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: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our CapacitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are mounds of books out on the science of maximum human performance, be they on mind-hacking, sports & exercise science, or some combination thereof as applied to a particular pursuit. Hooper creates his niche by way of a broad and varied selection of topics, including: language learning, singing, running, achieving longevity, and sleeping. For the reader who is interested in the topic of how top performers in a given domain achieve that supernormal performance, it makes for an interesting read. However, it may leave some readers scratching their heads as to who the book is aimed at. It should be noted that several of the topics addressed are of much more broad-ranging appeal than those I mentioned (e.g. focus / attentiveness, bravery / courage, and resilience.)

The book is divided into three parts on “thinking,” “doing,” and “being,” respectively. The four chapters in the first part investigate the heights of intelligence, memory, language, and focus. The chapter on language deals with how some people are masterful polyglots, speaking many languages, as opposed to the harder to investigate question of how someone becomes William Shakespeare. Throughout the book, there is a mix of stories and interview insights from those who are peak performers as well as discussion of what scientific studies have found. The former makes up the lion’s share of the discussion, and the central question with of science is how much of peak performance is genetic and how much is built.

Part II, on doing, has three chapters, exploring the topics of bravery, singing, and running. This is where one really sees the book’s diversity. Books like Amanda Ripley’s “Unthinkable” address the question, among related questions, of why some act heroically, and there are a huge number of books on how to be the best runner or singer one can be, but not a lot of books take on all three questions in one section. The book on singing focuses on opera singers who belt out their tunes largely sans technology – i.e. there’s no Milli-Vanilli-ing L’Orfeo. The chapter on running gives particular scrutiny to endurance running.

Part III investigates why some people live longer, are more resilient, sleep better (or do well with less sleep,) or are happier. Since Buettner’s “National Geographic” article on “blue zones” (i.e. places where a disproportionate percentage of the population live well beyond the average human lifespan,) there’s been a renewal of interest in what science has to say about longevity. As mentioned, the chapter on sleep covers the topic from multiple vantage points. Everyone needs sleep, but some perform best with ten or more hours of sleep while others are extremely productive on four hours a day, and some can cat-nap periodically through the day while others need a single extended and uninterrupted period of sleeps. Wisely, Hooper doesn’t simply take on the question of why some people are happier than others in the book’s last chapter, but rather he asks the more interesting question of why some people who have every reason to be morose (e.g. paralyzed individuals) manage to be ecstatically happy.

The book has a references section, but there isn’t a lot of ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, etc.) It’s a text-centric book that relies heavily on stories about Formula-1 racers, opera stars, ultra-marathoners, and other extraordinary individuals while investigating the subject matter.

I enjoyed this book. I am intensely interested in optimal human performance across a range of skills and characteristics. So, I guess when people inevitably ask who the book is directed at, it’s directed at me and others with this strange fascination. If you have that interest, it’s for you as well.

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5 Haiku on Consciousness

thoughts form & float,
reflections of a gliding bird
over murky pools.

sleeping deeply,
universe? where art thou?
do you rest too?

within my dreams,
i feel the familiar,
but see the strange.

images gel,
but seeking sense in them
sends them hiding.

next car rolls fore,
i yank the parking brake,
halting false back drift.

BOOK REVIEW: Be As You Are ed. by David Godman

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana MaharshiBe As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In the early days of yoga, before there was Power Yoga or Yin Yoga — or even Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, there were three approaches to yoga. Bhakti yoga was devotional yoga, the yoga of the believers who pursued the path through worship. Karma yoga was the yoga of action: practiced by doing selfless deeds. Jnana yoga, often said to the hardest, was the path of knowledge, and it involved intense study and – in particular – introspective study of the jnani’s own mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi was one of the most well-known Jnana yogis of modern times (he lived from 1879 to 1950.)

This book presents Sri Ramana’s teachings in a question and answer format. The editor, David Godman, begins each chapter with an overview of Ramana’s views on the subject at hand, and he then launches into the Q&A exchange that makes up most of each chapter. The preludes are beneficial not only because they set up the topic, but also because they help separate Ramana’s core beliefs from the way he occasionally explained matters to non-jnani’s or those who weren’t ready to grasp what he believed was the fundamental teaching. (There’s a fair amount of, “Until you realize the self, X is true, but after you achieve self-realization Y will be true.)

Sri Ramana’s central teaching is that the jnani must actively inquire about the nature of the true self (a practice called atma-vichara, or self-inquiry.) As such, the book is organized as a guide to building a practice of self-inquiry.

