A Beautiful Mind Movie Review: Seeking Truth by Reason

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In the film A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard, the protagonist John Nash is a mathematical prodigy who made an astonishing finding early in his career and stood on the edge of international acclaim. However, it was later discovered that Nash had schizophrenia, and as a result of this disease, he suffered from symptoms of delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and distorted behavior. He also suffered from communication competence, where he struggled to communicate with others when he could not implement what he knew best, mathematics. Nash experienced hallucinations throughout his life, in which he invented friends within his own mind, appearing when he was overwhelmed with real life.

Through the lense of Reader Response criticism, Howard challenges viewers of the film to doubt their own beliefs and whether or not they just believe it because it was imposed on them. It is clear that Nash’s hallucinations have consequences in all aspects of his life from his relationships to his career and in the way that others viewed him.

Although he is clearly brilliant, the hallucinations which began occur early in his career, continued for the rest of his life, such that he could no longer distinguish what was reality and what was a figment of his own imagination. This led to him becoming a social outcast. Arguably, we may all experience ideological hallucinations in which we believe something is real when it in fact is just part of our imagination. We allow our mind to perpetuate these beliefs as they may satisfy some inner void for us just they did for Nash. Similar to Nash, these hallucinations have consequences for us as well. The film makes us understand that a beautiful mind is a clear, rational mind that seeks the truth through reason and not through a system of beliefs that cannot be proven. Nash’s mind was able to rationally problem solve the most complex mathematical formulae while at the same time distorting his reality with continued hallucinations. Similarly our minds may act rationally but may also be affected by beliefs that were formed at a young age, are not based in reality but are perpetuated.

Nash’s mental illness which makes him socially awkward seems to foster his scientific thinking as he is able to separate himself from his peer group and keep his mind on math where he feels secure. At the start of the film, in September of 1947, we get our first glimpse of him, looking out of place at the welcoming party for new students attending Princeton. Because he cannot relate to people on any social level, he uses math to come up with criticisms of others including commenting on a new student’s hideous astronomical tie. It is clear from the start that Nash is socially awkward, but smarter than his peers including his rival Hansen, a student with whom he shares the prestigious Carnegie fellowship. The university seems to be filled with pompous people like Hansen who belittle the less outgoing people like Nash who recognizes his weakness with strangers. “The truth is that I don’t like people much and they don’t much like me” (page 6). In a later scene, Nash exhibits similar behavior while trying to socialize at a bar. While his colleagues are staring at a blonde and scheming on ways to meet her, Nash withdraws from this reality and sees the participants as a mathematical diagram. By separating himself from this human connection he actually is able to develop his theory which eventually goes on to challenge the economist Adam Smith’s accepted theories.

On the other hand when Nash is forced into situations where he cannot fall back on his rational approach to mathematics, he continues to have difficulty and acts anything but brilliant. This is demonstrated in any bar scene including after he receives the placement that he wanted at Wheeler Labs. Nash has no ability to relate to his academic rival Hansen other than to give him a glass of wine. Of course, Nash always approached his conversations with women in awkward ways resulting in getting slapped on multiple occasions for inappropriate behavior (even if it was his true intention). Thus Nash’s social awkwardness allows him to withdraw from social situations to think rationally and question established beliefs. The degree to which Nash is able to withdraw from normal human relations and escape into math is significantly greater than what a “normal” person might be able to relate to. However, all of us are faced with social situations in which we feel awkward and insecure. But as we may not all possess the mental ability to extract ourselves to escape being uncomfortable.

Nash’s ability to escape reality and find friends makes him feel secure even though they are hallucinations. After the welcoming party, John sets up his room to be in pristine condition in order to get to work. His roomate, Charles, enters the room and starts to listen to opera music and talk about hangovers. Charles’s loud and obnoxious behavior, suggests that he is clearly drunk but his outgoing fun personality is clearly the opposite of Nash’s personality and may represent how Nash would like to be, if he was not so socially uncomfortable. During the scenes where Charles is present, he always acts as a grounding force for John. Charles was there to make sure that John didn’t over-work even going as far as when he pushed all of John’s work out the window. Charles is the only person with whom Nash can be honest and relate to as when he confesses to Charles (and himself) “I need to find a truly amazing idea. That is the only way I will really matter” (page 6-7). This describes the mental anguish that John experiences and he can only confide in Charles. The relationship that John and Charles have albeit based only in his mind, is healthy, because Charles provides an opposing secure perspective for him and he is his only true friend that offers comfort and support.

While Nash’s mind would instinctively try to come up with rational mathematical solutions to everything he faces, he learns that he needs to take risks in real life. This is evident when he meets Alicia. When he is contemplating marrying Alicia, his hesitation lies in the fact that he’s not certain that it is the right decision. As John is a very logical, rational person, he does not make decisions without being absolutely certain. Charles tells him “Nothing’s ever for sure, John. That’s the only sure thing I do know” (page 29). Charles instructs John to embrace life’s uncertainties, and live life despite not knowing every single outcome. Charles’ certainty about the uncertainty inherent in life, gives John comfort and peace. Here again, Nash’s imaginary friend provides a sense of security for him in a situation that he would normally feel awkward and unsure. Charles helps Nash question his own beliefs. As we discover that Charles is actually a hallucination and doesn’t exist, we feel empathy towards John whenever Charles is in view. Once we understand that Charles is an imaginary person we are reminded that Nash continues to suffer from paranoid delusions, and mental illness.

