BOOK REVIEW: Range by David Epstein

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldRange: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The human world has been shaped in large part by a trend toward increasing specialization. From the agricultural revolution through Adam Smith’s teachings about division of labor to thriving medical specialties such as Gerontological Podiatric Vascular Specialist, the trend has been toward knowing more and more about less and less on the way to knowing everything about nothing. However, it’s become increasingly apparent both that hyper-specialization has its downsides, and that well-rounded generalists can solve some problems and make some innovations that specialists – blinded by their silos – can’t. Epstein’s premise is not that we need to roll-back specialization, but rather that we need to recognize what it does well and where it tends to fail, and to value generalists for what they bring to the table – which is often substantial.

If Epstein’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably for his previous book, “The Sports Gene,” which examined the science of athletic excellence. This book’s introduction sets up the discussion with a pair of sports-based examples. The first is Tiger Woods, a golfing legend who is one of the dominate forces in his sport. Woods is the poster-child for obsessive specialization and the frequently-cited (if greatly misunderstood and over-applied) 10,000-hour rule. [An idea that — on average — one needs about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of an activity. It turns out to be demonstrably wrong when applied to many activities, and seems to have contributed to a lot of repetitive stress injuries, if not mental health issues, owing to fanatical parents and coaches who bought into the idea hook, line, and sinker.] From his earliest childhood, Woods’s life was built around the game. The Woods case seems to bolster the idea that children who wish to be world-class elite athletes must focus their efforts on one sport as soon as possible. Until, however, it is juxtaposed to the story of Roger Federer, an athlete who has also been at the top of his sport (tennis,) but who took a much more meandering and varied route to becoming a champion.

The book consists of twelve chapters that seek to illuminate different dimensions of the specialist-generalist divide. The first chapter doesn’t dive into the arguments for generalization and well-rounded training as one might expect, but rather it shows how the idea that specialization is essential to success gained hold. The case that Epstein takes up to explain this tendency is that of the Polgar sisters, a trio of Hungarian siblings who became globally-recognized chess masters. Their father fought to be able to homeschool the girls (this was Cold War Eastern Europe — so doing one’s own thing wasn’t something one just decided to do and then did,) arguing that he could achieve greatness, launching his girls to the top of their field. The fact that Polgar succeeded could be taken as further iron-clad evidence for the virtue of specialization, but what it really does is to set up a discussion of how we might might go about differentiating fields where intense specialization is beneficial from those where it isn’t. It is convincingly argued that chess is not universally analogous to many other activities.

Chapter two explores the topic of cognition, and the effect that a general education has had on humankind’s thinking. The discussion centers on the “Flynn Effect” a steady rise in test scores that are supposed to measure innate intelligence (e.g. IQ tests,) but the fact that there has been a steady improvement on tests suggests there is something more at play than innate intelligence. It’s the third chapter that finally explicitly delves into the case for generalization, and it does so through through the fascinating case of a Venetian Women’s musical group that became legends despite the fact that: a.) they were only allotted a quite limited amount of time for music study given the competing requirements of their chores, general education, and other obligations; b.) even within the domain of music, they were famous for being able to switch instruments mid-act, or to serve as both vocalist and instrumentalist.

Chapter four completely changed my perspective on “new math.” I’d always shared in the widespread curmudgeonly attitude towards it, as if it were purely to accommodate the laziness of the youth, but I came away thinking about the topic very differently. The argument Epstein advances is that in a rush to teach the subject as quickly as possible, students of my generation were taught to memorize a massive number of rules and strings of sequences needed to solve problems. Because of this, such students had no intuition for why said sequences of operations worked – not to mention very little love for the subject of mathematics, which seemed both difficult and pointless [a deadly combination – either one of those characteristics will meet with limited resistance, but together they spell doom.] Chapter five investigates how use of analogies from outside a discipline can open up pathways to solutions that weren’t found from within. Chapter six shares a unique view on “grit,” the ability to keep digging through all the challenges to achieve a desired goal. Grit is typically perceived as an excellent trait, but Epstein shows that too much of some types of grit can trap people in the wrong academic field or line of work. There is a fascinating discussion of the US Military Academy and the Army’s attrition problem. They kept getting high-grit people who would power through the challenging parts of selection, but who [after great investment by the Army] would leave as soon as their minimum service requirement was met. It turned out the people they were paying the most to get into service were the least likely to stay, and the process they thought would weed out those who weren’t career material didn’t work at all.

