This post has also been sitting in my drafts since March, after I wrote OCD and OCD Revisited. Real quick, let me recap: I became convinced I had OCD, and the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I got several responses by e-mail from people that wanted to share their experiences, but not in a publi forum. In the meantime, I started helping myself to some meds that have seemed to help a great deal, and it doesn’t really bug me much anymore.
Anyway, writing those first two posts and reading the responses got me thinking a lot about mental health, but I never got around to finishing this post at the time. What I came to realize is that I approach the world very rationally. I think a lot of programmers and geeks are like this: we spend our days working with computers, where rules and limitations apply, and we come to expect the rest of the world to abide by some kind of rules as well. The mind doesn’t work like this, though. If your arm is broke, we can definitively say it’s broke just by looking at an x-ray. But how can we say your mind is broke? We don’t yet understand well enough how the mind works, or how it works differently for different people, to look at it and identify when something isn’t working properly. As I said to one person in e-mail, it’s like diagnosing car troubles just by listening to the engine, because you can’t pop the hood and see the crack in the carburetor. Their response:
I think you're right in that it is difficult to diagnose OCD. OCD can be manifested in so many different ways because each person is so complex and different. I also agree that everybody has varying degrees of obsessiveness. When someone has a heightened degree of this obsessiveness it can be labelled as OCD. I believe that we do have some very good trained professionals in this world that are able to determine when someone has an unusually high degree of obsessiveness. They don't have to crack the head open to see what's broken. They can observe symptoms to make a determination. Just like the common cold- the symptoms give it away. A skilled professional knows what to look for- how many times, how long, etc. If someone replays conversations for 5-20 minutes, I don't think it's OCD. But if the person replays for 2-3 hours and frequently, then that's unusual. There is definitely some gray area though between what is truly OCD and what is not.
This is the part that gets me: what is truly OCD? Do we even have a clear definition of any mental illness? How can we really know what’s going on in someone’s mind, aside from observing behaviors or watching which portions of the brain light up in an EEG? Someone else wrote me a note that included this:
I find that even though the brain is a more complex system than we can readily understand, that doesn't stop me from working on it. Frequently people make the comparison between the brain and a muscle, they way it gets stronger the more it is used. It's obviously more complicated than that, but the analogy does have some truth in it. I have, over the course of my life, been able to shape the way I think about things. It's difficult, but when you concentrate on thinking in a new manner, you make new connections, the neurons themselves actually re-align themselves to work better on something. If I consistently try to think about things differently, then after a while I do. If I constantly refuse to let myself be bothered by something, eventually it doesn't anymore. Repetition -> Belief. Which is a point not made in the 34 unconvincing arguments that you posted in your blog. But as opposed to the existence of God, here, where we are talking about something in the way we think and what we believe, repeating something often enough can actually make it true.
Anyway, the only conclusion I’ve come to is that we do all have our oddities. In between my starting this post and actually writing it today, Rands posted The Quirkbook, which struck me as a pretty good round-up of all the quirks I had come across in the course of writing these posts. Unless they’re negatively affecting your life in some way, I don’t think these kinds of things are worth worrying about.