This is an easily readable compilation of modern ideas about how our brains work and whether their function allows for free will and personal responsi...moreThis is an easily readable compilation of modern ideas about how our brains work and whether their function allows for free will and personal responsibility. The information presented is revealing and thought-provoking (at least for a relative layman like me), but it does not make a strong case for will and responsibility.
The author points out many of the anatomical and functional capacities that distinguish human brains from those of other animals. The author posits that one potential basis for a lot of what we call human consciousness is a left-hemisphere brain process called the "interpreter," which fits our literal sensory experiences into an abstract personal story that we may believe in too much. An interpreter process given false information cannot tell us the truth. (For instance, if we feel anxious because of an underlying physical problem, we may assume we're anxious about something we see in the room.)
In this context, people's explanations for why they did something are highly suspect. The interpreter process "fudges," and we take it for truth. This fascinates me and my intuition wants to agree. (Later in the book it's pointed out that this mental fudging might introduce plenty of uncertainty into legal trials.)
The book allows that humans may have will and personal responsibility despite the fact that neurons are cells obeying the laws of physics -- a fact that has led many other neuroscientists to view consciousness as deterministic and non-willed. The author asserts that quantum physics follow different rules than Newtonian physics, but Newtonian physics emerge from them through mechanisms we don't understand. Can't individual brain cells follow rules that aren't obviously reflected at the level of the thinking mind and its social interactions with other minds?
I think it's an intriguing point, but I don't think it proves anything about will or personal responsibility.
The author does point out a possible evolutionary value of responsibility -- without society holding people accountable for their (supposedly willed) actions, human social order probably would not be able to exist, some studies suggest.
Still -- evolutionary value of BELIEF in free will and personal responsibility does not, to me, prove the existence of will.
One interesting thing is that the author suggests the mind's intangible essence -- the mind emerging from the brain -- exists in the algorithms or protocols it follows, not just in tissue. And these happenings, these processes, are distributed and broken up into many modules running at once. There is no little man (or woman) in each of our heads -- something I think neuroscientists have recognized for quite awhile.
All in all, the ideas in this book that I value most relate to the unreliability of my brain's stories. As someone who meditates and tries to tell raw sensation apart from mental interpretation, I wonder if the interpreter process described here is what I see when observing mental interpretation. Or I might be making NO sense.
Also, I am not sure what to make of the fact that so much of our mental processing is preconscious. We react to things before we're aware of them. What does cultivating more awareness, through meditation or any other activity, really mean? Can we see more of what would be unconscious, or can we simply see better what would've been conscious anyway? Does that question even make sense? lol.
Know that I'm not qualified to critique this book with any degree of objectivity, whatever that is, or to INTERPRET what it says about my mind. I just liked it a lot.
This sequel was stronger than its predecessor in character development and heartfelt interactions, but it was paced awkwardly and was harder to follow...moreThis sequel was stronger than its predecessor in character development and heartfelt interactions, but it was paced awkwardly and was harder to follow, left more loose ends hanging and fell short of the first book's sharp edges of horror and humor.
* * * * *
After fleeing their home in Camorr, Locke and Jean make their way to Tal Verrar and plan a heist at a tower of gambling called the Sinspire. Before they get too far, they fall prey to power games among the head of the Sinspire, the military leader of Tal Verrar and a ruling council of merchants who generally play well with the Sinspire but not with the military leader.
They end up forced into the service of this military leader, known as the Archon, who wants to spark a pirate rebellion so the merchants remember why his might is important and worth funding. The Archon, hearing reports of Locke and Jean's skills in deception, trains them in sailing and sends them to drum up rebellion at a pirate hideaway across the sea.
The book takes on a very "Pirates of the Caribbean" feeling, not only because of its subject matter but because it throws numerous plots in the air simultaneously. As with the "Pirates" films, it becomes so layered and full of names that it'll probably try your patience.
Many of the tantalizing characters and possibilities introduced never get to live up to their potential. Those that do are impressive. Stand-out characters include the female pirate captain Zamira Drakasha - a lioness of a leader with a tender heart at the mercy of her live-aboard children - and her first mate Ezri Delmastro - the short, witty, eventually star-crossed lover of Gentleman Bastard Jean Tannen.