Nash’s varying hallucinations are a source of security at times, while at other times are the source of his worsening paranoia. The creation of Charles as a hallucinatory figure in John’s brain is complex because he proves to be both detrimental and helpful. Charles is a safe harbour for John, manifesting in the form of a best friend. It may be that Charles is the part of John’s personality which is untouched by his obsessive love of math and logic. Hence, Charles represents the good side of John’s delusions in the movie, where he supports John by offering him love and friendship. In contrast, William Parcher symbolizes the negative and frightening side. Instead of supporting John and offering him love and friendship, similar to Charles and Marcie, Parcher represents the fear and paranoia that form the basis of his hallucinations and lead to his becoming a pariah within the Princeton community and at MIT. Unfortunately, John is trained to find and analyze patterns everywhere which is why he’s such a brilliant mathematician, but this ability is what feeds his delusions, too. He believes that man is “capable of as much atrocity as he has imagination” and sees threats within numbers as he works to break codes (page 22). As John’s disease progresses he becomes more paranoid and delusional and ultimately has a breakdown.

After initiating psychiatric treatment it becomes clear that John’s secret file drops, identifying hidden codes in journals and trading gunfire with Russian operatives were all hallucinations. John could function when just Marcee and Charles were his hallucinations as he loved them and was comforted by their presence, but Parcher and his secret missions were destructive of his personality and kept John from living his life and being able to work. As Parcher warned: “I told you attachments were dangerous. You chose to marry the girl. I did nothing to prevent it. The best way to ensure everyone’s safety is for you to continue your work”. “Well, I’ll just quit”.“You won’t”. “Why would I not”? “Because I keep the Russians from knowing you work for us. You quit working for me, I quit working for you” (page 32). In order for John to function in his world he had to learn to ignore the presence of Marcee and Charles even though he loved them and likewise, he had to try to ignore/avoid eye contact with Parcher. Because John’s gift in mathematics and life long work were related to recognizing and analyzing codes, the hallucinations involving Parcher and his secret missions were difficult for John to ignore and eliminate from his mind.

The issues confronting John Nash in A Beautiful Mind are not unique to him. People who watch the film can relate to his mental illness and hallucinations because at some point in all of our lives we have difficulty defining what is reality and what may be in our imagination. The difference between the hallucinations experienced by Nash and those without overt mental illness is the way they are perceived and treated within our society. An example of this is demonstrated in the book No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers, the father of two sons with schizophrenia. He chronicles how the mentally ill are treated medically, legally, and in society. Powers writes that people with schizophrenia do not receive the treatment they need, often because they do not believe that they are truly ill. Many people who are diagnosed with schizophrenic symptoms deny that they have the disease, and this introduces many important social, legal and ideological conflicts. “He was hearing voices. We know that. We could watch him through the kitchen window as he walked out of the house and toward the hot tub that he loved to sit in.

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We could see him climb into the hot tub and sit down, his profile was to us, and we could see him laugh. He would laugh, he would giggle…. Something was talking to him, and I think because of that happy response we saw from him we told ourselves that he had made friends with the voices, that the voices were beckoning him, they were coaxing him into their world, and that he finally decided to join them” (Powers). Powers personifies the brain of his son, where he says that someone is talking to him, showing that people with schizophrenia are often kidnapped by their own brain. The reaction of society to those with mental illness has been to place them in institutions, possibly for their own safety, but maybe also to remove them from society. Powers discusses the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill that occurred in the 1960s.

As a result of this deinstitutionalization, many mentally ill patients failed to receive the treatment that they needed, often leading to social withdrawal, living on the streets and ultimately crime or imprisonment. In another report titled, “Hallucinations Kidnap the Senses in the Collected Schizophrenias”, Esmé Weijun Wang describes her journey of being a schizophrenic and how it affected her life. “So my first hallucination that I ever had was actually when I was in the shower in college, and I heard a voice very clearly say to me, ‘I hate you.’ And it was so clear to me, and this is why I say that hallucinations really effectively kidnap the senses, because it’s exactly like someone is standing next to you and saying this thing to you. And I started thinking, oh, is there something going on with the pipes, where I can hear maybe something on the floor below me, or maybe the floor above me, but it didn’t really make sense to me physically, so I started thinking, maybe this is a hallucination, and it kind of went off from there… and then later I started having delusions in which I was believing that my loved ones were replaced by doubles, or replaced by robots — so it’s been an interesting journey” (Wang). This demonstrates that Wang, similar to Nash was never sure as to what constitutes reality and what is a hallucination, a trait that most people with schizophrenia have in common.