Chapter seven tells the story of Francis Hesselbein, a housewife turned CEO, and how the exploration of one’s possible selves can help one achieve great and unexpected things. Chapter eight investigates a number of cases in which outsiders with broad knowledge bases were able to achieve what experts could not. Chapter nine discusses Nintendo’s path from a middling playing card manufacturer to one of video-gaming’s top names. They hired an engineer (a self-proclaimed tinkerer) to do maintenance of their equipment and he – ultimately — developed a principle that would turn into the company’s core innovation philosophy. It was called “lateral thinking with withered technology” and it utilized existing technology for entirely new purposes with respect to game play [e.g. the technology from calculators was put to use in making handheld videogaming units – i.e. the “Gameboy.”] This approach allowed Nintendo to produce at very low cost and to dominate the market at their price point.

Chapter ten examines the fascinating phenomena whereby experts in a field are often notoriously bad at making predictions about future happenings within their area of expertise. The concept of “foxes v. hedgehogs” in forecasting is discussed at length. Specialist experts tend to be hedgehogs, they build their forecasts around a pet hypothesis and then dig in and are quite reluctant to adjust to changing information. [Foxes look at many types of information and approaches, and quickly adjust to changing information.] The penultimate chapter uncovers another common defect among specialist experts, attachment to familiar tools. The central case of this discussion involves NASA engineers disregard of evidence of a potential danger that couldn’t be put in terms of quantitative data. A secondary example is provided by firefighters who literally couldn’t drop their tools [chainsaws, axes, etc.] when they needed to run to escape advancing wildfires. [I could see another example from my training in the martial arts. In learning weapon disarms and retention, it often takes some hard lessons for martial artists to not maintain a white-knuckle grip on a weapon that they don’t control and can’t immediately put to use – all the while they are tying up their hands, they are also taking a beating. Knowing when to let go, and change one’s tactics, doesn’t come easy.]

The last chapter offers some examples of generalists who achieved greatness by applying a broader understanding than others. The people who learn less and less about more and more on the way to knowing nothing about everything have their purpose in this world. There’s a conclusion that lays out some basic ideas for applying the concepts from the book. The Kindle edition that I read had a substantial “Afterword” that was introduced with the paperback edition and which examined some different cases to clarify the generalist advantage.

I found this book to be an enlightening read. It used many fascinating cases to make clear where generalists have particular value. If you are interested in where the jack-of-all-trades will excel, this is an excellent book to give a read. Along the way, it also lends insight into learning, innovation, and creativity.

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BOOK REVIEW: Madness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull

Madness: A Very Short IntroductionMadness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is yet another of the many “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press that I’ve been pleased to read and review. The series offers concise overviews of a wide range of topics that are presented by scholarly experts. This particular book is a historical examination of the changing approaches to mental illness from the ancient world where such a condition might be attributed to demonic possession to more recent times in which drugs and decarceration / defunding of asylums have become the dominant approaches to mental illness. Along the way the book shines a light on the immense difficulty experts have had in understanding what mental illnesses are and how they can best be dealt with. The book not only looks at the real-world response to mental illness, but also explores how it’s been treated in fiction from “Hamlet” to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The book consists of six chapters. As one would expect of a book from a historian’s-eye view, its organization is chronological, but the arrangement of time periods by chapter reflects changing approaches to mental illness. Chapter one focuses on the ancient world, during which we begin to get glimpses of madness in the written record. Chapter two, entitled “Madness in Chains,” focuses on the 16th through 18th century, during which Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital was the cutting edge. That the institution’s nickname becoming a synonym for chaos and confusion says a lot. It was a time of brutal measures that did little to reduce the trauma of mental illness. The chapter also discusses madness in Elizabethan literature, famously that of Shakespeare.

Chapter three shifts to the 19th century, an era in which incarceration became more widespread as well as coming to be thought of as the best that could be done for the insane. In Chapter four, we learn about the rise of psychoanalysis as well as the increasing employment of treatments that involved the physical body – infamously, the lobotomy.