The interactions between Jean and Ezri are believable and warm. Those between Locke and Jean are a rollercoaster and are some of the most interesting parts of this book. In this installment, each of the men has an arc (or more than one arc) of personal wretchedness and redemption. They risk their lives for each other while driving each other crazy in plenty of new and entertaining ways.
You'll have to wade through a lot of ship terminology - as Locke and Jean must do during a boring part of the plot when they train to fake a Naval rebellion. I felt like the book was beating me over the head with nautical words, as if the writer was working very hard to show his ability to use them.
I'm not going to delve into the plot because, honestly, I couldn't recount all of it satisfactorily if I tried. But I will point out a few things that irked me (because I'm such a positive person):
-The Bondsmage issue did not advance very far. It was played up as a significant threat in the beginning of this book, and then never hit home with the weight I expected. -The Eldren, the nonhuman race that left behind towers, reefs and even islands of impossibly hard glass, are a backdrop and it's just not clear why. Why did this story need to be set in context of a long-gone advanced species? What has that added so far besides pretty structures? -Locke had a past love interest named Sabetha that is continually mentioned and never materializes. While I don't feel especially interested in her, I'd like the author to get it over with or drop it. And he's never going to drop it. -Some context introduced in this book was never used for anything, and seems unlikely to be. In the beginning, two random people were shown fighting to the death on a "dueling green" near the Sinspire of Tal Verrar. ...So what? Nobody dueled like that ever again. Also, there were these killer wasps used in a brutal game. So what? Later, a pirate battle involved some animals in a mesh cage. Turned out they were birds, not wasps.
Let's hope the series keeps up its character-development momentum without letting the world-building and plot complexity get out of control.
The book ended with a heartbreaking Locke-Jean bittersweet-friendship moment. The two could give Frodo and Sam a run for their money while offering far fewer reasons to be miscast as each others' lovers in bad fan fiction. Good damned thing.
This book was fabulous. It's the reason I couldn't go to bed on time for days.
It's about a gang of thieves operating high-level con jobs that entangl...moreThis book was fabulous. It's the reason I couldn't go to bed on time for days.
It's about a gang of thieves operating high-level con jobs that entangle them with nobles, crime lords and agents of the law in a fictional city that is extraordinarily well realized (without the painfully excessive world-building of some fantasy novels).
The book -- despite being peppered with the word f*** and glorifying stuff like lying, whoredom and punching old ladies (all of this written hilariously) -- is a surprisingly subtle portrayal of revenge, its consequences and the moral hypocrisy involved in pursuing it. (Many of the characters have had something awful done to them, and in their own unique ways of seeking revenge, they perpetuate bloody or exploitative cycles).
Speaking of bloody, this book has some of the most memorable torture scenes I've ever read. I wonder if the author based these on anything or if he just... gave it some significant thought. Heavens they were sick.
The characters were as well-realized as everything else, but many were not likeable (at least not to my tastes). I did end up liking Jean Tannen, the most sincere and deadly of the Gentlemen Bastards gang of thieves. Locke Lamora himself was so plucky that I occasionally wanted to smack him. (But he got smacked around a lot, so that worked out.)
One more thing: The "fantasy" elements of this book only ever seemed common on first mention - then they were used in fresh ways. There are magi (mages) that are absurdly powerful, but instead of simply trying to rule the world, they contract their services out for an absurd amount of money. If they have to be over-the-top powerful, then I am glad to see their services limited by something as simple and relevant to the plot as money.
This was a haphazard, though sometimes entertaining, story that did not approach the cleverness of Gaiman's other recent novel, "The Graveyard Book."
A...moreThis was a haphazard, though sometimes entertaining, story that did not approach the cleverness of Gaiman's other recent novel, "The Graveyard Book."
A young boy's world becomes very disturbing when an otherworldly being sneaks in through a wormhole-like portal, which happens to have lodged inside him.
Trying to fix the situation is a country girl from down the lane. The girl is more than she seems, and she calls her duck pond an ocean for reasons later revealed.
The book's "magical," or maybe "trans-dimensional"(?) creatures behave in idiosyncratic, interesting ways. Some of them take giant bites out of reality and leave behind fuzzy gray static.
However, the book's premise and themes are sometimes, uh, fuzzy gray static. I followed its fairly entertaining plot and enjoyed much of it without ever grasping what the author was ultimately trying to say. I never felt this sense of disconnection while reading "The Graveyard Book," which is my favorite by Gaiman so far.
