How distrust of the past shapes obsessive-compulsive disorder

Pinpointing an exact cause of OCD can be difficult. As Doidge writes, one particularly afflicted college student put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Miraculously, he survived, giving himself a lobotomy in the process. Upon recovering, his OCD was cured. He soon returned to college. The damage to his frontal lobes fixed his suffering, so it appears such obsessive checking and worrying is a human trait.

Not that we should ever contemplate such an extreme path. A new study, published in PLOS Computational Biology by researchers at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, adds to the literature by speculating that OCD sufferers place less trust in their past, creating a negative feedback loop as they age.

There’s a parallel with anxiety disorder. When sufferers experience a panic attack in a certain location, they imprint that environment as a place that causes attacks. When they return, the environment—more accurately, their nervous system responding to the environment—triggers a panic response. Likewise, those with OCD create a mental image of distrust from past habits. When triggered, symptoms of their disorder manifest. They leave the house, walk into the hallway or front yard, and are triggered to check that the lights are off—again, and again, and again.

For this study, lead author Isaac Fradkin and his colleagues studied 58 people with varying degrees of obsessive-compulsive symptoms. The subjects were asked to judge past experiences with recent observations. The more symptoms they expressed, the more likely they were to distrust their past. This caused them to believe that new environments are unpredictable, and therefore should be avoided or distrusted. They were actually more surprised by predictable outcomes than unpredictable ones.