Disturbances of the Mind

Parkinson’s, Korsakoff’s, Alzheimer’s and Asperger’s are syndromes, named after the physicians who discovered them. In Disturbances of the Mind Douwe Draaisma takes a closer look at a number of these ‘eponyms’ in a series of brilliant portraits, which combine literary elegance with professional expertise.

Douwe Draaisma

His portrait gallery offers an unusual perspective on the history of psychiatry, a science plagued by more social and ideological prejudices than it ever likes to admit. Draaisma shows how interpretations of syndromes have led to radically different conclusions over the years, often doing great harm to sufferers and – more especially – to those close to them.

Time and again, scientists saw only what they wanted to see, observed only those things that fitted their contemporary world-view. The Victorian neurologist John Hughlings Jackson, for example, believed that higher parts of the brain restrained more primitive, ‘wild’ parts, much as the Navy Board controlled the British Empire. Draaisma dismisses as illusory the idea that increased methodological rigour has put paid to such preconceptions.

Draaisma never fails to take into account individual patients and doctors. The academics he describes become people of flesh and blood, caught up in their own quite often dramatic lives. Some even ended up in madhouses themselves, committed suicide, or achieved recognition only after death. From the wealth of biographical detail that Draaisma has unearthed, psychiatry emerges as a science still feeling its way, at a time when statistics have not yet replaced research.

As Draaisma showed in Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, the medicalisation of modern psychology leads not only to greater precision but to a neglect of all observations that do not lend themselves to scientific measurement. In addition to psychiatric dossiers, therefore, Draaisma uses novels, literary stories and even newspaper articles as the raw material for his fascinating panoramic study of research into the human mind.

Draaisma’s sensitivity to the power politics at work within science makes Disturbances of the Mind more fascinating still. Eponymous syndromes emerge as a formidable weapon in the battle for influence, money and renown. In Draaisma’s hands, the individuals who gave their names to psychiatric syndromes have their personal identities restored and psychiatry becomes once again a science of real people.

Draaisma compels admiration most of all for his feeling for the anecdotal and the tragic. He is an infectious narrator and a gifted writer.

De Groene Amsterdammer
Douwe Draaisma
Douwe Draaisma (b. 1953) is a Dutch psychologist, university professor and the author of many books on human memory.
Part ofNon-Fiction
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