The book’s 21 chapters are divided among six parts. The first part investigates the self as Sri Ramana refers to it. This isn’t the individual self that one is normally referring to in common speech. Part II is entitled “Inquiry and Surrender” and three out of the four chapters, herein, discuss the process of self-inquiry. Three chapters may sound like a lot, but this practice really is the core of jnana yoga. These chapters not only explain how self-inquiry is done and what it’s supposed to achieve, they also contrast the practice with others that bear a resemblance to atma-vichara, such as reciting “Who am I?” as a mantra, as well as, neti-neti — an exercise in negation in which one considers all the things that aren’t the self (e.g. “I am not my body.” “I am not this thought,” etc.)

Part III is about Gurus and transmission of teachings. It takes on such questions as: is a Guru necessary, and what constitutes a Guru (i.e. must it be a living human? Can it be a book?) The second chapter in this part is about sat-sang, which may be literally translated as “sitting with the guru,” but refers to a kind of transference that flows from being together.

Part IV is on meditation and yoga. Sri Ramana differentiates self-inquiry from meditation, though superficially they seem to be similar activities. He discusses dharana (concentration) and mantras in these chapters as well. One inclusion that may seem unrelated to the general theme is chapter 12, which is about the four-stage model of life called the asramas (student, householder, hermit, ascetic.) The chapter on yoga is about the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, and their relevance to the practice of Jnana yogi. It should be noted that Ramana downplays the importance of these practices to the jnana yogi (a.k.a. Jnani) with the exception of pranayama (breathing exercises.)

Part V discusses samadhi, siddhi (supernormal psychic powers that some yogis believe can be achieved), and other challenges and phenomena that may be experienced during one’s practice of self-inquiry. While superpowers sound cool, Sri Ramana (as well as Patanjali) warned against he pursuit of these abilities as they become distractions from obtaining self-realization.

That last five chapters are grouped under the title of “Theory.” These chapters deal in the big “meaning of life” kind of philosophical questions. Much of these chapters consist of Ramana telling the interviewer to stop over-intellectualizing about obscure philosophical matters and start asking oneself who is asking the question (in other words, get back to self-inquiry and forget about abstract navel-gazing.) At any rate, the questions include: was the universe created, and – if so – how? is reincarnation real? what is the nature of god? is karma real? is free will real? etc. They are fascinating questions, and Ramana offers a few intriguing ideas, but mostly discounts the value of philosophizing.

There are no graphics in this book, but there is a glossary, notes, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. At times it can be a bit repetitive. The key point that Ramana sought to get across is (in theory, not practice) straightforward. At times it seems like the questioner is badgering the witness because he doesn’t like the answer, such as when Godman wants Sri Ramana to elaborate on the nature of suffering and the need for compassionate acts. Ramana keeps telling Godman to just go back to self-inquiry and all will take care of itself. That said, Sri Ramana offers some fascinating thoughts, and generates beautiful food-for-thought.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about jnana yoga or to get a different take on the philosophy of yoga in general.

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5 Books About the Mental Side of Yoga

5.) Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi: This book, which is presented in Q&A format, explores Sri Ramana’s approach to Jñāna yoga, and explains atma-vichara, the exercise of self-enquiry that Ramana proposed was the key to self-realization.


4.) Supernormal by Dean Radin: Okay, this is an unconventional choice for the list but bear with me. (I mostly included it because I like to have an under-the-radar entry in these lists, and this seems like one that could have been missed readers of works on yoga.) Radin is a paranormal researcher who, in this case, has investigated the topic of siddhi, which are the controversial powers that Patanjali discusses in the third section of The Yoga Sutras, but which many deny are real.


3.) Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Satyananda Saraswati: This is the Bihar School of Yoga guide to meditation, and it covers both yogic meditation methods and those from other disciplines (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Western / scientific [e.g. biofeedback], etc.) By “meditation,” here I mean more than dhyana. This book uses the word in a broader and more colloquial sense that includes some practices that are normally considered pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) or dharana (concentration.)


2.) Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati:  Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) is a sustained hypnogogic state — i.e. the state of mind on the edge between wakefulness and falling into sleep. It is used both as an intense relaxation exercise as well as to access the subconscious to plant seeds therein.


