BOOK REVIEW: Body Am I by Moheb Costandi

Body Am I: The New Science of Self-ConsciousnessBody Am I: The New Science of Self-Consciousness by Moheb Costandi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this book you’ll learn about: a man who wanted a perfectly healthy leg amputated, a fisherman who felt like his hands were crab claws, a woman who felt she wasn’t responsible for the actions of her hand, various people who’ve experienced “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” [i.e. feeling one has shrunk or stretched,] and about many other issues stemming from the body’s sensory and motor integration with what we think of as the mind. For most of us, the most powerful take-away to be gained from this book is just how wonderful and awe-worthy it is that we have bodies that are so well integrated and coordinated that we can go about life engaging in all sorts of fascinating and productive activities.

While this isn’t the only book that addresses this subject, I think it’s a topic worth learning more about and reflecting upon in depth. We can get so out of touch with the fact that our body is integrated with our mental and sensory experiences that we take “brain in a vat” scenarios as a given for the near future, as if one is the sum of one’s neuronal connections. This book will disabuse one this notion. In fact, the final chapter (Ch. 10) questions the proposition that copying consciousness is a matter of mastering such neuronal mapping. It’s easy to miss how much of our emotional experience is rooted in what’s happening in our guts and heart, and how much all the non-central nervous system parts of the body play in our conscious experience of the world.

I learned a great deal from this book and would highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Exquisite Machine by Sian E. Harding

The Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the HeartThe Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the Heart by Sian E. Harding
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release date: September 20, 2022

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In this book, a renowned heart researcher presents an overview of what we know (and don’t know) about the human heart: i.e. what can go wrong with it and why, how [and to what degree] it fixes itself, and what modern medicine can do to treat or replace a damaged heart. I learned the most from the middle of the book – i.e. chapters five through seven. Chapter five explores plasticity in the heart, plasticity is a concept that most people associate with the brain and its ability to rewire itself to contend with damage or changing needs. The other two chapters look at how the heart can be damaged, specifically as a result of emotional experience. A “broken heart” isn’t necessarily a misnomer.

Chapter four is also intriguing but takes the win for “which one of these things is not like the others.” It deals with big data, though not in a general sense but rather as it applies to gaining a better understanding of the heart. This chapter discusses a common challenge of medical research: that it’s hard to come up with large enough study groups of patients with close enough to the same problem to draw solid conclusions. Four also discusses the potential of the vast amount of data that exists, e.g. Fitbit heart rate figures.

The last couple chapters deal largely with the future of heart repair through genetic / biological means (as opposed to via mechanical hearts and technologies, which are dealt with in Chapter nine.) This is where the book gets to be a challenging read for a readership of non-experts. It gets technical and jargon- / acronym-heavy.

The heart is an astounding entity, relentlessly at work, rarely giving up despite regularly being subjected to intense shocks, an organ tied to our whole being in a way that humans have always felt – if only just begun to understand. If you’re interested in learning more about this magnificent organ, check this book out.

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In Tall Grass [Free Verse]

Do you feel unease,
walking in tall grass?

Visceral tension?

A primal impression from a time
when a wounded beast
[on its belly, &
with labored breath]
retained enough energy
for one last lurch
to impale its hunter?

A raspy groan or bloody burble,
and the jerky wave of the grass
might be all the warning one got
before 
The End.

The Emotional Beast [Free Verse]

We laud our rational side

- The Thinking Man -

But we're emotional beasts
to the core.

To use that old
[and disparately applied]
chestnut:

Of emotions, 
better master
than servant.

Poetry is a conduit
to emotional savvy.

That's part of the reason
Plato urged poetic restraint;

he found the emotional
inferior to the rational,
and thought most youngsters 
couldn't behave responsibly
in the face of poetry's 
emotional power.

It's also where Aristotle
found virtue in poetry,
its ability to induce 
catharsis.

Could they both 
be right?

The Yoga-Poetic Nexus

Note: This post is not advocating a new distraction yoga mashup of the type that I’ve been known to rant about, but is merely a discussion of the synergy to be found in practicing both yoga and poetry.

In Patanjali’s conception, the problem for which yoga presents a solution is the mind’s tendency to run amok. One would like to be able to hold the awareness on a given object, effortlessly and for extended periods of time, but the mind is insistent in its desire to roam. This roaming can be to many different ends, but often it’s ultimately about eliminating uncertainty. The mind wants a plan against the unexpected. It seeks solutions to problems — existing, anticipated, or imagined. It wants to replay entertaining stories, which is really a way to learn and store general solutions for later surprise problems that might otherwise catch one off-guard. The more anxious or emotionally charged the mind, the more turbulent it will be.