Chapter five is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. Entitled “Madness Denied” it opens with an exploration of the difficulties that arose from all the war-related cases of mental illness that came about as a result of the two World Wars (and others.) It also discusses a movement to overturn the prevailing approach to insanity, most famously and vociferously argued by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a clinician who had a mix of promising and disastrous results from his experimental approach which used LSD, but few other medicines. What I found most interesting, however, was the discussion of the growing recognition that there was a false front in the idea that psychiatry was beginning to really understand mental illness and its treatment. This was exemplified by the Rosenhan experiments in which sane volunteers checked themselves into asylums and, for the most part, the doctors and staff couldn’t tell that they were sane (though, interestingly, in at least some cases the other patients did call it out.) The troubles in classifying and diagnosing mental illnesses have also seen in the vexed history of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness” [DSM,] a guide meant to get mental health experts on the same page about what’s what. [As opposed to ten psychiatrists offering ten different diagnoses of a given patient.] While a worthy attempt, the DSM has not – thus far – succeeded, though it could probably be argued that progress has been made.

The last chapter brings the reader up to the current period, a period dominated by two trends – first, mental illnesses being treated overwhelmingly pharmaceutically; and second, the closing of asylums and the concurrent ill-effects that have come about, societally speaking.

The book has a few graphics, mostly black and white art and photos used to enhance the reading experience. There are also appendices of references and recommended readings.

If you are interested in the history of psychiatric medicine, I’d highly recommend you check out this brief guide. It may not give you all the information you’re looking for, but it’s a good first stop to organize your thoughts on the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

NeurotribesNeurotribes by Steve Silberman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A combination of mystery and proclivity for lightening storms of controversy surrounds autism and related conditions (e.g. Asperger’s.) On one hand, it seems like the number of cases has skyrocketed in the past few decades. On the other hand, it’s hard to tell because long after autism began to be seen as a condition in its own right, children were being diagnosed with a range of other conditions from schizophrenia to brain damage to just plain “being difficult.” So, the question of the degree to which autism is more prevalent versus being more visible and readily-diagnosed remains.

Tellingly, Silberman’s first chapter describes an 18th century English scientist named Henry Cavendish as a way of refuting the notion that Autism is a wholly new phenomenon. The appearance that Autism is new and growing at epidemic proportions has facilitated some spurious thinking, most famously the idea that childhood vaccinations cause of autism. [To be fair, it’s easy to see why parents would want to find a simple, single-point cause, given that one of the previous hypothesized causes (which turned out to be also wrong) was that autism was caused by cold and detached parenting.] However, decades of intense investigation without a consensus conclusion suggests that a simple, straightforward cause-effect dynamic is unlikely and that more complexity is involved.

But the controversy doesn’t stop there. As within the deaf community, an argument has been on the rise that autism shouldn’t be treated as a disability to be cured but rather a difference that can be managed and which offers strengths that can be leaned into. And one of the most intriguing aspects of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are the mental strengths that can accompany the condition. Anyone who’s seen “Rain Man” (a chapter is devoted to it) will be aware of how savant-like mental capabilities can accompany the immense social difficulties displayed by people on the Autism Spectrum. Silberman takes on all of this and more as he presents a history of Autism.

The book is arranged into twelve chapters. As mentioned, the first chapter proposes that autism is nothing new and can be seen if one looks closely into select biographies, such as that of Henry Cavendish. While appearances in the historical record may be rare, the fact that some autistics have great mental capacities has resulted in instances in which they produced results so impressive that they remain noteworthy across the ages, despite the fact that such people were often socially isolated. The book next looks at modern-day examples of autistics who are changing the world. After that, having hooked the reader, Silberman proceeds chronologically through the advancements in understanding of autism — giving extensive attention to the work of Hans Asperger, Leo Kanner, and Bernard Rimland — but also addressing others such as Oliver Sachs and Bruno Bettelheim. In addition to discussing the research (which presents many of its own controversies,) Silberman shows how societal views of autism have changed from being considered either a form of retardation or of psychosis to being seen as a difference in abilities that should be respected.

Along the way, one learns a bit about the history of eugenics, and not just among the Nazis. (Hans Asperger’s reputation was sullied by the widespread belief that he’d worked with the Nazis.) Silberman explores the Second International Eugenics Congress that was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We also learn about the movie “Rain Man” and how Dustin Hoffman prepared for the role, and how the movie became a game-changer for the autistic community.

The final chapter shifts gears from what has been happening with autism to how to move forward. It presents the idea of neurodiversity, and considers how it can be accommodated. There is a brief epilogue that revolves around the son of Bernard Rimland. Rimland, while already a psychologist, shifted into the study of autism because he had an autistic child of his own.