1.) Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: (Sutras by Patanjali with commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar): This isn’t — strictly speaking — only about the mental side of yoga, but, in the Sutras, Patanjali makes clear that yoga is a tool to advance mental calm and clarity. There are many translations and commentaries available. Commentaries are useful because the 196 sutras are extremely sparse. Iyengar’s book is probably one of the most approachable translation / commentaries for a modern reader.

5 Myths & Misconceptions About Hypnosis


In a continuing effort to plumb the depths of the human mind, I’ve begun to learn about hypnosis through lessons, books, the practice of self-hypnosis, as well as via internet sources (yeah, dangerous, I know, but I try to be cautious.)


It turns out that there’s a lot to learn, in part, because there are so many misconceptions about what hypnosis is and how it works. Many of these incorrect ideas result from the fact that most people’s experience with hypnosis comes from watching stage hypnotists. I don’t want to suggest stage hypnotists are a disreputable lot, but seeing a show (particularly on the television) is likely to give one many a wrong impression of hypnosis because: a.) one may miss the fact that there is screening process going on (often carried out in an entertaining and interactive fashion so as to be part of the show and including innocent elements like calling for volunteers) to get a very select group on stage who are highly susceptible to hypnotic trance  — and probably more gregarious / free-spirited than average. b.) stage hypnotists (and less reputable therapeutic hypnotists) will occasionally say things that are… strictly speaking… untrue. This isn’t [necessarily] to be conniving or underhanded, but instead to prime subjects to be less resistant and skeptical. c.) what makes for an impressive show isn’t what makes for the most effective hypnotic induction / deepening for the average person (which tends to be a rather dull and drawn out affair.)


5.) A hypnotic trance is an unattentive and zombified state of mind. In a hypnotic trance, one is extremely relaxed physically, but one’s mind is highly focused on one particular stimuli (often this is the hypnotist’s voice but it might be awareness of breath, bodily sensation, imagery, or it might involve systematically cycling through a number of different sensory inputs at the hypnotist’s suggestion.) A common example used to help an individual understand what hypnosis will be like is the condition of being zoned out while driving, arriving with no recollection of the past ten miles because one’s mind was focused elsewhere.


The fact that memory can be impaired (not unlike when one is falling asleep or sleeping) and that suggestion of selective impairment (e.g. forgetting one’s name or a particular number or letter) is a common stage trick, makes people think that the subject has mentally flown the coup.


4.) Every person can be readily hypnotized. There’s a sense in which this may be true, and that’s that everybody seems to fall into a trance now and again. Remember, it’s just like zoning out when one is driving. But what most people are thinking of with this myth is more along the lines that any hypnotist worth his/her salt can drop any random person into a deep trance with the snap of a finger and the word “sleep.” However, the science suggests a bell-shaped curve with a lower 15 %-ish who are extremely hard (if not impossible) to induce into a hypnotic trance and a higher 15%-ish who are a piece of cake to hypnotize. The rest fall in the meaty middle, and can be hypnotized but with greater effort and with lower levels of suggestibility. So when a person says, “Oh, I don’t think I could be hypnotized at all,” the odds are against them.  On the other hand, contrary to Hollywood hypnotism and the wishes of Sidney Gottlieb, anyone can resist hypnosis if they decide to — and, sometimes, if they just can’t help themselves.


3.) Dumb people can’t be hypnotized and smart people are more hypnotically susceptible. I see this a lot on YouTube videos and books by hypnotists, and it sounds good. However, when I looked at the peer-reviewed academic publications, I saw something else. Scholars studying what personality traits correlated with hypnotic susceptibility found no such relationship for intelligence and ease of entering a hypnotic trance.


I don’t think hypnotists are lying for the sake of duplicity. First of all, many are probably parroting a line that they heard, that confirmed their beliefs / wishes, and that they never thought to investigate. Others are just trying to make a hard job easier. Think about it, if you tell your audience that dumb people can’t be hypnotized, and that the smartest people are the most easily hypnotized, people are going to be more eager to appear hypnotizable and will be less resistant. People don’t like to look unintelligent, especially in front of huge groups of strangers.


If you’re interested in knowing what personality trait is the most strongly correlated to hypnotic susceptibility (of the limited set that’s been studied so far,) it’s absorption — i.e. the proclivity to get deeply absorbed in a task. So, if you know a person who consistently has to have his or her name called half a dozen times to pull them out of a zone, there’s a good chance that person would make an awesome hypnotic subject. (Note: we all get that way now and again, we’re talking about someone who is consistently / frequently prone to that state.)


