Tom Matte

# Mental Illness And My Pretty Brain

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

As most people know from the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” mental illness can go hand and hand with math abilities. Many mathematicians disagree with this notion. For every John Nash, Georg Cantor and Kurt Gödel there are 50 other mathematicians with no mental health issues. This is true; most mathematicians don’t have mental health issues. For me, however, the connection to math abilities is directly linked to my past mental health struggles.

When I work on math problems, my headphones are usually in, and the music is loud. (Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Brittney Spears, Rihanna, The Pussycat Dolls, etc. Go ahead and laugh. I’m used to the teasing. My wife calls me “Pop Princess.”) The music informs my work, and I’m entirely aware of it. When the music is loud, and I’m thinking big picture, the mathematical ideas keep coming. However, I can make careless errors with the calculations. At times, it can be distracting. It’s a bit of a paradox. It took me a while to figure this out. Now I go with the flow and don’t worry about the details. They sort themselves out when things quiet down, and I review my work in silence.

Sometimes I think I’ve found a new mathematical proof, only to learn it was discovered 300 years ago by a famous mathematician. This amuses me. It’s still new to me. Those times are always helpful. I’m learning.

Sometimes, I can find a solution to a problem within a few minutes. Other times I’m achingly slow in my calculations, and I use my fingers to count. They help a great deal. I have ten, five on each hand.

I do all my calculations by hand, or with the aid of a hand-held Texas Instrument TI Nspire, CX Graphing Calculator. I have no idea how to use 70% of the functions. It doesn’t matter; the other 30% give me what I need. Writing helps with the flow of ideas. Writing on paper is in itself a creative endeavor. Using my hands, especially my right hand connects my brain in new ways. Writing out equations from right to left is also fun. It forces my mind to pause and process information differently.

I’m not a real mathematician. Mathematicians want things wrapped up tight. Put in perfect little boxes. My mathematical brain doesn’t play by those rules. Many of my mathematical ideas are outside the norm, and my mind won’t let me entirely agree with many well-accepted axioms. If you think that’s strange, welcome to the club. I’ve had to deal with this internal contrarian’s voice since I started playing with numbers.

I’m very curious why my brain persists on these ideas. What’s the payoff?

I’m not a real mathematician. Mathematicians want things wrapped uptight. Put in perfect little boxes. My mathematical brain doesn’t play by those rules. Many of my mathematical ideas are outside the norm, and my mind won’t let me entirely agree with many well-accepted axioms. If you think that’s strange, welcome to the club. I’ve had to deal with this internal contrarian’s voice since I started playing with numbers.

"John Nash had his Beautiful Mind. I have my Pretty Brain."

John Nash had his Beautiful Mind. I have my Pretty Brain. We both had mental health issues. I’m curious to see whether our mathematical thinking styles might somehow converge.

Do you need a visuospatial ninja who can manipulate any topological shape? How about more traditional “Out of your mind thinking for mental health marketing?” Please drop me an email, I do both.