I found this book quite intriguing. It is a fascinating exploration of the spectrum of states that we think of as autism. If you have any interest in the mind and neurological conditions, you’ll likely find it an educational read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans

The Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic ExperienceThe Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic Experience by Jules Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a philosopher’s account of sampling from the various wells of ecstatic experience. It’s one of many works these days on what the ancient Greeks called ekstasis. There’s been major interest in investigating the topic in recent years. Historically, religion was the means by which people pursued ecstasy, but – increasingly — people who don’t care for the dogma and tribalism of religion are starting to crave its more blissful and ego-shedding aspects.

As a work of immersion journalism, the book is a mixed bag. Evans does seek some firsthand experience of most of the topics covered, but the extent of his immersion and his discussion of it varies greatly. For example, he goes into great detail in pursuing and discussing mystic Christianity, but isn’t so comprehensive in discussing neo-Tantrism (i.e. Western, or sex-centric, Tantra) and his discussion of psychedelics draws heavily upon decisions / experiences made as a teenager (which, it could be argued, is a little like commenting on the Eucharist based on that time you got drunk on Boone’s Farm and scarfed down a bag of Doritos. Though, to be fair, the author is clear and cognizant that his youthful dalliances weren’t necessarily equivalent to a conscientious pursuit of heightened consciousness, but are more a warning to heed Leary’s advice on “set and setting.”) At any rate, if you are expecting immersion journalism on the level of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” you’ll find this book isn’t consistently on par (though it does have its moments.) That said, Evans does a fantastic job of researching the topic and presenting interesting perspectives on the subject, and he does so with humor and inquisitiveness. (I will say that in the latter chapters I sometimes found myself very intrigued by the discussion, but it would occur to me that I couldn’t see a direct link being made to the pursuit of ecstatic experience. Maybe it was just me, but if he strayed, he strayed interestingly – which is better than the alternative.)

The book consists of an introduction and ten chapters. The chapters cover such approaches to ecstasy as: religion (primarily Christianity is discussed, obviously focusing on sects and subsects that pursue [rather than shun] ecstatic experience), the arts, rock-n-roll (with an intriguing focus on its surprising resemblance to religion), psychedelic substances, meditation, neo-Tantrism, war and violence, communing with nature, and transhumanist efforts.

With the exception of Evans’ investigation into meditation, for which his experience involved Vipassana — a nominally Theravadin Buddhist system, Evans’ book focuses heavily on Western approaches. I actually enjoyed this because it seems like there is much more discussion of Eastern approaches and those rooted in them.

The book is annotated and has a section of photos in the back as well as a few other graphics where needed.

I enjoyed this book and learned lot from it. As immersion journalism it displayed a wide variance of depth and openness, but it was well-researched and the information was delivered in a light and readable manner.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

The Science of StorytellingThe Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Many books have been published on the science of story since the realization that storytelling is as fundamental to humanity as tool-making and bipedalism. The first such book that I reviewed was Lisa Cron’s 2012 “Wired for Story.” So, the question of interest isn’t whether the topic is fascinating (it is) but – instead – whether Storr’s book offers value-added. I believe it does. While Cron and Storr cover some of the same territory, the differences in approach lead to variations in the material covered and the emphasis given. Storr orders his book around his particular method of story building, which he refers to as “the sacred flaw approach.” He proposes that at the heart of a story is an erroneous assumption to which the lead character wishes to cling. This is where he tries to stake his claim among the vast number of books offering advice on story – i.e. by focusing on character flaw, rather than on the sequence of events (i.e. plotting.)

The appeal of this topic will vary according to who’s asking, but for writers there’s certainly a desire to unravel the mystery of story. Every story builder would like to venture into new and uncharted territory, but there seem to be key criteria around which stories live or die. The most glaring illumination of this can be seen when filmmakers spend tens or hundreds of millions on films that utterly flop, and when they spend that much money and flop it’s not because the CGI was hinky. It’s inevitably because the story lacked appeal. At its worst, this has led to strategies such only rebooting films that have worked in the past, and at it’s best it results in following one of the many fixed patterns (e.g. Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey.”) Understanding the science of story offers the hope of being able give one’s audience what they need to find a story fulfilling without following a beat-by-beat sequencing from a manual — in the manner of a pre-flight checklist.

