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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BOOK REVIEW: How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsHow to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Psychedelics have been coming back into mainstream interest of late. Until recently, this renewed interest mostly occurred quietly through a continuation of scientific study, a promising line of inquiry that was aborted in the late 1960’s. There is growing evidence that these substances may be useful for combating depression, anxiety, and addiction – as well as their other, long-known benefits. (It should be noted that while it seems the writing is on the wall for these substances to become medically legitimate, it remains controversial whether they will be legalized for use by well individuals – though some were legalized in the US for a small religious group that takes them as a sacrament of their faith.) This book by the immensely popular immersion journalist, Michael Pollan, has brought the topic front and center into mass awareness, and may help turn the tide of a sullied public image.

Because these substances remain widely unknown or misunderstood, allow me to present some background — much of which Pollan discusses in varying degrees. Unfortunately, the term “psychedelic” has become so loaded with layers of meaning that it’s not optimal for discussing the topic at hand. Literally, psychedelic means “mind manifesting,” but its common meaning is tied up in notions of 1960’s counter-culture and even with styles of art and music. However, alternative terms are also troublesome. “Psychoactive substances” (i.e. chemicals that change mind states) encompasses a much broader selection of molecules and medicines – though it’s probably the most neutral term used popularly today. “Hallucinogens” is also problematic because a large portion of consumers of these substances don’t have hallucinations – at least not of the full-blown variety people normally associate with that term (i.e. seeing sights that one genuinely believes exist, but don’t.) Pollan opts to largely stick with the loaded term of psychedelic, and thus will I throughout this review.

Psychedelics are chemical substances that change one’s mindset, typically creating euphoria, shutting down “I”- centric parts of the brain such that one feels a “oneness” commonly described in the mystical traditions from around the world, and which, yes, often generate sensory experiences that aren’t reflective of the actual environment (hallucinations.) The downside is found in the fact that the substances produce constructive experiences, which means they amplify what’s in the subject’s mind, and, therefore, can result in “bad trips” in which people hallucinate terrifying products of their own subconscious mind. Pollan focuses heavily on three of the most popular psychedelics: psilocybin (naturally produced in a common species of mushroom), LSD (a chemical synthesized from ergot fungus that grow on rye), and DMT (which is most famously an active ingredient in Ayahuasca, a concoction long brewed by Peruvian Shamans.) Mescaline, which is well known from the writings of Aldous Huxley, is another popular psychedelic, but one which Pollan only mentions in passing.

To wrap up the background portion of the review, a little history. Psychedelics have been used by shamanic traditions around the world since time immemorial. In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a chemist for Sandoz Laboratories, accidentally synthesized LSD. That marked the (re-) introduction of psychedelics to the modern Western world (the ancient Greeks were believed to have mixed something with their wine that sounded like it had psychedelic properties.) Unbeknownst to most, between Hofmann’s invention and the late 1960’s, there was a promising line of research on the use of psychedelics for various conditions as well as in non-medical domains – e.g. relating the psychedelic experience to religious / mystical experience.

Unfortunately, there was a two-pronged turn of events that would end in these substances being made illegal and categorized “Schedule I” (which deems them not only risky / requiring care of use, but also denies they have any legitimate medical use – the latter seems to be proven demonstrably incorrect.) The well-known prong in the death of psychedelics resulted from the substances becoming tied into the 1960’s counter-culture, at first through shoddy scholarship by academics – most famously Timothy Leary – and then through recreational use that typically stripped away the rituals and “protocols” that had allowed shamans and mystics to safely use these substances for millennia. The second prong was government-sanctioned shenanigans in which LSD was used and misused in an attempt to create everything from truth serums to mind-control agents – most famously the MK-Ultra Program, and its sub-projects such as Operation Midnight Climax during which the CIA illegally used prostitutes to “roofie” their customer’s drinks with LSD so that a spy could covertly watch to determine whether the johns got loose-lipped or not. (Note: Pollan writes at length about the former aspect [i.e. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, et. al.] though not as much as books like Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club or Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However, Pollan only gives passing mention to MK-Ultra.) Psychedelics might have remained out of the popular consciousness and only of interest to the fringe of society that was involved with “hard drugs” had it not been (in addition to renewed scientific interest) for a blooming interest by Silicon Valley engineers and executives who took to “micro-dosing” psychedelics to obtain creativity gains.

