Pi: Knowing the Unknown

Pi: Knowing the Unknown
Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.
(From the Turkish electronic publication Psinema, 2008 Issue 2.)

The film Pi by writer/director Darren Aronofsky (1998) is an intense story of a reclusive mathematician’s pursuit of the ultimate numeric code, the pattern found in all things:  “I’m looking for a way to understand our world.”  Pi was shot on location in New York City, Aronofsky’s hometown, with only a budget of $60,000.  Aronofsky set scenes in friends’ apartments, illegally filmed in the subway at night to avoid paying for a permit, and both he and his father stood in for a background actor who failed to appear.  Despite the limited financing, the resulting film is remarkable in its visuals and sound and it has a most engaging story.  Aronofsky attended to sound and camerawork throughout the movie.  We see the workings of Max’s mind through voiceovers of his internal dialogue and various sound effects and music choices, as well as camera movements and angles. 

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) spends his days in a small, computer-filled apartment attempting to statistically predict stock values.  He has limited social contact, yet is seemingly liked by his neighbors, including a young girl who enjoys quizzing him with a calculator, demonstrating his mathematical genius.  Max also visits his former teacher, Sol (Mark Margolis), a retired math professor, with whom he plays Go. 

Prominent in the movie are Max’s episodes of severe headaches, preceded by a twitching thumb, followed by paranoid hallucinations, and ending with a “white void” during which Max is at peace.  He tries various drug treatments, including self-injection, without success.

We learn that Max’s headaches began when he was age 6.  He stared into the sun for so long that he developed solar retinopathy, burning his retinas, causing temporary blindness.  He also had a  mystical experience at that time:  “….everything came into focus and for a moment, I understood.”

Through several chance meetings with a Kabbalah recruiter, Max is introduced to the concepts of numbers in the Hebrew alphabet.  He moves from stock predictions to mathematical explorations of shapes and the magic of the number π. 

Max now believes that he is on the verge of discovering the pattern that is present in all things.  Citing Pythagorus, Max starts to see the universe as “made of numbers.”  He studies the “Golden Ratio,” such as the Golden Rectangle which can be reduced into smaller perfectly proportioned rectangles for infinity.  He thinks of DaVinci’s use of the Golden Spiral, generated from the Golden Rectangle and found throughout nature in seashells, fingerprints, whirlpools. 

The Kabbalah scholars were searching for patterns in the Torah and Max now offers to help.  At this point, he has a mission and becomes more focused, more driven, less repetitive in his actions.  He uploads the Hebrew alphabet into his computer and also is given a special computer “Ming-Mecca chip” by another group recruiting him to predict stock values.  With these additions, his homemade computer, Euclid, generates a long string of digits, just over 200 numbers, before crashing.  Max was not able to print the whole number string; however, he saw the numbers on the computer monitor and has them “in his head,” literally, discovering a bulging vein on his scalp.  He consults with Sol, who states that the same thing happened with his computer when he was working on analysis of π, and that just prior to crashing, his computer became “conscious” of its imminent demise and generated such a number.  Max now believes that this number is the key.  Sol warns,  

“This is insanity Max…you want to find the number 216 in the world, you’ll find it everywhere – 216 steps from street corner to your front door, 216 seconds you spend riding on the elevator.  When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere….as soon as you discard scientific rigor, you’re no longer a mathematician, you’re a numerologist!” 

Max now is in danger from those who want this number.  The Kabbalah rabbi believes that the number in Max’s head is the “true name of God,” which is 216 Hebrew characters long.  Max now realizes that he “saw God,” but the Kabbalah group warn that only the “pure” could see God, that Max is a vessel sent to deliver the number to them; keeping the number to himself will be fatal.  Max vows to keep the number; HE found it and he can understand it.

Going to visit Sol, Max learns that Sol died of a second stroke (his first stroke was what caused him to stop studying π).  Max finds a note on the Go board, which is arranged into a Golden Spiral; the note is the string of 216 numbers.  Now seeing the danger of knowing the number, Max destroys his computers, burns the written page of numbers, and then “removes” the number from his head.

At the end of the movie, we see Max enjoying the trees in the park while his young neighbor is again quizzing him with her calculator.  This time, however, when she asks him a challenging math problem, Max states with a smile (his first in the movie), “I don’t know.” 

So, this appears to be the story of a man who found a reality which is universally present, yet transcends human comprehension.  Like staring at the sun, it was dangerous to hold this knowledge, and only when he rid his mind of it was he able to find contentment.

We might be satisfied with such a mystical interpretation of the film.  However, just as Max looked for a logical explanation of the unknown, it is possible to apply a different, more scientific, explanation to the film:  consider temporal lobe epilepsy.

Might Max have been experiencing seizures, rather than simply headaches?  Each event appeared to have an aura (twitching thumb, headache) and then experiences of intense fear followed by an existential experience, returning to consciousness with a nosebleed.  All of these symptoms may be part of a seizure episode.  Patients with temporal lobe seizures, particularly those also involving the limbic system, often have similar mystical or emotional experiences.  Intense fear may occur during a seizure if it involves activation of the amygdala.  Some forms of seizures also may involve staring episodes – perhaps Max had his first seizure at age 6, causing him to stare into the sun and then have his first existential experience?

There have been many accounts of people having mystical experiences during temporal lobe seizures, including several famous figures.  For example, the great Russian novelist and existentialist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote of his seizures in his personal journals and of epilepsy in his novels, particularly in The Idiot.  Scanlon, in his Dostoevsky the Thinker (2002), provides a reported description by Dostoevsky of his own “ecstatic” seizure experiences:  “…I feel a complete harmony in myself and in all the world, and this feeling is so powerful and so sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one would give ten years of one’s life, perhaps all of one’s life” (p. 49). 

Ramachandran of the University of California in San Diego has found a connection between religious experiences and temporal lobe epilepsy, citing numerous cases of hyperreligiosity after the onset of temporal lobe epilepsy.  These patients believe that they have a special understanding of the universe; they find all objects to be infused with meaning.  Such a perception may again involve overactivity of the amygdala. 

Further similarities between temporal lobe epilepsy and Max involve his behavior between seizures.  In 1978 Geschwind first ascribed an “interictal personality” to some patients with this type of epilepsy, including characteristics such as paranoia, focus on religion and philosophical matters, obsessiveness, lack of humor, and excessive writing (hypergraphia).  Max displays all of these behaviors in the film.

Finally, let’s consider the film’s ending.  Max “removes” the number from his head with a drill.  Is this meant to reflect trephining, the ancient method to release evil spirits?  Or was it psychosurgery to relieve epilepsy?

Then again, Aronofsky has never indicated that he had epilepsy in mind when writing this film.  He refers to migraine headaches only and intentionally does not explain areas of ambiguity.

Thus, we can enjoy Pi for its mysticism or for its portrayal of a neurological illness.  Perhaps, like Max, when we obsessively look for something we find it everywhere, whether it really exists or not.