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Thinking, from "A Beautiful Mind," a movie starring Russell Crowe

Subthemes: Schools and Education, Scientific Method, Insanity Conspiracy Theories and Urban Legends

A Beautiful Mind depicts the rise and psychological collapse of the American mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. Played by Russell Crowe, Nash gained fame early for an astonishing discovery in game theory, the Nash Equilibrium. But his mind betrayed him. Here is a harrowing scene from the movie where Nash has slipped into schizophrenia. Nevertheless, Nash’s mathematical insight was a triumph of powerful and creative thinking, which brings to mind several subthemes.

Schools and Education: Nash was a graduate student in mathematics at Princeton University. In pursuit of a doctorate, he and others like him learn a discipline and refine their thinking tools. The years students spend in school may (or may not cram them with facts, but may prove less effective at teaching them how to reason clearly with those facts. A few subjects boast that they strengthen reasoning, such as geometry and Latin, but most teachers strive more to impart understanding of the material than to enhance cognitive skills. School does not increase a student’s intelligence; it mostly makes the student more informed and perhaps more subtle in their thinking.

Scientific Method: Significant advances in the sciences rely on prolonged, profound mental effort. A discipline of thinking that many credit Francis Bacon with originating, science would have scientists propose a hypothesis (theory), gather facts objectively and representatively, and then test whether the findings support the hypothesis (and how decisively). Scientists publish their precedent research, methodologies, and findings so that others can critique them and extend them. To that end, Karl Popper advocated an idea related to scientific thinking: falsification. For a theory to be considered scientific, it must be able to be tested and conceivably proven false. Thinking is the handmaiden of science.

Insanity: Nash fell into schizophrenia, a terrible condition that first started showing symptoms in the 1950s while he was in his twenties. He ultimately made major contributions in mathematics, including calculations of decision-making and extensions of game theory. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons only partially understood, he became unable to control his thoughts. In the parlance of past years, he went “insane.” People plunge into multiple personalities, obsessional preoccupations, pathological behavior, detachment from reality, inability to handle daily necessities, and paranoia. At worse, no cures are known for their plight, only institutionalization, because if you can’t think sensibly, you can’t get by in the normal world. An asylum with heavy medication and perhaps electroshock therapy or lobotomization, as depicted in the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” may be your plight.

Conspiracy Theories and Urban Legends: Nash succumbed to visions spawned in the twists and turns of his lost mind. People who think based on facts and logic do not fall for outrageous pseudo-explanations that can’t be disproved: the Pope came from Mars, a vast voter fraud took place, or vaccinations contain microchips. Urban legends, such as alligators in the sewers of New York or Area 51 and UFOs, fall into a more benign category than conspiracy hallucinations but are spawned of the same perspective. Unthinking sorts grasp for explanations online (not so much from books of the confusing happenings around them, and may even relish the titillation and absurdities of lizard people, UFO abductions, faked collapses of the Twin Towers, and Hitler still alive in Paraguay. What they fail to do is employ Bayesian reasoning or, more simply, think.

 

A brilliant mathematician tragically lost his mental compass; he slipped from reality; let alone the basic capability to think in the real world. For a period of time, Nash fell from a math genius to an asylum resident unable to connect to what was happening around him.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept of Thinking, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.

We invite you to read about other movies discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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