The book is divided into four chapters that are designed to look at story through its various levels, and within each chapter there are many subsections. The chapters are: 1.) creating a world; 2.) the flawed self; 3.) the dramatic question; and 4.) plots, endings, and meaning. Chapter 1 isn’t just advice about how to build the story environment, but rather it looks at how our brains take in and model the world as written so that one can use that knowledge to more smartly approach presenting a world. As one might guess, chapter two is a crucial one because it introduces the study of characters and their flaws, and why said flaws are critical to the appeal of a story. The author also addressed differences between Eastern and Western approaches to story and I found the discussion of culture to be an intriguing inclusion. Chapter three continues the work of the second by focusing on how the interaction of subconscious and conscious minds contribute to a protagonist’s problems. In keeping with the coverage of culture, there’s a section that looks at stories as tribal propaganda that was quite insightful. The final chapter examines how plots and good endings arise as a logical result from setting up the character.

There’s an appendix that lays out Storr’s “Sacred Flaw Approach.” This is the approach that he teaches in his writing course. The book is also annotated, though it is text-centric and doesn’t employ much in the way of graphics.

I found this book fascinating. It does rehash some of the same examples as other books on story (e.g. “The Godfather” movie,) that’s simply because those stories are widely known and thus have broad usefulness. But there were plenty of insights to keep me intrigued, even having read other books on the topic. If you’re interested in the science of storytelling, this book is worth giving a look.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part XII [Narrative Transportation]

This is the belated final posted of my 2019 project on altered states of consciousness. I was traveling during the latter half of December and, hence, my tardiness.

During 2019, each month I gave special attention to studying some state of consciousness that exists outside of the normal waking state. (Of course, the folly of believing that there is one “normal waking state of consciousness” is one of the major lessons learned from this exercise.) My investigations included: meditation, hypnosis, lucid dreaming, sensory deprivation, psilocybin consumption, and various others — a number of which were variations on inducing a Flow state.

In December, because I was traveling so much I was reading even more than usual, and it occurred to me that there is a kind of reading in which the mind behaves differently from the norm. I’m not talking about all reading, but — specifically — when one gets lost in story. There’s run-of-the-mill reading, and then there’s the reading in which a hundred pages seem to fly by in minutes, but you realize you’ve lost a lot more time than that. This topic might seem like a dull ending to this project. Being absorbed in story might not appear as enthralling or “sexy” as mushroom tripping or floating in sensory deprivation tank, but the experience can be just as profound.

As I was looking into this, I discovered that there is a term that addresses what I’m talking about, “narrative transportation.” Narrative transportation relates to absorption, which I learned is a factor in hypnosis. That is, how easily does one become completely mentally occupied with an object of contemplation such that one loses awareness of the passage of time and external stimuli.  In this type of reading, one is mentally reconstructing the world and events of a story, and that process is demanding of one’s attention. Furthermore, there is an intense emotional experience that one is feeling simultaneous to this mental construction. This doesn’t leave much room for the mind to wander — if the story is intriguing enough to hold one’s attention.

As a reader, one facilitates narrative transportation largely by picking stories that are appealing to one, and by finding extended time periods to read without distraction. However, what’s really interesting is how a writer can facilitate this state through his or her style and method. The most commonly discussed aspects of this facilitation are: the story arc (i.e. arranging events to create and maintain excitement) and building lovable or loathsome characters (either way, just as long as they aren’t tedious or boring.)

But there is another aspect that I think of as readability. How easy does the storyteller make it for the reader to create their own mental story-world? In large part, this has to do with the art of finding the Goldilocks Zone of description. If one describes too little one creates “floating head syndrome” in which the reader (if they continue reading at all) may imagine floating heads conversing in a blank white room. On the other hand, if one spends twelve pages describing the drapes or the weather, one is unlikely to keep readers engaged.  Coincidentally, one of the books that I read in December that was educational (though not transportational) was Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel.” In it, Kundera bemoans the tendency to over-describe characters such that one interferes in the reader’s imaginings. He points out that readers learn almost nothing about the physical description and background of some of the most important characters in literature.

And so concludes my year of altered states as I look forward to new adventures in 2020.

