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

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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: How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsHow to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Psychedelics have been coming back into mainstream interest of late. Until recently, this renewed interest mostly occurred quietly through a continuation of scientific study, a promising line of inquiry that was aborted in the late 1960’s. There is growing evidence that these substances may be useful for combating depression, anxiety, and addiction – as well as their other, long-known benefits. (It should be noted that while it seems the writing is on the wall for these substances to become medically legitimate, it remains controversial whether they will be legalized for use by well individuals – though some were legalized in the US for a small religious group that takes them as a sacrament of their faith.) This book by the immensely popular immersion journalist, Michael Pollan, has brought the topic front and center into mass awareness, and may help turn the tide of a sullied public image.

Because these substances remain widely unknown or misunderstood, allow me to present some background — much of which Pollan discusses in varying degrees. Unfortunately, the term “psychedelic” has become so loaded with layers of meaning that it’s not optimal for discussing the topic at hand. Literally, psychedelic means “mind manifesting,” but its common meaning is tied up in notions of 1960’s counter-culture and even with styles of art and music. However, alternative terms are also troublesome. “Psychoactive substances” (i.e. chemicals that change mind states) encompasses a much broader selection of molecules and medicines – though it’s probably the most neutral term used popularly today. “Hallucinogens” is also problematic because a large portion of consumers of these substances don’t have hallucinations – at least not of the full-blown variety people normally associate with that term (i.e. seeing sights that one genuinely believes exist, but don’t.) Pollan opts to largely stick with the loaded term of psychedelic, and thus will I throughout this review.

Psychedelics are chemical substances that change one’s mindset, typically creating euphoria, shutting down “I”- centric parts of the brain such that one feels a “oneness” commonly described in the mystical traditions from around the world, and which, yes, often generate sensory experiences that aren’t reflective of the actual environment (hallucinations.) The downside is found in the fact that the substances produce constructive experiences, which means they amplify what’s in the subject’s mind, and, therefore, can result in “bad trips” in which people hallucinate terrifying products of their own subconscious mind. Pollan focuses heavily on three of the most popular psychedelics: psilocybin (naturally produced in a common species of mushroom), LSD (a chemical synthesized from ergot fungus that grow on rye), and DMT (which is most famously an active ingredient in Ayahuasca, a concoction long brewed by Peruvian Shamans.) Mescaline, which is well known from the writings of Aldous Huxley, is another popular psychedelic, but one which Pollan only mentions in passing.

To wrap up the background portion of the review, a little history. Psychedelics have been used by shamanic traditions around the world since time immemorial. In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a chemist for Sandoz Laboratories, accidentally synthesized LSD. That marked the (re-) introduction of psychedelics to the modern Western world (the ancient Greeks were believed to have mixed something with their wine that sounded like it had psychedelic properties.) Unbeknownst to most, between Hofmann’s invention and the late 1960’s, there was a promising line of research on the use of psychedelics for various conditions as well as in non-medical domains – e.g. relating the psychedelic experience to religious / mystical experience.

Unfortunately, there was a two-pronged turn of events that would end in these substances being made illegal and categorized “Schedule I” (which deems them not only risky / requiring care of use, but also denies they have any legitimate medical use – the latter seems to be proven demonstrably incorrect.) The well-known prong in the death of psychedelics resulted from the substances becoming tied into the 1960’s counter-culture, at first through shoddy scholarship by academics – most famously Timothy Leary – and then through recreational use that typically stripped away the rituals and “protocols” that had allowed shamans and mystics to safely use these substances for millennia. The second prong was government-sanctioned shenanigans in which LSD was used and misused in an attempt to create everything from truth serums to mind-control agents – most famously the MK-Ultra Program, and its sub-projects such as Operation Midnight Climax during which the CIA illegally used prostitutes to “roofie” their customer’s drinks with LSD so that a spy could covertly watch to determine whether the johns got loose-lipped or not. (Note: Pollan writes at length about the former aspect [i.e. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, et. al.] though not as much as books like Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club or Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However, Pollan only gives passing mention to MK-Ultra.) Psychedelics might have remained out of the popular consciousness and only of interest to the fringe of society that was involved with “hard drugs” had it not been (in addition to renewed scientific interest) for a blooming interest by Silicon Valley engineers and executives who took to “micro-dosing” psychedelics to obtain creativity gains.

