BOOK REVIEW: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and WhyThe Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ripley investigates a range of disasters and tragedies – natural and man-made – with an eye toward her sub-titular question of who survives and why. Of course, in the process she answers the [often more interesting] converse question of who dies and why? By that I’m specifically referring to those who die while facing the same situations as survivors. i.e. Who dies having had the capacity to survive? Obviously, some people fail to survive because they face a fundamentally unsurvivable event (e.g. a plane explodes in mid-air with said person in it), but a surprising number die who could have walked to safety if they’d have managed to get moving – and some die because they play out a mental script that makes no sense contextually, e.g. trying to get a carry-on out of the overhead compartment as though one is at the gate at Heathrow Airport when in fact one is sinking into the ocean while the crashed airliner one is in is being buffeted by ocean waves.

Over the course of eight chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, and ancillary material, the author presents cases involving airplane crashes, tsunami, hurricanes, police shootings, hostage situations, fires, stampedes (of humans by humans), and even touches on the psychology of tragedies of a personal [rather than mass] nature (e.g. sexual assault.) A particular emphasis is given to events that the reader will likely be familiar such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, but the book also opens up the reader to events they may have scarcely heard of from the many crushing deaths in Mecca during recent Hajj pilgrimages to the Halifax harbor incident of 1917. Along the way, the reader hears from survivors, heroes, and a wide-range of experts on subjects such as gunfights, risk perception, evacuation dynamics, the physics of crowds, evolutionary psychology, and emotional resilience.

After an introduction that sets the context for the book, the first chapter discusses one of the most salient features of whether ones lives or dies, delay. The case of the evacuation of the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001 is used to examine why some people loiter about while others are johnny on the spot to hit the road. The WTC on 9/11 makes an interesting case because there were certainly people who died who could have survived if they’d had better knowledge or training. However, at the same time, it could have also been vastly worse if some of the people didn’t have the training they did (famously, a huge WTC tenant, Morgan Stanley, had a man in charge of emergency procedures, Rick Rescorla, whose persistent drills no doubt saved many lives [though he did not survive, himself.])

Chapter two discusses risk, and the weird way in which human beings perceive and respond to uncertainty. For example, the author describes Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory, which showed that a person responds to risk much differently if there’s a possibility of losing something rather than only of making gains. (Prior to work of these two social scientists, the prevailing view was that humans were rational actors, i.e. a $100 is a $100.) Prospect theory confirmed that anxiety mattered, and people didn’t just use their clockwork frontal cortex to calculate and compare expected values. (This may seem self-evident, but it began the process of up-ending the precise and predictable rational actor model from classical economics.)

Chapter three is entitled “fear” and it discusses that emotion and the various behaviors (and lack of behavior) that goes hand-in-hand with it, including: distortion of the experience of time, tunnel vision, and self-talk. (Panic and paralysis behaviors are each given their own chapter later in the book.) This chapter presented a fascinating discussion with a man who may have been involved in more shoot outs than any other police officer (the officer, no doubt, having a valuable perspective on how to respond in fearful situations.)

Chapter four is about the personality traits that link to resilience and the survivor personality. There is a fascinating discussion with an undercover agent in Israel, a man who faced a number of situations in which he had to coolly make a life-or-death decision in the way that most of us only experience in Hollywood movies. It should be pointed out that while we all admire such people when they save the day, the personality traits they display aren’t necessarily ones that we find desirable in daily life. Chapter five is entitled “groupthink” and it discusses the role that social dynamics play in survival, which is often considerable. Some survivors are people who would’ve perished if left to their own devices – i.e. if a more resilient stranger hadn’t taken them by the hand or shouted in their face.

The last three chapters discuss three relatively common behaviors that occur in the decisive moment of a tragedy. Chapter six discusses panic behavior. As it happens, there are some types of tragedies in which panic is almost unheard of and others in which it is nearly ubiquitous. Personality does play a role. Just as some people have personality traits that make them more resilient, others have traits that make them more likely to panic. However, researchers also found that there are characteristics – e.g. people feeling trapped but as if there’s a glimmer of hope of escape. [People who know they are unequivocally doomed are often surprisingly calm.] The chapter also offers some useful insights into how crowds kill people that may be useful for those who find themselves in massive crowds like those seen during pilgrimages or at any number of festivals in India (where human stampede deaths are disturbingly common.)

Chapter seven is about “paralysis” behavior. Readers may be familiar that there’s been a tendency of experts to add either one or two new “F’s” to the phrase “fight or flight” – such as “freeze” or “fright” – to describe other extremely common responses to severe sympathetic nervous system engagement. It’s common to dismiss such behavior as that of cowardly or milquetoast people, but the reality is more complex. On the evolutionary timescale, there was one tragedy that counted for an overwhelming percentage of such dire events — being in the jaws of an apex predator. It turns out that if a grizzly bear or lioness is atop you, freezing isn’t a bad strategy. You aren’t going to pop up and out run a tiger or defeat it in unarmed combat, your only hope may be to make it think you are a diseased carcass – i.e. shit yourself and lie limply. One has to train alternative behaviors; otherwise, the body does what is evolutionarily programmed into its genetic code.

