Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Divination – A Problem of Perspective?

Recipient of a British Academy Research Grant, 2004

In 2004, my wife and I rented the DVD of a film called “As Good As It Gets”, in which Jack Nicholson depicts a writer who suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  Have a quick look at this clip:

As I watched Nicholson’s character go through his elaborate rituals—all of which are meant (both for the character and any OCD sufferer) to ward off sickness/disease and death—I turned to my wife and said: “Do you know, all of this would have looked quite normal in ancient Mesopotamia.” 

Thus was born the kernel of an idea for a research project: a comparison of what is called in modern Western society ‘Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder’ and ancient Mesopotamian divination (the observance/collection of omens and their protective rituals).  The former is considered abnormal behaviour whilst the latter was considered quite normal for nearly three millennia.  Although separated by thousands of years, a comparison of their behaviours and attributes indicates—at least superficially—that there are vast areas of similarity. 

The very act of collecting tens of thousands of omens, each complemented by its own (often) complex protective ritual, is not dissimilar in form to the ritualistic behaviour of those suffering from OCD (hand-washing, checking & re-checking locks, intrusive thoughts, repetitive behaviours, etc.).  Although not denying that there may be genetic/neurobiological influences on OCD behaviour, this research hopes to open the debate more widely to include culture as one of the carriers of behaviour patterns such as OCD and to see cultural context as a major influence on both the transmission and semantics of human behaviour patterns.

In addition to consulting standards works on OCD and histories of psychiatry, my research was aided by five psychiatrists in both the UK and the US.

My research was published in two parts, in Le Journal de Médicines Cunéiformes, Vol. 8 2006 and Vol. 9 2007.

Presentations of my findings have been given at:

  • The University of Durham, Seminar in Theology, Religion & Practice, 1 February 2006
  • The Department of Psychiatry, Wake Forest University Medical Center, 7 November 2007
  • The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London, 9 December 2008

Download the article:

You can download the article as a PDF document in the two parts originally published.

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