This weekend I watched a biography of the mathematician John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame). As many of you probably know, in his early 20s Nash was on his way to becoming a world-historical mathematician, but then spent the next 30 years or so suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and circulating in and out of institutions. At one point in the biopic, Nash, at the point of filming an old man and finally ‘healthy,’ was asked by an interviewer how a mathematician–our paradigm, I suppose, of the Rational Thinker–could have believed the ‘crazy’ and ‘irrational’ things suggested to him by his paranoid delusions. It’s not a good question, but Nash’s answer, I thought, was very interesting. He said that the ‘delusions’ came to him from the same place as did his mathematical insights, and so he was predisposed to trust them. A commentator then followed up with the interesting point that when Nash began to descend into mental illness he was already accustomed to seeing the world in a way no one around him could–he was already accustomed to seeing himself as prodigiously gifted, as having a kind of access to reality that others lacked–and so it might have been easier for him to convince himself that the delusions, considered signs of insanity by the folk, were just further evidence of his special gifts and powers.
We’re all familiar with the correlation–popular or scientific, I’m not sure–between mental illness and genius, but this biography got me thinking about how the two might actually support each other.