BOOK REVIEW: Understanding Mental Illness by Carlin Barnes and Marketa Wills

Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and FriendsUnderstanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends by Carlin Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a concise overview of mental illness for individuals who don’t know much about the subject, and who may hold misunderstandings about mental illness and the mentally ill. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in the right place. If you’d like to know more about the variations in particular disorders or about relatively obscure conditions, you’ll probably find this book doesn’t meet your needs. The book advocates for doing away with the stigma associated with mental illness and having a better idea of the nature of mental disorders.

The book has fourteen chapters that are mostly logically organized. I say “mostly,” because chapters three, ten, thirteen, and fourteen deal in unique situations facing specific demographics (children / teens, the elderly, women, and professional athletes, respectively.) I’m not sure why these are spread out with topics that have a tighter logic interspersed in between them. I also am not sure why there is a chapter specifically dealing with professional athletes. Mind you, I understand the author’s argument about the unique mental health risks afflicting professional athletes and retired pro athletes. However, it seems like there are other careers that create unique problems (e.g. air traffic controllers) that touch more lives. Given the fact that an important part of the author’s message is about how those with mental health issues are frequently misunderstood and stigmatized, it seems like if one had to pick one career group to represent in the book, one would find one that is bigger and more relatable (e.g. military personnel, cops, social workers, therapists, or even poor / unemployed people.) If it was done to appeal to the general readership’s interest in celebrity, it’s a fail.

Chapters 1 and 2 set the stage by discussing what exactly a mental illness is, how it can be distinguished from the quirks that we all have in varying ways and degrees, and what the various causes are. Chapters 4 through 9 are the heart of the book, and present information on various mental illnesses by type (i.e. mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse, respectively.) Chapters 11 and 12 discuss suicide and mass shootings, both are worthy inclusions.

The chapters discuss the clinical criteria for various ailments (which often seem arbitrary, but that’s part of the need for such a book – to give readers an understanding of the difficulty of diagnosing the mentally ill.) There are brief case examples included throughout to help the reader recognize the signs. That said, there isn’t a lot of room to deal in the tremendous levels of variation seen within given disorders.

There is an appendix with resources and links. Otherwise, there isn’t much ancillary matter in the book.

I would recommend this book if you are looking for a quick overview of mental illness with some presentation of typical examples. Particularly if you want a handy convenient guide without a lot of searching about. [Which is to say, I don’t think there’s a great deal that one would get from this book that one wouldn’t find doing some internet research.]

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BOOK REVIEW: The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias: EssaysThe Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Schizophrenia is ill-understood, and that’s just by psychiatrists and psychologists, the rest of us tend to downright misunderstand the condition. Wang’s book collects thirteen essays on her experience of living with schizo-affective disorder. I found Wang’s prose to be clever and engaging, though she does get into the weeds of technicality a bit in some of the early chapters. The book is not only well-written, it’s also brutally forthright. We hear a lot of how the author uses her alma mater (Yale) as a combination of sword and shield to combat the ever-present assumption she will be a stark-raving – not to mention dangerous — lunatic.

The book begins with discussion of diagnosis, but it doesn’t begin with her being diagnosed as Schizo-affective, but rather as Bipolar [formerly know as, manic-depressive.] There’s a great deal of discussion of the inexactitude of psychiatric science, and the fact that — to be fair — it’s not like every case is presents the same. The set of symptoms seen may create the potential to classify the same individual in different ways; hence, psychiatric diagnosis is often a long and winding road.

To list the essays with descriptions wouldn’t do them justice, so, instead, I’ll present some of the highlights. There’re a couple of chapters that look at how Wang tried to cope with, or counteract, the impression of people finding out she had schizophrenia. One of these involved the aforementioned repeated references to the Ivy-league institution that ultimately kicked her out and wouldn’t let her back in once she’d been treated and stabilized. Another was attachment to the label — and the idea — of “high-functioning,” which can be a hard sell for a condition like Schizophrenia. (Though not uniquely so. I once had a conversation with friend who didn’t understand that there could be such a thing as a “mild stroke.” This person believed that if one had any stroke one would surely be unable to talk correctly or have adult cognitive functioning. Though it occurs to me that my analogy is not entirely apt because anyone with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia will at some point experience severe symptoms – e.g. hallucination, delusion, etc. – otherwise they would be unlikely to be [rightly or wrongly] so diagnosed.)

There’s a chapter that deals with the question of having children. This brings up the twin questions of whether the schizophrenic can be a good parent throughout the development of the child, as well as how likely they are to pass on the trait through genes. [Those who’ve watched “A Beautiful Mind” will remember a scene in which the bathwater is rising on the baby because Nash is having an episode.]

