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: Behave by Robert Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and WorstBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the role of biology in the best and worst of human behaviors – as well as presenting factors that compete with or complement biological explanations, as the author finds relevant. Sapolsky is neuroscientist (specifically, a neuroendocrinologist) with a unique perspective as his research cuts across species – involving not only human beings but also baboons. Sapolsky investigates why humans fight, cooperate, rape and forgive by comparing and contrasting human behavior with what is seen in the animal kingdom.

The first thing a potential reader must realize is that Sapolsky dives into the weeds more so than most scientists writing for a popular audience. This will be a plus if one’s grasp of science (biology, in particular) is strong. However, if the reader hasn’t read anything on biology since high school or freshman year of college, one is likely to find the names and descriptions of hormones and neurochemicals, brain sectors, and protein processes a bit daunting. The book has three appendices that offer primers on neuroscience, endocrinology, and proteins, respectively, to get readers up to speed on the basic science. Furthermore, Sapolsky is quick to point out what can be skipped by readers who don’t want so much detail. I don’t want to give the impression the book is boring. Sapolsky uses humor and story to good effect. It’s just that he gets into Latin names and physiological minutiae at a level that most of his counterparts don’t, and that some readers will find challenging.

While not formally divided so, the seventeen chapters of the book can readily be split in two parts. The first ten chapters discuss the types of behavior that Sapolsky is taking on, and then work back from what happens immediately before a behavior (i.e. one second before) through neuronal, hormonal, and other proximal causes to the far distant causes rooted in human evolution. The first half of these chapters take one to a point in the individual’s life at most months out from the behavior under consideration. Chapters six through eight go back to the individual’s youth, exploring the role of adolescence, infancy, and fetal development. Chapters nine and ten peer back before the birth of the individual to those who contributed indirectly to the individual’s vice or virtue, including the role of the broad run of human evolution. It should be pointed out that this first part is where the aforementioned technical depth is mostly observed.

The second part of the book changes the approach by taking a more topical approach. Said topics include: us/them discrimination, hierarchy (and the acceptance / rejection thereof), morality, empathy, metaphors and symbols that become integral to good and bad behavior, the biology of free will (or the lack thereof,) and consideration of the question of whether humanity is getting more peaceful (as Steven Pinker argues in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” [which is arguably one of the main competitors to Sapolsky’s book, though the focus is a little different.]) This second part gets much more into the social science perspective, and isn’t as scientifically dense as the first portion of the book.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the good, the bad, and the ugly of human behavior. With the exception of getting a little technical in spots, it’s quite readable and interestingly organized and presented. As one can’t help get into political and cultural norms in a book on human behavior, Sapolsky betrays his personal biases here and there, but is quick to admit when there is evidence against them (or no evidence at all, either way.) I felt he maintained a reasonable scientific objectiveness, but others may feel differently.

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2019: A Year Finding Out How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt I [The Mushroom]

For the past five years, since I moved to India, I’ve been studying what my mind is and what it’s capable of. I’ve used tried and true methods, including: yogic dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) techniques, Vipassana meditation,  dream yoga/ lucid dreaming [albeit, with limited success,] and the practice of self-hypnosis.

In 2019, while continuing the trend, I’m going to get into the weeds and see how strange the mind gets. I was originally going to entitle this “My Year of Exploring Varieties of Conscious Experience,” but that sounded punishingly boring. The current title may come off as frivolous, but I hope is more intriguing as well.

The year has begun, and so has my year of exploration. January was the month in which I first experienced psilocybe cubensis — what the kids call “magic mushroom” or “shrooms.” I should point out that — besides alcohol and caffeine — this was my first experience with any mind or mood altering substance. [With the exception of one afternoon thirty years ago when I was prescribed Tylenol with Codeine after having all four wisdom teeth pulled — an event that probably remains the most bizarre mental experience of my life.]

