John Nash and his Experiences with Schizophrenia

Vector Image of John Nash by
Rook-Over-Here on DeviantArt.

This is a short video-documentary about John Forbes Nash Jr. that takes a look at his history with schizophrenia. This video looks at Nash’s experiences with his symptoms, his diagnosis according to the 1952 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders compared to the DSM-5 (2013), the treatments he underwent at McLean Hospital and Trenton State Hospital, and the possibility of other mental illnesses according to scholars on Nash’s life and modern medical professionals. This is but a brief scholarly exploration of Nash’s life and his history with schizophrenia. There is significantly more information to be explored, but some of that had to be cut due to time constraints.

This video was created for a project for History of Mental Health in the U.S. at the University of Mary Washington. A transcript of this video can be found below, and a full bibliography can be found on the second page of this post.

In 1994, American mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his breakthrough work in game theory, specifically his discovery of non-cooperative equilibria, which is now more commonly referred to as the Nash Equilibrium. While Nash himself had a brilliant mind, he was also plagued with mental illness for most of his adult life. In 1959, Nash was diagnosed with schizophrenia, effectively halting his career as a burgeoning mathematician. While Nash suffered from delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech due to his mental illness, his life provides an interesting case study on the symptoms and effects of schizophrenia, particularly how he overcame his mental illness to become a leading figure in the history of modern mathematics.

Over the course of this video we will explore the life of John Nash and his history with schizophrenia by examining his diagnosis and symptoms, the treatments he underwent, and the possibility of other mental disorders.

In 1950, Nash graduated from Princeton University with his PhD in mathematics after writing a twenty-eight page dissertation on non-cooperative games.1 This paper contained the definition and properties of what would become his most famous contribution to the field of mathematics, the Nash Equilibrium. Nash’s genius was well known in the academic community, having ties to Princeton, M.I.T., and the RAND Corporation.2 In 1958 he was singled out by Fortune magazine for his contributions to the development of “new math.”3 Less than a year later, Nash’s personal and professional lives were devastated by the continuous symptoms and subsequent hospitalizations due to his mental illness.

Nash had a reputation for being eccentric, but even his wife and colleagues realized something was wrong when his symptoms began to manifest. Nash began to experience delusions and hallucinations, becoming paranoid around others, and believing that there was a conspiracy against him. The following clip from the 2002 PBS documentary on Nash’s life, “A Brilliant Madness,” provides a good overview of these delusions.4

Transcribed from "A Brilliant Madness" (2002):

"A few weeks later, Nash rushed into the common room at M.I.T. and claimed that powers from outer space were sending him coded messages in the New York Times. Another incident soon followed. He interrupted a lecture to announce he was on the cover of Life Magazine, disguised at Pope John XXIII. He knew this, he said, because twenty-three was his favorite prime number. Then he began noticing a curious pattern on the M.I.T. campus: men wearing red ties. He was sure they were members of a secret communist organization. When the University of Chicago offered him a prestigious position, Nash turned it down. He was already scheduled, he said, to become Emperor of Antarctica."5

That same year, Nash was slated to give an American Mathematical Society lecture at Columbia University. Initially the lecture was meant to present Nash’s proof of the Riemann hypothesis, a notoriously complex mathematics problem that was nearly impossible to solve, however the lecture was ultimately incomprehensible.6 His speech was disorganized, he rambled about mathematics that were unrelated to his topic and was laughed out of the auditorium after the presentation.7 His symptoms worsened not long afterwards, and his wife had him hospitalized at McLean Hospital in April 1959.8

There, Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. At the time of Nash’s hospitalization, the only reputable source of diagnosis was the little known Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1952).9 This book, which was better known as the DSM, was mainly used by hospitals, clinics, and insurance companies, who needed a diagnosis for the treatment of mental disorders.10 Today we are much more familiar with the DSM, specifically the more-recent fifth edition that contains the most up-to-date information on mental disorders.11

According to the DSM-5 (2013), schizophrenia is a mental disorder that is characterized by “continuous or relapsing episodes of psychosis.”12 Major symptoms of the condition include hallucinations (typically in the form of hearing voices), delusions, paranoia, and disorganized thinking (that can also lead to disorganized speech).13 Other common symptoms include social withdrawal, decreased emotional expression, and apathy.14 These symptoms typically come on gradually, beginning in young adulthood, and in many cases never resolve. While there is no objective diagnostic test, the diagnosis is used to describe observed behavior that may stem from numerous different causes. Besides observed behavior, doctors will also take a history that includes the person’s reported experiences, and reports of others familiar with the person, when making a diagnosis.15 Typically the symptom must be reported to have occurred for at least six months prior. Due to the diagnosis primarily being observed, many people with schizophrenia have other mental disorders, especially substance use disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and obsessive–compulsive disorders.16

This diagnostic criteria is much more specific than the one found in the DSM-1, which merely states,