2.) A hypnotist can make a subject do anything he wants. People get this idea from movies and from only hearing half the story of expensive (but largely ineffective) programs like America’s MK Ultra and Soviet Psychotronics. The consensus view is that a hypnotist can get the average subject to do something that they wouldn’t do without suggestion as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do. So you might get an average person to raise their hand, because it’s not embarrassing, painful, or dangerous — and so they won’t be reticent to do it. Squawking like a chicken? Only if the person is the kind who doesn’t mind hamming it up. Murdering someone Manchurian Candidate-style? That’s pure fiction.


I heard a hypnotist say that gregarious people are more hypnotizable. In accordance with the scholarly findings mentioned in item 3, I suspect it’s more accurate to say that a stage hypnotist wants a subject who is both hypnotically susceptible and gregarious. That’s where selecting for people who are outgoing and who don’t object to hamming it up comes in. I don’t know that its true that outgoing folk are inherently more prone to reach a trance state, but they’ll be more fun to watch on stage because they are likely to follow suggestions to do more flamboyant deeds. Of course, studies of personality traits and hypnotic susceptibility don’t usually involve stage hypnosis, so maybe it is true that people who are more gregarious are more prone to trance (or, probably more accurately, less resistant to it) in that particular environment.


1.) Hypnosis involves a hypnotist taking over the mind of a subject. There’s a common refrain that one hears from hypnotists and that’s that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. One’s mind remains one’s mind throughout, even if one is more prone to accept suggestions. The confusion arises from the fact that we hear hypnotists making suggestions and see the subject following said suggestions, even when they involve activities we wouldn’t want to (and probably wouldn’t) do. This looks like the subject is under the command of the hypnotist, but they call them “suggestions” for a reason. For reasons that still aren’t entirely understood, people are more prone to respond positively to suggestion while in the hypnotic trance state.


Here’s a video on the science of hypnosis:

BOOK REVIEW: Messy by Tim Harford

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our LivesMessy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The book’s premise is simple: being neat and tidy isn’t the great virtue you’ve been led to believe, and being messy isn’t inherently a vice. Over nine chapters, Harford explores the various dimensions in which our impulse to toward tidiness can get in our way, and for which a little messiness might be the cure. Each chapter uses a central story or two as exemplars, with other stories and anecdotes providing support.

The book’s introduction sets up the idea by describing a famous concert in Köln (Cologne) by Kieth Jarrett in which the pianist reluctantly agreed to play the concert on a sub-par piano, and (it’s argued because of the limitations of that instrument) went on to produce the best-selling solo jazz album. This tale sets up chapter one, which focuses on creativity, nicely. Creativity may be explicitly the topic of chapter one, but it’s a concept that cuts across the entirety of the book. Tidiness – it is argued — is antagonistic to creativity. In the first chapter, Harford describes how David Bowie partnered up with Brian Eno, and how Eno’s “oblique strategies” – while they annoyed the musicians to no end by throwing monkey wrenches into the act of making music – were highly successful in producing a unique sound.

Chapter two discusses collaboration, which always makes a mess. Central to this chapter is a discussion of the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős and the famous Erdős number that virtually all scholars are familiar with — at least those in who work in math, science, engineering, and other disciplines with a quantitative bent. It’s sort of a Kevin Bacon six-degrees-of-separation for those who make mathematics. The number describes how far removed one is from having a paper penned with this notoriously prolific mathematician (co-authored, one removed co-author, etc.,) and everyone publishing quantitative / mathematical scholarship desired a low number. The point made by Harford wasn’t just that collaboration in general is messy, but that working with Erdős, specifically, was, and it required collaborators to adjust to his peculiar, professorial ways.

Chapter three explores how tidy workplaces sometimes hinder productivity. The central case is MIT’s Building 20, which was popped up in record time to meet a wartime demand. The building housed a disproportionate amount of world-class science and engineering, and it’s argued that this was in part because its poor design put random people together on long walks to exits or toilets, and in part because – since it was a hideous monstrosity of a building – no one cared if its labs and offices were a mess or not.

Chapter four delves into the value of mess in improvisation. Of course, Jazz is revisited in this chapter, but the lead story is Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech and how it came out of being forced by circumstance to abandon his usual process of extensive preparation and editing. Chapter five describes messy tactics as winning strategies. Erwin Rommel’s success by disruption and chaos creation is at the heart of this chapter as is the development of Britain’s SAS which sometimes beat Rommel at his own game by using a similar approach using smaller, more agile, and more elite forces. There is also an extensive discussion of how Amazon went from humble beginnings to being the 800 pound gorilla of online shopping.