I’d like to be able to say that I’m the type who boldly tries out new things with derring-do, but those who know me know I’m the kind who reads hundreds of pages of research and commentary and then cautiously dips a toe into the waters. Among the extensive pre-experience reading I did was Michael Pollan’s excellent book, How to Change Your Mind and a study finding psilocybin mushrooms to be the safest of the mind and mood altering substances. (Yes, that includes being much safer than alcohol — a finding, the veracity of which, I have not a doubt. Those curious about this topic are encouraged to see Drugs without the Hot Air by David Nutt, which delves into how society’s approach to such substances can be absurd and without merit in logic. Nutt was famously fired from a government position in Britain for openly stating that alcohol and nicotine are both considerably more dangerous /damaging than a number of prohibited substances)

What was my experience like? Strange and fascinating. However, even at the time, I found myself wondering whether I was cursed with knowledge. How much did all that reading and research influence my experience for the good, the bad, or the indifferent? I don’t know, perhaps a lot, but maybe not at all. I’ll give some examples. One of the early and persistent effects was seeing the world overwritten in prismatic geometric forms. The closest I could describe this is to imagine the shapes seen in jaali — the latticed windows seen in Indo-Islamic architecture — but with a repeating “echo” of lines and a kind of rainbow prismatic effect.

Jaali

I suspect this is a neuro-chemical effect of the substance on one’s brain, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my experience was trained by having read Aldous Huxley’s descriptions of “sacred geometries” during his own experience. (Of course, it also makes me wonder what Indo-Islamic craftsmen and architects might have been taking.)

As I mentioned, I could see where prior knowledge could have both positive and negative influences on the experience. I’ll start with an example of a possible positive effect of prior knowledge. One thing the reader needs to understand is that the physicist’s conception that things at rest will stay at rest and things in motion will stay in motion doesn’t hold in the mental world of psilocybin — everything goes into motion. It could be the breathing letters of a word on the page or the gentle writhing of a house plant, but not much just sits there. As I stared up at the ceiling, the staples that held the cable to the ceiling fan in place became blocky ants on the march, and soon any dot anywhere became an ant on the move. Now, I can imagine how this might stir in some people a “bad trip,” freaking out about the infestation. However, my mind always somehow recognized that the animation of those still objects was in my brain and not in the room. I was trained to think of these experiences as the effect of a serotonin mimic going hog-wild inside my brain, and I never thought that maybe I’d kicked open Huxley’s famed “Doors of Perception” and something real was now on display to me that I couldn’t ordinarily see. [Though I can’t eliminate that possibility.]

However, I also must wonder whether I might have had a grand breakthrough or experience of enlightenment (probably little-e) — as many claim to have had — if my experience wasn’t so grounded. I scribbled about seven and a half pages while I was “tripping,” and I was very curious about whether it would be gibberish or pure illumination. It was neither. About half my sentences broke off about 2/3rds of the way through, but those that I could make out were not wide the mark of my day-to-day philosophy. It reflected the diminished self and euphoria of the experience (which I’ve  also experienced in meditation), but wasn’t otherworldly. I will say, my psilocybin self was a wee bit bolder, realizing that — like a dog chasing its tail — if I ever captured the understanding I seek, the fun would be blanched from life. The closest thing to a revelation was that I needed to embrace my ignorance — a conclusion my sober self had already come to acceptance of in its bolder moments.

What are my recommendations if you plan to partake of a cup of mushroom tea? Make sure your environment is not overstimulating. Make sure there is nothing fear or anxiety inducing in the area (perhaps including knowing the legal status where you are.) Have a calm state of mind. Realize that for about 30 for 45 minutes you will think the tea had no effect upon you and the strangeness will come on gradually. Some people say you should have someone around. I don’t know that I’d say it’s necessary, (unless you have anxiety issues and then you might not want to partake without seeking medical advice)  but if you do make sure it’s not someone who gets on your nerves.

So what is next? February will be the month in which I try out a sensory deprivation float tank. In yoga, one of the legs of practice is pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses.) I’m fascinated to see what effect the body temperature Epsom salt water has — if any — over and above closed-eye meditation in a dim room.

