Integral Psychology in Ron Howards Cinematic Portrayal of John Nash

Academy award-winner Russell Crowe starred as John Nash in Ron Howard’s film, “A Beautiful Mind.” The movie is an expos of the Nash’s life; chronicling his achievements as a mathematician and more importantly, the horrific and grueling journey he underwent with schizophrenia. His genius lent itself to pattern recognition, which would eventually be identified as the stimulant for the majority of his hallucinations. The nature of schizophrenia is frightening and overpowering; and his story is an important case study for the disorder. His illness, when approached from a Western psychological method, is significantly different in character when approached from Ken Wilber’s integral psychology model. Mathematician John Nash suffered from a form of schizophrenia which can be approached from both Western and Eastern methods of psychology for analysis and is well documented in the semi-fictional, cinematographic biography, A Beautiful Mind.

According to the film, Nash was born in Bluefield, West Virginia. He came from humble beginnings; the son of a school teacher and electrical engineer who did the best they could to nurture his genius from a young age. When he was a senior in high school, he won the prestigious Westinghouse scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of technology. He graduated in 1948 with a masters’ degree after only three years. He moved onto Princeton where he eventually published the “Nash Equilibrium” and game theory which would win him the Nobel Prize years later. Initially, he had planned to go into chemical engineering, but his love and proficiency for mathematics soon focused his study. After receiving his PhD, he became one of the youngest professors to ever teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He spent his years there before his psychotic break continually striving for the elusive breakthrough that would make him the greatest mathematician of his time. His contributions in reality were in fact, quite impressive. In addition to his game theories and the “Nash Equilibrium,” he had inadvertently (and independently) proved Brouwer’s fixed point theorem as an undergraduate at Carnegie. Later on, he would break one of Riemann’s most perplexing mathematical conundrums. Nash provided breakthrough after breakthrough in mathematics during the course of his career (Fonesca 1).

Nash was an extremely introverted man who hardly ever attended class at Princeton and for the most part considered himself far superior to intellect and character of his peers. He was incredibly driven, to the point of egotism, but simultaneously extremely insecure. Genius is often said to be accompanied by eccentricity, and his quirks developed long before they exploded in mental breakdown. Such quirks, however, often served to isolate him from his community and stimulated many unpleasant social interactions which may have mandated a psychological coping mechanism like creating friends. For all his oddities, though, he did manage to secure the hearts of a few people close to him. His marriage with Alicia, one of his students at MIT, turned out to be his salvation. Though his personality was marked by introversion, intelligence and quiet, focused study, he still experienced basic human drives like sexual appetite and of course, his ongoing craving for recognition and acceptance.

When the break came, it was characterized by consistent and permanent auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations. He had been experiencing the hallucinations for years, and was living in a world where the characters he was imagining were among the most important people in his life. According to Howard’s film (which has been praised for its fidelity to Nash’s biography), Nash maintained three permanent hallucinations: a best friend, the best friend’s niece, and Parcher, a secret government agent who was employing’ Nash for the sort of high-profile cryptography in the important’ job he craved. The job’ required him to identify series of complex codes in the nation’s magazines, and Nash began an insane construction of patterns whose skeletons he left littered and posted in his locked office. No one questioned him, as the orders came from a high-clearance,’ but when Parcher began to lead Nash in high risk Russian-spy chases, Nash developed a heightened paranoia that isolated him even from his wife. Eventually, his fear of being captured by the Russians manifested in the disorganized speech and erratic fits of enraged behavior characteristic of schizophrenia, and only then was he admitted to a psychiatric ward for treatment.

Needless to say, the illness had a huge impact on his life. After treatment, he was put on medication that would greatly impair if not altogether obviate his ability to lead a normal life. He stopped taking the medication and had a relapse where he almost killed his infant son and hit his wife, and only after this was he able to begin to confront his hallucinations. His case is unique in that he was actually able to confront the figments of his imagination and eventually push them into silence, but they haunted his steps his entire life. Schizophrenia robbed him of what could have been the most fruitful years of his genius and took an enormous toll on his wife before it was under control enough for him to return to work and regain semblances of normality.

In the 1950s, the psychiatrists and neurologists who dealt with Nash’s case were only able to approach his illness from a Western perspective. In this model, they diagnosed him with general schizophrenia and saw the disorder as a biological illness that could be cured.’ They understood the nature of the illness and its symptoms, and they held a fairly thorough comprehension of Nash’s lack of control and emotional response to the situation. Their prognosis was that Nash would suffer from the hallucinations unless he was subjected to the prescribed electro-shock therapy for an extended period of time and took certain, powerful medications. The medications, however, would contribute to a reduced thinking capacity and dullness that Nash was unaccustomed to and triggered his journey for self-healing. There was no room in their diagnosis or outlook for any form of self-healing; and they probably had trouble explaining his ability to manage his illness. When the psychiatrist first approached Nash after his relapse, he told him self-healing would be practically impossible. Western psychology may see Nash’s success purely as a product of his great intellect and mental capacity.

