Why do we do things—overeat, obsess, fight, commit suicide—that make it seem like our rational minds have been hijacked by something we cannot control?
Everyone deals with this “capture,” writes Kessler (The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, 2009, etc.), the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and dean of the medical schools at Yale and the University of California, San Francisco, in a skillful combination of history, medicine, and scientific (but not pop) psychology. Since Aristotle, explanations of behavior relied almost entirely on philosophy. Psychoanalysis did not improve matters, but “by shifting the study of mind away from morality and rationality and toward the unstable ground of desire,” writes the author, “Freud moved science toward a clearer understanding of human thought and behavior.” Since Freud, scientists have discovered that every stimulus triggers a particular response from a series of brain neurons. Each repetition of that stimulus strengthens the response: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” That’s how we learn or remember, but it also influences emotions. The sight of someone we love or a work of art triggers intense feelings, but what happens when feelings about a drug, a stranger’s glare, or one’s defects become irresistible? After nearly 50 pages of argument, Kessler devotes 150 pages to the dismal impact of capture over the years: autobiographies of individuals driven to lives of torment (Dostoyevsky) that often ended in suicide (Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace), addiction (John Belushi, Tennessee Williams), assassination (John Lennon, Robert Kennedy), or mass murder. In the final 50 pages, the author reveals the concept of capture in a positive light through those who have fended off depression (Winston Churchill, William Styron) or channeled intense feelings into religion, work, or creativity.
A reasonable theory of the science behind extreme behavior illustrated by excessive but gripping case histories.