My tentative schedule is:

January  —  Mushroom — check

February — Sensory Deprivation Float Tank

March — 30 days of hour-long meditations

April — Hypnosis (attending an intensive workshop)

May — EEG feedback meditation

June — Tummo / Wim Hof Method / Holotropic Breathwork

July — extensive Yogic dharana  and dhyana practice

August —  resumption of dream yoga / lucid dreaming practices

September — periodic fasting (and, maybe, controlled sleep deprivation)

October — Biofeedback pranayama (breathing exercises)

November — Poetry of the Subconscious Mind

December  — mixed practices, putting it all together

I plan to keep up documentation of my practice, and hope you’ll follow along when I post something. I’m also interested to hear about the experiences of others regarding these and other consciousness related practices. I don’t know how strange it’ll get, but things might get pretty weird.

BOOK REVIEW: Murderous Minds by Dean A. Haycock

Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain: Neurological Imaging and the Manifestation of EvilMurderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain: Neurological Imaging and the Manifestation of Evil by Dean A. Haycock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines what neuroscience can tell us about the psychopathic mind, and how that compares to what other disciplines – such as psychology and genetics – have been telling us. This is no simple task because there remains a great deal of disagreement about what psychopathy is and how it relates to other behavioral conditions, like sociopathy.

The book begins with front matter (a Preface and an Introduction) that sets the stage for a reader who may have only a vague and Hollywood-inspired notion of what psychopathy is and who may confuse it with any number of psychiatric conditions.

Chapter 1 builds intrigue and offers a narrative introduction to psychopathy by telling the story of the architects of the Columbine shooting, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. The Columbine shooting gives the reader an ability to compare and contrast, because the two shooters had quite different psychological profiles. The chapter also uses the case of Jared Loughner, a Tucson shooter who killed or wounded almost twenty people – most famously Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Chapter 2 dives into the controversial questions of what a psychopath is, how effectively can psychopathy be measured, and how it compares to conditions that have the same or similar symptoms. The obvious point of comparison is Sociopathy, about which a controversy remains as to whether it’s a distinct condition. However, the more interesting comparison is to “Kunlangeta,” which is a term from an Inuit tribe. The Kunlangeta – psychopathy comparison gets to the fact that aberrant behavior isn’t new. It’s just how these actions are viewed and responded to that has changed.

Chapter 3 describes the strengths and limitations of brain imaging as a tool for understanding the psychopath. We find that neuro-imaging has revealed tendencies – notably a reduction of gray matter in parts of the frontal and temporal cortex. However, we also discover that there remains much to be learned.

Chapter 4 is entitled “A Problem Behind the Forehead” and it continues the discussion of the neurological connection to psychopathy – particularly by considering the case of Jim Fallon (the neuroscientist who stumbled onto the fact that he had the brain of a psychopath — not to be confused with the late night talk show host.) The consideration of Fallon’s case foreshadows a discussion that is detailed in Chapter 8 about psychopaths who function just fine in society and who don’t kill people with axes.

Chapter 5 examines competing explanations for psychopathy that are more likely to be complementary to neuroscience than competitors – notably genetics and childhood abuse. This chapter highlights the fact that criminal psychopathy has complex causes and there is as of yet no single silver bullet that links to psychopathic behavior.

The idea in chapter 5 leads nicely into the next chapter (ch. 6) which considers to what degree we have enough (or will ever have enough) information to be able to predict who is likely to engage in bad behavior. Is a real world “Minority Report” scenario likely in which someday we’ll be able to know who’s going to commit violent felonies before they do (at least for some cases.)

Chapter 7 explores the most notable symptoms of psychopathic behavior, including the inability to empathize and a lack of fear.

Chapter 8, as mentioned, explores the fact that not everyone who has psychopathic traits runs afoul of the law. In fact, many lead productive lives running companies or performing surgeries.

The next two chapters reflect upon questions that may be of great interest to readers. Chapter 9 asks whether one can become a psychopath late in life. In other words, once one has lived out an abuse-free childhood, grown a fully developed brain, and reached an age where the relevant genes have or haven’t flipped on is one safe? Or, is there some way – an injury or ailment, perhaps – that one might become the victim of adult-onset psychopathy? The penultimate chapter asks whether one’s child might be a psychopath in the making.

