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Mathematicians who are ill

  1. Jun 18, 2005 #1
    Why is it that many mathematicians in the past who have made significantly profound contributions to the world of math, actually suffered from quite severe mental health problems which we nowadays recognise as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or schizophrenia etc. ?
    examples would be John Nash, Paul Erdos, or Kurt Godel(who died due to his anxieties)

    Do any of you postdoctorate math students either suffer from a form of mental illness or exhibit any eccentricities ?
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  3. Jun 18, 2005 #2


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    Why? I would guess bad luck, but who knows. How many is many? More than is found in the general population? Anxiety disorders affect something like 15% of the adult population in the US.
    I happen to have been suffering from OCD since I was 17, and I plan on doing great work. If I manage to treat my OCD and do great work, would you still think there was a link between the two? Just curious.
  4. Jun 18, 2005 #3
    I would think their excessive obsession with logic and patterns would drive them to become upset when they couldn't describe their environment with that knowldge.

    I believe an obsession with perfection would only lead someone to disappointment.
  5. Jun 18, 2005 #4
    Or to find out why.

    The Bob (2004 ©)
  6. Jun 18, 2005 #5
    work environment vs social environment?
  7. Jun 18, 2005 #6


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    forget it. we can't help having aspergers syndrome. just get back to,work and try to enjoy it!
  8. Jun 19, 2005 #7
    What makes "these days" so much better in recognizing mental illness? Nash had clear signs of schizophrenia. As for Godel, he was old and "functional" and so nothing would be done about it, even now. Erdos was eccentric, and, most likely, nothing could be done about that now either.
  9. Jun 19, 2005 #8


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    What evidence do you have that any of these people had such an obsession?
  10. Jun 19, 2005 #9
    Q: Why does every university keep a math department?
    A: Because it's cheaper than to insitutionalize all those people.
  11. Jun 19, 2005 #10


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    Just to clarify: OCD is not being "obsessive" about things, even excessively obsessive. The obsessions of OCD are not obsessions in the usual sense. Obsessions are intrusive, unwanted, and uncontrollable thoughts that cause great anxiety and impair a person's ability to function. A person doesn't consciously choose to have obsessions, and they cannot be controlled- you cannot just make the thoughts stop. They are very much not "your own thoughts". They persist and usually get worse without treatment. For instance, one of my obsessions is the thought that I'm going to rip my eyes out of my skull with my bare hands. This is often accompanied by images. Or the image of stabbing or maiming myself upon seeing a knife. Or that there's a rattlesnake or mamba at my feet about to bite me everytime I try to fall sleep. Or a lion behind every bush I pass along the street. Or a person outside the window with a gun pointed at my head. And so on. And they aren't just thoughts; As absurd and irrational as I know they are- they are accompanied by the feeling that they're actually true. And you cannot reason your way out of them. It's difficult to explain. Let it suffice to say I haven't been able to use a sharp knife in years. So pardon the little rant, but suffering from OCD is nothing like being obsessed with some math problem, and it doesn't make anything you do easier; It makes everything harder and really is suffering.

    So anyway, you aren't talking about personality traits. I would expect people in the same profession to share certain personality traits. You're talking about mental disorders and specifically about disorders that are thought to have a neurobiological basis. If being a mathematician- or being a capable mathematician- and having OCD (or another anxiety disorder) were connected in the way that I think is being suggested, wouldn't you expect a mathematician to lose their abilities upon successful treatment- medication and/or behavior therapy- of their disorder?
  12. Jun 19, 2005 #11
    I dont have any, its just a proposition to be looked into. I would imagine someone into mathematics (like myself) would try to discover things similar to their works in every day things.
  13. Jun 20, 2005 #12

    Well we do have strong evidence to suggest that the mathematicians mentioned did suffer from various illnesses, ranging from ocd to schizophrenia.

    and it wasn't just a coincidence that they were ill as well as having exceptionally creative power over mathematics.

    and to honestrosewater, yes I would say that ocd involves repetitively or obsessively performing tasks which may or may not be logical. There is also a tendency to focus upon one subject such as math or music.
    But as for your last comment, 100 yrs ago or so, little was known about these conditions and therefore there simply was no treatment available except to lock them away in an institute.
    Besides, I do not believe that they would have lost their abilities upon treatment !
  14. Jun 20, 2005 #13


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    It's a matter of "fact" that all logicians kill themselves (Frege, for example).

    The pernicious field of mathematical logic excepted, doing maths is, in general, not hazardous for your mental health.
  15. Jun 21, 2005 #14


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    And this assertion is based on what?
    Where did you get this information from? If you don't believe what I've said, try these:
    http://www.ocfoundation.org/ocf1010a.htm [Broken]
    Okay, then how do you think they are connected? Or better yet, why do you think they are connected? And why pick anxiety disorders and not, say, diabetes?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  16. Jun 21, 2005 #15
    Newton was also not 'stable' due to many accounts. to be a bit poetic 'There is a fine line between genius and insanity'. I think that a true mathematician has an extremely focused and logical mind and once outside such an ordered life they cannot cope (in some cases).

    Thinking about this, my mind cannot help but wander to the behaviour of people who leave the army. Some cannot return to civvie life due to the order that has been created - this is of course different but there are lines of connection.

    ALSO on't label people with neurological disorders as 'ill' it makes them sound like they need to be got rid of - like they are a burden. I know of many people who work with Autistic people to break down barriers of prejudice and make Autism and other diseases on that spectrum more culuturally 'acceptable'. I even hear of a proposed Autism pride day - echoing tht of the Gay Pride movement some years ago. So - just watch your language :tongue:

    Last edited: Jun 21, 2005
  17. Jun 21, 2005 #16


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    Okay, so no one has presented any statistical data that suggests a connection between mental disorders and mathematical ability. No one has suggested a possible mechanism for any connection, except my shallow suggestion. And does anyone else even realize that different disorders have different symptoms, physical signs, treatments, inheritability, known causes, suspected causes, etc., making it even less likely that they all share something in common with whatever causes a person to have exceptional mathematical ability? And does anyone even know enough about the nature of mathematical ability to have a serious discussion about its causes? You may as well suggest that there's a connection between cancer and being a bad speller.

    And in case anyone doesn't know, correlation does not imply causation. Not that anyone has even found a correlation yet...
    I mean, great, you've noticed that some great mathematicians may have had mental disorders. And where does that lead you? To find out how many great mathematicians have or may have had mental disorders? To find out if this percentage is unusual? To look for a possible cause? Or to jump straight to the conclusion that what you've noticed isn't a coincidence?
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2005
  18. Jun 22, 2005 #17


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    just in case anyone is feeling depressed or stressed out, remember that if you eat a good meal and get a good nights sleep, you will usually feel better in the morning. and it helps to watch a funny movie, like maybe "the imposters" by stanley tucci.
  19. Jun 22, 2005 #18
    Haha good advice, but I definitely hate sleeping. And "Bruce Almighty" is a good movie to watch while feeling bad...
  20. Jun 22, 2005 #19
    So not a beautiful mind then? :tongue:
  21. Jun 22, 2005 #20
    Actually not very long ago I read that there is an increased rate of occurence of a certain mental disorder among people who study mathematics/philosophy/arts , I just cant remember for the life of me where.
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2005
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