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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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of The Big Bang Theory by Mark Brake

The Science of The Big Bang Theory: What America's Favorite Sitcom Can Teach You about Physics, Flags, and the Idiosyncrasies of ScientistsThe Science of The Big Bang Theory: What America’s Favorite Sitcom Can Teach You about Physics, Flags, and the Idiosyncrasies of Scientists by Mark Brake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The good news is that this book is full of fascinating tidbits from the history of science, the history of science fiction, and the pop culture phenomena that is the television show, “The Big Bang Theory.” The bad news is that it may not at all be the book that you are expecting if you take the title literally. That it’s not the book it seems like it would be could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what your interests and science background are.

Let me explain. Say you are a super-fan of the show with an education in physics and you want to know something like: which Dutch researchers Sheldon thinks Leonard is ripping off and how, or: what the monopoles are that the four male leads go to the North Pole in search of [and why,] you won’t learn anything about those things in this book. You won’t have any more insight about what the scientists on the show – be it Raj Koothrappali to Leslie Winkle — are working on, or what those vaguely referenced scientific terms and discussions mean. You won’t learn about what any of the equations on those dry erase boards mean, and whether it’s gibberish or real science. As I mentioned, this may be a good thing because the topics that are mentioned off-hand on the show are often complex and difficult, e.g. Bose-Einstein Condensates, and most readers would be lost in such discussions. That said, if you are looking for such discussions and clarifications, you absolutely won’t find them in this book.

This book is aimed more at a reader with a high school science education, an interest in science fiction, and who would like to learn some quirky facts about science and science fiction while they are regaled and reminded of fun moments from their favorite episodes of the show. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that this was a collection of essays written long ago, and then the author said something like, “Hey, I have this essay about volcanoes, in episode ___, _____ makes a random comment about volcanoes. I could put some dialogue from that episode at the front of the chapter, sprinkle in a few references to the show in the text of the chapter, and recycle a whole box of columns, putting together a science-pop culture crossover book.”

The 31 chapters are organized into four parts entitled, “Space,” “Time,” “Machine,” and “Monsters,” respectively. That said, organization isn’t the strong-suit of the book. The eight chapters in the “Time” section seem to have more to do with chemistry than time, per se. The “Machine” section does better, but discusses concepts like fire and volcano that are no more connected to that theme than to any of the others. It’s really a disparate collection of essays on various science and science fiction related topics.

I may sound like I’m panning this book, but I enjoyed it, overall. Now, if I’d have shelled out the cover price thinking I was getting the book that the title suggests, I’d be royally cheesed off. So, know what you’re getting and decide accordingly. If you have an interest in the history of science and science fiction, you’ll probably find the book intriguing and worth reading. If you have a high-level understanding of physics and want to learn about the physics they mention in “The Big Bang Theory” television series, you will be sorely disappointed.

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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: Bonk by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Mary Roach specializes in nonfiction on quirky topics that offer plenty of opportunities for humor – if of an uncomfortable variety of humor. Few topics hit those marks better than sex, especially when it is juxtaposed with science. Sex has a long history of being on the fringes of scientific study because the value judgments society applies to the topic makes it hard to attract both scientists and subjects, and when neither are lacking there is the matter of convincing agencies and institutions to fund one’s work. On the other hand, there is both demand for better information about sex and a great deal of potential for earnings to be gained by making both the experience and result of sex better or more reliable (more or less fertility as is desired.) All this has led to sex and science becoming strange bedfellows — that have sometimes let in pseudo-science for an awkward threesome.

Roach presents a wide variety of studies from famous early scholars like Kinsey and Masters & Johnson to obscure present-day scientists like the Egyptian researcher who has to find prostitutes to have intercourse with inflated condoms in order to study nerve reflexes in the female nether regions. Sometimes, the research involves animals, as in the case of researchers trying to determine whether the female orgasm draws semen up further toward the Fallopian tubes by studying pigs, or studies of mating rituals of monkeys and how they compare and contrast to those of humans. Though most often the studies are human-centric and ask questions such as: why do a few women orgasm with excessive (and, unfortunately, embarrassing) ease, while too many others have difficulty achieving that result at all? And, why aren’t sex toys better designed to achieve their objective?

I give Roach bonus points on a couple of grounds. First, there is the plentiful combination of humor and fun facts that make the book extremely readable. Second, Roach takes some personal risk when, for example, taking part in an imaging study with her husband that involved intimacy in an MRI. That is not even to mention the many things she must have seen that she can never unsee on her global tour that took her to places like Taiwan and Egypt as well as to conventions and research parks across the US.