The last chapter discusses how criminal justice works if it turns out that at least some individuals commit crimes because they got a bad brain. While there may be controversies over the death penalty, most people feel at ease with harsh sentencing and with locking convicted criminals away for life. However, if some individuals had no choice but to do what they did by virtue of a brain defect, it’s much harder to be confident one has taken a fair and reasonable course of action.

There’s a brief epilogue which presents a common fixture in science books: the scholarly rant about how the field is underfunded.

The book has a number of color and black-and-white graphics including photos, diagrams, brain scans, and brain cross-section pictures. There’s a recommended reading section in addition to the bibliographic notes. I read the Kindle version of the book, and it had excellent hyperlinks for the notes as well as in the index.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the question of the degree to which brains determine who engages in criminally aberrant behavior. The author uses stories of famous cases of psychopathy to present a book that is very readable and doesn’t get lost in scientific minutiae. It’s a quick and fascinating read.

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5 Myths of the Mind

 

I wrote a post a while back about six persistent brain myths that has some overlapping relevance to this one.

5.) A person is a unitary actor (the spherical cow of social sciences.) When I was a graduate student studying International Relations, a popular theoretical assumption was that nations were “unitary actors.” This meant that no matter how schizophrenic a government (and a nation’s civic institutions) might appear, they ultimately always pursued a national interest via a solitary hand. Like physicists assuming spherical cows, this makes life easier — even if it bears little resemblance to reality.

The full extent of the folly of the rational unitary actor assumption became apparent when I discovered that an individual isn’t even a unitary actor systematically pursuing its best interest. An individual is a collection of impulses, thoughts, feelings, etc. that seems like its under the command of a central authority only because that “central authority” [our conscious mind housed in our Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)] is really good at forming post-hoc rationalizations and making up stories that let us feel unitary. The reader may think I’m just talking about some slim segment of the population with a multiple personality disorder, but no. I’m talking about anyone who has ever agonized over whether or not they should have an ice cream treat or take the healthy route. At the end of an internal battle that ends with the levers of action being operated by parts of your nervous system beyond your conscious control, you walk away with your conscious mind building a nice story that explains how it chose to either treat its taste buds or take it easy on its pancreas by keeping insulin production stable.

To consider how the conscious and subconscious mind can be on two entirely different pages on a subject, we’re going to veer into controversial and provocative territory. [So be warned, and if you’re sensitive about sexuality and particularly coercive sexual fantasy, you may want to skip down to the next paragraph.] Across a series of studies, an average of 40% of subjects (generally, or maybe exclusively women) admitted they’d had a fantasy about being raped. Many readers will react with incredulity, perhaps suggesting that there must be something wrong with such a person. However, obviously numbers like that aren’t describing a lunatic fringe. The next response one might here is, “Why doesn’t a person with a rape fantasy know how horrible and decidedly unsexy rape is?” If you’re following my gist, you know the answer is that said person knows very well. Consciously, she is aware that rape is violent and horrific, and moreover she probably even knows that it’s about commanding power rather than sexual desire for the rapist. This knowledge doesn’t undermine the fantasy [unless, perhaps, she really forces herself to think about it intensely] because the arousal is driven by a more visceral part of the mind that FEELS that the act is about the rapist being overwhelmed with sexual attraction even though the person KNOWS that that’s not the case.

[Note: I do realize that it might theoretically be possible that a much more complex collection consisting of many individuals and organizations might behave in a more unitary fashion than an individual. That is, even though a nation his made up of many non-unitary actors, perhaps the nature of the game forces it to behave in a unitary fashion. I don’t buy it. I’ve been reading a great example in a biography by Ingrid Carlberg about Raoul Wallenberg where both the Soviets (who had Wallenberg in custody but wouldn’t admit it) and the Swedes (who didn’t know whether Wallenberg was alive and sent mixed signals) were befuddled by varying actors sending mixed messages and collectively behaving ineffectively. It’s hard to come away thinking that Stalin and his Ministers had a rational and unified decision process. Instead, it seems like a perfect storm of incompetency and incorrect assumptions resulted in an outcome that wasn’t ideal for any of the parties.]

