Are Creative Thinkers Crazy?

John F. Nash Jr., a famous mathematician, who got the Nobel in economics, died in a car crash on Saturday at age 86. He was coming back from receiving the Abel Prize in Norway. That’s one of several Nobel-like prizes for mathematics.

The taxicab driver lost control of his vehicle, and collided with a guard rail and then a car frontally. Nash and his wife of sixty years or so, apparently did not wear seat belts. They were ejected, and died. Others survived. Conclusion: don’t be so crazy as not to wear seatbelts.

Nash was famous for contributions to game theory and other mathematics. He found something called the “Nash Equilibrium” in a type of games he studied. I will further here a bit what Nash said about mental illness, and its connection with mathematics.

Establishment Keen To Burn Green Fairy, Lest Too Many Ideas Blossom

Establishment Keen To Burn Green Fairy, Lest Too Many Ideas Blossom

“Economists” were no doubt delighted to have still a new abstruse field of mathematics behind which to hide their complete sell-out to plutocracy. Nash Equilibrium probably could be invoked to explain why High Finance should get all the money in the world, and ten times more. Hence the Nash idolatry?

Just another crazy idea of mine? Not so sure. In the period 1950-1955, John Nash volunteered to work for the NSA, and a correspondence exists (declassified on 2012). One can observe a mind anxious to please the establishment (just the type of minds the establishment loves).

Nash became most widely known because of his mental illness, as portrayed in the book and film “A Beautiful Mind.” Nash said he regained his health by simply rejecting irrational thought… and the neurohormonal changes due to aging (something I explained was at the root of the Dark Side).

However, Nash dared to reveal that an irrational mood could not be separated from mathematical ability. I will dare say that this is a general phenomenon: to be mentally creative means to become mentally disturbed, so that one can be mentally disturbing. Please don’t get disturbed by this perspective.

Nash: “Even when I was mentally disturbed, I had a lot of interest in numbers. I began to think more scientifically as to the years like the 80s, and maybe the later 70s. And so there’s a transition from really having more of an enthusiasm for the numbers, like maybe magical or representing a divine revelation, and just a more scientific appreciation of numbers, and these are not necessarily entirely far apart.” [PBS documentary “A Brilliant Madness.”]

Nash: “The ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

[“A Beautiful Mind,” by Sylvia Nasar.]

Patrice Ayme: Most of my social experience, outside of family, has been with mathematicians. A striking fact, with the latter, is the quasi-divine status they confer to the (extremely theoretical) entities they work on. To most mathematicians, mathematical entities become like divinities to them, and mathematics the only universe worth knowing. It may be necessary to be as involved with something so abstruse.

Nash: “I would not dare to say that there is a direct relation between mathematics and madness, but there is no doubt that great mathematicians suffer from maniacal characteristics, delirium and symptoms of schizophrenia.”

[In “The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics,” by Karl Sabbagh.]

Patrice Ayme: I would not dare say they are crazy, but, no doubt, they are? Once again, to progress in math, one has to attach extravagant importance to extreme subtleties, make them come to life.

Nash: “I can see there’s a connection between not following normal thinking and doing creative thinking. I wouldn’t have had good scientific ideas if I had thought more normally.”

[“Glimpsing Inside a Beautiful Mind,” The Irish Times.]

Nash: “I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists. However this is not entirely a matter of joy as if someone returned from physical disability to good physical health. One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person’s concept of his relation to the cosmos.”

[“Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 1994,” edited by Tore Frangsmyr.]

How do new thoughts appear? According to me, thoughts are elements of brain geometry. New thoughts are new geometry. The more complex the thoughts, the more extensive the change of geometry. Thus brains which generate new thoughts are different, and the deeper the new thinking, the greater the difference.

The “green fairy”, absinthe, was excellent apparently to bring brains to operate under different “laws”. There is little doubt that it brought a lot of innovation in thinking, as particularly well illustrated by Van Gogh. Absinthe drove people a little bit too crazy, and became a threat to the establishment. Or, at least, that the way it was perceived.

New ideas, when able to explain, that is approximate, elements of reality, are contagious (through culture). They can change brains, thus society, ultimately making The Establishment unstable, or crazy. It fights back by pointing out that the new ideas are, obviously crazy (as it has interest to perceive them to be crazy, it makes sense).

Any really new idea is, or will be perceived, to be crazy. Thus insanity, this explorer of different laws, has to be respected (as long as it is not outright dangerous, that is injurious in a way which can be legally defined, and is not just a matter of trampled spirits).

So freedom of expression is not just about saying whatever, it is also about thinking whatever, as long as it is innocuous enough.

Absinthe was reauthorized in France recently (at lower concentration). Are creative thinkers crazy? They have to be. Any really true logic is not found in yesterday’s world. By yesterday’s standards, it’s completely crazy.

An example which made it to official science? The Lorentz-Poincare’ theory of “Local Time” (advertised by Einstein). Before 1900 CE, that would have been viewed as sheer insanity. But the philosophically motivated logic of Poincare’ is now viewed by theoretical physicists as simple common sense.