The sixth chapter investigates the role of incentives. For an economist, this is a fascinating topic as the key to understanding economic behavior is usually to follow the incentives. Of course, unintended consequences often go hand in hand with attempts to produce / manipulate incentives. Much of this chapter describes how attempts to tie up loose ends through regulation have ended up generating worse outcomes than could ever have been anticipated.

The next chapter (ch. 7) is about automation, which could be seen as an attempt to clean up messy activities. Harford discusses the situation with self-driving cars, which it’s hoped will help to make highways safer. However, the case he concentrates on is that of flight Air France 447, which went down in part because its inexperienced pilot at the helm couldn’t cope when the fly-by-wire system designed to anticipate and smooth the pilot’s inputs into the controls suddenly went off-line. In other words, the junior pilot wasn’t used to flying messy.

Chapter 8 is about resilience, and here the author challenges the age-old economic notion that specialization always results in greater productivity. Harford suggests that diversity and intermixing of activities and people – rather than specialization and homogenization – often results in a better outcome. The final chapter takes a wider view at how being messy can help one in life. The author spends a great deal of space to the question of how on-line dating services do such a poor job – spoiler alert – they try to make the messy process of finding a soul mate neat and tidy.

The book has citations and end-notes. In the Kindle edition, these notes are hyperlinked for ease of use. There are no graphics, but they aren’t missed.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it to offer many fascinating cases. I will say, as I was reading these well-researched and interestingly described cases, I sometimes had to think hard (maybe do some mental gymnastics) to make the connection between the case at hand and the book’s central theme – leaving me to wonder if I was missing something or whether there wasn’t some shoe-horning of interesting anecdotes into the book to produce a work that was more about being interesting than about proving a particular point. That said, I would recommend the book, particularly for anyone interested in increasing their creativity, productivity, or both.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Memory Illusion by Julia Shaw

The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False MemoryThe Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory by Julia Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Julia Shaw is a psychologist who conducted research into whether (and how) false memories could be “planted” in a person’s mind – and not just any memories, but memories of having committed a crime that one actually didn’t. That research is fascinating, and I think it’s tremendously valuable given the disparity between how accurate people believe their memories are and how fallible they are in practice. This disparity has played a major role in many a miscarriage of justice with eye-witnesses historically being considered the gold standard of evidence in criminal trials. Of course, I’m also a bit uneasy about people learning the recipe for an optimal process of generating false memories as it has the taint of being MK Ultra-level nefarious. (Though it should be pointed out that subjects must be active – if unwitting – participants in creating these false memories, so “planting” memories is an oversimplification.) This book discusses Shaw’s research, but it’s more of an overview of science’s understanding of the limits of memory and how those limits conflict with our beliefs – at least about one’s own memory [we often recognize how fallible other people’s memories are.]

The book consists of ten chapters. Chapter one dives into to one of the most common occurrences of false memory, and that’s the claim by some people that they remember events from their infancy – if not their own birth. Shaw presents the evidence for why such memories aren’t possible. This sets up the whole subject nicely because one must ask how so many people can claim to remember events that are physiologically impossible for them to have remembered, and to frequently be right about most key details. No one is suggesting that such people are liars (not all – or even most — of them, anyway.)

Imagine a school-age child hearing a story about his or her life as a baby. Hearing said story triggers a visualization in this child’s mind, and that visualization might well be filed away in memory, but when that memory is recalled the person in question may not realize she is recalling her imagined image of a story and not the actual event itself. Herein lies the crux of false memory: 1.) anything one visualizes in detail might potentially be stored away and become undifferentiated from the experiencing of an event; 2.) when we recall a memory we are recalling the last time we remembered it and not the event directly, and this can lead to a disparity between the memory and the actual event as it gets tied up with what’s going on in one’s mind at the time.

Chapter two explores perception, and how flawed perceptions may become flawed or tarnished memories. Just as memory isn’t the direct recording of events that we often feel it is, perception isn’t a direct replication of the world but rather a model generated in the brain. Therefore, the limitations and inaccuracies of the mental model are the first line of deviation of memory from reality. Chapter three describes how the brain’s physiology and evolutionary biology produce limitations to our ability to remember – limitations in spite of which we could thrive in the world in which we evolved.