However, if Nash’s case had been approached from Ken Wilber’s modern model of integral psychology; his diagnosis and prognosis may have been very different. Wilber developed a four-quadrant system which categorizes all the psychological disorders and developmental theories that have ever been academically validated. The four quadrants are comprised of the interior-individual, the exterior-individual, the interior-collective, and the exterior-collective (each relates the conscious self to the unconscious self or to the conscious or unconscious society of which the self is member). Disorders may be located anywhere on the four quadrant plane; depending on their presentation as being externally or internally controlled, and their identification with an individual or society at large. The model acts as a bridge between the Western psychology described above and an Eastern one, as it harbors both the external, objective/positivistic ideas and concepts of psychology (Western); as well as the internal, more subjective and constructivist aspects of the human mind (Eastern). Juxtaposed; the two viewpoints provide a much more holistic view of mental illness and psychology in general.

For example, Nash’s schizophrenia is much more specific and subject to particular distinctions when observed through the lens of Wilber’s paradigm. Application of the four-quadrant system mandates a closer look at the presentation of Nash’s madness.’ Schizophrenia can be most broadly classified by an ability to form or maintain personal, physical or abstract boundaries; a psychological disorder characterized by recurring sensory hallucinations. Also, schizophrenics are often victims of their own limbic system: the dopamine secreted by their nucleus accumbens during a psychotic episode triggers an addictive neural-net which, quite literally, fosters a neurological and chemical addiction to their psychosis inside the brain (hence Nash’s hesitation and reluctance to take his medication). Approaching the patient with this epistemic awareness of the potential diagnosis, in addition to asserting the open mind Wilber’s model requires, psychologists may find a few disparities that potentially disqualify Nash from a classic Schizophrenia diagnosis. Although Nash experienced stable, consistent hallucinations; he was unlike many other schizophrenic in that he did not indulge in total isolation and withdrawal. He was not grossly disorganized; and he did not exhibit catatonic behavior. Though he did prefer solitude, he was not entirely bereft of social interaction most supported by his experience of love with his wife, Alicia.

Additionally, many schizophrenics are completely indifferent to praise and criticism (Nash was most certainly not; on the contrary, his life was directed in the pursuit of accolades), and often they neither enjoy nor desire sex (again, Nash experienced healthy sexual desires). Seeing these more specific discrepancies in symptoms, Nash’s illness would be placed in a different place on Wilber’s model than most schizophrenics a generalization which is now defined as Schizoid Personality Disorder, and is more pervasive part of the patient’s personality than Nash’s illness was. Nash was a victim of what modern psychology identifies as Paranoid Schizophrenia; a delusional illness which is self-regulated and in which the consciousness exerts some degree of control, even if that control is at first almost impossible to procure.

This key difference places Nash’s schizophrenia in Wilber’s interior-individual quadrant; unlike Schizoid Personality Disorder, which would find its home in the exterior-individual quadrant because it is an overpowering force of neurology that is beyond the patient’s conscious control. Seen from this angle, the contributing factors to Nash’s madness’ are more easily pinpointed. He was perhaps victim of his genius, yes psychologists were able to identify Nash’s profound proclivity and skill for pattern recognition as a direct stimulant to his hallucinations. This would be classified an objective, exterior factor beyond his control: his intellect was a physical part of him not under his conscious ability to regulate. His intellect, then, is one causal factor of his schizophrenia, classified in the exterior-individual quadrant. His obsessive need for acceptance would fall under interior-individual; as this is a subjective motivation he was capable of and eventually managed to standardize and control. Past, negative experiences in social interactions such as being made fun of and isolated at school, or being punished for not attending class and studying on his own would fall as contributing factors in the exterior-collective quadrant. Finally, his own failures at modeling appropriate social behavior could also be a factor which caused his schizophrenia, and that would be categorized in Wilber’s interior-collective quadrant for his personal imposition of behavior on society, under his conscious control.

Clearly, approaching Nash’s schizophrenia from Wilber’s comprehensive, systematic model is invaluable to understanding the true nature of his illness. If it had been available when he was in treatment; perhaps the horrors of electro-shock therapy and the damages of psychotropic medications could have been avoided. Nash’s triumph over his psychological setback, or at least the one Russell Crow reenacted on his behalf in “A Beautiful Mind,” was incredible: especially when the treatment he received was so negative and damaging. How many people with less intellect or impetus to engage in self-healing have been lost to emotionless, dull lives as a result of being misdiagnosed by Western psychology? Wilber’s model not only helped to identify Nash’s illness, but it also provided a pragmatic venue for organizing both the contributing factors of his disorder and its symptoms. If Nash or his psychiatrists had been privy to such a thorough, procedural outline of his case, perhaps the self-healing he managed to induce could have been better facilitated.

Works Cited:

John Nash by Goncalo L. Fonesca: