feature film A Beautiful Mind — is a powerful exploration of how genius and madness can become intertwined.
Hailed as a mathematical genius and one of the most original minds of the 20th century, Nash made his breakthrough as a twenty-year-old graduate student at Princeton with a stunning proof in the field of game theory. His thesis of the dynamics of human conflict would revolutionize economics, and would eventually win him the Nobel Prize.
But at the height of his career, after a decade of remarkable mathematical accomplishments, Nash suffered a breakdown. The 30-year-old MIT professor interrupted a lecture to announce he was on the cover of Life magazine — disguised as the pope. He claimed that foreign governments were communicating with him through The New York Times, and turned down a prestigious post at the University of Chicago because, he said, he was about to become the Emperor of Antarctica.
His wife Alicia had him committed against his will to a private mental hospital, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and treated with psychoanalysis. Upon his release, Nash abruptly resigned from MIT, withdrew his pension fund and fled to Europe. He wandered from country to country, attempting to renounce his American citizenship and be declared a refugee. He saw himself as a secret messenger of God and the focus of an international communist conspiracy. With help from the State Department, Alicia had him deported back to the U.S.
Desperate and short of funds, Alicia was forced to commit her husband to the former New Jersey Lunatic Asylum, an understaffed state institution. There Nash was subjected to insulin coma therapy, an aggressive and life-threatening treatment. When he was released after six months, “he looked like he had been battered and been through some devastating thing,” recalls a friend. “It was heartbreaking.” Mathematicians were outraged; no one knew what the impact of treatment on Nash’s genius would be.
John and Alicia were soon divorced. His former colleagues tried to help him through his illness, on several occasions securing him jobs during his remissions, but each time his delusions would return and he’d be forced to give up work. After a number of additional stints in hospitals, Alicia let him move back in with her, vowing to never commit him again. Throughout the 1960s, he wandered the campus of his alma mater in red high-top sneakers, keeping to himself; students teased him and called him the Phantom.
Beginning in the 1980s, Nash experienced his second inexplicable transformation: gradually, his schizophrenia began to taper off. “I began arguing with the concept of the voices,” he recalls. “And ultimately I began rejecting them and deciding not to listen.”
During the period of his recovery, game theory became a foundation of modern economic theory and Nash began to be considered for a Nobel Prize in Economics. Nobel committee members balked, afraid Nash would prove an embarrassment. But his supporters finally won. In 1994 Nash received his award, capping his dramatic reawakening from madness.
The producers of A Brilliant Madness gained unprecedented access to the Nash family to tell this story. The film features interviews with Nash, his sister, his oldest son, close friends and colleagues as well as many family photographs. In addition to archival materials, the film uses a range of film stocks and cinematic techniques to vividly recreate Nash’s foggy world of paranoid delusions. Yet, the star of the film is undoubtedly Nash himself. He is disarmingly honest about his work, his ambitions and his illness. “Madness can be an escape,” he says. “If things are not so good, you maybe want to imagine something better. In madness, I thought I was the most important person of the world.”