Thursday, December 14, 2023

Q&A with Steven Lesk




Steven Lesk, M.D., is the author of the new book Footprints of Schizophrenia: The Evolutionary Roots of Mental Illness. He has been a psychiatrist since 1984.


Q: Why did you decide to write Footprints of Schizophrenia?


A: I was never satisfied with the explanations we as psychiatrists had to offer our patients about their illnesses. Catch phrases like "chemical imbalance," "genetics," or "connectivity" explained nothing.


As a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, I said to myself, who better to get to the bottom of a centuries-old conundrum than myself?


After a period of broadening my intellectual horizons, I'd felt like I'd truly found a landscape of difference in the puzzle of schizophrenia and needed to get it out to the general public and the scientific community.


It answers the most essential questions about the disease better than any so-called explanation I've read, although, in reality there are no in-depth solutions to this puzzle out there.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about schizophrenia?


A: Schizophrenics are different in their thought processes but they are neither dangerous, contagious, nor possessed by the devil. Through no fault of their own this wonderful group of people suddenly find their thinking radically altered just as they are leaving adolescence, as disorienting as any trip to Alice's wonderland.


What's more they and their families get no satisfying explanation for this bizarre process from the experts leaving them confused, in doubt about the presence of an illness in the first place, and stigmatized. My book hopes to change that.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I broadened my learning base to include anthropology, language theory, evolution, developmental psychology, and even the second law of thermodynamics to encompass a satisfying vision of something I call the “primitive organization” that repossesses the schizophrenic mind.


This organization is part of us all when in slumber, using psychedelics, or as children. It is millions of years old as opposed to the modern reality-based thought pattern of adults, but the momentum is with the past.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book called it "a fascinating study that never sacrifices complexity or interest, and a welcome resource for those eager to learn more about the disease and its roots." What do you think of that description, and what do you hope people take away from the book?


A: I like that description. Schizophrenia is a complex disease that has many red herrings which I believe psychiatric science has stumbled into.


It may be mind-stretching to imagine a condition that results from the evolutionary moment we happen to be in but if you think about it, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's chorea, stuttering, Tourrette's, dietary issues like type 2 diabetes and many others including Alzheimer's rotate around the pathology of dopamine and our renegotiated relationship with it since language.


I've tried to make the book accessible to all and believe that most will interface with the basic concepts expressed therein. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Entropy's Desire, about the lurking influence of the second law of thermodynamics on our mental, physical, and social health, including the way in which societies are organized and the relative success of plants and trees over animals.


I believe the second law of thermodynamics or entropy may be the concept of the 21st century.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My hope is to refocus our view of mental illness so as to sharpen research priorities, reduce stigma and bring illnesses like schizophrenia out of the shadows. There is hardly anyone who hasn't been impacted by this disease including the 3.5 million sufferers in this country alone, yet they remain under the radar. We can change that.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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