A Beautiful Mind: Was Mathematician John Nash Autistic?

A Beautiful Mind

John Nash was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. Was he on the autism spectrum?

By Nils Skudra

One of the movies I’ve recently watched is Ron Howard’s 2001 biographical film A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe as the acclaimed mathematician John Nash. I felt this film would be a perfect candidate for a review since Crowe’s portrayal conveys some traits that characterize Asperger’s Syndrome. A plausible case could therefore be made that while John Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, he may have also had Asperger’s Syndrome.

The film opens with a young John Nash beginning his graduate studies at Princeton University as a co-recipient of the Carnegie Scholarship for mathematics. Upon meeting his classmates, he immediately displays a tendency to speak his mind directly, telling fellow co-recipient Martin Hansen (portrayed by Josh Lucas) that he has studied Martin’s thesis essays and found nothing original or innovative in them.

With this diminishing statement, Nash quickly alienates Martin, sparking a rivalry that lasts throughout their graduate studies. This early example of Nash’s lack of social etiquette could conceivably be construed as a sign of Asperger’s Syndrome since Asperger’s individuals, due to their different neurological functioning, often lack inhibitions about speaking their minds directly, even though this might manifest itself in inappropriate or offensive statements that could potentially alienate other people.

During this early point in the film, Nash also meets his roommate Charles Herman (portrayed by Paul Bettany), a literature student who practically becomes Nash’s only close friend at Princeton due to his social awkwardness. While they are having a conversation on the roof of their dorm building, Charles observes, “Maybe you’re just better with the old integers than with people,” to which Nash replies, “The truth is I don’t like people much, and they don’t much like me.”

This admission lends further support to the likelihood of Nash having Asperger’s Syndrome since aversion to social interaction is often found among individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome – although there is a misconception that they don’t want to engage with other people, most Asperger’s individuals are in fact interested in social interaction but struggle with the expected social etiquette. Consequently, many individuals with Asperger’s are introverted due to concerns about how others will perceive them.

Nash’s overriding goal is to come up with an original idea for his graduate dissertation, and in pursuing this goal his idiosyncrasies further come into play, earning him ridicule from his classmates. For example, when they observe him studying a group of pigeons, one asks, “Making a reverse constitutional?” to which Nash replies, “I’m hoping to extract an algorithm to define their movement.” Martin then challenges him to a game of checkers, during which he taunts Nash about the possibility of failure to devise an original idea.

Nash’s visual orientation and attention to detail is demonstrated in this scene as he keenly observes the alignment of the black and white checkers – upon losing the game, he remarks, “You should not have won. I had the first move. My play was perfect.” This ability to think visually, with a strong orientation toward detail, is another Asperger’s trait that will later be a great asset to Nash, but at this point it only contributes further to the ostracism and bullying that he suffers at the hands of his peers.

The bullying that Nash’s peers inflict upon him also manifests itself in taking advantage of his social awkwardness and goading him into situations that will have an embarrassing outcome. For example, when Nash and his classmates are in a bar, they point out an attractive female student sitting at the counter and prod Nash into approaching her and asking her out. However, when Nash sits next to her, he is completely silent for a few minutes until she asks him “Maybe you want to buy me a drink?” Nash then answers, “I don’t know exactly what to say in order for you to have intercourse with me, but could we assume that I’ve said all that, I mean, essentially we’re talking about fluid exchange, right? So, could we just go straight to the sex?” She then abruptly slaps him and walks away saying, “Having a nice night, asshole!” while his classmates laugh at him.

During this period, Charles proves to be a source of comfort for Nash as he despairs over his struggle to find an original idea. At one point, Charles convinces him to simply shove the table with all of his notes out the glass window of their dorm room, providing comic relief that temporarily lifts the burden from Nash’s mind. His search for an original idea finally bears fruit when he and his classmates see a blonde female student arrive with her friends at the bar. His visual orientation comes into play at this moment, as he visualizes the different scenarios that could play out, and he devises a solution that would benefit everyone: “If we all go for the blonde and block each other, not a single one of us is going to get her. So, then we go for her friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because no one likes to be second choice. But what if none of us goes for the blonde? We won’t get in each other’s way and we won’t insult the other girls. It’s the only way to win.”

