Aspire to make yours a beautiful mind

March 28, 2002|By Peter E. Dans

A BEAUTIFUL Mind won the Oscar for best picture, justifiably so. The film has a beginning, a middle and an end, along with superb acting.

What makes it stand out, though, is the respect shown for viewers' intelligence. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman poignantly chronicle Nobelist John Nash's teetering over the line of sanity while interacting with the inhabitants of his real and delusional worlds. Mr. Nash is hardly depicted as heroic. Yet some have criticized the film for not being more faithful to the truth.

True, Mr. Nash's portrayal as decidedly heterosexual ignores his apparent homosexuality and his vice squad arrest in a Muscle Beach men's room in 1954. More importantly, his abandonment of his first child and the unwed mother are nowhere mentioned. Instead, we have a moving tribute to his wife at the Nobel Prize ceremony, a beautiful fiction concocted by Mr. Goldsman.

Still, movies are not history lessons, although many take them to be so. They are primarily entertainment and, as such, A Beautiful Mind succeeds admirably.

My problem with the film is the title, derived from the excellent biography by Sylvia Nasar. Mr. Nash is a true genius whose brain has some amazing circuitry but, as for his mind, it's clearly disordered and often ugly. My Webster's defines the mind as "the complex of elements that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons."

This definition elevates rationalism in the same way that IQ tests elevate intellectual genius over other forms of genius.

By this definition, Mr. Nash's mind would be much superior to that of my late brother-in-law, who died of mesothelioma after years of working in a Rhode Island mill.

Lionel was not a great student, but he could analyze a mechanical problem before anyone else and, even better, could solve it. What's more, he was always trying to help someone, including his supposedly bright but inept brother-in-law.

This raises a central question. Despite his overweening pride, arrogance, insensitivity and downright cruelty at times, does Mr. Nash's brilliance qualify his mind to be called "beautiful"? I think not.

This is not to take away from his marvelous accomplishments or that amazing circuitry. Rather, I would accord the label to such minds as those that inhabited Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Maimonides, Aquinas, da Vinci, Francis of Assisi, Jane Austen, Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. The reader could supply others.

Even this, however, contributes to the misconception that only famous people and Nobel Prize winners are worthy of such recognition. Balderdash! In my experience, the minds of some brilliant scientists and "thinkers" have been demonstrably far less beautiful than those of many an anonymous toiler.

Take my immigrant grandmother, who had to drop out of school after the fifth grade to do piecework. She spent her life, in the face of tragedy, holding together a family while working as a cleaning woman into her 60s. She would hardly be considered a candidate for the accolade "a beautiful mind." Yet she was a pragmatic genius to accomplish what she did while simultaneously radiating kindness to those around her.

To me, then, the mind is more than the center of language, reasoning, computation and sensory inputs.

If that's all it was, those artificial intelligence mavens would have a better chance of replacing us. Rather, as the oft-heard expression "a dirty mind" implies, it's the most humanly identifiable reflection of a person's soul.

Probe the mind beyond the easily testable and you discover what characterizes and preoccupies a person, the place where true beauty or ugliness resides.

David Seegal, a medical school teacher with a beautiful mind, was appropriately eulogized by a colleague as being "magnanimous" - that is, possessing a great soul or spirit. Look around you and I bet you'll find a lot of anonymous people who share that trait.

There's no Nobel Prize for it, but it helps make this world a better place, and it's something to which, regardless of our intellectual or material endowments, we can all aspire.

Peter E. Dans is an associate professor of medicine and public health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He also writes a movie column for Pharos, the quarterly journal of Alpha Omega Alpha, the honor medical society.

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