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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Descent of Madness: Evolutionary Origins of Psychosis and the Social Brain

by Burns, J

on 20/01/2011


Price: £19.90

Published: Jan 2007

Format: kindle, paperback

No Pages: 288 pages

 

ISBN-13: 9781583917435

Category: Academic


Evolutionary Psychiatry has, in the past, been branded as a ‘fairy tale’ science, rich in conjecture but lacking in hard evidence.  Dr Burns attempts to reconcile this in The Decent of Madness, a far reaching and ambitious journey through pertinent evolutionary theory and neuroscience.

The central theory is that our brains have evolved to allow us to engage in social behaviour, and it is this process, particularly the establishment of large sweeping white matter tracts, that may become dysfunctional in those with psychotic disorders.  This, in itself, is an old argument but Dr Burns supports it by incorporating a review of the latest fMRI data as well as examples of comparative anatomy amongst the great apes, charting the potential pitfalls of our own cerebral phylogeny.

Such an approach moves away from traditional psychiatric thinking concerning the proximate causes of a person’s distress and focuses on the ultimate factors.  The author postulates that any deviation from normal cognitive processes must have an adaptive and evolutionarily desirable process at its baseline.  It is such variations that we see at the extreme end of human thinking and behaviour.  Surprisingly, the genetic mechanisms by which these traits have survived in our collective gene pool are covered only briefly, although admittedly further technical detail may alienate some readers.

The best chapter of the book is a slight deviation from its primary aims.  In a review of some of the best phenomenological thought of the past decades, Burns attempts to reconcile evolutionary theory with psychopathology, in particular the importance of dysfunctional theory of mind processing.  The importance of this type of cognition in evolutionary terms and how it becomes maladaptive in mental health to produce positive symptoms is fascinating.

The Decent of Madness is a very readable, comprehensively researched and ultimately empathetic introduction to this rich and varied field.  Despite some of the theories presented being well trodden paths, this synthesis of different schools of thought gives a unique and cutting edge insight into the future of psychiatric thinking.


Dr Harry Haynes

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