What captures your attention? How does that shape your thinking, and ultimately, your actions? That’s the question Dr. David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, asks in Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. He answers the question by putting people—sometimes troubled, sometimes brilliant, often both—at the heart of his research. While he provides the basic neuroscience and survey of psychological thought we would expect for a book on this subject, Kessler himself seems more captured by the personal stories he’s gathered, from figures including Dostoyevsky and David Foster Wallace.
Wallace appears repeatedly in Kessler’s explorations, and the conversations Kessler had with the lauded writer’s parents are moving as well as illustrative. Kessler’s thesis is that many emotional struggles and mental illnesses have a common underlying mechanism: Some stimulus takes hold of our attention and shifts our perceptions so we become increasingly focused on the stimulus and anything related to it. This “capture” can drive incredible creativity—witness Wallace’s astounding literary feats, including the mammoth novel Infinite Jest—but it can also trigger an endless downward spiral, as in Wallace’s deep depressions and eventual suicide.
Kessler shows the mechanism of capture at work in the lives of a wide range of mostly literary luminaries, showing us how much Dostoyevsky’s gambling problem has in common with Caroline Knapp’s alcoholism, for instance. He also explores, more briefly, the pure joy of “capture,” in sections devoted to shifts of focus that have led to activism, social justice movements, incredible musical compositions and religious rebellions. Stories like that of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, offer hope that even from the depths of addiction, one can experience a shift of perception that changes everything and leads to a meaningful and fulfilling life.