Does `A Beautiful Mind’ Reveal the Real John Nash?

Most winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics remain much more obscure than John Nash, who along with his wife, recently died in a tragic car crash.

Nash shot to fame following the Russell Crowe film, ‘‘A Beautiful Mind,’’ based loosely on Sylvia Nasar’s biography, charting the great mathematician’s struggle with a psychotic disorder.

Donald Capps is professor of pastoral psychology (Emeritus) and has investigated John Nash’s struggle with mental illness possibly more than anyone else in the world.

His academic papers include “John Nash’s Pre-delusional Phase: A Case of Acute Identity Confusion,” “John Nash’s Delusional Decade: A Case of Paranoid Schizophrenia,” “John Nash’s Post-delusional Phase: A Case of Transformed Narcissism,” all published in the academic journal, Pastoral Psychology; and “John Nash: Three Phases in the Career of a Beautiful Mind,” and “John Nash, Game Theory and the Schizophrenic Brain,” both published in the Journal of Religion and Health.

His book “Understanding Psychosis” (2010) concludes with a chapter on Nash titled, “Achieving Equilibrium: Personal Strengths and Social Supports.”

Objections to Film

Capps cites objections to the film, “A Beautiful Mind,” from which most people will know of John Nash, including the grounds that Hollywood’s handling of the mathematician’s delusional experiences are inaccurate as his delusions were auditory, not visual.

Key events not in the movie include past traumas that may account for the later development of Nash’s psychological problems and make them more understandable psychologically, as opposed to bizarrely inexplicable.

When Nash was 15, he and two other boys were messing about with homemade explosives, but one friend was killed when a pipe bomb exploded in his lap. Nash and the third boy were not there at the time, but the third boy’s parents placed their son in a boarding school, as if to shield him from Nash’s influence.

For an introverted character, the trauma of losing two friends was, in Donald Capps’ s view, profound and included survivor guilt.

The second key trauma, Capps argues, appears to be when Nash’s father ordered his son to marry a woman with whom he had a child out of wedlock, on the grounds that this act was the honorable thing to do, but Nash did not comply.

John Nash Sr. died of a massive heart attack two months later—and Nash’s mother attributed his death to the emotional effects of his discovery that he had an illegitimate grandchild.

Nash then married Alicia Larde who became pregnant with his child and it is around that time that he began to become so psychotic that he was hospitalized for severe mental illness. His son, John Charles,  also suffered from schizophrenia and continued to live with his parents.

Some psychiatrists would contend this occurrence perhaps lends weight to a genetic vulnerability in the case of John Nash’s own disorder, on top of which traumatic events might have more impact.

Religious Delusions Omitted

The film ‘‘A Beautiful Mind,’’ emphasized his letter writing to various foreign embassies and his delusional involvement in claimed secret political activities, but neglects what may be more important, his religious delusions, that he was a ‘‘messianic figure,’’ to replace the Pope as the earthly sovereign over all Christendom.

Donald Capps contends that this delusion may be understood in light of his wife Alicia being a Roman Catholic and Nash refusing to be married in a Catholic ceremony. Capps points out that the mathematician believed that his own photograph on the cover of Life magazine had been disguised to look as though it was a photo of Pope John.

In the letter he wrote declining the offer of a chair at the University of Chicago, he said that he was soon to become the Emperor of Antarctica. Nash later said that he took these delusions seriously because they came to him ‘‘the same way’’ his mathematical ideas had come.

Order of Numbers

Capps points out that Nash’s interest in numerology could be because of the attraction of the ‘order of numbers’ when your internal world falls apart.

Capps quotes an example of Nash’s obsession with numerology – he once phoned the mathematics department chairman and beginning with Nikita Khrushchev’s birthdate, working through the Dow Jones average, he eventually came out at the end with the chairman’s Social Security number.

It is this tendency to see connections and significance in the random that partly characterizes psychosis and schizophrenia – a diagnosis attached to John Nash.

But Donald Capps contends that schizophrenic thinking may also explain Nash’s creative genius, as well as when he was too ill to work productively.

Does `A Beautiful Mind’ Reveal the Real John Nash?

Raj Persaud, FRCPsych, M.Sc M.Phil

Raj Persaud is joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation,’ which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world. Download it free from this link as well as here.His books are available at:


APA Reference
Persaud, R. (2015). Does `A Beautiful Mind’ Reveal the Real John Nash?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 16, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Jun 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 Jun 2015
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