The last chapter is on heroic acts and why some people engage in them when most people don’t. (Consider the people in the Titanic lifeboats who listened to people struggle and drown for fear that their [almost empty] boat would be swamped with clawing victims. Or, the case of Catherine Genovese who was screaming bloody murder for half-an-hour while being raped and stabbed to death while none of the 40-ish witnesses so much as called the cops.) As with the question of what makes a survivor, the answer to what makes a hero is a mixed bag. While we tend to idolize people who engage in heroic actions, the evidence suggests that the image of pure beneficence – lacking all self-interest – may be mythical. Many a hero is as much responding with a combination of subconscious mind and genetic programming as is the individual who burns to death 100 feet from an unlocked exit – just to vastly greater adoration.

I found this book to be fascinating. There are many books on this topic, but I think the author did an excellent job of choosing cases and experts to produce an interesting and informative read — even for a reader for whom this literature is not new.

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BOOK REVIEW: Becoming Batman by E. Paul Zehr

Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a SuperheroBecoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[Note: This book is about sport and exercise science, particularly as they pertain to the martial arts. If you’re a martial artist or are interested in fitness and movement arts at the extremes of human capacity, you’re in the right place. If you’re interested in the comics and an overview of topics including how many billions Bruce Wayne needs and what technologies Batman must master, those aren’t questions addressed in this book. Such readers may find the book delving into depths they aren’t interested in on biological science. There are articles on the web that deal with topics like the “Cost of being Batman.”]

Next summer an eagerly awaited movie entitled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hits theaters. Who knows how much screen time will involve the fight between the titular characters, but the same battle has played out a number of times in the comics, and its appeal is clear. What are the limits of human capability given training, technology, and sufficient smarts? Can a man really defeat an alien that’s faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? A popular fanboy mantra is, “I like Batman, because I could be Batman. Batman has no superpowers.” So, yes, if you were a billionaire, genius, with the physique of a Greek god, and knew 127 martial arts, you too could be Batman. Or could you? That question is at the heart of Zehr’s book.

Becoming Batman is arranged into sixteen chapters divided among five parts. It begins logically with the question of whether Bruce Wayne needs to begin at any particular point to achieve success in transforming himself into Batman? (At the extreme, one probably can’t imagine Bruce Wayne becoming Batman if he was born with one leg a foot longer than the other and with a Quasimodo hump, but given a Bruce who is starting out “average,” what are his limitations.) In other words, how much does genetics come into play. In the first part, Zehr introduces a character, Bob Wayne, who doesn’t appear in the comics. Bob is Bruce’s twin, and is used throughout the book for comparison purposes, i.e. to convey what Bruce Wayne would look like if he didn’t train fanatically to be Batman. The question of how much of Batman is innate and how much is painstaking built by exercise and training is critical to determining how many of those fanboys really could be Batman.

There a series of chapters explaining the mechanism by which stressors result in a stronger, faster, more powerful, and more resilient Batman. The idea is that Mother Nature doesn’t over-engineer. The only way one gets stronger muscles is by overloading them, which triggers a process of rebuilding them bigger and better than before. Wolff’s Law defines the same concept for bones, i.e. bone density increases in response to increased loading. (Incidentally, the same is true of the mind. A more agile mind is achieved only by working it, and zoning out in front of the television results in a dumbening.)

The next section shifts from generic exercise science to questions of Batman’s martial arts training. What kind of martial arts (or arts) would Batman practice? There is an often quoted statement in the comics to the effect that Batman had mastered 127 martial arts. (This is ridiculous, but it does spur the intriguing question of how many systems does Batman need to learn to have a well-rounded skill-base without being a dabbler? Many will say one art—the right one–is enough, others will say that–given the varied cast of villains he must defeat–Batman needs a broader skill-set than any existing art provides.) More to the point, how many hours does one need to practice a technique to ingrain the movements into one (e.g. neurologically it takes repetition to optimize efficiency.) This is among the questions discussed in this book.

The fourth section deals with the ravages of being Batman, and how much any human could be expected to endure. In this section, one will learn about the cumulative toll of concussions, the likelihood of Batman avoiding broken bones and other injuries that would necessarily sideline his crime fighting, and the effect that working the night shift would have. (The latter might seem trivial in comparison to the former two topics, but—in fact—it’s not. It’s well established that night workers have higher incidence of some cancers and other ailments. Furthermore, as Bruce Wayne has to keep appearances up, it means not only fighting circadian rhythm issues, but also frequent sleep deprivation—the hazards of which are even clearer and occur in short order.)

There are a number of interesting topic that aren’t don’t pertain to the core question per se, but which are interesting for fans of the Batman canon and the character’s mythos. Famously, Batman doesn’t use guns or lethal force. This raises the question of how realistic it is to regularly fight hardened knaves and miscreants without killing them. One can only knock out so many of Gotham’s baddies before one doesn’t get up.

There’s a chapter about what a fight between Batman and Batgirl would be like. While strength would definitely be to Batman’s advantage, there are advantages that an equally skilled female fighter might bring to the fight? How would Batgirl (or Catwoman) need to fight to put those advantages to use? Finally, for those of us who are no longer spring chicks, there are chapters about how Batman could expect to age, and how long he could keep performing at a level at which he could defeat his enemies.

I enjoyed this book and found it both educational and interesting. It should be clear that Batman is just a teaching tool used to explore the limitations of the human body and its ability to endure a life of fighting. That said, references to the Batman comic books and movies makes for a readable text. Perhaps what I like most about this book is that most of the books that address these subjects are textbooks that are sold on the textbook pricing model (i.e. we have a limited but captive audience so let’s make them pay top dollar.) This is one of the few books that takes on these topics at the readability and pricing model of a popular science book.

I recommend it for those interested in the science of performance, martial arts, and injury.

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