Wang uses a number of sensationalist cases – e.g. murders – both to counteract the notion that all Schizophrenics are dangerous by contrasting with her own [more typical] experience, but also to let the reader know such extremes do exist. It should also be pointed out that one of these cases was the murder of a Schizophrenic by a family member who was living in terror that said schizophrenic (her brother) would ultimate kill her and her daughter, given the things he said and the auditory hallucinations he was said to have had.

One of the most interesting discussions for me was Wang’s description of leaving the Scarlett Johansson film “Lucy” asking her boyfriend whether what she saw was real. Everybody has that situation of being drawn into a film in an edge-of-the-seat fashion, but is fascinating to imagine a person who can’t disentangle from that state.

Chapter ten talks about the author’s experience with Cotard’s Syndrome. Cotard’s is a condition in which the individual believes they are deceased. I’ve read of Cotard’s in popular neuroscience books, but Wang’s first-hand account provides an extra level of connection to it.

The last essay discusses Wang’s pursuit of spirituality. It should be noted that in many tribal societies, Schizophrenics have been made shamans and are seen as having special powers. Wang doesn’t talk about this in great detail though she does a little [it is the premise of the series “Undone” on Amazon Prime], but it’s interesting to consider how religion and spirituality might influence the Schizophrenic mind.

I found this book fascinating and the writing to be elegant. I would highly recommend it for anyone with interests in the mind, mental illness, or just the experiences of other people.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Meditation [also sold as Altered Traits] by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and BodyThe Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body by Daniel Goleman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book has been sold under the title listed above as well as the less prosaic title, “Altered Traits.” The switch may represent a lack of confidence that the coined term “altered traits” would catch on, and / or a desire to market the book as broadly as possible.

“Altered Traits” is a play on the more well-known term “altered states [of consciousness.]” The idea being that meditation (as well as many other activities from consuming psychoactive drugs to having a shamanistic drum rave) create a change from the ordinary waking state of consciousness, but what the authors wanted to focus more upon is the long-term and sustained changes that result from extended meditation practice. (Hence, coining the term “altered traits.”) These sustained changes are a prevalent theme through out the book. This makes sense as one of the co-authors, Richard Davidson, is well-known for investigating the brains and brain activity of monks and yogis with extremely advanced practices (tens of thousands of hours in meditation.) Still, the prosaic title, “The Science of Meditation,” may make more than marketing sense because the book does discuss the scientific research on meditation pretty broadly.

Both Goleman and Davidson are long time meditators as well as being subject matter experts in psychology and brain science. This is a major strength of the book. Some scientists are dismissive of practices that have origins in spiritual practices and have blindsides or are prone to oversimplifications because of that bias. On the other hand, that bias isn’t helped by the fact that meditation experts often oversell meditation as a practice that will do everything from spontaneously cure your cancer to allow you to levitate six feet in the air. The authors of this book aren’t afraid to call out such spurious claims, but aren’t dismissive of practices of religious or spiritual origin. The authors also spend a fair amount of time criticizing past scientific investigations of meditation (including their own) on the basis of naivete about the nature of the practices. A major problem has always been an “apples and oranges” grouping together of practices that are different in potentially important ways. There have also been all the problems that plague other disciplines as well (small sample size, poor methodology, etc.) These discussions won’t mean much to most readers, but are helpful to those who want a better idea which studies are gold standard and which are weak. That said, the book doesn’t get bogged down in technical issues.

The book opens by laying out some of the important differences between various meditation practices and trying to educate readers who may either not know much about meditation or may know it only from the perspective of a single discipline. Goleman and Davidson suggest one way of thinking about different kinds of meditation is in terms of “the deep and the wide.” The former being sectarian practitioners who practice specific ritualized practices in an intense way. The latter being more secular practitioners whose practices may borrow from different domains. They present a more extensive classification scheme than this simple bifurcation, making it more of a continuum. Later in the book, they consider ways in which practices might be categorized (e.g. Attentional, Constructive, and Deconstructive) but it’s emphasized that there isn’t currently an agreed upon schema.

Throughout the book, one gets stories of the authors experience in investigating this subject. This included trying to get monks to allow themselves to be studied, even with a letter from the Dalai Lama. It also covers the challenge of trying to build interest in the subject in an academic setting that once thought of meditation as little more than voodoo.