 

4.) Everyone can be hypnotized via instant induction and then commanded to do anything that’s asked of them.  Hypnosis is among the most misunderstood activities around. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that hypnosis is a favorite device in movies and fiction, and people draw information from these fictitious sources. The “Now You See Me” movies (see above) offer many such displays of a person being instantaneously hypnotized against his will even when the person is an expert himself, and made to do things against his interests. Misconception also flowers when people hear real or fictitious accounts of Cold War programs like America’s MK Ultra or the Soviet’s psychotronics. The lesson to be taken away from those expensive and morally-dubious programs is that it may be possible to break a person’s mind, but you can’t force someone to do something they abhor while programming them to forget all about it afterwards.

Another reason for the misunderstanding, is that there’s a disreputable group of stage hypnotists and others who love to spread these ideas because it’s more intriguing if people think they can do it to anyone at any time than if they understand that their subjects have been carefully selected to be among the more readily prone to achieve trance states and to be responsive to suggestion. It’s true that most people are hypnotizable and will respond to suggestions to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do.) But highly hypnotizable individuals are only about 15% of the population, and there’s another 15% at the other end that are virtually impossible to hypnotize. The video below has more detail on the science.

 

3.) One has no access to one’s subconscious mind. The conscious mind is like the loudmouthed drunk who swears he invented the potato chip bag clip, the envelope-wetting sponge, and Velcro. That is, it’s hard to hear over the din of incessant yapping, and since the conscious mind claims credit for everything, it’s easy to be fooled that there’s nothing else to listen to in the mind. However, if you can knock the drunk out, you start to become aware of what the subconscious has to say. Those who don’t meditate may be aware of subconscious imagery as they are falling to sleep (the hypnogogic state), as they are waking up (the hypnopompic state), or sometimes even during dreams (i.e. so-called lucid dreams or dream yoga.) Those who do meditate will be well aware of images that spontaneously form and fade in the meditative mind, and which can give rise to conscious thoughts if left unchecked.

 

2.) Memory is a recording of life events.  I’ve been reading Julia Shaw’s “The Memory Illusion” recently. It’s a fascinating look at false memories. There are many famous cases of false memory, but what is most interesting is Shaw’s success in planting false memories of criminal activity. “Planting” isn’t the best term to describe this. It’s more about getting the subject to visualize events such that they create the false memory. While I stand by what I said about the myths of hypnosis, there have been a number of cases of false memories being implanted while an individual was in a hypnotic trance, and so one shouldn’t disregard the power of hypnosis altogether.  The fact of the matter is that what we remember isn’t the occurrence of the event itself, but the last remembrance of said event. This means that there’s a great deal of room for memory degradation over time, and for a false transcript of events to form in the mind.

 

1.) Emotions get in the way of good decision making. I just posted a review of Antonio Damasio’s book “Decartes’ Error,” which examines this subject in great detail. Damasio found that patients who had damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion often became victims of paralysis by analysis. That is, without emotion to give them a kick, they can’t make decisions. Reason doesn’t always provide a clear answer because the world is filled with uncertainty. When there’s not enough information, we still need to make decisions, and this is accomplished by emotional “gut instincts.”

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

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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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BOOK REVIEW: Conversations on Consciousness ed. by Susan Blackmore

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be HumanConversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human by Susan Blackmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Blackmore gathers together interviews from a veritable who’s who of consciousness experts from neuroscience, philosophy, physiology, psychology, and physics. While the interviews are in part tailored to tap into the special insights of the given expert, a consistent series of questions is asked of each of the interviewees. Each expert is asked what they think is challenging about consciousness, what they think about the feasibility of philosopher’s zombies (a popular thought experiment about an individual who seems to behave like an ordinary human but who has no conscious experience), what they think about the existence of free will, what happens to consciousness after death, and what got them interested in the subject. This makes it easy for the reader to see not just differences in thinking across disciplines, but also different schools of thought within disciplines. There’s enough variety to make for intriguing reading. There is also a mix between individuals who have experience with meditation (e.g. the interviewer) and those who don’t, and so it’s interesting to compare views of those with such insight to those who study consciousness entirely abstractly.

