Books : reviews

David Weeks, Jamie James.
Phoenix. 1995

rating : 4.5 : passes the time
review : 26 September 2002

Are eccentric people actually mad, or merely differently sane? Weeks, a neuropsychologist, laments that

In the field of experimental psychology, it is an open secret that we have learned a great deal about how penniless undergraduates perform in narrow and sometimes deliberately deceptive experiments, while psychiatrists, on the other hand, know about every possible variation in the behavior of people who have had mental breakdowns. The rub, from the scientific point of view, is that those two groups rarely overlap, so most of the theoretical knowledge obtained by the experimental psychologists is useless to the psychiatrists who are dealing with patients. Meanwhile, almost nobody is studying adult nonpatients, the vast bulk of humanity.

He notes that there are essentially no scientific studies of eccentricity, so he resolved to fix the problem, by doing his own. It was difficult to find a study group (for a start, how do you determine whether to include someone in the study group, when part of the purpose of the study is to classify that group?) but in the end the team conducted over a thousand detailed interviews, including tests for psychosis, personality types, and IQ, and more general discursive conversations (all recorded for later analysis).

Despite the large amount of data that must have been gathered, there are only two tables in the entire book. One shows the proportion of occurrence of certain schizophrenic markers in the eccentric group -- but does not show corresponding proportions for diagnosed schizophrenics or for a normal control group, so it is hard to know what the numbers mean: are they significantly high, low, or average? There is some discussion in the body text that some of the markers are lower than for the normal population (and of the entire group interviewed, only one person showed symptoms that were truly schizophrenic), but it would have been nice to have the actual data presented for all the markers. Although the data show this group of eccentrics are not schizophrenic, at least some of the later descriptions appeared to show, to my non-expert eyes at least, that some of them perceive, and act on, patterns that do not actually exist, which would seem to me to be a problem (although admittedly one not confined to eccentrics). The second table shows the occurrence of extreme personality traits, with a comparison between male and female eccentrics -- but again with no comparison with other populations, merely a statement that these results are more extreme than normal.

This lack of hard data is made up for by anecdotes culled from the discursive interviews. These are indeed fascinating (sometimes in a horrified kind of way), but are essentially no different from the historical vignettes that Weeks was originally complaining formed the basis for theories about eccentricity.

One point made is that eccentrics tend to be happier than average. Speculations are advanced that maybe having thrown off the shackles of conformity enables these people to lead less stressful, therefore happier lives. But where is the evidence for causality? There seems to be no attempt to distinguish this idea from the hypothesis that "happiness" might simply be a personality trait that is somewhat correlated with eccentricity.

So, the intention is interesting. But the result is rather disappointing: mostly just another freak show, albeit sympathetic, accompanied by just a little data that shows that eccentrics at least are not schizophrenic.