In this book, his vague style - not explicitly defining what every creature and situations is - didn't please me. By making the true nature and internal lives of the otherworldly beings ill-defined, the story left me feeling un-empathetic and uninterested. Whereas in "Graveyard Book," well-used vagueness sometimes infused old tropes with new mystery - one guy was clearly a vampire, but no one ever used that word, and he kept some facets of his existence secret from the boy protagonist (and the readers). In "Ocean," the things left unsaid weaken, rather than strengthen, the story.
And some things Gaiman did say turned me off. He seemed to inject "meaningful" statements frequently (saying something close to "there are no adults in the world" to indicate that everyone is still their inner child). He threw philosophies into the dialogue in ways that didn't always feel natural.
One thing I did enjoy was that the book didn't shy from darkness. Themes of suicide and child abuse are broached pretty bluntly for a fantasy plot about a young boy. Children's stories need darkness (which of course must be meted out appropriately for different age groups). Without it, they're like the bad, manic, computer-animated movies that no one remembers.
Once you've had a glimpse of Daniel Tammet's unusual mind, it's easy to be interested in just about anything he says.
Tammet is a savant gifted at mem...moreOnce you've had a glimpse of Daniel Tammet's unusual mind, it's easy to be interested in just about anything he says.
Tammet is a savant gifted at memorization, calculating large sums in his head, learning new languages rapidly and other data-processing feats. He also has synesthesia - a condition where the senses cross over. Some with this condition experience colors while listening to music, for instance. For Tammet it means, in particular, that numbers have color, shape and personality and draw him into a comforting, beautiful mental world. In some situations they provide his only safe haven. He has Asperger's syndrome, which lies on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum and complicates his social interactions.
The book moves through the most extraordinary and the most mundane aspects of Tammet's life with similar attention to detail - whether he's describing how he recited Pi to thousands of digits or what he had for dinner one night. Readers will learn how Tammet struggles with some of the most basic aspects of life - like finding a friend in school and getting on the right bus - and excels absurdly well at others, like holding a conversation in Icelandic after about one week of practice.
Somehow Tammet makes the mundane and extraordinary fit together nicely. Maybe that's no challenge for the guy who remembers how the wood of the table top felt as readily as he absorbs a long list of U.S. presidents' names.
He gives glimpses into the scientific study and current understanding of savant and Asperger's syndromes, synesthesia and epilepsy. I wish he'd dwelt on the research about all of these a little more. But at the same time, it's nice that the book is so focused on his first-person experiences. It doesn't bog down in complexity (and I'm surprised at that, considering the author says he may talk exhaustively and almost obsessively about certain things that interest him).
The writing style is extremely straightforward, clean and, well, innocent. Tammet could not *wink wink, nudge nudge* if he tried. The content, not the style, is the real draw here. That seems natural, considering that the author perceives the world as a very literal stream of stimuli and has trouble with abstraction and figurative language.
Tammet did surprise me with how devotedly and excitedly he talked about his emotions, his gratitude for relationships, his religion (Christianity) and other things that seemed outside the stereotypes I unconsciously had started to form about him.
In all, the book was usually easy to read. The only times it really seems to slow are when Tammet plods through small details of his routine with perhaps a little too much description. But at the same time - as I said above - the simple fact of his extraordinary abilities might make many readers more tolerant of the mundane parts. Don't you want to know how he savant likes his (very regularly scheduled) tea?
This book presents the struggle of a scientist to study and raise awareness about a harmful microorganism in North Carolina rivers. It centers on how...moreThis book presents the struggle of a scientist to study and raise awareness about a harmful microorganism in North Carolina rivers. It centers on how protagonist JoAnn Burkholder clashes with state health and environmental authorities, whom she feels are dragging their feet (at best) to document the impacts of this organism or (at worst) plotting to minimize public awareness of it and undermine her own credibility.
The events are presented dramatically - superficially it gives me an Erin Brockovich vibe. I say "superficially" because I've only seen the movie about Brokovich once, and she wasn't a scientist... and there are probably infinite other divergences. The reason I compare them at all is because the book presents Burkholder as a David to the state authorities' Goliath, speaking up on behalf of fishermen and other residents who may be hurt by this organism.
It's never a boring read - that's for sure. The organism that Burkholder and her colleagues document, Pfiesteria piscicida, kills fish and seems to attack humans too - it may be the cause of Alzheimer's-like neurological disorders, sores and other health effects on people exposed to the rivers where it lives.
