Sally Satel is a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is co-author of “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.”
What made the acclaimed American writer David Foster Wallace doubt his talent so profoundly — and, ultimately, take his own life? Why would a university president make obscene phone calls to prospective babysitters? How can we understand a beloved comic actor who relentlessly consumes cocaine, endangering himself, his family and his career?
In his ambitious but problematic new book, “Capture,” David A. Kessler — a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and a retired medical school dean at Yale and the University of California at San Francisco — tries to answer these questions. “What happens when our rational minds feel as though we’ve been hijacked by something we cannot control?” he asks. In other words, what happens when we are captured?
Kessler defines “capture” as a triad of basic elements. The first is a narrowing of attention. This is followed by a “perceived lack of control” and then a “change in emotional state.” What we end up doing, he writes, “may not be what we consciously want.”
Kessler says he was drawn to study the power of unbidden influence — thoughts, feelings and behaviors that override reason and will — through his earlier FDA-related work on tobacco and obesity; he has written three books on those subjects. “Is it possible that the same biological mechanism that selectively controls our attention and drives us to chain-smoke and over-eat . . . is also responsible for a range of emotional suffering?” he asks.
Kessler concludes that it is, and in a section on the neural underpinnings of capture he explains the commonalities. These include the basic workings of brain circuits that enable us to selectively focus attention, couple sensory experiences with feelings, form and recall memories, and learn. The result is behavioral patterns that are sometimes useful and sometimes destructive.
But this is not a book about the brain. It is mostly devoted to narratives of figures, famous and unsung, who illustrate capture and self-destruction. In a chapter called “What Captures?,” Kessler identifies about 20 forms of undoing. In “Gambling” he offers the 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote about and suffered from excessive gambling; in “Drink,” the late author Caroline Knapp explains her love affair with alcohol; under “Brutish Father,” there is Franz Kafka, whose demanding dad greatly distressed him; “Rejection” features an Edith Wharton character in her obscure novel “The Reef” whose romantic overtures are spurned; “The Body ” is inspired by the hypochondriac Tennessee Williams; “A Work of Art” showcases Beat Generation artist Jay DeFeo and her obsession with painting; and “Control” revolves around an anorexic college student named Frances, among many others who are consumed with and shaped by traumatic experience, death, opiates and abandonment.
Kessler also shows that people who embrace the qualities of capture sometimes find salvation. This theme is explorerd through the lives of notable individuals who fought their way back from depression, such as Winston Churchill and the writer William Styron. Cartoonist Chris Ware, for example, was mired in self-loathing until he was transformed by the birth of a daughter. Spiritual revelation led Bill Wilson, known as Bill W., to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous. Thandi Shezi, a brutalized political prisoner in South Africa, found peace in forgiveness for her captors.
These essays, which combine the biography and psychology of their subjects, are impressively rich, even though most are only a few pages long. The prodigious amount of reading and research that went into the book is evident in more than 100 pages of detailed notes at the back.
Kessler is an excellent storyteller, and “Capture” is bursting with human drama drawn from real lives rather than the bland, composite case studies that clinicians tend to favor. However, at the book’s core is a very slim thesis. Namely, that “our emotional struggles and mental illness” are driven by “a stimulus — a place, a thought, a memory, a person [that] takes hold of our attention and shifts our perception.”
Whether — and how — our perception shifts in response to stimuli we find meaningful is a function of personal history, temperament and culture, as Kessler tells us. Sometimes this process is overt, other times unconscious; typically it is a combination. But is this news? Short of gods, brain processes beyond our control (psychosis, compulsions, dementia, sensory distortions) or base survival instincts, what else drives human thought, feeling and action?
Notably, there is rare mention of the work of contemporary researchers in psychology — Timothy Wilson, the late Daniel Wegner and Jonathan Haidt, for example — who have done important work on implicit cognition and the limits of introspection. This seems highly relevant to speculations on the art of self-sabotage.
Why some people are captured — obsessed, fixated, enthralled — by particular events but others are not is one of life’s bigger mysteries. The capture theory does not shed light on this question. Without predictive power — who will be captured, why or when — the theory can’t really serve as a basis for understanding or action. And that is because it is a description of what happens, not an explanation of why.
The author hopes that by understanding capture, we might “release those caught in its vicelike grip.” But the most he can do — the most anyone can — is point out that people can undergo reverse capture by forming strong attachments to new ideas, people and causes. Even so, this is not something one can do readily, in part because it’s extremely hard and in part because we don’t know in advance what kinds of commitments will come to be our salvation.
After a long career in public health, government and academic administration, and the study of tobacco and overeating, the author seems to have been captured by literature and biography. And why not? These remain the best portals to insight into textured human experience. But the capture theory itself does not build meaningfully upon current knowledge, nor does it unravel any mystery of why, despite our best interests, we sometimes act as we do.
By David A. Kessler
Harper Wave. 406 pp. $27.99