Obsessed, by Steve Volk. Published by Discover In-Depth. Available at Kalmbach Bookstore, $1.99.
Reviewed by Virginia Hughes
A great long-form narrative demands at least one irresistible character. If a writer finds a protagonist who is quirky, contradictory, charming, sadistic, or interesting in any other way, the reader will follow that character through any number of complex ideas.
In OBSESSED: The Compulsions and Creations of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, released this past weekend, writer Steve Volk finds that special character and describes him beautifully. According to Volk's depiction, Schwartz is a socially awkward, belligerent psychiatrist whose research has been unfairly shunned by the scientific establishment. He is an unsung hero whose revolutionary behavioral therapy has rescued thousands of people from the irrational fears and repetitive behaviors of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If his success continues, Schwartz may even rescue the withering concept of free will.
Great long-form science writing is not only about the yarn, however. It's also about pulling away from the character's seductive orbit in order to put his or her ideas into a wider scientific context. And Obsessed, unfortunately, doesn't do that well. Volk tells a slanted truth about Schwartz, the man, and about how his work fits into the larger field of anxiety research. That shortcoming is particularly disappointing given that Obsessed is the debut long-form e-book of an established science magazine, Discover.
It's obvious from the first few pages of Obsessed that Volk, a senior writer at Philadelphia Magazine, is a master of narrative. If there was ever a dull moment in the book's 13,000-plus words, I don't remember it.
I worry, though, that because of its compelling and seemingly authoritative story, readers will come away from the book with inaccurate ideas about anxiety disorders and how the mind works.
Take Schwartz's therapy, for example, which is a combination of mindfulness—a technique borrowed from Buddhist meditation in which you try to detach yourself from your emotions by focusing on breathing or some other innocuous behavior—and reappraisal, or explicitly focusing on naming and re-framing your emotions. Volk describes Schwartz's therapy as novel and even revolutionary—a thorn in the side of the psychiatric establishment and its beloved pharmaceuticals.
But Volk largely ignores the fact that Schwartz's approach is only a slight variation of other kinds of cognitive behavioral therapies (including exposure therapy, which Schwartz oddly villifies). These treatments have been around for decades and are firmly established among psychiatrists as effective for some people with anxiety disorders.
So the fact that Schwartz's therapy works for many people with OCD is not at all surprising. The brain changes with our day-to-day experiences—it's why even adults can learn new things, and yes, why some people with addiction, depression, and anxiety disorders can overcome them without drugs. There aren't many neuroscientists or psychiatrists who would disagree with that.
Where Schwartz stirs up trouble, Volk explains, is in his leap from the existence of an adaptable brain to the existence of free will:
“We’re talking about people with a biological brain disorder,” says Schwartz, “who learn through the use of neuroplasticity to change their brain function! That’s free will in action!”
It is a claim that flies in the face of most modern neuroscientific research, which suggests an ever-increasing number of our “choices” are somehow hard-wired into us—from which candidate we vote for to which flavor of ice cream tops our cone.
But there are actually lots of neuroscientists who believe in free will. (Even David Eagleman, one of the three scientists whom Volk puts in the anti-free-will camp, is on the fence about it.) It's an age-old question that people have debated forever. I suspect that Schwartz's colleagues don't like him for two of his other, crazier ideas, neither of which is adequately challenged in the book.
The first is Schwartz's theory about the physical processes underlying free will. In one head-spinning chapter, Volk explains how a combination of wave-particle duality, quantum Zeno, and Hebb's law might prove that the mind is separate from the brain. Volk tells us that "this is an idea in its infancy", yet neglects to include any outside comments from independent physicists or neuroscientists. The reader is left with no sense of how plausible—or crackpot—this theory is.
The second overlooked part of Schwartz's biography is his recent conversion to Christianity. Here's how Volk describes it:
The most important new development in Schwartz’s life underscores the schism between the champion of free will and the academics who oppose him: Schwartz has become a devoted Christian, his faith formed in great part by reading the essays of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis for insurrection. His faith seems odd at first—the young Jew, turned Buddhist, scientist and then Christian. But in the life-story of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Schwartz’s guidepost for Christianity, there is a finer and firmer example of Schwartz’s own tough-mindedness. Bonhoeffer believed so strongly he died for it, openly opposing the Hitler regime that ultimately assassinated him.
What's never mentioned, however, is that in accepting Christ, Schwartz also seems to have rejected evolution. He is one of several hundred scientists to sign A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, a document put together by the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank that lobbies for creationism. The signatories of that document, including Schwartz, endorsed the statement: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life."
With that kind of public rejection of a fundamental law of biology, is it any wonder that some scientists are skeptical of Schwartz's other ideas?* And doesn't his alignment with creationists deserve at least a mention in a story of his scientific career?
Jeffrey Schwartz is a character, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. But ultimately, the man's obsessions corrupted his work—and Volk's work, too.
*Update, 9/8/13: Schwartz signed the Discovery Institute document in 2004, years after being condemned by his peers. So that couldn't be part of his critics' motivations, as I speculated in the review, and I regret that error. Since my review appeared, Volk and Discover In-Depth have issued an updated version of the book that includes a paragraph about Schwartz's ties with the Discovery Institute. You can download the book here.
Virginia Hughes is a science writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Nature, Popular Science, and Slate, and her blog Only Human is part of National Geographic magazine’s Phenomena. Follow her on Twitter.
DTU Editor Maia Szalavitz contributed much to the reporting and thinking behind this review