Science Book a Day Interviews David Adam


Special thanks to David Adam for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought

David Adam is an editor at Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Prior to that he was a specialist correspondent on the Guardian, writing on science, medicine and the environment. During this time he was named feature writer of the year by the Association of British Science Writers, and reported from Antarctica, the Arctic, China and the depths of the Amazon jungle. – From Curtis Brown

David’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus behind The Man Who Couldn’t Stop?

I have had OCD for a long time, and only really sought and received help quite recently. After I started to feel better I began to think about the condition as a journalist instead of a patient and I wanted to know more about it. The more I looked, the more I realised there was a cracking story here that didn’t seem to have been told before.

#2 – What you think is the popular idea of what OCD is? How does your book try to correct this?

The popular image of OCD is that it’s a behavioural quirk, an annoying but essentially harmless behavioural problem. It’s not. It’s a devastating and debilitating mental illness, which is mostly a disorder of thought. I don’t really see it as my job to correct the popular idea as such – all I can do as a writer is to show the reality.

#3 – You give case studies of ‘unusual thoughts’. How had they been explained in the past? And how has this explanation changed over the years?

Great question! The answer, I hope, shows why there is such a terrific story here. The explanations of the thoughts (and the treatments that follow from that) directly mirror societal and scientific development. So, the earliest interpretation was religious — evil spirits, the devil etc. And the ‘treatment’ was to burn people as witches or submit them to an exorcism. Nineteenth century medics turned these kinds of thoughts into a medical problem, part of the broad category of nervous disorders, and tried to treat somatically with potions etc.  Sigmund Freud (of course) saw them as repressed urges or conflict, usually about childhood sexual experiences, and so launched psychoanalysis. By the 1960s or so, behavioural psychologists thought they were conditioned responses to external stimuli and so tried to treat OCD with aversion therapy. Only in the 1980s did cognitive psychologists start to realise that unusual thoughts were common and that obsessive unusual thoughts were down to them getting stuck. That led to the most common treatment today – cognitive behavioural therapy – which tries to free them.

#4 – Your book contains much neuroscience research. How long did it take you to do this research? How did you go about it?

In working as a journalist covering science I have a feeling for when I have done enough research – it’s when I start to recognise the work cited by other academic papers. I searched all the journals I could find for relevant studies and simply ploughed through them until I reached that point. Review articles are especially useful. I only really spoke to the scientists involved later to confirm I had it right – I find it much more efficient to read the primary sources. Most of this research never made the final version of the book, but because I felt confident that I was on top of it, I was able to leave things out. I think you can tell when an author perhaps isn’t as confident because they leave it all in!

How long did it take? Well, the pile of academic papers on my bedroom floor at one point became a fire hazard. Luckily I’m a quick reader.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I have another non-fiction book proposal in the works, but it’s not finished yet. If it doesn’t work out then I’m going to try a novel. So, I’ll let you know in a decade or so.

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