This one had me from the get-go. Kessler is a doctor and a former FDA Commissioner who became immersed in the issue of addiction while working to curb tobacco use. He later wrote the bestselling The End of Overeating as he expanded his research into addiction.
In Capture he goes big: This book attempts a kind of unified field theory that links anxiety, obsession, impulse disorder, phobia, panic, addiction, depression, mania, hypochondriasis, and even some aspects of psychosis under a single term he coins as “capture.”
Here’s how it works in a benign example that most of us will be familiar with: You are settling down to work in a coffee shop or on an airplane. Lots of noise around you but a single loud voice in conversation captures you attention. You notice it, you determine to ignore it and get back to work but you can’t. Your will simply can’t make your mind let drop its attention to that loud (and by now surely obnoxious) voice. That’s capture.
Kessler deals with the neuroscience of this process which is certainly interesting–but much more interesting to me were sections on the historical context of capture. He looks at the issue through the lenses of philosophy, psychology and spirituality as well as science. It’s an eye-opening book rich in scope and ambition—and made extremely readable by the choice to build much of his case by anecdote. I don’t think I’ve read a book that’s given me more food for thought in quite some time. (Nifty, provocative cover by Chip Kidd, too!)
Advance reviews have been admiring with Andrew Solomon offering a cogent summary of the book: “In Capture, David Kessler proposes an original theory of mind. His cogent argument is that a great deal of the apparently inexplicable behavior of human beings is the result of impulses, drives, and obsessions that may share fundamental neural and psychodynamic mechanisms. This carefully researched book is both startling and engaging, and is written with brio.”
Publicity starts with an hour on The Diane Rehm Show on April 11th. I know I’ll be tuning in for that one!
“In this fascinating book, Kessler…probes the nature of the ‘hijacked’ mind, offering a straightforward and plausible explanation of a neural mechanism by which a range of human behaviors can be understood. Drawing on his two decades of research, Kessler calls this underlying mechanism “capture” and reveals its three basic elements: ‘narrowing of attention, perceived lack of control, and change in affect, or emotional state.’ He catalogs the kinds of activities that capture people’s attention…[and] devotes considerable attention to David Foster Wallace as an example of capture turning on the self…. He also carefully points out that capture can lead to violence as well as exalted spiritual experiences. Kessler ends on a note of hope, presenting a range of ways that people can potentially gain more control of their lives through an understanding of capture.”
— Publishers Weekly
[I]n 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.’… A reasonable theory of the science behind extreme behavior.”
“Capture is a breakthrough book. In a world of increasingly specialized knowledge, it takes a particular gift and some stubbornness to cut across the fields of neuroscience, psychiatry, philosophy and psychology and to ask the fundamental question: Why it is that we can allow our best selves to be captured by and torpedoed by thoughts and actions that sink us? Kessler’s exploration of the question makes for a compelling read. His ultimate answer is profound and one that could be life-changing and life-saving.”
— Abraham Verghese
Capture: A Theory of the Mind (9780062388513) by David A. Kessler. $27.99 hardcover. 4/12/16 on sale