“This type of reaction is characterized by autistic, unrealistic thinking, with mental content composed chiefly of delusions of persecution, and/or of grandeur, ideas of reference, and often hallucinations. It is often characterized by unpredictable behavior, with a fairly constant attitude of hostility and aggression. Excessive religiosity may be present with or without delusions of persecution. There may be an expansive delusional system of omnipotence, genius, or special ability.”17

While Nash was at McLean Hospital, his treatments consisted of Thorazine injections and psychoanalysis.18 In the 1950s, Thorazine was a fairly new antipsychotic drug that had been discovered to calm patients with symptoms like those found in Nash. The use of Thorazine was common in facilities like McLean, which revolutionized drug therapy in the 1950s.19 Similarly, psychoanalytic psychotherapy was thought to help promote self-reflection and insight in patients with schizophrenia. 20 These treatments appeared to help Nash and he was permitted to leave McLean after a little less than two months.21

Less than two years after his release, Nash was hospitalized again, this time at Trenton State Hospital. Trenton took a vastly different approach to Nash’s treatment by having him undergo insulin coma therapy. The following clip provides an in-depth explanation of this treatment, as well as Nash’s own experiences while at Trenton.22

Transcribed from "A Brilliant Madness" (2002):

Voiceover: "Trenton State was known for its aggressive treatments, including insulin coma therapy, which by 1961 had been phased out in all but a few hospitals."

Peter Weiden, Psychiatrist: "Insulin coma was developed under the mistaken notion that schizophrenia was caused by a metabolic problem by the way the body regulates glucose. Insulin coma was one of the more popular and unfortunately one of the more notorious treatments of its day."

John Nash: "I don't remember all the details. The sort of thing, like you go under anesthesia, you don't, you remember only the process up to the anesthesia."

Voiceover: "A nurse would wake patients early in the morning and give them an injection of insulin. Their blood sugar would drop and soon they would be comatose. Some patients would suffer spontaneous seizures."

Peter Weiden, Psychiatrist: "Insulin coma deliberately puts the body into total shock. This was done under supervised circumstances, because if you do that too aggressively you can die."

John Nash: "I remember some of the surrounding events. There would be a group of people that would be getting it and then afterwards they would go out on the grounds, and pass the time and drink sugar water. I got to thinking of the cruelty to animals. I became a vegetarian at the time I was in the Trenton Hospital. I sort of thought that one could protest against this sort of treatment."23

Nash’s repeated paranoid outbursts strained his relationship with his wife, Alicia, and the two divorced 1963.24 Nash was hospitalized at least three more times after their divorce.25 In 1964 he began hearing voices, but actively worked on rejecting them.26 In an interview with PBS, Nash states he was always taken to hospitals against his will and only temporarily renounced his delusions after being in a hospital long enough to decide he would superficially conform.27 In 1970 Alicia allowed Nash to move back into their home near Princeton.28 She continued to support him and their son, encouraging Nash to reintegrate himself into the Princeton mathematics community as a means of self-healing.29 In a 2009 article from the Pacific Health Dialogue, Dr. Tevita Funaki attributes the support of Nash’s wife and the few close friends he had as paramount to his recovery.30 Funaki claims Alicia used cognitive coping strategies while caring for Nash by encouraging positive thinking, attempting to accept Nash’s illness rather than denying that it existed, and to understand his life experiences as a person with schizophrenia.31

It was in 1970 that Nash stopped using his prescribed antipsychotic medication, claiming they dulled his mind and left him unable to continue his work in mathematics.32 He never took antipsychotic drugs again and detested their use, which served as a point of contention between Nash and his youngest son, who is also a mathematician and suffers from schizophrenia.33 Gradually, Nash’s symptoms improved on their own and he was permitted to teach mathematics at Princeton. While he continued to deal with his symptoms, Nash recovered enough that he reconciled with his wife and was permitted to attend his own award ceremony for the Nobel Prize in 1994. Nash would reconnect with other members of the mathematics community, being awarded several other awards for his contributions in mathematics, until 2015, when he and his wife were tragically killed in a car accident.34

While Nash is known for his experiences with schizophrenia, it has been speculated by mental health professionals that Nash may have suffered from more than just one mental illness throughout his life. An article published in 2002 by Doctors Marium Arshad and Michael Fitzgerald claims that many of Nash’s symptoms that labeled him as schizophrenic in 1959 could have actually been attributed to Asperger’s syndrome.35 Asperger’s is typically characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.36 Arshad and Fitzgerald believe Asperger’s may have been the cause of Nash’s eccentricities, as well as his repetitive reliance on mathematics as a coping mechanism and a means of escape.37 However, Asperger’s was not a known syndrome at the time of Nash’s diagnosis. This coupled with Nash’s distrust of mental institutions makes knowing if this were true impossible. However, in an interview with PBS, Nash believed his mental illness was related to how unhappy he was at the time of his hospitalizations, theorizing he may have suffered from depression.38 In the late 1950s, Nash had been working on a mathematics problem that could have awarded him the Field’s Medal, one of the highest honors a mathematician can receive, only to discover another mathematician solved the same problem as him within the span of a few weeks.39 To complicate matters, his wife was pregnant at the time and Nash was conflicted about being a father. His mental illness, he says, was a form of escape, allowing his mind to generate a sense of grand importance in one of the darkest moments of his life.40

