Book Review: Capture
Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering
By David A. Kessler, MD
Who hasn’t wished they could control the anger, grief, and anxiety that lead to actions that may hurt others and oneself? David Kessler, MD, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has spent more than two decades researching how tobacco and food addictions can influence and, in some cases, control our actions. Now, in Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering, Kessler explores the origins of mental illness—from everyday unhappiness and obsessive thoughts to debilitating depression and violent anger—and how these emotions can lead to destructive actions in the same way as substance addictions.
According to Kessler’s research—which he presents extensively in this book, in both scientific studies and anecdotes—the same biological mechanism that selectively controls our attention and drives some people to chain-smoke or binge-eat is also responsible for emotional suffering. We are, in a very real sense, “captured” by a stimulus that could be a thought or memory, a person or place, that seizes our attention and shifts our perception in such a way that we act irrationally. These emotional triggers are every bit as addictive as nicotine or sugar.
Capture is an ambitious deep-dive into neuroscience, biology, psychology, philosophy, and human nature that takes time to read and digest. The basic premise is that there are three elements of the theory of “capture”: narrowing of attention, perceived lack of control, and change in affect or emotional state. The solutions aren’t easy—and they aren’t easy to find in this book. Kessler touches on Buddhism and spiritual enlightenment, meditation, the community support of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, and cognitive therapy as possible paths to understanding and emotional peace of mind. However, he is not optimistic about total freedom from capture. Instead, he proposes that understanding this neural mechanism that shapes the stories of our lives leads to a “modest form of autonomy” where we can learn to see the danger signs and control our actions.