Monday, February 29, 2016

Book review: The Eclipse of a Mind

The Eclipse of a Mind () is a 722-page book published in 1942 that describes the life of Alonzo Graves. Alonzo is also listed as the author of the book, even though the narrative is not that of a typical autobiography.

The book is an in-depth study of manic depression. Alonzo is the sufferer. He is a very intelligent college dropout journalist who narrates his lifelong struggle for mental balance. We are taken through World War I, the great Great Depression (iconic photo below: ), the various treatments of bacterial diseases prior to antibiotics, among a variety of other topics; all through Alonzo’s eyes.

This book is rather “dense”, and not very easy to read in a linear fashion – i.e., from beginning to end. Since it is annotated, with comments by various psychiatrists and medical doctors who examined and treated Alonzo, the book is fairly repetitive at points. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating read.

Alonzo delves into important historical events that many today are likely unaware of, such as the Bonus Expeditionary Force movement in the 1930s. World War I veterans had been issued paper money that they could not exchange for real money until 1945. Out-of-work veterans revolted during the Great Depression, demanding early payment. Alonzo was right in the middle of this movement, acting as a journalist and taking the side of the veterans. The ensuing stress caused a manic episode that eventually led to Alonzo's hospitalization.

Manic episodes are characterized by euphoric states and increased levels of activity. The episodes are often triggered by stress. Some people become creative and highly productive during manic states, whereas others become irritable and prone to engaging in risky behavior. Frequently manic episodes are followed by debilitating depression ().

Alonzo’s falls into manic states usually started with benign increases in work-related activity. However, as that high-energy state was maintained for various consecutive days, causing periods of very poor sleep, it often led to psychotic or near-psychotic episodes. This produced a total of five hospitalizations, all of which are described in detail in the book. The book ends with Alonzo moving to Russia, whose government ideology he admired, and never being heard of again.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is Alonzo’s insights into other people’s mental illnesses, some of whom were manic depressive, combined with his inability to recognize the signs of his own illness. Notably, Alonzo was unable to recognize early signs, or “prodomes” (), which made it difficult for him to avoid entering manic states.

As noted earlier, this book is not an easy read. And it is an old book, copies of which are probably difficult to find today. Nevertheless, it is unique in its tell-it-all style, with detailed narratives from both the patient and doctors about a mental illness that is widespread today. Manic depression is an eminently treatable condition that tends to be highly correlated with creative intelligence ().

A frequently unrecognized reality is put forth by this book. Manic depression is not a “new” condition, even though it may be a “disease of civilization”. The levels of sustained stress found in urban societies are probably much higher than those experienced by our ancestors during most of our evolutionary history, and stress is a trigger of manic depression symptoms. The Eclipse of a Mind is a goldmine of insights into this condition.


Anonymous said...

"The levels of sustained stress found in urban societies are probably much higher than those experienced by our ancestors during most of our evolutionary history, "

This comment may need some mild flag as I am focusing on one tiny part of a good review of a very interesting biography. Nonetheless, as with so many things paleo there is a comment above that suggests a confidence in some assessment of our ancestors' lives that I find unwarranted. In this case, I'd suggest that a vastly more omnipresent threat of starvation, the real possibility of being beaten to death by some alpha male or just a couple of guys, and activity of various types of predators might provide as much or more stress than modern urban civilization. I don't think stress is yet well measured nor do I think we have a clue of its level through our evolutionary history. I urge modesty.


Ned Kock said...

Hi Jim. You make a good point. That statement was based on accounts in paleo-anthropology studies, as well as studies of non-urban societies (the traditional Inuit, pre-reservation Native American tribes etc.). Notably, modern urban environments provide a whole lot more mental stimulation than we appear to be adapted to handle.