The Psychopath Test – review

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryThe Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jon Ronson’s the Psychopath Test is a compelling and entertaining documentary novel about clinical categorisation of mental illness. This is a fascinating foray into the prevalence of psychopathy within the criminal justice system, most obviously, but more intriguingly into identifying psychopaths within the power-wielding echelons of society, where it is asserted that psychopathic traits enable an individual to thrive.

Ronson introduces us to some charismatic, confident and mercenary characters from convicted murderers to billionaire businessmen in a variety of environments from high-security prisons to opulent estates as he investigates the nature of psychopathy, if they really do meet Bob Hare’s criteria and what that means. Throughout his encounters which he approaches with a remarkably cavalier attitude, the author endearingly reveals his naivety, arrogance, insensitivity, fear and doubts as we get to know the surface of his, simultaneously, charming and menacing interviewees.

There is discontinuity throughout the book which can, at times, seem like a number of disparate journalistic articles shoved together between the covers and the structure is so loosely circular it’s hardly worth referring back to Being or Nothingness at the end. However, the reporter’s journey is the glue that holds it together as Ronson’s personal foibles and anxieties add an appealing quality of self-awareness to the novel that finds him ultimately examining his own mental health in relation to the moral impetus and nature of his enquiry into psychopathy.

The Psychopath Test raises important questions and warnings about the necessity, the fallibility and the dangers of clinical labelling but as he turns the spotlight inward to his own profession, Ronson critically observes media treatment of those who are just the right kind of mad for the public to swallow with their eggs on toast in the morning.

Jon Ronson’s fast-paced, journalistic style and neurotic wit make the Psychopath Test a hugely entertaining and greatly informative read easily digestible within 3 or 4 evenings. I highly recommend this book and yes, I did take the psychopath test and I’m quite confident that I could do a much better job than Robert Hare and my list will attain global renown, once I have lied and connived my way into the Royal College of Psychiatrists, about which I will feel absolutely no remorse. 😉


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Islands of Genius – Review

Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden SavantIslands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant by Darold A. Treffert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Islands of Genius is an enlightening journey into the breadth and depth of Savant Syndrome through scientific evidence and case studies from the authors wealth of experience as a psychiatrist specialising in the epidemiology of Savant syndrome in autism.

Treffert presents an intriguing argument that the evidenced existence of unlearnt knowledge in music, art, mathematical ability, literature and so on, in people with Savant Syndrome or a prodigious ability, is indicative of genetic memory that is present in us all.

The author goes on to ask if people with a learning disability, CNS injury,dementia or other condition that inhibits left-brain function and stimulates right-brain function (a common factor in Savant sydrome cases), can access a reservoir of information stored in their DNA, is it possible for neurotypical people to access the same through conscious right-brain stimulus?

Genetic memory and epigenetics are complicated fields of study and Treffert introduces us to the lived examples of this in an accessible way. Meeting people in the book, like Kim Peek, Alonzo Clemons and the larger than life Temple Grandin, is an enriching experience. There are plenty of references to direct you to films about the people you are introduced to in the case studies, making this book a very interactive tool and bringing the pages to life.

The content is greater than the written style. Many parts of the book are repetitive. It could be a lot more concise and would probably be more powerful if it were edited down.

The case histories are integral to introduce you to some very important people, but they are all approached with the same success story formula which becomes predictable and, unfortunately, less impactful. They tend to reduce the people they describe to their savant ability and the positive effect of that skill in their life, always with the support of a loving family. It gives the impression that the author is extracting the information they need to convey a strongly-held belief or argument, rather than letting the information speak for itself. Because of this, the book is a little too prescribed. After the first five cases, you hear the author’s message loud and clear but you do not get to know the individuals themselves in any other way, which keeps you at a distance from the person behind the condition.

However, the subject matter of this book is highly valuable and the concepts that it posits are not only brilliant in themselves theoretically, but they can, do and should be ever more applied to uncovering vast, untapped oceans of diverse intelligences and abilities and potential for human development.

Islands of Genius is a living thing and when you absorb the ideas within it, you feel inspired and compelled to share its capacity to make you think and its humbling attention to the people who grace its pages and for that I am incredibly grateful to its author. Read it.

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