Chapter four begins a series of chapters that take on specific objections that will arise to the ideas about false memory presented in the early chapters. This chapter counters an anticipated objection about people who seem to have perfect memories. In other words, a reader might admit that most people’s memories are crap (and even that his own memory isn’t infallible,) but what about the people with Las Vegas stage shows or the Asperger savant who knows every phone number in the Manhattan White Pages? Surely, these rare cases disprove the general idea of how memory works. Shaw shows that none of these people have perfect memory. Some have spectacular autobiographical memory (memory for their own life events) and others are exceedingly skilled at using mnemonic devices to remember any facts, but they all have limits. There’s also a discussion of how an unusually perfect autobiographical memory is often more of a curse than a blessing. We forget for good reason.

Chapter five examines another common memory fallacy, which is that one can remember best by getting the middleman of the consciousness mind out of the way and feeding data directly into the subconscious. In other words, it takes on subliminal learning. You may be familiar with the idea from ads suggesting that you can learn French in a couple of weeks without cracking a book just by playing audio tracks in one’s sleep and letting oneself learn effortlessly. Like every program that promises growth without effort, this one is debunked. Studies suggest that if one sleeps during such nights, one won’t learn, and if one learns, one isn’t actually sleeping. In other words, learning requires one’s attention.

I will say, the book fell off the rails for me a bit during this chapter. As I wrote in a recent blog post about psychological concepts that even psychologists repeatedly get wrong, Shaw denies the existence of hypnotic trance state as an altered state of consciousness. However, it becomes clear she isn’t arguing against the scientific perspective of what hypnosis is (a physically relaxed but highly mentally attentive state) and is rather denying the misconceived popular notion that seems to involve a person (possibly wearing a glittery cape) taking control of another person’s mind and making them into a zombified drone. She writes in an odd, round-about fashion on this subject as well as the topic of brainwashing – for which she offers her own value-laden definition. I’m not so sure that she didn’t understand hypnosis as much as she wanted to make sure her work was thoroughly distanced from hypnosis and brainwashing. It seems just seems strange and a bit dubious that a scholar studying false memory wouldn’t be thoroughly familiar with the literature on suggestibility and the states of mind most associated with it, i.e. hypnosis. I can only imagine the hoops she had to go through to get her research design through an IRB. (IRB’s are review boards that make determinations about whether a research project is – among other things – ethically defensible. After a series of famous — and ethically questionable — studies by the likes of Stanley Milgram, Ewen Cameron, and Timothy Leary, to name a few, psychology has come under great scrutiny.)

Chapter six asks whywe believe our memories are so awesome despite all evidence to the contrary. This comes down to why most of us unjustifiably judge ourselves superior in most regards. As is true of drivers, almost every person thinks she is better than average in the realm of memory. This is important because it’s not so much that our memory is fallible that leads to problems but that it’s fallible while we think it’s perfect. Chapter seven challenges the belief that there are certain events that are indelibly etched into our brains such as (depending upon age) the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, or 9/11. Such memories were once considered “flash bulb” memories, perfect renderings of societally traumatic events carved into our synapses. However, once these memories started to be put to the test, it was found that the details — vis-à-vis where one was and what one was doing at the time — are often wrong.

Chapter eight discusses how media and social media mold memories. One element of this is group-think. One’s memories may be molded through manipulation of the fact that people will readily believe that which is consistent with their beliefs while denying that which is inconsistent – regardless of facts and evidence. This chapter also takes on how social media influences memory as a distraction and because of so-called digital amnesia in which people remember less because they figure they can look it up at any time in the vastness of the internet.

Chapter nine proposes that even one’s most traumatic memories aren’t necessarily accurate, and – in fact – might be more likely to be fallacious. This may be the most important chapter of the book because it shows how a confluence of factors (namely, bad questioning tactics and peer / societal pressure) can result in the inadvertent planting of false memories. The chapter focuses on a series of Satanic ritual sexual abuse cases, a number of which were eventually disproved. So eager to build a case to bring believed wrong-doers to justice, law enforcement officers sometimes inadvertently pressured children into making up stories under the guise of trying to get them to open up, stories that sometimes became false memories.

Chapter ten shifts gears to consider what one can do about the issue of faulty memory – in other words how one can avoid being manipulated through exploitation of the limitations of one’s own memory. This is valuable information and not just for legal purposes but for life in general.

The book has a few graphics as necessary throughout the book and has end-notes to provide sources and elaboration on comments in the text.

I found this book to be immensely valuable as food-for-thought. The author presents many fascinating stories and the results of intriguing research studies, all in a readable package. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the subject of the limits of human memory, how these limits can be manipulated, and how that manipulation can impact the criminal justice process.