It should be pointed out that there are important and serious topics being addressed by the science in the book, issues like: erectile dysfunction, sexual dissatisfaction (and its adverse effects upon relationships), and fertility difficulties. So, it’s not all jokes and quirky facts. Solutions to problems (surgical, pharmaceutical, and even psychological) are discussed, though there is a lot of basic science to consider as well. (For the less scientifically oriented, basic science is that which doesn’t have a specific objective, but is rather to enhance understanding so that further down the road economically and practically viable solutions can be achieved. The lack of specific objective means this type of science can be particularly tricky to get funded. It also makes for some of the more amusing anecdotes because – unlike painful issues of persistent genital arousal disorder or erectile dysfunction – its easier to form jokes about penis cameras and romancing a sow.)

The book consists of fifteen chapters. As is common in Roach’s book, there’s not an obvious organizational schema – except the first chapter which is a bit more general and the last which answers the old question, “who has more fun, and why?” [except the answer isn’t “blondes or redheads” but rather heterosexual or homosexual couples.] That said, there is a grouping of male genitalia (ch. 6-8) versus female genitalia (ch. 9-12) studies. There are some photos (not particularly graphic) as well as endnotes and references.

I found this book to be fascinating and highly readable, and would recommend it for anyone with an interest in anatomy and physiology, or in sex for that matter.

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BOOK REVIEW: Psychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns & Eva Burns-Lundgren

Psychotherapy: A Very Short IntroductionPsychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The word “psychotherapy” conjures images of a patient on a burgundy recamier-style couch, a psychoanalyst in a matching stuffed armchair, neither one looking at the other as the analyst uses terse questions and monosyllabic acknowledgements to coax out the patient’s problems through interrogation about his or her childhood. While that approach, Freudian psychoanalysis, stubbornly maintains a following, there have blossomed many other varieties of therapy using talk as a tool to ease maladies of the mind. This “Very Short Introduction,” put out by Oxford University Press as part of a large and diverse series with the same subtitle, presents an overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy and its less formal cousin, counselling.

The book consists of eight chapters, and begins with a preface. The preface covers various and sundry topics useful for the reader, but most importantly it takes a step back from psychotherapy to situate this therapeutic approach in a context of psychology and psychiatry, which are subjects often confused in the popular mindset.

Chapter one continues with the basics by defining psychotherapy and offering a thumbnail of the various approaches that will be expanded upon throughout the book. The second chapter pays homage to Freud and his psychoanalytic approach. The authors maintain a diplomatic approach to psychoanalysis though it has fallen on hard times for a number of reasons, both practical (e.g. it’s a huge drain on time, often involving five hours a week for months or even years) and theoretical (e.g. it places a great deal of emphasis on the past, whereas many currently popular approaches favor the present as the relevant time.)

Chapter three explores a number of post-Freudian psychotherapists including Jung, Adler, and Erik Erikson. Chapter four moves on to what is called “Time-Limited Therapy.” As suggested in the preceding paragraph, psychoanalysis placed huge demands on a patient’s [and therapist’s] time and could go on and on with no end in sight. Time-limited therapies focused more on finding a present-day solution for the current problem, and not so much ceaselessly trolling one’s distant past for traumas.

Chapter five is about counselling, which is very much related to psychotherapy in that it involves getting a person to talk out his or her problems. The difference is that it needn’t necessarily involve a therapist with extensive training, but rather someone briefed and / or sensitive enough to know how not to become sidetracked into dangerous territory. Chapter six discusses cognitive behavioral therapy, its principles, and its variations (such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT], which combines elements of Buddhist mindfulness with the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to form a popular and successful therapeutic approach.) Cognitive behavioral therapy is rooted in the premise that distorted thoughts cause emotional and behavioral problems, and that one must address the thought to change the outcome. It also famously requires “homework” to be done between sessions rather than the work being contained within sessions.

Chapter seven moves away from the one-on-one therapy discussed so far, and investigates the various ways in which therapy can be carried out in groups. Groups can be beneficial because they allow the patient to see that they aren’t unique in their woes, which people often believe themselves to be. Family therapy is also discussed as it all allows family members to chip away at their problems as a familial unit. Also, there are numerous interactive forms of therapy in which patients might use various art forms to work out their problems.

The last chapter looks at where psychotherapy stands, and where it appears to be going. One of the important considerations discussed is the influence the advance of neuroscience is having on therapy. For few decades since the famous decade of the brain (i.e. the 90’s,) neuroscience has dominated the discussion of the realm of the mind. There has been less-and-less thinking in psychological terms and more and more in physiological terms. However, there still seems to be a widespread belief that solutions need to combine a recognition of both areas.

Like other books in the series, this one employs a variety of graphics (cartoon, photographic, and diagrammatic), and it also presents brief references and further reading sections to help the reader continue his or her study through other works.

This book offers a solid overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy. I would recommend it for neophytes who need to start with a concise outline of the field.

