In Brainstorm, psychologist Eric Maisel tells us "how to productively obsess." He defines productive obsessions as "precious human phenomena that allow for masterworks, great ideas, and the application of brain potential to everyday matters." A productive obsession, he writes, "is nothing but a passionately held idea that serves your meaning-making efforts." The book, co-authored with his wife, Ann Maisel, endorses productive obsessing as the road toward personal goal achievement and lifestyle satisfaction.
Clinically, obsessive thinking deals with irrational, unwanted, and intrusive thoughts, usually about worry and fear of catastrophic events. If a person also has debilitating compulsions associated with such thinking, we have obsessive-compulsive behavior or OCD. Maisel's thesis, it seems to me, is to turn OCD on its head--obsess about "good things" and behave accordingly. Thus, "scientific obsessions lead to miracle drugs, artistic obsessions lead to symphonies, humanitarian obsessions lead to freedom and justice." Much of the book encourages the reader through the metaphor of brainstorms, which Maisel describes as "full activation of your neuronal forces" and "light that illuminates the darkness and their fire that warms the human heart." About half-way into the book there is a "productive obsession checklist," followed by guidelines for reporting progress and tips for staying the course. Maisel even talks about forming productive obsession groups, something he does regularly in his practice and details in the book with verbatim testimonials from group members.
I was never really sold on Brainstorm, partly because of passages like this: "When, by contrast, you announce that you intend to productively obsess about the challenge at hand, your brain is alerted to the fact that you intend to operate differently. Your neurons stand at attention, and thinking commences." And too, the book rambles among psychoanalysis, cognitive-behavioral therapy, neuropsychiatry, and explanations of brain-behavior relationships that are loose and speculative. Certainly, Maisel cannot be faulted for advising people to devote themselves to their passions, cultivate goal-directed thinking, commit to behaving purposefully, and never compromising on what gives meaning to our lives. I also liked his reflections about "endurance," presented succinctly in a quote from Albert Einstein: "I know quite clearly that I myself have no special talent--curiosity, obsession, and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas." It just seems to me that the pragmatic basis of what Maisel is trying to get at could have been stated in less than 186 pages and without the soft neuroscience.
© 2011 James K. Luiselli
James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA-D is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private-practice clinician. Among his publications are 6 books and over 200 journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.