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BOOK REVIEW: Perfect Breathing by Al Lee and Don Campbell

Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a TimePerfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time by Al Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is no set of yogic practices with a greater power to transform one’s life than breathing exercises (pranayama.) With this in mind, I’m always on the look out for new sources of insight into breathing – be it from free-divers, Buddhists, sports scientists, yogis, martial artists, or else-wise. This book provides an overview from a diverse set of experts with descriptions of a number of different breathing practices (e.g. Taoist qi gong, yogic pranayama, a practice for runners, etc.,) but it takes as its central tenet a six-second breath that it recommends as the titular “perfect breath.”

Breathing practices are often underestimated. People, after all, figure that they’ve been breathing every day of their lives, so who can teach them anything on the subject. The idea of reading a book on breathing is right up there with watching the paint dry or the grass grow for excitement. Unfortunately, in parts – many densely pack up front – the authors do too little to dissuade readers of this belief. In early chapters and sprinkled throughout, the book is rife with truisms and banal comments that will leave the rankest neophyte thinking they aren’t going to learn anything of value. That said, I’m glad I kept with it, because the authors convey some powerful insights by telling the stories of people from various walks of life who’ve achieved great things by improving their breath.

The book is organized around a central structure of breathing as a tool for improvement of body, mind, emotion, and spirit. This is sound approach to covering the topic, and the discussion of breath as a means to emotional control is particularly beneficial and welcome. It could be argued that the coverage of the topic of spirituality could have been jettisoned without much loss. The authors talked around the subject in away that was vague and insubstantial. To be fair, they may have been trying to avoid running afoul of individuals who were either secular / scientific (non-spiritual) or who had strong sectarian beliefs on spiritual matters.

The book has seven parts. Part I consists of two chapters that offer an introduction into the topic. These could have been pared down without substantial loss of value. Part II (Ch. 3 – 8) is entitled “Your Perfect Breath” and it discusses developing awareness of breath, body, emotion, spirit, and introduces the fundamentals of how one should breath the “perfect breath.” Part III (Ch. 9 – 12) explores the role that breathing practices can have on improving health outcomes. It’s well established that the body puts healing / rebuilding on hold under high stress, when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Breathing practices can help trip parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity. Part IV (Ch. 13 – 15) is of particular interest to athletes and those who want to perform better at some physical or mental activity. In addition to discussing both physical and mental performance, the authors devote a chapter to what is sometimes called Flow (Csikszentmihaly) or The Zone, and how breath can play into quieting the mind to facilitate said state. Part V (Ch. 16 – 19) is about breathing as a means to take control of one’s emotional life. People in the throes of emotional turmoil are unlikely to notice how that turmoil influences their breath, but it has a major impact — and it’s a two-way street, i.e. one can help mitigate excessive emotional response through breath. Part VI (Ch. 20 – 21) is devoted to spirituality and the nexus of breath and prayer or meditation. The final part (Ch. 22) explores the idea of the final breath. I thought this was a valuable discussion, given the tremendous anxiety of coming to one’s last breath and its impact on people’s lives.

There are no graphics in the book. They aren’t greatly missed, but might have been useful in places. (It’s probably more accurate to say the authors could have gone into more depth if they’d used graphics and not stayed in such vague territory.) There is an appendix that lists and briefly describes the included exercises, and the e-book / Kindle version includes hyperlinks to the detailed description in the book’s interior. Having a link to the practices is a useful feature. There is also a short section of recommended readings.

While it took me a bit of time to get traction in reading this book, once I did, I learned a great deal. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in an overview of breathing practices for health, emotional control, and increased physical performance. The authors transmit expertise from a broad range of experts from various walks of life.

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5 Psychological Concepts Psychologists Disagree About [or Just Plain Get Wrong]

Every academic discipline has a concept or two that its scholars disagree upon. In the social sciences, these can even be the fundamentals of the subject, and, sadly, they aren’t always so much disagreements of definition as concepts the experts don’t grasp. In Economics [the discipline I was educated in], there is a famous war over whether economists understand “opportunity cost” — a concept that is raised not only in undergraduate texts but even in high school classes.

That said, Psychology appears to take the cake for being the most internally confused academic discipline. Ever. I first became aware of this problem with respect to a subject I have great personal experience with (by virtue of  being firmly lodged in said category), and that’s introversion.

