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: Lucid Dreaming by Charlie Morley

Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner's Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your DreamsLucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your Dreams by Charlie Morley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Lucid dreams are those in which the dreamer is aware he or she is in the dream and can interact with the dreamscape. Most people experience lucid dreaming only as a happy accident. Some people dream lucidly in their youth, but never as an adult. Some people become aware they’re dreaming under specific conditions, e.g. on a certain medication. However, lucid dreaming has been practiced in some traditions for centuries, most notably by Tibetan Buddhists (though chapters 5 & 6 demonstrate that it’s much broader than just the Tibetans.) Furthermore, having confirmed lucidity in dreams in sleep laboratories, scientists have moved to advance our understanding of the phenomena using the scientific method and by taking advantage of the latest brain imaging technologies.

Charlie Morley has written a couple books on the subject as well as giving a well-received TEDx Talk on the subject. Morley studied under a Tibetan lama as well as studying up on the science of the phenomenon.

There are eight chapters in this book. The first three chapters constitute part one, the basics. This part introduces one to the subject of lucid dreaming, considers some of the reasons why people get into it, and explains how to recognize one is in a dream. The remaining five chapters form the second part, which is about going deeper with one’s practice. The second part explores what one may see in a dream, and how one can use the experience of being lucid for self-improvement. Lucid dreaming is one of the few access points to one’s subconscious mind. The second part also charts the development of lucid dreaming in both the West and the East, as well as offering suggestions about how nutrition may help in one’s practice.

The book is written as an instructional manual, and offers “toolboxes” of techniques to help advance one’s lucid dream practice by teaching one to remember one’s dreams, understand the phases of sleep, recognize one is in a dream, achieve lucidity, and know what to do once one is lucid in a dream. These are handy summaries of the lessons taught in greater detail in the text. All of the chapters but 5 and 8 have one of these toolbox summaries. There are also frequent text boxes of strange but true facts about lucid dreaming, tips from experienced lucid dreamers, case studies, and stories used to make relevant points about lucid dreaming. There are no graphics, but they aren’t missed.

I found this book to be useful and interesting. It’s readable and logically organized. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice—particularly if one is starting from scratch. There are a number of books on the subject, but many will be too ethereal to be of value to a new practitioner, but Morley writes in an approachable fashion and organizes the book to help one get into a practice as efficiently as possible.

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