Now, I’ll get to the review, proper: As I mentioned, Pollan refers to himself as an “immersion journalist,” which means that he provides a two-in-one book. The first element is what one would expect in a popular science book on psychedelics, i.e. he reports on the scientific findings, the key history and background information, and delivers quotes from people he interviewed. The second element, however, is description of his own psychonautic journey. Pollan consumed psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca (DMT), and also a substance excreted by a toad that lives in Mexico and the Southwestern US. The reader gets both Huxlian “trip reports” (though Pollan remains much more scientific-minded and less mystical than Aldous Huxley) as well as the objective overview of the topic.

The book consists of six chapters as well as front and back matter. The first chapter discusses the psychedelic “renaissance,” i.e. how it came to be that these substances brought back from the dead – i.e. being purely of interest to “druggies” and far-flung shamanic traditions. Chapter 2 deals largely with mushrooms, and specifically psilocybe mushrooms that are the most popular and common type of psychedelic mushroom. Pollan spent time with Paul Stamets, a world-renowned expert on all-things fungi and the man who – literally – wrote the book on psilocybe mushrooms. Chapter 3 focuses heavily on LSD, including its development and rocky history. The fourth chapter is a “travelogue” in which Pollan discusses his own experiences in taking these substances. The penultimate chapter is about the neuroscientific findings. There is much that remains to be known, but yet somethings are well-known. These substances generally mimic the neurotransmitter serotonin (though mescaline, for example, mimics dopamine.) There is also a fascinating discussion of how these substances may temporarily reduce activity in the default mode network, which is prominent in generating one’s sense of self. The final chapter examines the findings of research into the use of psychedelics as a treatment for medical conditions – particularly depression, anxiety (especially death anxiety of terminal patients), and addiction (contrary to a widespread notion, resulting from these substances being lumped in with “hard drugs,” psychedelics not only aren’t addictive, but – in many patients – they counter addictions to more dangerous drugs, such as alcohol – yeah, you read that right.)

The book contains the usual ancillary matter, including: a glossary, bibliography, and notations. As the approach is narrative, graphics are minimal.

I found this book to be highly informative and extremely readable. The use of stories to convey information makes it engaging while it educates. I would highly recommend this book for any readers who are interested in psychedelics as medicine or a mystical experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger DeepChallenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Challenger Deep” is the story of a smart and artistically talented young man, Caden Bosch, who is afflicted with Schizophrenia. There are essentially two story lines being told in parallel. One is the real world, and in the chapters in this line we see Caden’s descent as it takes place. From references to past events, we gain insight into how Caden was before the disease. In the early part of the book, these chapters are set at school and at home, and then later at the mental hospital at which he’s admitted as a patient.

In the other story, Caden is on a sailing ship headed to the Challenger Deep—the deepest portion of the Marianas Trench at almost 7 miles down, and—symbolically—Caden’s rock-bottom . Shipboard life is Caden’s hallucinated experience of the mental hospital. Over time the reader begins to match up characters from the real world with those from the delusion—both patients and staff members. This is a mutinous vessel, and the tension reflects the pull between Caden’s desire to be well and the appeal of the world of delusion.

Over time the author shows key events in both lines and the reader can connect them up to interpret how delusional Caden experiences the world. The story isn’t strictly told in a chronological order, though the broad sweep of it is. The bits of disjoint create no confusion while helping to convey the nature of a fractured mind. This works, in part, because the book is told over 161 short chapters, and, because the chapters are so short, a diversion doesn’t take one far and it’s easy to show the match up of events. The book artfully conveys the bizarreness of a dreamlike world of delusion while remaining clear and readable. Any confusion in the early chapters becomes rectified as the author reveals how the delusional world and the real world zip together.

This book was imaginative, enjoyable to read, as well as allowing the reader insight into the nature of mental illness. Atypical of a work of fiction, there is a resources section that provides contact information for organizations that support mental health.

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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