However, even those without the psychiatric diagnosis of schizophrenia may experience ideological hallucinations at some point in their life. “The hallucination is convincingly real, produced by the same neural pathways as actual perception, and yet no one else seems to see it. And then you are forced to the conclusion that something — something unprecedented — is happening in your own brain or mind. Are you going insane, getting dementia, having a stroke” (Sacks)? The article titled Seeing Things? Hearing Things? Many of us do makes the argument that everyone has some sort of hallucination that results in their questioning their own sanity.

While Nash’s hallucinations have consequences for all aspects of his life including making him socially withdrawn into his math, it is clear that to a much lesser extent, hallucinations occur in “normal” people as well, and may not have the same consequences. In an article titled Hallucinations are Everywhere we see how experiences such as hearing voices are leading psychologists to question how all people perceive reality. “If you’ve ever felt the buzz of your phone against your thigh only to realize the sensation was entirely in your head, you’ve had a sensory perception of something that isn’t real. And that, according to the psychologist Philip Corlett, is what makes a hallucination” (Frankel). The article describes that a hallucination has occurred in everyone because it is merely just an expectation that you have in your brain. Everyone has had moments where they believed that their phone has gone off, but in reality it was what they expected and desired to happen rather than what actually happened. In an experiment that was done, participants were expected to hear a tone after being shown a flashlight, and if they thought that they heard a tone, they were told to press a button.

The experiment showed that people who regularly have hallucinations pressed the button more often. This is because the brain is, in effect lying. When the participant’s expectation is so strong from being taught to hear a tone, the subject perceives the actual thing, which is a hallucination that plays the tone that they wanted to hear. Thus, everyone’s brain is capable of “lying” to themself, as it makes up its own belief system of what is expected to happen, thus blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. Even Alicia is capable of believing something that is not truly there as when John asks her to “pick a shape” in the sky full of stars. She picks an umbrella and he traces an umbrella with his finger pointing to the sky. Alicia is convinced of this as a true constellation and can visualize it even though it is not there. While she is expected to be rational she allows her mind to believe in what she sees.

The real world consequences of hallucinations that we all may experience are a lesser degree than what Nash experiences having severe schizophrenia, but they are important. We all may maintain a belief that is not founded in reality but provides a source of security for us. This may cause us to be withdrawn for social connection similar to Nash’s social awkwardness. The consequences for Nash are more severe. As he progresses with his psychiatric illness, he starts to look like a mentally ill person. He is disheveled, hunched over, fearful, and paranoid, clutching his briefcase for dear life. He engages in self mutilation to try and remove the chip that he believes was implanted in his forearm. However, he learns that his hallucinations are not real even though he can’t get rid of them. He realizes Marcee and Charles never get older and therefore are just figments of his imagination. In John Nash’s world, his behavior was accepted as he was allowed to be eccentric due his genius and therefore his symptoms were allowed to go unnoticed until his disease became more severe. As Doctor Rosen explained to him, “your mind is where the problem is”, and this was not a problem that Nash would be able to solve as easily as a mathematics equation (page 49). Alicia also reacts to John’s illness by creating her own illusion. “I force myself to see the man that I married and he becomes that man” (page 42). Even though Alicia does not suffer from schizophrenia, her mind creates its own ideological hallucination for her to adapt to her life situation.

The problem with mental illness in our society that is illustrated in A Beautiful Mind is that schizophrenia is stigmatized. People who have hallucinations and hear voices are scary to people who do not understand that the person with hallucinations has an illness that is really no different than having any other medical condition except that this one affects the mind. The discomfort in social situations that Nash endures helps in his process of attaining success with mathematics. People in these types of situations learn to push through and control this, allowing for them to succeed in the end. People have alway reacted differently to those with mental illness as compared with obvious medical conditions such as heart disease. We treat heart disease with pills or procedures but those patients don’t scare us.

In contrast, people with mental illness are not predictable and hallucinations may lead to erratic and dangerous behavior which is why society has typically institutionalized the mentally ill, to make it “safer” for others rather than try to understand the nature of the mental illness. Nash definitely exhibits dangerous and unpredictable behavior when being controlled by his hallucinations such as when he forgets to take his baby out of the bathtub, or has violent outbursts in public when being tormented by the hallucinatory figures. He ultimately acknowledges that he will need to live with his hallucinations, but he learns to ignore them. He realizes that “everybody is haunted by their past” (page 57).

In watching A Beautiful Mind, we realize that we all are capable of experiencing ideological hallucinations. These may cloud our ability to make the correct choices in life, but may have been ingrained in our inner psyche from early in life and remains as a source of security as we grow older and face new conflicts. We all have various mechanisms that we use to cope with the harsh realities of life. Some of these are based in reality while others may be a reaction within our brain. There are many instances in which we believe something is true even when we know that it is not the case. In Nash’s case, this was an extreme mental illness manifested as paranoid schizophrenia.

As he accurately said “I think that’s what it’s like with all our dreams and our nightmares, Martin, we’ve got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive” (page 57). A beautiful mind is one that is rational, seeking the truth with proof and not relying on a previously held belief. It is clear that our minds do not always function in this way. John Nash has the mental ability to rationally solve complex math but cannot escape hallucinations that make him a social outcast. We all have experiences in which we may not act rationally but the degree to which this occurs does not ostracize us from our social connections.

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