Now, I’ll get to the review, proper: As I mentioned, Pollan refers to himself as an “immersion journalist,” which means that he provides a two-in-one book. The first element is what one would expect in a popular science book on psychedelics, i.e. he reports on the scientific findings, the key history and background information, and delivers quotes from people he interviewed. The second element, however, is description of his own psychonautic journey. Pollan consumed psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca (DMT), and also a substance excreted by a toad that lives in Mexico and the Southwestern US. The reader gets both Huxlian “trip reports” (though Pollan remains much more scientific-minded and less mystical than Aldous Huxley) as well as the objective overview of the topic.

The book consists of six chapters as well as front and back matter. The first chapter discusses the psychedelic “renaissance,” i.e. how it came to be that these substances brought back from the dead – i.e. being purely of interest to “druggies” and far-flung shamanic traditions. Chapter 2 deals largely with mushrooms, and specifically psilocybe mushrooms that are the most popular and common type of psychedelic mushroom. Pollan spent time with Paul Stamets, a world-renowned expert on all-things fungi and the man who – literally – wrote the book on psilocybe mushrooms. Chapter 3 focuses heavily on LSD, including its development and rocky history. The fourth chapter is a “travelogue” in which Pollan discusses his own experiences in taking these substances. The penultimate chapter is about the neuroscientific findings. There is much that remains to be known, but yet somethings are well-known. These substances generally mimic the neurotransmitter serotonin (though mescaline, for example, mimics dopamine.) There is also a fascinating discussion of how these substances may temporarily reduce activity in the default mode network, which is prominent in generating one’s sense of self. The final chapter examines the findings of research into the use of psychedelics as a treatment for medical conditions – particularly depression, anxiety (especially death anxiety of terminal patients), and addiction (contrary to a widespread notion, resulting from these substances being lumped in with “hard drugs,” psychedelics not only aren’t addictive, but – in many patients – they counter addictions to more dangerous drugs, such as alcohol – yeah, you read that right.)

The book contains the usual ancillary matter, including: a glossary, bibliography, and notations. As the approach is narrative, graphics are minimal.

I found this book to be highly informative and extremely readable. The use of stories to convey information makes it engaging while it educates. I would highly recommend this book for any readers who are interested in psychedelics as medicine or a mystical experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

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

Amazon page

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5 Fun Facts about Breathing

Annapurna, Nepal; Taken in May of 2018

5.) The Death Zone may be a myth, or — probably more accurately — everyone may have their own personal death zone:

It’s widely stated as fact that above 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) every human being is dying, no human can acclimatize, and the race is on to get back below that altitude before the body is damaged beyond its ability to repair itself. This hard-limit is widely publicized in reputable, mainstream publications such as National Geographic. There’s a certain logic to such a limit. In response to the diminished pressure of oxygen, the body produces more hemoglobin (that’s acclimatization), but the bloodstream can only take up so much hemoglobin.

Mark Horrell, in his mountaineering blog, challenges the idea of a one-size-fits-all hard limit, and provides anecdotal examples that contradict the 8,000 meter cap.

4.) Sticking one’s face in water allows one to hold one’s breath longer:

Sensory cells in the face and nostrils sense wetness and this sensation triggers a slowed heartbeat (bradycardia) and constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) so as to reduce blood flow to the extremities.

A more detailed explanation can be read here.

3.) Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation works because our lungs only capture about 20% of the oxygen in each inhalation:

If we had super-efficient lungs, our exhalations wouldn’t contain enough oxygen to sustain the patient receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR.)

This and many other fascinating respiratory facts can be found on the Crash Course videos on the subject.

2.) In two weeks time the breath you’re exhaling right now will have spread out around the globe.

Sam Kean’s book, Caesar’s Last Breath, discusses this subject in great depth. In fact, the title is a reference to the fact that in each breath it’s likely that one inhales a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath.

1.) When you lose weight, most of it (84%) is lost in exhaled carbon-dioxide:

This may not be a question that ever occurred to you, but I bet you find it fascinating once it’s brought to your attention. It’s not like when you cut 5 kg, there’s a fat pile sitting somewhere. More about this subject can be learned here.

Nadi Shodhana; Alternate Nostril Breathing