Poetry is the use of metaphor, imagery, and sound to strike an emotional chord. I don’t mean “emotional” exclusively in the sense of displaying strong, behavior-driving emotions. I mean all sorts of internal, subjective feelings, including nostalgia and the residue of memories and dreams.

Sometimes, the feelings a poem seeks to generate are primal emotions. For example, consider Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” [1096] (about a snake, if you didn’t make that connection) that concludes:

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

 

Or, from Poe’s “The Raven:”

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

 

Just to show that poetry isn’t all fear and melancholy, let’s look at a stanza from Whitman, from his aptly named “Poems of Joy:”

 

O to go back to the place where I was born!
To hear the birds sing once more!
To ramble about the house and barn, and over the
fields, once more,
And through the orchard and along the old lanes
once more.

 
So, emotion is the connection. Poetry helps one form, shape, and refine emotional content, and yoga helps one to experience that emotion without applying value judgments or allowing the motive force of emotion to drive one into endless cycles of destructive feedback. That is, one feels the need to think about an emotionally charged situation, and the more one thinks about it, the more intense the emotion becomes, and the more intense the emotion, the more one thinks about it. I’ll just call this process “wallowing” — wallowing in emotion.
 
The word “emotion” carries with it a lot of baggage. Emotion is often juxtaposed with rationality / reason, which isn’t accurate. (Reason works great for making decisions when there is adequate information, emotion forces one to move one’s ass when there isn’t sufficient information. So they are not so much opposites as complimentary systems supporting decision and behavior.)
 
In the common conception, emotion also tends to be more linked to the expression of emotion rather than the experience of emotion — which are necessarily related. (Some people very readily express intense emotion despite an easy life and others are non-expressive despite constant uncertainty or even challenges to survival.) When one imagines someone unburdened of emotion — e.g. fearless — one might picture a hero — bold and courageous — but what one sees among people who suffer afflictions (e.g. brain damage) that prevents them from feeling emotion is often paralysis by analysis. Without emotion to make decisions under uncertainty, such individuals simply get bogged down. Individuals who don’t feel fear, in particular, are also prone to carelessness.
 
The key to making one’s yoga and poetry practices simpatico is avoiding that very popular form of poetry — the wallowing poem. If one’s poems constantly spiral into ever greater depths of angst (as many a famous — and, sadly, suicidal — poet’s work has been known to) you might want reevaluate. And, perhaps, start with haiku and that forms Zen distaste for hyperbole or analysis.

BOOK REVIEW: Anxious Joseph E. LeDoux

Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and AnxietyAnxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph E. LeDoux
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book examines the neuroscience of anxiety, though psychology also makes a prominent appearance in the discussion – particularly toward the end of the book. It’s written by one of the top researchers in the field emotional neuroscience, though LeDoux discusses the work of other labs, comparing and contrasting their work with that of his own, and thus giving an idea of the fault lines in the field. (By that I mean more the questions that remain in dispute, not who hates whom.)

The book addresses a number of key questions such as: How does brain activity result in the emotional experience? How do conscious emotional feelings relate to and interact with non-conscious responses to threatening stimuli? Is the human emotional experience a hand over from animal ancestors or a uniquely human condition? How effective are drug-based versus psycho-therapeutic approaches to anxiety disorders? What has been learned about extinguishing anxious responses to threatening stimuli? Needless to say, this book doesn’t answer all the questions, as many of the questions – particularly those regarding consciousness – remain to be definitively answered. It does offer a great overview of the state of understanding in the present day.

I won’t present a chapter by chapter outline, but rather a look at the book’s general flow. LeDoux starts by laying groundwork, and in this case that means clarifying the relationship between fear and anxiety. While the former often captures the imagination because of its dramatic and traumatic causes, the latter is more of a concern as its grinding long-term effects can cripple the immune system and have other adverse effects. The early chapters also discuss what has been learned about how emotions are formed in the brain and how views about this have changed over time.

Chapter five is where LeDoux explores the relationship between animal emotionality and human emotional life. This is an important subject as it relates to the question of whether research with animals can teach us anything relevant to the human experience. As it has become progressively more difficult to conduct any research that causes human subjects any emotional distress, this question may be instrumental to making progress in the field.

