John Nash and the establishment of reality
March 22, 2016 2:33 AM   Subscribe

In the film A Beautiful Mind, John Nash struggles with realistic hallucinations of imaginary people. At one point, a representative from the Nobel Prize approaches Nash, and Nash checks with a student familiar to him to verify that the Nobel rep is real. How would someone in Nash's position know that the student was real? How would such a person establish the reality of anything?

I'm not interested in a discussion of the accuracy of the film's representation of Nash's life. Rather, I'm interested in the idea of how a person who has experienced sustained and long-term hallucinations could ever trust their judgement about anything.

I'm also not primarily interested in abstract discussions of solipsism and the 'brain in a vat' thought experiment. Rather, I'm interested to learn about practical treatments for someone who has paranoid schizophrenia and who has somehow realised that some of the individuals with whom they interact have been hallucinations. From that person's point-of-view, how could they be convinced of the reality of anything, after experiencing such realistic hallucinations?
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Religion & Philosophy (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sure, everything can be a delusion. But practically speaking if you suffer from mental illness, there are several well-known types of delusion. Two of the biggest are Delusions of Grandeur and Delusions of Persecution.

So Nash was probably using a form of Bayesian reasoning. He knew he suffered from delusions of grandeur in the past. Getting a Nobel definitely falls in that category. So he asks a student to add additional facts to this perception. He still may be misperceiving that conversation too. But adding this 'normal' encounter serves to lower the probability (though not eliminate) that it is all still part of a Grandiose delusion.

You could also argue that the act itself of seeking confirmation helps to establish his sanity. People with persistent delusions do not doubt them. If you tell someone with persecution complex that they are not being persecuted, they'll just decide you are part of the conspiracy.
posted by vacapinta at 3:52 AM on March 22, 2016 [14 favorites]

Nothing to do with Nash but my personal experience with my dad (schizophrenic) during a psychotic break is that one or two people bind him to reality and he will question them about the demons/God/angels that he is hearing/seeing. When my dad is medicated (and he is super great about being compliant with his medication...he's only gone off his medication twice in the last 30 years which is unbelievably great for a schizophrenic) he is aware that some of the things he deals with daily aren't really there or that he is having some weirdass thoughts.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 4:18 AM on March 22, 2016 [11 favorites]

On the reality angle - I think for my dad it has to do with how much time he's spent with a if someone has been around daily or for a long time then he associates that as being real and trustworthy. However, he also associates his conversations with God as real but it's a different level of real for him and he's quite aware that it's not normal and that people think he's crazy on that level. He has an awareness that people believe that he believes those conversations are happening but that people don't actually believe that those conversation exist in reality...if that makes any sense.

On a daily medicated basis my dad would believe it if he asked someone if there was a demon in the room with him and they said no. During a psychotic break he wouldn't believe anyone but would maybe use people as a calming factor. That shit is very real to him.

Crazy is a hard thing to explain to people that haven't experienced it up close and personal.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 4:25 AM on March 22, 2016 [11 favorites]

Read Girl, Interrupted. It's a memoir by a woman who suffered/suffers from schizophrenia and had vivid hallucinations, and at one point she answers this very question in some detail. (It's a good read, too!)
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:47 AM on March 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

The student may have been familiar to him, enough to trust as outside the realm of hallucination.
posted by nickggully at 5:56 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

How would such a person establish the reality of anything?

To answer your question, I think you're assuming something that isn't quite right. Not that I have any experience with these sorts of mental issues, but I'd have to imagine, and haven't seen this contradicted yet here in the replies yet or elsewhere, is that sufferants of hallucinations or delusions don't, or generally don't, have their whole sensory apparatus taken over.

That is, what I am experiencing now, is *generally* what everyone else in reality is perceiving, though there might be one or two exceptions. So although I suffer from hallucinations, if I've been teaching a class a for a few weeks, and everyone in my class agrees that I am a teacher, and that everyone else belongs in the class, then I can feel confident that everything is as it is, because I don't suffer from an affliction that would have me hallucinate something extensive enough such that I am seeing myself do something I'm not, being somewhere where I am not, being with people who are not.

Or even if I'm out on the street in an unfamiliar area, I can collect a group of five individuals and ask them if I have selected out five individuals. If there's consensus that I have, then the most likely case is not that I've hallucinated these five individuals, because this is something not typically in the purview of my illness, but rather that I've actually selected out five, real individuals.
posted by Dalby at 1:30 PM on March 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

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