The author points fingers at particular members of North Carolina's Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, along with the agency SeaGrant (which controls a significant amount of funding for studying Pfiesteria), making a case that they often downplay Burkholder's concerns about the organism, allocate funding to others even though she's the expert on Pfiesteria, and otherwise obfusticate the issue to look like they're doing their jobs but avoid the wrath of industries that pollute the river and may be contributing to the Pfiesteria problem.
The author turns up some strong evidence that there's at least incompetence on the part of these organizations, but at the same time, he also gives a lot of air time to Burkholder's own suspicions about them. He does try to distinguish hard evidence from suspicions, but it's clear that he is looking at this issue from Burkholder's perspective and, I think, not putting her under the harsher lens he uses with the authorities.
I am mostly curious how the author got records of the many conversations that took place in the book. He quotes extensively, and clearly does a ton of interviews, but I can't imagine he could've been present for ALL that was verbally stated... so it would be interesting in and of itself to know about his reporting process.(less)
Contrary to what the title implies, reading this book may not lead to satisfied feelings of "Oh, I get it. That really does explain everything." It in...moreContrary to what the title implies, reading this book may not lead to satisfied feelings of "Oh, I get it. That really does explain everything." It incites as many questions as it answers.
And candidly, that may be why I rated it only a 3 - not because it lacks value, but because reading it takes some work.
In the book, researchers, other academics and experts tell us things like: how electricity and magnetism are two sides of the same coin, and why it's cool; why species with two sexes tend to have 50/50 male-female ratios, and why that's a stable strategy in evolution; why it's bad strategy to "plan for the worst" by only referencing the worst *past* experience, not considering the worst *possible* one that might await; what kind of theorizing might unify quantum physics with more classical physics; why epigenetic stuff (molecules and processes that turn genes "on" and "off") are sooo important, etc.
Also, many of the contributors love to talk about natural selection. A lot. And even when they don't choose it as their topic, they refer to it. Congratulations, Darwin and Wallace.
The tough part about reading this book comes if you're not an expert... and you can't be - not in everything here. While some writers do an excellent job of explaining or skirting jargon, some do not. So reading the book may be an exercise in humility, if you're like me - someone who hates to feel ignorant but, well, is just that about some topics.
Give the book a try, if only to give yourself new Google quests. And if you're a current science student, focusing day-to-day on some of these research frontiers, definitely try reading this. Use it to bother your professors.
This highly original book tells of a unicorn - an immortal, unworldly creature who lives in a wood where it's always spring - trying to find out why a...moreThis highly original book tells of a unicorn - an immortal, unworldly creature who lives in a wood where it's always spring - trying to find out why all the other unicorns have vanished.
The unicorn gains the help of a magician who has a poor grasp of magic but occasionally manages a miracle (and he's a fascinating mix of optimism and bitterness), and from a hard-bitten but caring woman who has been living with outlaws in the woods.
This book is absolutely painless to read. It jumps effortlessly between hilarious and sad, literal and poetic. Also, despite the small page count, its characters feel pretty vast. Their personalities are recognizable and memorable, while retaining some ambiguity that leaves room for readers to guess at how they might be thinking or feeling.
About the plot: The fate of all the world's unicorns is bound up (I can't tell you how) with King Haggard - who keeps a crumbling castle on the edge of the sea and takes pleasure in almost nothing, accompanied by his relatively pure-hearted son, Prince Lir.
Also intertwined is the Red Bull - an enormous, fiery creature that is so intimidating he can cow even unicorns. (But he takes really dainty steps. Lol.)
The book's themes are mostly about immortality - some characters want it, and some consider it a curse and want free of it. To the unicorn, immortality is natural while aging and death are horrid.
Every character seems to have an interesting relationship to immortality, time or associated concepts. I want to read the book again just to better grasp those relationships.
One thing that didn't work well for me: The book doesn't make me feel a major sense of dread about the supposedly dreadful Red Bull. He's huge and he'll chase you down... with his quiet, precise steps. OK. If I were younger, I'd probably be more disturbed by him. Also: His origins and his relationship to King Haggard are not well explained - unless I missed something major. The book does deal in poetic ambiguity, but frankly I'd just like to know why this giant lava bull is doing anyone's bidding, or appearing to.
