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Claiming to be having an OCD moment seems quite common, but what is OCD and how has evolution selected for this particular trait? Ms.Svoboda answers the question and provides a great deal of background information on OCD defining it through her own struggles with the psychological feature.

“In people with OCD, this threat-detection system turns hyperactive, generating what the psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has called ‘a persistent error-detection signal’. OCD, in other words, is like a tripped car alarm that won’t stop screeching even when you try to disarm it.

While no one likes the sound of a screeching car alarm, most of us are willing to install one if we’re afraid of getting robbed. Obsession could have arisen for a similar reason, evolutionarily speaking. ‘A driving anxious tension is the emotional core of obsessive character,’ writes the psychologist Steven Hertler at the College of New Rochelle in New York, and this tension, he explains, goads us to take the actions that are necessary to ensure survival. People who obsessed about potential threats – intruders, snakes, tigers – might not have been much fun to be around, but their Cassandra tendencies protected their friends and families, and improved the prospects of their offspring. ‘OCD,’ writes the German psychiatrist Martin Brüne, ‘can be understood as an extreme on a continuum of evolved harm-avoidance strategies.’”

Seems to be a fairly reasonable assumption: being hyper aware does have certain survival benefits.

“The survival advantages of a sensitive threat-detection system can explain why millions of us have ended up with threat detectors that are just a little over-tuned. While about one in 40 people have clinical OCD, about one in 10 experience obsessions and compulsions not quite severe enough to interfere with daily life.

While most of us have a hard-wired tendency to obsess, and some more than others, our current cultural milieu has encouraged and amplified that tendency. Our collective paean to the virtues of obsession has its roots in the Protestant work ethic, the concept of industriousness as a calling on the level of the sacred. ‘Such an attitude,’ wrote the German sociologist Max Weber in 1905, ‘is by no means a product of nature. It … can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education.’

Today, that process of education – the systematic way in which we reward and reinforce obsession – begins as early as primary school, when kids barely out of diapers can be rejected for not being academically ready. It persists throughout the school years, as teenagers compulsively assemble letter-perfect transcripts to capture the interest of brand-name colleges. And it continues well into adulthood as we cast our résumés onto the waters, scrambling for that indefinable something that will set us apart from the rest. In a system that prizes what Weber calls ‘economic survival of the fittest’, plum placements are scarce, differences between candidates are minute, and the economic implications of missing out are profound. No wonder our already-sensitive threat detectors are cranked up to orange alert.”

I’ve felt it.  I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt the pressure in our academic days to make the grade, a good impression, a daring splash in our chosen field.  Like many sociological features, there is an interplay between society and the individual.  We certainly are not hardwired to be OCD, but many aspects of our environment feed the expression of the traits we associate with OCD.  Does our society create people with OCD, or is that our society has been created by people with OCD and thus encode those features into the normative structure of our society?  I would postulate that it probably both, as that is how many social-dynamic features of society work.

Ms. Svoboda ends with a rather Aristotelian solution to the challenges she faces.  Finding a place of moderation and mindfulness, for her, is the solution that is currently working.  The dance between the positive and negative consequences of OCD is difficult, and like many psychological features not particularly clear cut or easy to accomplish.

“Is it because I’m an obsessive that I did well at school, that I applied to writing internships relentlessly until I got one, that I’m willing to pitch editors over and over until a story idea lands? Well, yes – and my obsessive ancestors probably reaped the same kinds of rewards, as do many of my contemporaries with and without OCD. But I’m also determined not to succumb to the paradox at the heart of OCD: that taking self-protection too far means engineering my own destruction. To put it another way, I still hold on to the red thread, but I no longer allow it to yank me around. Awareness has been a mitigating factor: I realise, more than I did before, the extent to which my obsessive tendency echoes our culture’s blaring, interminable one. That allows me to consider how, and whether, I want to go along with its dictates.

Would I cut the red thread completely if I could? I’m not sure, but it’s a moot point: I can’t. So I have to trust that it will continue to guide me through the labyrinth.”

 

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