Chapters six through eight are interconnected by the question of consciousness. Chapter six discusses the nature of consciousness, which remains one of the most slippery and least understood concepts in the natural world. Chapter seven delves into memory and consciousness – an important topic as anxious responses can be viewed as learned responses and this begs the question of unlearning. Memory will later be revisited with respect to the question of whether it’s possible to erase painful or anxiety-inducing memories (ala, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) – based on work that came out of LeDoux’s lab – and, if so, whether it’s a good idea. The final consciousness chapter gets into consciousness of emotion, specifically (as opposed to all the other thoughts and feelings of which one can be consciously aware.)

The last three chapters are also interconnected by movement from the question of how is anxiety felt / experienced to the question of what one can do about it. The first of these chapters discusses an epidemic of anxiety (entitled “40 million anxious minds,” and that refers to the US alone) and what has been learned about drug-based treatments. As it happens, drug-based treatments haven’t proven reliably effective, leaving plenty of room for other approaches, e.g. psychotherapy. This fact is the basis for the last two chapters that discuss different approaches to extinguishing the connection between a stimulus and the anxious response. The first of theses chapters (ch.10) is more general and the last chapter dives deep into the research that has been done in recent years. Chapter 11 also offers a nice discussion of how breath exercises and meditation can be instrumental in reducing the adverse effects of anxiety.

As would be expected of a scholarly work, the book is heavily annotated, has an extensive bibliography, and uses a great number of graphics in an attempt to lend clarity.

I would put this work in the same category as the works of Robert Sapolsky. That is to say, it resides in a space between the level of detail usually seen in works of popular science and that which is seen in textbooks for specialists. That is to say, LeDoux does get into some detail and this isn’t a light read for anyone without a heavy-duty background in biological sciences. That said, if you have a basic scientific literacy (and / or don’t care too much about the fine detail), it’s by no means impossibly dense. When it’s not diving into the various brain regions and neuronal pathways, it’s quite readable.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a detailed look at how anxiety arises and how it can be quelled.

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BOOK REVIEW: Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio

Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human BrainDescartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by António R. Damásio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

I’ve joked that there must be a law requiring any author writing a book on neuroscience for a popular audience to tell the story of Phineas Gage. This book is no exception. Its first couple chapters explore the case of Gage in detail. For those who don’t read much on this subject, Phineas Gage was a foreman for a construction company. By all accounts he was a reliable and solid individual, respected by his employees, trusted by his employer, and beloved by his family. Then one day a four-foot tamping rod was blown through his skull – literally, in one side and out the other. One might think that having a chunk of brain skewered out by a steel rod on a gunpowder-fueled ride through the skull would leave one – at best — a glassy-eyed, drooling, catatonic lump. Surely, a steel rod would wreak more havoc than the narrow needle used in lobotomies? However, what makes Gage’s story fascinating is that the injury resulted in no readily apparent disruption in cognitive function. Gage could still speak fluidly. He retained his memories. He could do math at the same level as before. However, this isn’t to say that the hole through his brain left him unchanged. The even temperament that made him an ideal employee and that endeared him to friends and family was gone. Gage became angry and unreliable.

So what is the relevance of the Gage story to Damasio’s book? Quite a lot, actually. Damasio’s book is about emotion, its influence on decision-making, and how bodily states create emotion. In parts two and three of this three-part book, after introducing the reader to the role of the brain in emotion via the cases of those with selective brain damage, Damasio lays out an argument for what he calls the “Somatic Marker Hypothesis” which says that bodily states are what create the sensations that we associate with emotion. The title-referenced error made by Descartes will be apparent to those familiar with Cartesian dualism. Descartes believed there was a dualism between mind and body – i.e. that there was this physical stuff that got us about from place to place, but there were these intangible thoughts and feelings that were matter-independent that were the makings of mind and which were really you (i.e. you think, therefore you are.) Damasio believes that you cannot separate what it feels like to be you from the body and all its hormones, neurotransmitters, vital statistics, neuronal firing, etc.

The book consists of eleven chapters divided into three parts. In the first part, the author lays out not only the case of Gage, but other examples of individuals who had injury or illness in the brain that disrupted emotion and its influence on decision-making. We learn that an unemotional being isn’t like Spock, but instead is paralyzed by indecision. It turns out that it’s emotion that give us a kick, particularly when he have no sound basis on which to make a rational judgement. The second part draws the connection between body and our emotional self, culminating in a description of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis. The final part describes how the Somatic Marker Hypothesis could be tested and where this line of study seems to be going. The book is annotated and has a bibliography as one would expect of a scholarly work – even one written for a popular audience. The book has a few graphics – graphs, charts, and diagrams, but not very many and of a clear and simple nature.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the working of the mind. It’s a thought-provoking look at what it means to be an emotional being and challenges our preconceptions about feelings.

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