I won’t list all the authors, but they include: David Chalmers (who famously coined the term the “hard problem” of consciousness, which is one of the most widely discussed ideas in the book), Francis Crick (of DNA fame who later shifted focus), Daniel Dennett (a well-known philosopher), V.S. Ramachandran (a neuroscientist famous for work on phantom limbs and behavioral neurology), and Roger Penrose (a physicist who believes that quantum mechanics may prove crucial to figuring out consciousness.)

It’s a straightforward book. There’s an Introduction by Blackmore and then the 20 or 21 interviews (one “chapter” is a married couple – Pat and Paul Churchland — whose insights are presented together.) The only back matter is a glossary, which is quite in-depth and which helps to clarify the many confusing concepts from various disciplines. There are a few cartoon drawings that lighten the tone, but serve no essential purpose.

I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. It’s quite old at this point – having come out in 2005 – but since consciousness is so intractable, it’s not like any of the questions have been cleared up. (If it were a book on AI, I’d probably say it was worthless at this point, but not this book.) I’d recommend it for anyone looking to understand the lay of the land with regards thinking about consciousness.

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5 Essential TED Talks on Consciousness

5.) Anil Seth: Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality




4.) David Chalmers: How Do You Explain consciousness?





3.) Max Tegmark: Consciousness is a Mathematical Pattern





2.) Antonio Damasio: The Quest to Understand Consciousness





1.) Oliver Sacks: What Hallucination Reveals about Our Minds

BOOK REVIEW: How We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto

How We FeelHow We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Frazzetto’s book tells us what neuroscience can and can’t tell us about seven core emotions: anger, guilt, anxiety, grief, empathy, joy, and love. Doing so puts the neuroscience of emotion into a broader context of art, philosophy, the humanities, and the legal / political domains. Most often this serves to make the book more interesting by offering stories beyond the case files of neurologists and neuroscience researchers, but it does result in occasional editorializing.

The book consists of seven chapters, each of which is linked to one of the emotions listed in the preceding paragraph. These chapters always tell us the rudiments of what science has learned about the brain’s role in said emotion, but they often offer insights from other disciplines as well as providing more general information about the brain that the author found particularly relevant to the topic at hand.

The first chapter delves into anger. Besides the neuroscience of rage, we learn a bit about the expression of emotion (e.g. through facial appearance; a theme revisited in other chapters), and the degree to which genetics plays a role in proclivity towards anger. This chapter serves to set up general concepts, and so we also learn about what an absence of emotion looks like (e.g. indecisiveness.) And in compliance with the law that every pop science book on neuroscience tell the story of Phineas Gage (the foreman who got rebar shot through his brain and lived to tell the story—though in an uncharacteristically hostile way), Frazzetto knocks it out early.

Chapter two explores the topic of guilt. It should be noted that some of these chapters discuss more than one related emotion, and here we learn how shame and regret are differentiated from guilt. There’s an interesting story about Caravaggio and how his own guilt-ridden story influenced one of his most famous paintings.

Chapter three is about anxiety, and also takes on fear. In addition to the neuroscience, we get a discussion of relevant philosophy, specifically that of Heidegger. Here, the author also describes brain plasticity.

The next chapter investigates grief. As I suggested above, there are multiple points where emotional expression is discussed, and this chapter has one of the most extensive of such discussions. In terms of general concepts, Frazzetto introduces the reader to neurotransmitters. One also learns how grief is related to physical pain.

Chapter five elucidates empathy. A lot of this chapter discusses acting, and the need for actors and actresses to be able to acquire empathy from the audience. The reader learns the story of Stanislavski, and how he went about creating his self-named acting system which remains widely used. This chapter also explains mirror neurons that allow one to recognize expression and to mimic others.