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BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fungi: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas P. Money

Fungi: A Very Short IntroductionFungi: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas P. Money
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bear with me. Fungi might sound like the most brutally boring topic on the planet, but hopefully by the end of the review you’ll be convinced it’s worth learning at least 125 pages about the basics of these unexpectedly powerful organisms. Regardless of whether you agree with people like Paul Stamets who suggest that if the planet is to be saved, the solution will no doubt hinge on fungi, (FYI – Dr. Money, author of this book, explicitly urges caution about such grand hopes) there’s no denying that these musty denizens of the forest floor (and almost everywhere else) are profoundly important to humanity. From taking out the trash in their role as decomposers to serving as the key ingredient in medicines to helping us digest foods to allowing us to make beer and bread, fungi can be greatly beneficial. They can also be legendarily deadly.

This book gives an overview of fungi with special emphasis on their interaction with the world. The book consists of eight chapters. The first three of these chapters look at the members of the Kingdom more or less in isolation, and the rest of the chapters delve more into how fungi interact with ecosystems and other organisms. Chapter one discusses what fungi are exactly, and what defines members of this kingdom. Given that most people only think of the fruiting bodies of certain kinds of fungus (e.g. the button or shitake mushrooms they get at the supermarket), being explicit about what separates fungus from other organisms is useful. This leads into the second chapter, which explores the huge diversity of this kingdom. The third chapter explores the genetics and life-cycle of fungi. All of these chapters are limited by the fact that there are far too many varieties of fungi to dive into specifics, given how wildly divergent they can be.

The other five chapters explore how fungi interact, and these chapters also move from more general interaction to those specific to mammals in general and to humans, specifically. Chapter four is entitled “Fungal Mutualisms” and it introduces how fungi interact with other species. Specifically, the chapter focus on interactions that are mutually helpful or at least not harmful to either party. Parasitic relationships, in which one participant (specifically plants) is damaged by the relationship, are saved for their own chapter — five. Chapter six investigates the role that fungi are perhaps most known and beloved for, decomposition.

The last two chapters deal with fungal interactions with animals, with specific emphasis on how they benefit or hinder humans. Chapter seven considers how fungi contribute to health or illness in animals. The reader learns about the good (e.g. contributions to digestion), the bad (e.g. infections) and the trippy (psychedelic mushrooms and derivatives – e.g. LSD comes from ergot fungus.) The final chapter explores edible mushrooms and the fungal role in biotechnology, including: pharmacology, fermentation, and bio-fuel production.

The book has many graphics that consist mostly of line drawings but include a few frames microscope photography. There is also a brief “Further Reading” section that suggests other books as well as websites.

I’d recommend this book as a first step to learning more about fungi. It won’t help with things like identification, but it’s a nice overview of a surprisingly broad topic for a neophyte. As is common with this series from the Oxford University Press, there’s not a lot of room for long stories that might make the reading more entertaining, and so it’s probably not the most engrossing book one can find on the topic, but it’s likely one of the most concise and accurate.

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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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BOOK REVIEW: Agriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Brassley and Soffe

Agriculture: A Very Short IntroductionAgriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Brassley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is another in my favorite series of brief guides to various topics and disciplines, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” books. These books typically take around 100 pages to cover the fundamentals of a given subject. The series offers a quick overview in a no-frills fashion. This book is no. 473, providing an overview of agriculture.

The book is divided into six chapters, and has an Introduction in the front and a “Further Reading” section at the rear. The first chapter is about crop farming and it discusses the major issues of concern, including: the best soils, essential nutrients, fertilizer, as well as discussing what kinds of problems are faced in crop cultivation. Chapter 2 explores the other major division of farming, raising animals. In it, one learns about basic issues of feeding, breeding, housing, and providing medical treatment.

The third chapter investigates the topic of agricultural markets and trade. Here the reader is reminded of their basic economics education, and how market forces result in the topsy-turviness of farming in which a bumper-crop year can be bad while a drought year not so bad. (i.e. Huge harvests mean unit prices drop and surpluses may be lost to waste, whereas shortages result in high unit prices.) The authors also discuss the issue of global trade which is unique for agricultural products because almost every country makes some portion of their own food (excepting nations like Singapore and Vatican City), they are resources no country can afford to be cut off from, and they are perishable on varying time scales.

The fourth chapter is about the inputs used in agriculture such as land, labor, and machinery and equipment. This chapter discusses these topics more generally than they are touched upon in the first couple chapters. The penultimate chapter compares modern and traditional forms of agriculture. As the author points out, this division could mean very different things depending upon what two periods one is comparing. However, it is a worthwhile topic to consider with respect to its relevance to sustainability and the effect on the environment.

The last chapter is nominally about the future of farming, but it considers a number of current issues such as GMO (genetically modified crops) and the effects of climate change. The chapter explores what changes will need to be made as the population approaches 9 billion. It doesn’t go into issues like urban farming, petri-dish grown meat, or insects as the future of protein as much as I’d have thought, but does raise some interesting questions.

There are many graphics, from photos to tables, used to more conveniently and concisely convey information.

I would recommend this for those looking to get an overview of how farming works. Like most books in this series, it is optimized to being concise, not to being interesting – so if one wants fun facts and narrative creative non-fiction this isn’t so much the book for you. But if you want the gist of agriculture fast, this will do nicely.

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