Crazy yesterday, obvious tomorrow: a metric to measure progress.

Patrice Ayme’


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22 Responses to “Are Creative Thinkers Crazy?”

  1. brodix Says:

    There is a connection between discovering natural order and maintaining social control.

    If you go back to the ancients, the medicine men, the shamans, astronomy/astrology, science and religion were the same practice. Then one sought to continue discovering order, while the other sought to impose it.

    There is a point there, that in order for an idea to gain an audience, it has to serve some use for that audience. It’s like the current thread on Scientia Salon. If it doesn’t fill a need or fit an agenda, it’s like Vikings discovering the new world.

    Order is necessary, but there is no real line between destructive and creative, so it is fuzzy and fluctuates. Math fundamentalists view order as absolute, but absolute is elemental, not an ideal. Possibly Nash played on that edge where order breaks and just floats way.

    You go out over that edge and you don’t come back the same. There is no more node that is just you. It’s networks leading off into the darkness and they don’t make holding it together easy.

    Then again, that is what life is anyway.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      It is entirely possible, and would say, most likely, that Shamans were viewed just as the scientists they were in many societies.

      See Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent book: Shaman.

      But then scientist were always more or less good, more or less corrupt. Throughout the last three million years….

      • brodix Says:


        Very much so. People don’t see that religion and science are opposites side of a very large coin. Religion just took the original ‘operating system’ of anthropocentric models and build society around it, while science continued to push the edges.
        Yet science now has the Tower of Babel syndrome. Lots of voices and languages, all seeking to distinguish themselves and often dismissing everything not in the particular field of the particular voice as being less than the ideal, as well as any predecessors who might have committed some error. Not to mention their views on religion.
        So now religion is viewed as the core of the culture and science as flighty and indecisive.
        Possibly it would behoove science to recognize the process and the relationship.

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Adventure shared, science and technology formed our first religion. So long ago, and so deep, that they have got to belong to our “instincts”. To capture Ramadi, the rabid fundamentalists used completely new technology, and new explosives, some “as strong as small nuclear bombs” (says the Wall Street Journal).

          • brodix Says:

            Biology created far more complex technology a hundred million years ago. As monkeys swinging in trees, we have opposable thumbs and binocular vision, which is the basis of our technology and narrative view of nature. At the moment, our forward actions have created far more reaction than we known how to handle. It’s time we slow down and get a better grip.

            • Patrice Ayme Says:

              Biology is Quantum Nanotechnology, so it’s an intrinsically advanced tech avenue, from 4 billion years ago…

              Slowing down is no option: we are not going back to horses (with all due respect to your job!) Going back to horses and other European Middle Age tech would bring RIGHT AWAY the death of 6 billions and the enslavement of several hundred millions on top of that, leaving only a few thousands great lords… Instead, with even more tech, we are going there more slowly.

              To escape our ominous fate, we need much more advanced tech now. An example is the CO2 situation: just to stabilize at the present overall 450ppm+, we need tech we don’t have (even then, seas would rise by 40 meters of so, among other problems).

  2. John Rogers Says:

    I seem to recall there were some commercial reasons behind the absinthe ban (you know, kill the other guy’s product by starting a rumor it causes cancer sort of thing). Can’t remember what they were right now.
    At one time, I was very big into making my own wine, beer and liquers, which truth to tell are rather simple traditional household technologies and not hard to do.
    I made some absinthe and whether or not it fuels the creative spirit, I can report that real absinthe tastes a lot like drinking undiluted Listerine mouthwash. I mean really vile. With the wormwood though, at least it’s probably a good anthelmintic. I never felt the need to make a second batch.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear John: Supposedly absinthe at high dosage damages the brain. However I noticed that when France had lots of creative thinking and art, absinthe drinking was massive. (They were doing lots of other crazy things, like medical drugs with mercury to kill shameful and uncomfortable diseases.)

      Absinthe has been made lawful again, last year or so. I never had it (nor alcohol). So I guess you are the expert… Did it have… interesting effects?
      I will content myself with climbing and other dangerous mountain adventures…

      • John Rogers Says:

        As I say it tasted like mouthwash and I didn’t notice any effects at all. I would prefer a good armagnac any day. But the correlations you note are extremely interesting.

  3. brodix Says:

    I’m not advocating going back and this current dynamic can’t even slow down, without exploding. It is going to reach the end of its rope though and not in a good way, since it puts all energy into going faster in order to sustain balance in an increasingly unstable situation.
    I’m just saying we all have to get over being so linear and monolithically single minded in our thinking. It is all much more thermodynamic cycles, with our linear projections ignoring all the feedback constantly going on, till we do hit the end of the line.
    In politics, we have liberals and conservatives each thinking they are on the route to nirvana, but not seeing how they balance each other.
    In cosmology we project gravity collapsing space to an infinite point, as expansion goes the opposite direction, with the entire universe going from a point to infinity, without either view seeing the larger cycle between mass and energy.
    Biology deal with the cycles of expansion and contraction by having individuals build up and break down, going future to past, as life flows through them, going past to future.
    I realize you don’t agree with some of these views, so it won’t be the answers you seek, but all our forms are transient.
    The twin in the faster frame just ages and dies quicker.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      You got the twin wrong. It’s the other way around. Local time in an accelerated frame goes slower (that may the second intuition/observation conducive to rather lamely-named “General Relativity”). Why? Because light goes ever slower in an accelerating frame.

