What Is A Beautiful Mind? (November 2004)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 12:18

Saga Magazine
November 2004

What Is A Beautiful Mind?

Dorothy Rowe

The film The Beautiful Mind tells a simplified version of the life of the brilliant mathematician John Nash who at 31 found his life taken over by the delusional belief that he was involved in a Cold War spy operation where he was dominated by the spy chief and alternatively encouraged and harassed by an old friend and his young niece. Many people have such a psychotic experience, but John Nash was remarkable in that he recovered from the psychosis without taking psychiatric drugs because he learned how to deal with the kind of intrusive thoughts which can wake us from our sleep and torment us during the day.

At first John Nash's reactions to this ongoing imaginary drama led to his incarceration in a psychiatric hospital where the frequent administrations of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and mind-clogging drugs matched in terror the drama in his mind. When he returned home he found that his treatment prevented him from working, loving his wife, and caring for his child. He decided to deal with the persecutors in his head by facing them and telling them that from now on he would ignore them. This was a battle, but eventually he was able to return to Princeton University where in 1994 he received the Nobel Prize.

To placate the powerful drug companies the film makes out that John Nash was cured by taking the newer psychiatric drugs, which is untrue, and it fails to explain the origin of the figures which he saw as clearly as he saw the people around him. Psychiatrists have always regarded visual and auditory hallucinations (seeing people and hearing voices) as merely symptoms of a disease, schizophrenia, in the way that red spots are a symptom of measles. However, in recent years the Hearing Voices Movement, which is made up of people who have had such experiences, has shown that these hallucinations are memories differing only in intensity from the memories we all have.

In one scene in the film a friend questions whether John Nash is ready to return to teaching. He asks whether the persecutory figures were still there. John Nash replies that they are and perhaps they always will be but that he's got used to ignoring them and they've got used to being ignored. John Nash then wonders whether all our dreams and nightmares are like this and says, 'They're my past. Everybody is haunted by their past.'

So we are. We are our past. Forget your past and you lose your identity. Unfortunately some memories can wake us in the small hours and fill us with horror, or nag at us during the day and prevent us from attending to what we should be attending to. When our past troubles us like this we can turn to the Hearing Voices Movement for advice on how to deal with unpleasant memories. They have developed a number of techniques for dealing with their voices which are equally applicable to other kinds of intrusive memories.

First, we must face our memories and see whether the meaning we have given them is actually sensible. We often forget that we made decisions in the past according to what we knew at the time. Of course we know more now, but blaming ourselves for not knowing then what we know now is as silly as it would be for a doctor who practised in the 1930s blaming himself fifty years later for not prescribing antibiotics to children with diphtheria.

Second, we have to develop techniques for ignoring the memories when they come to mind. We must practise the skill of turning our mind to something else by saying firmly to ourselves, 'I'm not going to think about that now.' Have something else to think about, be it only some mental arithmetic or a cross word puzzle, or you can tell yourself an interesting story. I've got a fund of somewhat boring stories which I tell myself when sleep is slow to come. When you go to bed you can play a story tape or leave the radio quietly broadcasting the BBC World Service all night. People who hear voices have found that if they sing or talk the voices have to be silent. Singing or talking and paying attention to what you're doing will block a memory from coming to mind.

Some people have found that their voices are very insistent on being heard and they've dealt with this by making a deal with the voices, such as, 'You have to be quiet all the time except between five and six in the evening when I'll sit and listen to you.' If a memory insists on coming into your mind then set aside a time during the day to remember it, and refuse to pay it any attention to it in the hours when you want to sleep.

Often memories intrude because we cannot bear to let them go. We may believe that we deserve to suffer while we remember and that suffering shows that we are good; we may believe that not remembering someone means that we didn't love them; or we can try to deny that we have suffered loss by going over our memories. But suffering is just suffering. It's not virtue. If we love someone then that love is always part of us whether we think of it or not. Life is loss. If we want to live wisely we have to learn to let go of our losses.

For me a beautiful mind is not a mathematical mind but a wise mind. No doubt there are many wise mathematicians, but in this they are like ordinary mortals. A wise person is someone who is not haunted by the past but has learnt from it and has let the losses go; who plans for the future but is not wedded to those plans; who lives mostly in the present, mindful of what is happening. The past and the future are simply ideas. Only the present moment is real.