On the other hand, the unicorn is very well described. She's beautiful and she's comforting to some, but she's also somewhat cold, distant and aloof. I think it's a wise choice for the author to describe an immortal creature that way. It's clear that she stands outside of time - outside of all the births, deaths and seasons of mortality.
Author Gabriel García Marquez once said he tried to write this book like his grandma told stories - giving equal weight to truth and ridiculous ficti...moreAuthor Gabriel García Marquez once said he tried to write this book like his grandma told stories - giving equal weight to truth and ridiculous fiction so the listener could not tell them apart.
Well, he succeeded. People in his book face poverty, disease, whoredom and bloody battles... and they talk with ghosts, ascend to heaven with a bunch of windblown sheets on a random afternoon, catch a plague of insomnia and encounter giant clouds of yellow butterflies. (OK, to be fair, a giant cloud of butterflies is possible. Most of the unusual events in the book are definitely not.)
Sometimes the writing style is touching, sometimes it's exasperating and sometimes it's funny. It's consistently surprising. This big fat book is a little bit of everything - especially everything earthy - and I suspect that's why readers tend to call it a good portrait of the human condition.
It describes the fictional Colombian town of Macondo founded by a husband and wife who were somewhat blood-related and whose family line (the Buendia family) behaves in repeating, self-referencing and circular ways over generations. All the sons are given some variant of the names Jose Arcadio and Aureliano, and each name seems to come with particular traits that manifest a little differently each time. Each son seems to make his own variation of his forbears' mistakes.
The book covers the young, relatively vibrant and optimistic days of Macondo and then moves (with no real change in tone) into a bloody revolution, followed by a period of banana plantation-related riches, debauchery and workforce unrest, followed by an ending that is both highly personal and very much about the fate of the whole town.
The book is both small- and large-scale at once - as intensely invested in how someone makes their coffee as it is in the ups and downs of major military operations.
Regarding its magic-realism style, I haven't read much of that genre at all, so my brain lumps it into the family of "Like Water for Chocolate." That book was not bad, but this book predates it and is better.
The storytelling mode of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" may be loose, rambly and occasionally annoying (how long can you bear listening to your great-grand-something tell you outlandish stories with a jumble of names you must struggle to remember?), but its overall themes seem to leave traceable lines throughout the book and it's quite gratifying to see them come together at the end.
Also, I'm probably missing an entire dimension of the book's purported brilliance. It is said to be a smart commentary on Colombian history - a topic I know nothing about.
This respectfully written book discusses how genes may influence our propensity to be spiritual or not.
The author describes how he and his colleagues...moreThis respectfully written book discusses how genes may influence our propensity to be spiritual or not.
The author describes how he and his colleagues had to 1) select a way to measure spiritual tendency, which is a slippery concept 2) find how much of it seemed to be genetically based, and 3) look for specific genes that influenced it.
They found at least one gene - one whose expression relates to packaging and distribution brain-signaling chemicals - but of course they don't attribute all spiritual variation to differences in this gene. The book's title is misleading.
It's hard for me to know whether the author is over-stating the importance of the gene. He tempers his remarks but does seem to think the gene is rather significant.
In addition to genetics, he highlights the importance of "unique environment," the life experiences unique to a single individual, for helping to shape spiritual tendencies.
He considers general spirituality distinct from religious tradition, which is less heritable and more controlled by "memes" - units of human culture that can be passed from person to person.
The book repeats again and again that it is not trying to argue for or against religion, or the existence of any gods.
I would be very curious to hear the praise and criticisms of other geneticists, because I feel ill-equipped to apply either. The author mentions he's had some of each. Well, I'd like to hear more of both. He could've devoted a chapter at the end to detailing and refuting some of those arguments.
I do appreciate his caution, though, in having a whole section near the beginning devoted to caveats.
This book says introverts are undervalued underdogs. It advocates that Western cultures should idealize extroversion less, instead recognizing both pe...moreThis book says introverts are undervalued underdogs. It advocates that Western cultures should idealize extroversion less, instead recognizing both personality types as valuable and complementary.
The firm handshakes, confident speech and gregarious nature of a stereotypical extrovert can accompany dangerous overconfidence, unnecessary risk taking and difficulty staying on task, the author says. Whereas the stage fright, risk aversion and private nature of a stereotypical introvert may come with keen observation skills, persistence and focus that is underappreciated in group-oriented schools and workplaces common in the U.S.