Recently, this psycho-confusion has come up again as I’ve been reading two books that have major discussions around psychological definitions. One is Dean Haycock’s Murderous Minds, which devotes a whole chapter to the fight over how psychopathy is defined and differentiated from other conditions (in part, because another term — Sociopath — exists to spur confusion, but even without that term [which some psychologists think of as a synonym and others think of existing in another ballpark] there would be a huge gulf in expert opinion.)

The second book is Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion, which is a fascinating and generally thought-provoking book. In it, Shaw claims that hypnotism doesn’t exist.  I found this difficult to believe (both because I’ve been in a hypnotic trance state and because there is a well-established literature on the subject [i.e. it’s not like parapsychology concepts, e.g. clairvoyance, which are highly controversial]) until I realized that Shaw’s definition of hypnosis was filled with all the misconceptions that one would expect of an individual entirely unfamiliar with a hypnotic trance — except maybe having seen a stage hypnotist once or twice.

5.) Introversion: Introverts are often confused with those who have social anxiety disorder(severe shyness) — which an introvert may or may not have, but which an extrovert also may or may not have. (While it’s probably true that introverts experience social anxiety disorder at a higher rate than extroverts, there is a big problem with equating the two — not the least of which is that one can beat one’s social anxiety and still be an introvert.) It should be pointed out that Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet (among others) has done a lot to bring a consensus view to the subject, but one still hears people — even experts — equating shyness and introversion.


4.) Psychopathy: Like many confused topics (including introversion and hypnosis), part of the problem is that everybody has a mental construct of what psychopathy is before they learn anything formally about it, and sometimes those preconceptions survive the presentation of formal knowledge — even, apparently, for the experts.  Maybe a person has read American Psycho or maybe they’ve seen Dexter or the movie Psycho, and so they know very well that a psychopath is a murderous maniac, and, therefore, they may not swallow the information that most psychopaths function just fine in society and aren’t even considered inherently mentally ill.


3.) Schizophrenia (v Split Personality): This is probably one of the most discussed of the confusions in the field. To be fair, this may be largely ironed out these days, but it certainly took long enough. Multiple Personality Disorder (commonly called Split Personality but today called Dissociated Identity Disorder [DID]) is usually a trauma-based disorder that results in schisming of personhood. Whereas, Schizophrenia is a genetically transmitted disorder that involves a disconnect with reality, but not necessarily a separation of personalities.


“Hypnotisk” by Richard Bergh (1887)

2.) Hypnosis: I mentioned Julia Shaw’s statement that hypnosis doesn’t exist. In her book, she mentions several preconceptions about hypnosis that are quite different from my limited (but existent) experience with hypnosis. To be fair, many hypnotists would tell you that the term hypnosis (coined by Scottish surgeon James Braid) is a confusing choice because “hypno” suggests the state is like sleep — which, not so much. First, Shaw calls the hypnotic trance state a non-attentive state. (This comes up because she is making the point that attention is critical to memory formation, which is probably entirely true and I don’t have any dog in the fight of whether hypnosis can help memory.) What I am arguing is that hypnosis is not a non-attentive state. It’s a highly relaxed state, but might be more accurately called a hyper-attentive state. Maybe the confusion is because stage hypnotists frequently successfully suggest participants temporarily forget things in deep trance, but keeping one’s attention focused  (on what may vary, though it’s usually voice) is critical to the hypnotic trance state. Second, she suggests that hypnosis is an act that must hinge on the activities of the hypnotist — i.e. the hypnotist as sine qua non.  I think many, if not all, hypnotists would admit (often begrudgingly) that the hypnotist is the most dispensable element of the process — or, as it’s more commonly phrased, “all hypnosis is self-hypnosis.” Third, she seems to have problem with hypnosis being considered an altered state of consciousness. To my mind, everything but ordinary waking consciousness is an altered state of consciousness. I don’t know of any way in which a hypnotic trance state could be confused with ordinary waking consciousness. (If you’re sure of it, go to a dentist who uses hypnotism for pain reduction and have them yank your tooth in a state of ordinary waking consciousness, and then compare your experience to the individuals who had it done under hypnosis. See here for a related BBC special on the Science of Hypnosis.)


1.) Delirium  (v. Dementia):  To be fair, by the time an individual is in a full-blown state of either, these conditions are nearly impossible to distinguish and have overlap. However, delirium has quick onset, involves severely impaired attention, and can fluctuate greatly from one day to the next. On the other hand, dementia often progresses slowly, begins with mild impairment of attention and focus, and is a far more consistent state.