The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime
by Nicole Rafter. New York University Press, 2008 ($24)

In the sci-fi movie Minority Report “Precrime” police units stop murders before they happen by relying on the visions of people who can see the future. Clairvoyants who possess precognition will likely remain fiction. But the idea of preventing individuals from committing crimes may be on the threshold of becoming reality, according to Northeastern University criminologist Nicole Rafter. Recent scientific advances, such as the decoding of the human genome and, growing out of that, studies that examine gene-environment interactions, have opened new avenues to explore the biological bases of character traits, including the propensity to commit crimes. As a result, Rafter says, criminologists are now shifting their attention toward biological reasons for delinquent behavior after decades of trying to define crime mainly on the basis of sociological factors.

In The Criminal Brain, Rafter warns of the potentially dangerous consequences of this trend: “We already have genetically modified crops; maybe gene policing and genetically modified criminals are not far behind.” Whether we will head toward such a brave new world scenario, however, depends on how specialists and the general public evaluate research and policy in the booming field of biocriminology, she explains. Rafter provides the tools to do just that.

The book takes readers on a fascinating journey through the history of criminology and details where the field stands today. Even though we still do not know what exactly a “criminal brain” is, current research suggests that some people are more genetically predisposed to offend than others, Rafter says. Still, “no one is destined to commit crime,” because environmental factors also play a role, even for those who are most at risk.

Rafter illustrates nicely how science develops in different social and political contexts. In the past, theories of a link between low intelligence and criminal behavior, for example, sparked a movement of “coercive eugenics,” which resulted in forced sterilizations in the name of crime control. Today theories of links between genetics and behavior have led to what Rafter calls “ ‘new’ or ‘liberal’ eugenics” that involves the elimination of “bad” genes by choice, such as the abortion of fetuses that test positive for mental retardation. From here the step to “eugenic criminology” might be small, Rafter argues, particularly if “manipulative politicians and ignorant citizens” took charge of such a movement.

The Criminal Brain is a wake-up call that highlights the need to think hard about which direction we allow biocriminology to move, especially “now that memories of Nazi eugenics have faded.”


Obsession: A History
by Lennard J. Davis. University of Chicago Press, 2008 ($27.50)

Admit it: at some point in your life, you’ve been completely obsessed. Obsessed with a particular project perhaps, or a great author, or that hot senior who smiled at you once when you were a freshman. Obsession is common and typically harmless, often a powerful motivator and a source of artistic inspiration. Yet its extremes are also feared and reviled, because they form the foundation for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a disease that has apparently exploded in prevalence in recent decades. How exactly can we reconcile two conflicting notions of the same phenomenon?

Perhaps we can’t—but we can glean some insight by taking a closer look at society’s complex history with obsession, Lennard J. Davis posits in his new book. Since the 18th century our understanding of obsession has evolved from believing it to be an incurable “madness,” thought to afflict a small number of people who were typically poor, to a potentially curable disease afflicting many, including the upper classes.

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 ($20)
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.

For a comprehensive overview of all types of mental illness, visit Psych Central. Launched in 1995, the site is one of the longest-running mental health outposts online, and it was named one of’s 50 Best Websites in 2008. You will find places to network with peers, a medication library and quizzes, such as “Do I need therapy?”

Mental Help Net is nearly as old and also award-winning. The amount of information here is staggering, but do not miss “Depression: A Primer” by a blogger and illustrator named “Ellen” who has struggled with the disease. To hear from other patients in their own words, go to In addition to a collection of blogs by people who have schizophrenia, it offers a comprehensive guide to living with the illness.

Millions of people endure anxiety, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder—but few realize that these ailments are all related. At the oddly named but excellent site called BrainPhysics, sufferers can explore the roots of these obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, find local doctors and support groups, and chat with others who have gone through similar experiences.

The Internet seems to be saturated with information for parents about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other learning disorders, but few sites offer something for the kids themselves. At LD Online, a section for kids featuring a child artist and writer every day complements an exemplary collection of knowledge for parents.

Perhaps the most promising new addition to the online mental health scene is, a site for veterans and active servicemen and servicewomen who may be dealing with a host of problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. The Department of Defense, along with an impressive lineup of psychiatrists and psychologists, created the site because of a congressional mandate. Launched in August, the sleek, interactive portal offers videos, self-check quizzes and online workshops, but one of its most important features is that it allows its users to remain anonymous. Many service members fear the stigmatization that therapy may bring in the culture of the armed forces—this site has the potential to help those people with its perfect use of the impersonal yet intimate nature of the Internet.

Note: This article was orignally printed with the title, "Reviews".