The book generalizes at times about how introverts and extroverts behave, but on the other hand, it cites a wealth of research on how these personality types relate to group dynamics, intelligence and talent, genetics, animal behavior, East/West culture differences and more. The difficulty for readers is that, when studies are cited, it's not always clear how each study defined introversion and extroversion.
There are no unified definitions of the two traits, the author notes early on. Psychology researchers say things like: introverts gain energy from time alone whereas extroverts need social time to replenish; introverts lack qualities like assertiveness and sociability; introverts are highly sensitive to external stimuli because of their physiology and/or genetic makeup, while extroverts are less sensitive; Introverts focus on their inner lives of thoughts and feelings and extroverts focus more on the outer world of people and things; extroverts seem much more oriented on achievement and obtaining rewards than introverts, who seem to focus on assessing situations and taking precautions... and the list of traits goes on.
Even with shaky definitions, there seems to be substantial evidence that some extrovert-favoring trends in U.S. society have harmful consequences. Take open office plans, which do away with cubicles and more private spaces, encouraging collaboration rather than working alone. Citing a "mountain of recent data on open-plan offices from many different industries," the author summarizes: "Open plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues..."
Some points that don't reference research are still intuitively interesting. The author tells stories from Harvard's business school, which encourages speaking up, collaborating and making your point, even if you're not sure it's fully thought-out. Introverts at the school say they struggle to participate in class. And the author notes: “If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day.” I think this could be stated more carefully, though. I'd say: If each person, or personality type, excels at addressing different aspects of a problem, then we should worry if one personality type is the only one heard. It lessens your sample of ideas to select from.
I have always wondered if people rise to leadership roles based on confidence, assertions and sway, rather than problem solving and creativity. In some cases this is true, the author says, but she cites several stories of introverts triumphing as CEOs, lecturers and even salespeople. She also cites introvert leaders such as the quiet Rosa Parks and the very taciturn Ghandi. He feared public speaking and was exceedingly meek, but because of his passivity, he obtained long-term goals without getting embroiled in smaller conflicts along the way.
The book interests me most when it talks about biological underpinnings of introversion. One researcher found that some babies inherently cry and wiggle more when presented with unfamiliar objects, whereas others react much less. Researchers suspect that some kids are inherently sensitive to novelty - a trait that probably carries over to some degree into adulthood, when those people gravitate toward less stimulating, less thrill-seeking, quieter lifestyles we associate with introverts.
Some genetic variations change how susceptible kids are to their environment. In one study, adolescent girls with a certain variant of a gene were 20 percent more likely to be depressed than girls with another variant when exposed to a stressful family environment, but the first group of girls were 25 percent less likely to be depressed in a stable home. In other words, they seemed to be more malleable for better or worse. Of course, I'm always curious how terms are defined. What was considered to be a "stable" or "stressful" family environment? I guess I should look up the studies cited in the back of the book!
And finally, just to level with you: The book also interested me a great deal because I consider myself an introvert. Would it interest self-described extroverts? I hope so - especially if their close friends, life partners, parents or children are introverts. For introvert readers, the book often soothes and validates, reminding introverts that they need not apologize for being the way they are. While the book claims to emphasize balance between I's and E's, I think it does go overboard in how much it values introvert traits. However, in a culture that produces books like "How to Win Friends and Influence People," some pushback from another viewpoint is warranted.(less)
This book, uh, made dead bodies come alive... Just kidding. I'm not that corny. Neither is author Mary Roach. She's hilarious, though.
The book provide...moreThis book, uh, made dead bodies come alive... Just kidding. I'm not that corny. Neither is author Mary Roach. She's hilarious, though.
The book provides an excellent overview of what dead bodies are, and were, used for - from anatomy classes in medical school to car crash testing to cannibalistic traditional medicines. It describes how humans treated their dead at key points in history, with a special focus on grave robbing for medical research, and points out the many emerging possibilities today for how our remains will be handled - buried, cremated, dissolved with lye, dismantled for organ donation, and, in a newer twist, planted as compost under a tree. (What if your memorial tree dies??)
Anyway, this book has something for everyone...because we're all gonna die.
The author is playful but generally respectful - especially of the dead people described. She pokes a lot more fun at the living.
She seems to have considered almost every question your middle school kid might ask about dead bodies, and then turned the answers into a very professional and well-researched book.
