The mind battles on
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The mind battles on

An interview with Nobel prize winner JF Nash Jr shows how entwined beauty and fragility are. Aditya Sinha reports.

india Updated: Feb 18, 2007 03:15 IST

My 40 minutes with Nobel Laureate John Forbes Nash Jr was a little strange. The 79-year-old mathematician who won the 1994 prize for economics said he was suffering jet lag and a packed schedule, but there was something else.

The external affairs ministry, which organised the interview, had said there should be no questions about paranoid schizophrenia, the illness he was diagnosed with when he was 30, and for which he spent six involuntary hospitalisations. His biography, A Beautiful Mind, made into a film, says he spent the next 30 years coming to terms with it, and that his story was one of “genius, madness, reawakening”. And so I thought it was something in the past.

During the chat, Nash appeared a man who was cautious. His answers were uneven, and at time, inexplicable. And on two occasions our eyes met — for the most part he kept diverting his gaze — I saw an unsettling fear and sadness. Yet when a maths-related question was posed, he seemed to change into a different person: lucid and brilliant. I did not give it much thought at the time. But later, I woke up in the middle of the night, with the realisation that perhaps I witnessed a battle between genius and madness within an individual.

Not exactly, practicising psycho-analyst Madhu Sarin says: “High IQs have been linked to greater sensitivity; brilliance and battiness have gone hand-in-hand.” Nimesh G. Desai, head of psychiatry at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, says the rate of disorders is high at the extremes of intelligence. “The hallmark of creativity is original thought,” Desai says. “Original thoughts often fall within the realm of abnormal. This abnormal idea may be something that can make a critical difference to humanity, or it may stem from a psychiatric disorder. The boundary between the two may be blurred.”

Schizophrenics lose a sense of continuity, says Sarin, so they lose a sense of self. In turn, this means they lose sight of the other person as well. So during the conversation, what was happening was that Nash was responding to however I gestured — but on a moment-to-moment basis. The only constant for him, perhaps, was a literal feeling of coming apart, Sarin says, which projected onto me as an eerie feeling.

“The kind of anxiety schizophrenics feel you can’t begin to imagine,” Sarin says. And to deal with uncertainty, schizophrenics take refuge in a rational universe — like mathematics — where their feelings are neatly packaged. True enough, Nash spoke about 9/11. Unlike most other Americans, he spoke of it calmly, as an incident perpetrated by insane people, directing his criticism at his government’s reaction to the incident. As he could not handle an intensity of emotion, he took his analysis to a logical extreme.

So my earlier notion, that his battle against schizophrenia had been long won, was wrong. “It’s never over, you can only improve the quality of life,” says Sarin. For 40 minutes, I had a glimpse of his beautiful mind’s fight against a dissipating self, and saw that indeed, beauty is fragile.

(With Neha Mehta)

First Published: Feb 18, 2007 03:15 IST