Mental illnesses such as OCD and depression (or at least the tendencies toward them) have practically become a hallmark of passion. This association could partially explain why such illnesses are now so commonly diagnosed, Davis contends—since 1970 diagnoses of OCD have increased at least 40-fold.
Those with a keen interest in (or perhaps an obsession with) obsession and its place in human culture will enjoy Davis’s book, which also provides biographies of famous artists and psychiatrists with obsessive tendencies. Those who have a purely scientific interest in OCD, however, may find themselves a little bored at times. Despite Davis’s occasional long-windedness, he does make several interesting points. For one thing, Davis says, the difference between OCD and healthy obsession may simply be self-perception. People with OCD feel they are abnormal and wish they could change; obsessive people who do not have OCD—including people with “obsessive-compulsive personality,” considered by psychiatrists to be normal—feel just fine. The two groups’ tendencies and behaviors, however, are nearly identical.
Considering the close relation between OCD and “healthy obsessions,” Davis argues that we tend to draw too strong a line between the healthy and the pathological. Many people have careers that require repetitive—almost obsessive—attention, and most of us heed warnings to take careful precautions in our daily routines to stay healthy and protect ourselves from crime and financial problems. “We suffer from the manifold requirements of modern life that make us focus on one thing, or many single things,” Davis writes. OCD, he explains, is simply a subcategory of what we all do every single day.
Letting Go of God
by Julia Sweeney. Indefatigable, Inc., 2008
Scheduled to air on Showtime in early 2009
“So I’m in the bookstore, and I see this book by Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works,” says comic and former Saturday Night Live star Julia Sweeney, “And I think, ‘How does the mind work?’ ” So launches a memorable journey, both in Sweeney’s life and in the new film of her one-woman stage show, Letting Go of God, an extraordinarily engaging account of her walk across the religion-science divide. Sweeney found that the mechanistic answers that Pinker offered about the mind—the brain-based mechanisms of thought and consciousness being discovered by modern neuroscience—inspired her to replace her Catholic faith with science’s empirical skepticism, which she finds, after many hilarious detours, “a much more powerful and reliable tool for understanding the world.”
Sweeney’s I’m-not-too-bright comic persona (clearly a ruse, given her marvelous grasp of science’s deeper principles) is the perfect foil for this conversion story. Her argument for atheistic empiricism is devoid of the highbrow snobbery—call it “intelligentsiasis”—that infects some attacks on religious faith. The sorrow with which she surrenders religion’s comforts only strengthens her case. I have never heard anyone describe so sympathetically the attractions of both religion and science—or describe so humbly and humorously a choice between the two.
Best of the Web
The Internet is vast, and it can be difficult to find quality Web sites devoted to mental health. The truly great resources compile easy-to-read information with tools to help sufferers enrich their lives. Here are some of the best—sometimes fun, sometimes touching and, above all, useful.