Such questions include:
-What happens to bodies when they rot? -How do doctors feel about working with dead people? -What's done to a dead person before their open-casket funeral? -Why would people ever eat other people? -Can you keep somebody's head alive with no body? -How did they make the "Bodies" exhibit?
You know...I don't recall if she ever talked about whether someday we can be cryogenically frozen and stave off death. If I were a 12-year-old, I'd ask that. ...OK, I'd ask it now.
The descriptions of cadavers are generally not gross. I cringed a little when the author described a research facility that leaves bodies in a grove of trees for studies of decomposition. My issue was mostly with the maggots and with bacteria liquefying body tissues.
On that sweet, sweet note: If you have a body, go ahead and read this book.
A mentally handicapped guy becomes a genius in this book, and everything about his transformation is convincing. It takes some major talent and versat...moreA mentally handicapped guy becomes a genius in this book, and everything about his transformation is convincing. It takes some major talent and versatility to pull that off.
Charlie Gordon is just barely fit to hold a janitorial job and his memory is lousy, but he is purehearted and wants to learn. He is selected for experimental surgery and asked to keep a journal afterward, which forms the entire book. The procedure has already made a mouse named Algernon much more intelligent (he beats Charlie at mazes).
The experiment works, and Charlie - who was once outcast for his stupidity - can look down on even the professors who experimented on him. Ironically, he feels a new kind of separation from others because they can't keep up with his mind.
There is never a dull moment. There are pity-disgust moments, triumph-fascination moments (though they are fewer), man-this-author-is-clever moments, and a lot of what's-next moments.
What I find most remarkable is how the author reshapes Charlie's personality as his intelligence changes. The kindhearted, credulous and dumb Charlie gives way to a curious but nervous Charlie whose intellectual growth outpaces his emotional maturity. Then the full-blown genius Charlie develops serious resentment for the experimenters who act as if they created him and are disappointingly more fallible and fragile than they once appeared.
It's disconcerting to watch this parade of personalities and ability levels pass through a single man, because it's a reminder that we are all changeable and that personality, mental health, or intellect are never absolute or guaranteed.
The rest of us don't change intellectually at the speed and levels that Charlie did... but our minds and bodies do improve and deteriorate, and those changes can be one of the hardest things to accept, which is why this book - though brilliant - is also painful to read. (less)
This book makes some great points about why mental illness is a slippery, ambiguous thing to diagnose and study, even in severe and sometimes dangerou...moreThis book makes some great points about why mental illness is a slippery, ambiguous thing to diagnose and study, even in severe and sometimes dangerous disorders like psychopathy.
If people show some psychopathic traits but not others, are they psychopaths? The author tries his hand at rating different borderline people, like the guy who fakes mental illness trying to manipulate his way to an easier sentence for a crime, and the businessman who fires people happily and without empathy, but has a long-standing marriage and cried when his dog died.
Though the book's title and back-cover description focus on psychopaths, the author also delves into several other mental illnesses, including ones that perhaps should never have been defined as illnesses.
In my opinion, the book weakens itself by scattering its analysis and assertions over various mental disorders. Wasn't there enough to say about psychopathy? As the book reaches over a broader swath of mental issues, such as wacky conspiracy theorizing and childhood bipolar disorder, it leaves some of its major questions insufficiently explored.
For example, early in the book the author contemplates how one mentally ill person's elaborate hoax wastes a lot of people's time and energy, and an expert source in the book posits that psychopaths may have a disproportionately strong and harmful influence on society in general; the book cites a study that psychopathic traits are more frequent among high ranking people (I forget the exact group of people it referred to), and offers a few cases of seeming psychopaths in positions of power. After introducing this subject - the idea that the mentally ill, particularly psychopaths, might exert power over society to a degree we don't yet realize - the book doesn't go on to examine this claim too much further. One could probably write a whole book on that - and it seems a socially important question.
The book is written with great wit and humor, but also with mockery. The author is as irreverent about his interview subjects as he is about his own anxieties and missteps.
It's telling that the author learns about a checklist for identifying psychopaths and then instantly tries to apply it to others, revealing through his own behavior (and admitting it) how such a test might be misapplied.
From what I can remember, few groups of people in this book, if any, come out looking correct.
Psychoanalysts might see what they want to see in patients; scientologists point out the problems with psychiatry, but themselves show some nutty traits; psychological researchers might create checklists to help diagnose disorders like psychopathy, but how can we keep those checklists from being misused?
