John Nash has left the building

CC Licensed photo from Wikipedia. Click for source.So goodbye John Nash, brilliant mathematician and beautiful mind, who has sadly just passed away after being involved in a taxi crash with his wife.

Nash was famous for many things, but was probably most well-known for being the subject of the biopic A Beautiful Mind – an Oscar-winning production that sugar-coated the details although mainly stayed true to spirit of Nash’s remarkable story.

Outside of the mainstream media Nash is best known for his work on partial differential equations and game theory – and it is this latter development which has had the biggest impact on society.

Nash won the Nobel prize for developing the Nash equilibrium which is the point in an ongoing interaction (the ‘game’ in ‘game theory’) where everyone has nothing to gain by changing their current strategy.

In Adam Curtis’s documentary series The Trap, Curtis famously argues that Nash’s ideas on game theory were taken up by the radical Sixties psychiatrist R.D. Laing who modelled the family as a self-interested struggle in game theory terms.

It’s a neat idea – Laing’s conflict-ridden model of the family was driven by the paranoid ideas of a man who became psychotic – but there’s not much weight behind it.

Laing certainly did describe the family as conflict-ridden and used game theoretic ideas to describe these interactions, in his book Sanity, Madness and the Family, but Curtis seems to have been wrong about the influence of Nash.

Laing drew on Gregory Bateson’s idea of a ‘double bind’ where two conflicting forms of communicated demand are placed on a family member which, according to Bateson, could lead to psychosis as people are forced to come up with an ‘alternative reality’ that satisfies the incompatible requests.

We now know this is wrong but it was influential at the time and set the scene for wider investigations into family life and how it affects people with psychosis which proved genuinely useful.

But reading these theories, what is most surprising is how Nash’s work isn’t mentioned.

Bateson was in regular contact with game theory pioneers like Norbert Weiner and John von Neumann who would have clearly known about Nash’s discoveries, but Nash is not referenced in either Bateson’s or R.D. Laing’s key works.

I find it unlikely that neither knew about John Nash, not least because he had published papers in very well known journals.

It is possible, however, that neither knew about Nash’s mental health, as Nash had begun to become unwell in 1959 and Sanity, Madness and the Family was published five years later, so perhaps the news about Nash’s psychosis had not filtered through.

But it is also possible that they were aware of what had happened to Nash, and opted to avoid his ideas precisely because he was thought to have become unwell.

Either way, it was a missed opportunity, because the idea of a Nash equilibrium makes perfect sense in terms of arriving at an unhelpful stalemate where no individual can seem to make a positive change – exactly what Laing was describing in families.

Fast forward 50 years, and Nash’s ideas finally have begun to have an impact on the science of psychopathology. After A Beautiful Mind was released, based on Sylvia Nasar’s earlier biography, studies emerged applying game theory and the Nash equilibrium to understanding the psychology and neuroscience of schizophrenia.

After revolutionising economics, social science and mathematics, Nash’s ideas are starting to have an influence on the science of psychosis. A form of intellectual closure, perhaps, that Nash appreciated more than most.
 

Link to excellent obituary in The New York Times.

3 thoughts on “John Nash has left the building”

  1. How do we know that Bateson ideas are wrong now? This ‘double-bind’ theory? That’s quite news for me.

  2. Thanks for mentioning the connection to Bateson and systems thinking in general. But – as the previous commenter mentions – how do we know that Bateson’s ideas were wrong?

    We know for example that the level of conflict in family relations has a lot of influence on relapse rates. And although the ‘double bind’ isn’t a representative of all types of conflicts it does describe a particularly tricky type of communicative impasse. It is also worth noticing that Bateson himself did not always think so very highly of the uses to which his ideas were put – including some of the subsequent thinking and theorizing in the field of family therapy.

    I’m not saying the ideas of double bind and the ‘schizophrenogenic mother’ was right per se, but Bateson’s finger was – I think – pointing to a much broader human problem about thinking, feeling and communication, which is hopefully slowly being rediscovered: That mental illness always is manifesting in a context.

  3. The so-called “science of psychopathology” is almost as scientific as the science of astrology, but with a much shorter, and therefore less legitimate history. How ironic for one of media-medicines’ most beloved straw men, that Nash dies during “National Mental Health Month”. I too,used to believe the spoon-fed pablum of the psychs, before I realized that it’s largely gobbledygook and psychobabble. Breggin’s “Toxic Psychiatry” was my key to unlocking the chains of delusion which the psychs forge on vulnerable, traumatized persons. The lie of psychiatry – its’ essential DRUG RACKET nature, – and its’ status as the most accepted form of pseudoscience ever fabricated, continue to bamboozle, befuddle, drug, shock, and *KILL* far too many. And for you doubters, do you care to explain why the R&D budgets of Pharma are a tiny fraction of the MARKETING budgets? And why there is NO large-scale, *SCIENTIFIC* effort to collect what little real scientific data might be gleaned from the millions of shattered lives the psychs have on their bloody hands? “Dementia praecox, post-cox, intra-cox, psychobabble all….
    But then, even presents from Santa Claus manifest in context. But unlike imaginary “mental illnesses”, at least *SOME* presents from Santa Claus sometimes have *SOME* objective reality….
    And the STIG-MA-SHEEN just keeps on chooglin’….
    ….etc.,etc.,etc.,yada,yada,yada,blah,blah,blah

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