The penultimate chapter is about joy, and here we learn more about expression of emotions and, specifically, the seeming universality of smiles. There is a discussion of poetry as it pertains to the emotion at hand. Having introduced neurotransmitters earlier, the reader learns about dopamine, its role in happiness, and how a number of drugs have been created that increase our natural dopamine’s effect or mimic it.

The last chapter is about love. Of course, we learn about oxytocin and vasopressin, two neurochemicals famously associated with loving behavior. There is also a fascinating discussion of Capgras Syndrome. In this condition, the patient feels that his loved ones have been replaced by impostors. That may not seem relevant until one realizes that the proposed mechanism for this illness is damage to parts of the brain that control emotional connection. Without an emotional connection, the person feels that said individuals can’t be his / her dearest friends and family—though his senses register that they are exact duplicates in every way. The brain builds a rationalization that they must be impostors. Of course, no emotion evokes more resentment towards materialist explanations rooted entirely in biology than that of love.

The book is extensively annotated and also has a bibliography. There are many graphics throughout the book from line drawn diagrams of brains to photos of brain scans to the artwork “David with the Head of Goliath” mentioned relative to the discussion of Caravaggio’s guilt.

There are a number of books in this domain (i.e. the neuroscience of emotion) and if you were only going to read one, I don’t think I’d recommend this one as it. However, if you are into this topic, it is definitely worth a read. It’s interesting and insightful, and has a unique approach.

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BOOK REVIEW: Wired to Grow by Britt Andreatta

Wired to GrowWired to Grow by Britt Andreatta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is one of those books that is hard to rate and review. It does a thing well, and if one is looking for a book of its strengths, it’ll serve one well. That thing it does well is to concisely and clearly summarize research in neuroscience relevant to learning new skills. If that is something one is interested in, and one hasn’t done much reading on the subject yet, this book will get one up to speed in just over 100 pages while offering insight into where to go to flesh out what one has learned.

That said, if one has read up on pop-sci neuroscience and /or self-help books applying said research, one is likely to find that this book offers little value-added while lacking the depth and narrative approach of competing works. The latter is particularly intriguing as this is a book about effective learning, and it seems clear that humans like learning through stories. However, Andreatta does little story telling beyond brief mentions of approaches she’s used in her seminars and occasional recaps of the stories of the researchers whose work she’s drawn upon. Some may find this isn’t so bad because it keeps the book compact. Story telling is page intensive. On the other hand, a lack of story-telling means that the material is a bit less prone to stick than it might otherwise be.

The author’s approach to making the material stick is to hang it on a three-phase model (learn-remember-do) and to keep it brief. Many of the chapters consist largely of bullet points, and in places the book feels like a PowerPoint handout. (I’ll let the reader decide whether that’s a good thing or not.)

The book is organized into twenty chapters arranged in five parts. (That tells one a lot about the brevity of chapters, given the book is 102 pp.) The five parts consist of: I.) an overview of neuroscientific fundamentals; II.) a description of research related to the “learn” phase of Andreatta’s model; III.) the same for the “remember” phase; IV.) coverage of the “do” phase; and V.) a section called “design” that helps the reader to apply what they’ve learned in the earlier parts to build approaches to teaching and learning.

There is some useful ancillary material. First, there are many graphics of a variety of types (pictures, line drawings, tables, and graphs) that are nicely drawn and effective. Second, there are “Your Learning Journey” sections interspersed throughout the book. These are one page or less exercises that are designed to help one put one’s learning to use. Thirdly, there is a bibliography that includes crucial reference materials divided by type: i.e. journal / scholarly research, books, journalistic / media accounts, and cited scholars. Finally, there are apparently additional resources accessible online, e.g. downloadable pdf files, but I didn’t investigate these features.

I would recommend this book for those looking for a concise summary of recent developments in neuroscience as they apply to education and learning. If you’re well-read on the subject, however, you might not find that this book delivers much extra. It should be noted that the author is speaking from an educator’s perspective (i.e. not a scientist or psychologist) and readers may find that a plus or not.

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