      • brodix Says:

        You misinterpreted me. I didn’t mean faster as in accelerated frame, I meant faster as in faster clock in the frame. The clock in the stable frame is faster and so that twin ages quicker and falls into the past faster.
        The point is that if time really were a vector from past to future, it would seem that the faster clock could somehow move into the future quicker, but the reality is just a faster burn rate in that frame, so they fall into the past faster. Which goes to my point that time is not a vector from past to future, but the process by which future becomes past.

        Events are first in the present and then in the past. The past is just residue of what occurs, as only the present exists.

        One other factor implicit in this is that space has inherent equilibrium, as the fastest clock would be the one closest to universal equilibrium.

        • brodix Says:

          Obviously I’m brushing over points here. Yes, the clock goes slower because light in an accelerated frame slows because the combination of frame motion and action in the frame (forming the clock) can’t exceed C.
          So in a frame that is closest to the equilibrium of space, would have the fastest internal clock.

        • brodix Says:

          And yes, a faster clock does seem to move into the future faster, in the sense that civilizations with a greater level of intellectual activity do advance much quicker, but they also use much more energy to do so. So it is still a faster burn rate.
          This then gets back to my point that when things do get in a mad rush, we will have to slow down and get a better grip, even if it is due to conditions beyond our control.
          Time and temperature= frequency and amplitude. We need to adapt our pace to conditions.
          The tortoise outlives the hare.

  4. brodix Says:

    That is applied to the concept of particles, but wouldn’t you agree that, for instance, the temperature of the cosmic microwave background radiation is a function of the average amplitude of the microwaves making it up?
    Now these waves might be thought of as virtual particles, but the kinetic energy would still seem to be an expression of the amplitude, the energy of the given wave. If these waves had a greater amplitude, it would express as a higher temperature.
    If we take that to more complex levels, say water molecules, isn’t it a combination of the atomic oscillations making up the atoms and their binding into molecules, which give the mass its density, that combined with velocity, equals kinetic energy?
    So than the issue of velocity and how it might translate as amplitude, or whether in fact amplitude is a function of velocity. In other words, the amount of energy imparted on a particular action, such as a single wave, or the force imparted onto an object, as a quantity.
    Obviously a large part of what determines the amplitude of a particular wave is the medium in which it occurs and will serve to dampen it. Just as the energy imparted onto an object is dampened when it contacts another, say a water molecule striking a thermometer.
    Then again; E=mc2. Isn’t c2 an expression of amplitude, as much as C is an expression of velocity?

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Gee Brodix… I would recommend to take courses in physics, seriously. You obviously like the subject, so why not learn it in a more organized way? I am not really complaining as some of the rapprochements you make so weird, it makes one think… The CBR (Cosmic Background Radiation) seems to correspond to a 2.7 degree K, blackbody… It’s not at a temperature, it depicts it. The amplitude of a solitary photon is never considered (that does not mean it will not be considered in a future physics, from yours truly!). Only its frequency matter (for energy and momentum).

      “Virtual Particles” are NOT particles, just non-directly observable excitations of the Quantum Field one considers… So CBR does not make “virtual particles”….

      One can put c – 1. Then mass becomes energy: consider CERN. The Higgs is 126 GeV (Giga electron-volts), an energy.
      OK, if you like physics so much, maybe I should write something about the (subquantic) Foundations, there may be some progress…

  5. brodix Says:


    If time were free….

    Yes, I do appreciate physics, but more holistically embodied in the larger reality, than as a particular discipline. To me, it is more important to understand the ebb and flow of my fellow beings, than the particular energy of the Higgs particle.

    Yes, greater frequency equals more energy, but there would be no frequency, if those waves had no amplitude.

    Isn’t the quantum of the photon effectively its amplitude?

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      With all due respect, as SS would say, I can make strictly no sense of your last question (but I try, they don’t).

      [order zero.]

      And E = hf
      [order one]

  6. brodix Says:


    So if we think of reality as more wave than particle, wouldn’t that “lump” be the amplitude of the individual wave?

    I think that when it is a question of trying to understand how millions and billions of people function, physics is more informative than sociology. Consider my first comment in the recent SS thread, of plate tectonics as an approximation of how large societies interact with one another, as plane surfaces bumping into and grinding against each other. Say India and Pakistan. Then the occasional volcano rising to the surface, like Israel on the boundary of East and West, that runs from the Caucasus down into Africa.

    • brodix Says:

      Remembering that much of the pogroms that led to its creation occurred along this boundary in eastern Europe.

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