A big theme here is that anyone interviewing or examining a supposed "madman" might be susceptible to seeing what they want to see. The author chooses to report many weird details about his interview subjects, but notes that journalists might be presenting interviewees in terms of their maddest traits. He asks if people should really be defined by what is craziest about them.
In the end, this book is mostly about questions, not answers, and some of the questions it asks are perhaps worth a little research of our own.
This book questions whether studying the nervous system can really reveal the workings of the mind -- a nonphysical entity whose exact connection to t...moreThis book questions whether studying the nervous system can really reveal the workings of the mind -- a nonphysical entity whose exact connection to the physical brain might be impossible to understand.
Our minds are inadequate, biased and inconsistent tools for comprehending themselves, according to Author Robert A. Burton, a physician and writer focused on neurology with a flair for philosophy.
He emphasizes that much of what happens in our brain is subconscious, and that concepts like will, sense of self, and agency, are actually "involuntary mental sensations" -- feelings that arise in our consciousness as products of our underlying mental processing, more like dashboard lights than steering wheels.
Adding confusion, many of the abstract terms traditionally used to talk about the mind are poorly defined to begin with, and trying to pin them down with science is often folly, the author asserts. For instance, what are "morality" and "fairness," really? Given that there are so many opinions about what those terms mean, is it really useful to try finding out how they arise in the brain?
Throughout the book, neuroscience, philosophy and psychology collide. Hard data and brain scans don't necessarily translate to fuzzy concepts like intention, empathy and morality, but that does not stop some researchers from trying to jump this gap and claim they've found specific brain locations that produce or influence these traits, or fMRI scans that reveal them taking place.
Author Burton criticizes many specific studies where he thinks interpretation has gone awry. If I were a neuroscientist, I'd fear finding my own name in this book.
For one example, he picks apart statements on the often publicized mirror neurons, which fire both when the subject acts and when the subject watches someone else perform the same act (ie monkey reaches for peanut to eat it, then sees human reaching for peanut to eat it and same neurons fire, or people watching a certain facial expression have same neurons fire again when making the expression themselves). Some researchers have described mirror neuron activity as "mind reading" and implicated mirror neurons as important for linking empathy, mind reading and imitation. The author claims they're over-interpreting: Simply recognizing another's intentional act is not the same as knowing the complex motivation driving it - it's not really mind reading; also, you can understand someone's intent without feeling empathy, and having empathy for something like a struggling centipede does not involve any mind reading. (Does a centipede have a mind to read?)
(Of course, we can question whether empathy for something without a sophisticated mind would really be properly classified as empathy at all - just my two cents.)
The author emphasizes that speculation from neurological researchers and physicians can profoundly affect public opinion and life-or-death decisions, such as when to pull the plug on a brain trauma patient or whether brain scans can ever reveal criminal intent in a murder case. He suggests that neuroscientists have a special type of power in public discourse because of what they study, so they have a particular responsibility to speak carefully about findings -- I find this aspect of his arguments particularly compelling.
Burton loses me, however, when he starts seeming dramatic or overreactive about the impacts of questionable studies. For example, a study said that intelligence is strongly influenced by genetics. Burton questions some of the study interpretation, which is fine, but then says, "As history has repeatedly warned us, reductionistic statements about the genetics of human behavior carry an enormous potential for misuse and abuse. Keep in mind that similar leaps of logic and misappropriation of isolated bits of questionable scientific data provided the rational for the practice of eugenics."
The book tells neuroscientists and the public to take a step back from jumping to conclusions about what brain scans and data mean about the mind, but it offers few solutions for how to be more certain than we are now. In fact, given the subjective nature of each person's mental experience, Burton's solution seems to be embracing uncertainty.
He calls the study of the mind a "data-based art form, not another branch of the basic sciences."
Uncertainty may remain the truest lense for looking at any mind-brain connection, but one has to acknowledge that humans continue looking for certainty, and the majority of the general public is not that likely to read this kind of book. Whose responsibility is it to prevent jumping to conclusions about findings? Even if neuroscientists are circumspect, can they really prevent the media and public from taking things the wrong way?
Burton does give advice that neuroscientists should state and publicize their personal biases, to help people understand the motivations behind their work. I think people should state their biases more openly in ALL areas of work and life, frankly.
But, given what Burton has said about the mysterious and often subconscious nature of the mind, how well do we ever know our biases, anyway?