Over the course of this video we examined the life of John Nash, an individual whose experiences with mental illness did not stop him from contributing to the growing field of mathematics. Though Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1959, he was a victim to the limitations and understandings of mental illness in the 1950s and 1960s. He underwent various treatments before ultimately taking matters into his own hands, stopping his medication and relying on the love and social support of close family and friends. Since then, mental health professionals have theorized whether or not Nash suffered from more than one mental illness, something that is common with schizophrenia patients. Whether or not this is true, Nash’s story is one that has been publicized and provides an interesting case study of someone who has not only lived with schizophrenia, but overcame it.

  1. Harold W. Kuhn, Sylvia Nasar, and John F. Nash, The Essential John Nash (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002), 53-84.[]
  2. Sylvia Nasar, “The Sum of a Man,” The Guardian, March 26, 2002,[]
  3. Sylvia Nasar, “The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate,” The New York Times, November 13, 1994, sec. Business,[]
  4. George Kalarritis, “A Brilliant Madness. The Story of John Nash (2002) HD,” YouTube Video, YouTube, December 31, 2016,[]
  5. Kalarritis, "A Brilliant Madness."[]
  6. Karl Sabbagh, Dr. Riemann’s Zeros: The Search for the $1 Million Solution to the Greatest Problem in Mathematics (London: Atlantic Books, 2002), 87-88.[]
  7. Sabbagh, Dr. Riemann’s Zeros, 87-88.[]
  8. Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 1994 (New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 253-254.[]
  9. Mahendra T. Bhati, “Defining Psychosis: The Evolution of DSM-5 Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders,” Current Psychiatry Reports 15, no. 11 (September 22, 2013), 409.[]
  10. Joshua W. Clegg, “Teaching about Mental Health and Illness through the History of the DSM.,” History of Psychology 15, no. 4 (2012), 369.[]
  11. Bhati, “Defining Psychosis,” 409.[]
  12. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (Arlington, V.A.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013), 87.[]
  13. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., 87.[]
  14. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., 87.[]
  15. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., 87-88.[]
  16. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed., 88-90.[]
  17. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 1st ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1952), 26-27.[]
  18. Nasar, A Beautiful Mind, 259, 306-307.[]
  19. Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital (New York: Public Affairs, 2001): 124, 204.[]
  20. Nasar, A Beautiful Mind, 258-259.[]
  21. Nasar, A Beautiful Mind, 261.[]
  22. Kalarritis, “A Brilliant Madness.”[]
  23. Kalarritis, "A Brilliant Madness."[]
  24. Nasar, “The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate.”[]
  25. Nasar, “The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate.”[]
  26. John F. Nash, Hearing Voices, interview by American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service, 1999,[]
  27. John F. Nash, My Experiences With Mental Illness, interview by American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service, 1999,; John Nash, John F. Nash, Jr. – Interview, interview by The Nobel Foundation, The Nobel Foundation, September 2004,[]
  28. Donald Capps, “John Nash, Game Theory, and the Schizophrenic Brain,” Journal of Religion and Health 50, no. 1 (2011), 148.[]
  29. Capps, “John Nash, Game Theory, and the Schizophrenia Brain,” 148.[]
  30. Tevita Funaki, “Nash: Genius with Schizophrenia or Vice Versa?,” Journal of Community Health and Clinical Medicine for the Pacific 15, no. 2 (November 2009), 133-136.[]
  31. Funaki, “Nash: Genius with Schizophrenia or Vice Versa?,” 136.[]
  32. Peter J. Weiden, “Why Did John Nash Stop His Medication?,” Journal of Psychiatric Practice 8, no. 6 (November 2002), 391.[]
  33. Nash, John F. Nash, Jr. – Interview.[]
  34. Heidelberg Laureate Forum, “A Mind on Strike – Remembering John Nash,” YouTube, June 29, 2017,[]
  35. Marium Arshad and Michael Fitzgerald, “Did Nobel Prize Winner John Nash Have Asperger’s Syndrome and Schizophrenia?,” Irish Psychiatrist 3, no. 3 (2002), 90–94.[]
  36. Arshad and Fitzgerald, “Did Nobel Prize Winner John Nash Have Asperger’s Syndrome and Schizophrenia?,” 90.[]
  37. Arshad and Fitzgerald, 94.[]
  38. Nash, My Experiences With Mental Illness.[]
  39. Nasar, A Beautiful Mind, 225.[]
  40. Kalarritis, “A Brilliant Madness.”[]

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