ECONOMIST and mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr., started hearing things when he was young. He became convinced that aliens were communicating through the New York Times, and he rambled through Europe in a vague quest of becoming a refugee. At Princeton University he scribbled late into the night on blackboards, earning him the nickname “The Phantom.”

John Forbes Nash, Jr., during an economic colloquium in Beijing in 2005
John Forbes Nash, Jr., during an economic colloquium in Beijing in 2005

Yet he learned to ignore the voices. He got tired of delusional, irrational thinking, he said. “I think people become mentally ill when they’re somehow not too happy not just after you’ve won the lottery you go crazy. It’s when you don’t win the lottery.”

Schizophrenia typically strikes men in late adolescence and women in their early 20s. Symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and chronic fear.

Delusions and fears led Nash to believe he played a role in a great game among the superpowers.

He viewed others as supporters or opponents and his hospitalization for schizophrenia as a coup for the bad guys. He received a variety of treatments, eventually returning to the academic world.

Nash went on to win science’s version of the biggest prize when he shared a Nobel in economics in 1994.

The actor Russell Crowe portrayed him in the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind. Nash is philosophical about schizophrenia and his struggles. The stigma of mental illness will disappear only when the disease does the same, he said.


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