This gives Nash the idea for his dissertation, and subsequently he formulates the Nash equilibrium, an original concept of governing dynamics that finally wins him recognition and respect among his peers.

After completing graduate school, Nash becomes a professor at MIT and is recruited by the Pentagon to crack encrypted Soviet telecommunications. In this capacity, Nash’s orientation toward detail and visual thinking proves highly valuable, as the numbers appear and form a visual pattern in his mind until he finally determines which numbers will crack the code, enabling him to plot these points on a map and provide information on where Soviet messages are arriving. For many individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, visual thinking and detail orientation are unique skills which enable them to find information that may not be immediately clear to other people, something which is also demonstrated by Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor miniseries. In addition, since Asperger’s individuals tend to focus very narrowly on their field of specialization, these skills are especially helpful when applied to that particular area of interest.

Nash also displays a lack of empathy in his social interactions, which is another common trait of Asperger’s Syndrome. During a classroom scene in which Nash closes the window due to the loud drilling by construction workers outside, one student asks, “Can’t we leave one open, professor? It’s really hot, sir,” to which Nash replies, “Your comfort comes second to my ability to hear my own voice.”

This lack of concern for the students’ comfort exemplifies the difficulties that Asperger’s individuals often have with showing empathy as part of their social awkwardness, and therefore this scenario lends further credence to the case for Nash having Asperger’s Syndrome. However, when student Alicia Larde (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly) opens the window and convinces the construction crew to temporarily work somewhere else so that the students can have air without disruption, an impressed Nash observes, “As you will find in multi-variable calculus, there is often a number of solutions for any given problem.”

Nash soon falls in love with Alicia and begins dating her, finally mustering the courage to make an awkward marriage proposal. Alicia is moved by his directness and happily accepts. However, their marriage takes a dark turn when Nash is hospitalized in a psychiatric institution by Dr. Rosen (portrayed by Christopher Plummer), who informs Alicia that her husband suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, characterized by delusional episodes in which Nash talks to figures who only exist in his mind – it is thus made clear that Charles Herman and Nash’s Defense Department supervisor William Parcher (portrayed by Ed Harris) are merely figments of his imagination. From this point onward, Nash’s condition takes a toll on his marriage, as the medication makes him groggy and unresponsive, and the delusions reassert themselves when he neglects to take it. Alicia thus struggles to support her husband while trying to maintain her sanity in coping with his potentially dangerous behavior.

A Beautiful Mind is undoubtedly one of Russell Crowe’s most outstanding performances, as he brilliantly captures John Nash’s idiosyncrasies, intellectual genius and mental instability. Jennifer Connelly also superbly conveys Alicia Nash’s endurance and resolution in helping her husband gain a measure of control over his mental health challenges so that he may lead a successful career. Crowe makes a compelling and plausible case that Nash may indeed have had Asperger’s, in light of his social difficulties and his unique intellectual skills. But the film also profoundly illustrates the importance of providing compassion and strong family support for individuals with paranoid schizophrenia. By receiving such support, these individuals can thrive as productive members of society while managing the challenges of their condition, just as John Nash demonstrated in his life.

Nils Skudra and Jackson

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

One reply on “A Beautiful Mind: Was Mathematician John Nash Autistic?”
  1. says: Louis M.

    Hi Nils, great review. I also think John Nash was an Aspie. A childhood friend of mine was a bright mathematician and suffered from depression and some paranoia, if you’ve seen “A beautiful mind” you’ve met my friend. I think my friend was also on the spectrum. Sadly my friend did not meet someone who could help him – he is not doing too well today.
    Two months ago, I was diagnosed as Asperger at 58. This explained many things in my life, including why my best friend was someone like John Nash!

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