Patient's Perspective: A Beautiful Mind, The Movie

What does"A Beautiful Mind" teach us about schizophrenia

John Forbes Nash, Jr. photographed by Peter Badge. Public domain

 What is the movie about?

This biographical movie shows the life story of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a Nobel Memorial Prize Laureate in Economics.  Nash, a brilliant mathematician, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early thirties. The movie follows Nash from his starting at Princeton as a young graduate student, to his late sixties, ending with Nash leaving the auditorium in Stockholm after accepting the Nobel Prize.

Why is this movie important for the understanding of schizophrenia?

There are few movies that manage to win universal applause while also providing an accurate, non-romanticized record of the mental angst and despair that are always part of severe mental illness. A Beautiful Mind manages to do all the above in an elegantly and deeply-touching manner. Furthermore, the movie offers a unique, insider view on what schizophrenia feels like from the patient’s perspective.

What can be learned about schizophrenia symptoms by watching this movie?

The movie shows what hallucinations look like from the patient’s perspective. The movie also shows what paranoia feels like from a patient’s perspective.

John Nash lives in a complex word, full of abstract meaning and symbols, which may be invisible to the untrained eye. But does lack of visibility does not equal nonexistence. That is his first challenge.

Further, part of Nash’s reality is genuinely secret.

Thus, Nash misses out on the opportunity to match his subjective perceptions to re-calibrate and fine tune his reality check.

Add to that grave disappointment rooted in tremendous expectations fertilizing a mind which strength is in moving fluidly between concepts that do not seem to be even remotely related.

A mind who remains organized in the most disorganized way, so to speak.

And that is when John Nash’s tenuous reality breaks down into paranoia and hallucinations. In this context, there is no surprise to see that Nash finds further proof that his paranoid fears are “real” in the fact “they” are successful in locking him up.

Of note, while auditory hallucinations are frequent, the visual hallucinations that carry on a good part of the movie are in fact rare in schizophrenia. In Nash's own words:

Something like [visual hallucinations] this may appear in the movie [A Beautiful Mind], but of course the delusion pattern in the movie is going to be somewhat different, because the person sees things that aren't there. It's not just ideas or the idea of a plot or something, he thinks he sees certain persons. I never saw anything.

What can be learned about schizophrenia treatment by watching this movie?

We understand why many psychiatric patients decide against taking their medications. After insulin-shock therapy and anti-psychotic medications Nash’s beautiful mind seems to lose its brilliance and glitter.

It is important to note that this rather dire perspective of the effects of treatment is in fact not supported by John Nash’s own recollection of that period.

And it did happen that when I had been long enough hospitalized that I would finally renounce my delusional hypotheses and revert to thinking of myself as a human of more conventional circumstances and return to mathematical research. In these interludes of, as it were, enforced rationality, I did succeed in doing some respectable mathematical research. 

What can be learned about schizophrenia course by watching this movie?

The movie documents the devastating effects of schizophrenia on Nash’s personal and professional live.  We see the struggle to take/not to take medications, the challenge of facing one’s demons without medication support, with the predictable yet still heart-wrenching return of the nightmarish hallucinations, the ambiguous relationship with the hallucinated reality itself, despite repeated reality “infusions” provided by family, friends and doctors.

In the end Nash, after painstakingly realigning the pieces of his life puzzle, is honored by his Princeton fellow professors. The movie closes with Nash seeing three of his old hallucinated friends/ tormentors as he leaves the auditorium in Stockholm after receiving his Nobel prize.

John Nash schizophrenia course is one of partial recovery following being treated early on with medication and ending in a stable state without medications. This illustrates the fact that the prognosis of schizophrenia is not universally dire and stability without medications can be achieved in specific cases. The movies also makes the counterpoint that Nash lost many years of productive life to his untreated psychosis before he reached a final state of relative stability.

Further resources:

1. "John F. Nash Jr. - Biographical". Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 30 May 2014

2. The American Experience: Season 14, Episode 14 A Brilliant Madness (2002)

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