The middle portion of the book has a number of chapters that address particular types of practices and the specific effects they have (and haven’t) been found to have. These include developing a more compassionate outlook and behavior (ch. 6), improved attention (ch. 7), negation of pain and physical ailments (ch. 8 & 9), and meditation / mindfulness as part of a psychotherapeutic approach. The authors repeatedly point out that these practices were never intended for the purpose of treating ailments (mental or physical,) though they do seem to show benefits in a number of domains outside of what the spiritual seekers who brought them to prominence intended of them.

The chapters toward the book’s end focus heavily on investigations into advanced meditators, and the altered traits and brain changes seen in them.

There are few graphics in the book, but it’s annotated and has an “additional resources” section in the back.

I’d highly recommend this book. The authors’ mixed background gives them a good vantage point to provide an overview of the subject, and also allows them to tap into stories of their experiences which make the book more interesting than it otherwise would be.

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BOOK REVIEW: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and DreamsWhy We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For a long time, the questions of why we sleep and dream remained unanswered — or answered speculatively in ways that proved without merit. One presumes the reasons are potent because there seems to be little evolutionary advantage in spending a third of one’s life unconscious of one’s environs and paralyzed (literally in REM sleep, but for all intents and purposes in NREM sleep as one can’t respond to changes in the environment without some part of one’s brain taking note of said changes.) The good news is that Matthew Walker’s book offers insight into what scientists have learned about why we sleep, why we dream, why we become so dysfunctional without doing both, and what it is about modern life and its technologies that has created an apparent crisis of sleep loss. Walker goes beyond the science to discuss what individuals and institutions can do to reduce the harmful effects of sleep deprivation.

The downside of this book is that it’s a bit alarmist, and in contrast to many books of this nature one doesn’t get a good indication of the quality of studies reported. Some pretty brazen claims are made and the reader doesn’t necessarily know if they are preliminary and unvalidated or if they are well established. Here, I’m speaking about the studies that try to isolate out the effect of sleep loss versus all other factors (which is a notoriously messy affair,) and not so much studies that report on the physiological effects of sleep and sleep loss (which I see less reason to not take at face value.) At any rate, any reader who doesn’t fall asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow and sleep straight through 7 hours and fifty-five minutes — waking 5 minutes before the alarm — is likely to feel doomed if they take this book too seriously. And if you ever engaged in shift-work (as I have) or had an intense travel schedule, you are likely to feel that your life is permanently and irretrievably wrecked.

I know this is a book on sleep, but I think it went a little too far in marginalizing all other elements of health and well-being. Walker said that he used to tell people that sleep, nutrition, and exercise were the trifecta of good health, but he ultimately concluded that sleep was more important because diet and exercise were adversely impacted by sleep loss. I don’t disagree that diet and exercise are harmed by sleep loss, but – of course – sleep quality is harmed by lack of proper diet and exercise as well. The author later discusses research confirming this two-way street. I, therefore, have no idea why he changed his initial balanced and reasonable view with one that suggests sleep is the 800-pound gorilla of health and well-being.

The book’s 16 chapters are divided into four parts. Part I (Ch. 1 – 5) lays out what sleep is, how rhythms of sleep are established / disrupted, how much sleep one needs, and how one’s sleep needs change throughout the course of one’s life. Part II (Ch. 6 – 8) explores the benefits of sleeping as well as describing the nature of the damage caused by lack of sufficient sleep. Part III (Ch. 9 – 11) shifts the focus to dreams, and delves into what they appear to do for us. The final part (Ch. 12 – 16) investigates the many ways in which modern life disrupts sleep from blue light in LED’s to arbitrary school and work schedules to cures that are worse than the ill (i.e. sleeping pills.)

There is an appendix that summarizes twelve key changes that an individual can make to get more and better sleep. There are graphics throughout the book, mostly line-drawn graphs to provide visual clarity of the ideas under discussion.

I found this book interesting and informative. I would recommend it for anyone interested in the science of sleep or how they might sleep better, with the exception of anyone who has anxiety about the state of his or her health and well-being. While I understand that Dr. Walker wants to drive changes regarding views and policies that have been wrong-headed or deleterious regarding sleep, I feel he went too far toward suggesting the sky is falling for anyone who gets less than a perfect night’s sleep every night of his life.

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