Saturday, July 16, 2011

Book Review: The Psychopath Test

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson.

The psychopaths, it seems, are different than you and I.  For one thing, their brains appear to be wired differently to the extent that their amygdalas have abnormal reactions to stress.  For another, they lack empathy.  Also, they tend to be career criminals and general purpose malefactors.  These traits, and the evidence for them, is one subject of Ronson's book - the central subject perhaps, but hardly the only one.

This book could almost be a series of separate articles, but they are united by Ronson's highly engaging style, some historical context, and by an overarching theme: our evolving attitudes towards mental illnesses and eccentricities and the forces that shape them.

I have previously written about the test of the title, but what I wrote then was based on an excerpt.  One contrasting theme of the book is the author's evolving attitude toward the test itself.  At first he saw it as a weapon - a power he could wield to stigmatize - but by the end of the book he is more skeptical.  The lines between the nuts and the rest of us get rather complex at the borders - oddly enough one of the book's illustrations is a crop circle called The Julia Set - link for those who would like to understand the joke. 

One late book subject is the overdiagnosis of certain disorders, among them autism and childhood bipolar disease.

I personally found the introductory chapter to be matchlessly entertaining - a mystery which is ultimately mostly but hardly completely solved.  It begins with a mysterious package received by numerous noted neurologists and a few other notables.

Ronson is a superb stylist, with a quirky but personable style and a keen eye for the telling detail.