Category: Psychology

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Cover image for The Man Who Wasn't Thereby Anil Ananthaswamy

ISBN 978-1-101-98432-1

“But in the devastation are clues to what makes us who we are. These maladies are to the study of the self what brain lesions are to the study of the brain: They are cracks in the façade of the self that let us examine an otherwise almost impenetrable, ongoing, unceasing neural process.”

What is the self? This is an old and difficult question at the intersection of religion, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. By investigating Alzheimer’s disease, autism, body integrity identity disorder, Cotard’s syndrome, and schizophrenia in turn, Anil Ananthaswamy is able to show how the disruptions these conditions cause can illuminate the illusive concept of self, which can be so difficult to examine when it is functioning seamlessly. Through interviews with patients as well as their caregivers, Ananthaswamy offers insight into the phenomenology of these conditions, interspersed with lucid explanations of the most current scientific thinking.

The Man Who Wasn’t There explores neuroscience of the most fascinating and mind-bending sort. Ananthaswamy does begin with the most dramatic of the conditions he is exploring, Cotard’s syndrome, in which the patient believes herself to be dead. But in general this is a very sober and analytic investigation. Ananthaswamy is delving deep, and his explanations are detailed; he is willing to dig into nuance rather than oversimplifying matters. He has a tendency to interleave explanations and examples, which can make for some circular reading, since the science is often best understood once the example is in hand.

The crucial thing about this book may be that it doesn’t assume we have all the answers about what the self is and how it works. Instead, it is about questioning our assumptions. Again and again, it asks, what does this condition tell us about what we currently believe to be true? How does this affirm or challenge our current thinking or our intuitions about the self? For example, why is it that people with schizophrenia can tickle themselves? On the surface, this would seem to be an unusual but not particularly noteworthy phenomenon. But The Man Who Wasn’t There digs into such little quirks, and shows how they might connect to a larger impairment of the sense of agency, which can lead patients to feel that they are not the source of their self-generated thoughts or sensations.

One of the things I appreciated about this book was the focus on phenomenology, or the lived experience of the people who experienced the conditions Ananthaswamy is investigating. There are, of course, limits to this approach. He is necessarily speaking with people who have recovered—or never entirely lost—their ability to articulate their experiences. He also speaks with doctors, researchers, and caregivers, but does not rely on them exclusively when he can talk to the patients themselves. And in the new afterword to the paperback edition, Ananthaswamy speaks powerfully against the stigma we tend to attach to “illnesses that seem to be of the mind more than the body.” The Man Who Wasn’t There is integrative, fundamentally challenging this common sense of duality by showing how deeply the mind and body are connected.

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Reasons to Stay Alive

Cover image for Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haigby Matt Haig

ISBN 978-0-14-312872-4

“Read anything you want. Just read. Books are possibilities. They are escape routes. They give you options when you have none. Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.”

Matt Haig and his girlfriend Andrea were spending the summer in Ibiza, working at one of the island’s biggest party destinations when the otherwise reasonably healthy twenty-four year old suffered a mental breakdown, consisting of depression, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. He had perhaps been drinking too much, and sleeping too little, but the severity of the breakdown seemed out of all proportion to anything that had gone before. After a few very intense days, he found himself standing on the edge of a cliff, contemplating ending his life. In retrospect, there were a few warning signs, but nothing that would have stuck out without the breakdown. From the distance of fourteen years, Haig recounts the experience, and the slow road back to mental and physical health. Presented in a variety of essays, lists, and anecdotes, it offers small, accessible pieces to help digest a difficult topic.

In general this book is much more about the experience of depression in its various stages than about recovery from it. Doctor’s visits, therapy, and medication are mentioned much more passingly. The sections about getting better seem to focus more on self-care. Haig credits not taking pills with being alert enough to observe what made him feel better, or worse, and then act accordingly. He obviously has a complex and conflicted relationship with medication. Early on he states, with several qualifiers, “I am reluctant to come out and be all anti-pills because I know for some people some pills work.” His own recovery took place over a period of years, largely unaided by medication because the thought of taking anything that might alter his mind (potentially making things worse) triggered a panic attack. His depression only allowed him to imagine the worst case scenario of things getting even darker, because it stole the belief that better was possible. The problem was so pronounced that he describes swallowing an ibuprofen as feeling like he had taken “an overdose of methamphetamine.” But over the course of the book, it does seem that his difficulty goes a little beyond that to a general suspicion of pharmaceuticals, and a desire to experiment with alternative medicines. The first suggested book in the Further Reading section at the end is Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre.

When Haig suffered his breakdown, he was in a foreign country with only his girlfriend. Fortunately, she had the strength to drag him to a doctor, pack up their life in Ibiza, resist the pressures of an employer who wanted her to send him home alone, and get both of them back to England where they had a support system.  As someone who has supported loved ones struggling with mental health issues, but never battled them myself, I related particularly strongly to Andrea. I read this book hoping to better understand what it is like to experience depression and anxiety, but also found someone who demonstrated the empathy and resourcefulness we all hope to find in ourselves if faced with the same challenge. Haig both dedicates the book to her, and spends a good number of pages showing how she was instrumental to his recovery.

Haig is a writer, so it is perhaps unsurprising that books were another major pillar of his recovery. Early on, he was too anxious and unfocused to be able to read, and so his illness also stole one of his greatest pleasures from him, one more casualty of a disease that tried to take everything. When he began to feel a little better, he reclaimed that aspect of himself with a vengeance, devouring books as if they were sustenance. Books “weren’t a luxury good during that time.”  Well enough to feel isolated, but still too ill to feel at ease among people outside his family, books were his  “way out of being lonely.”

Reasons to Stay Alive is an account of Haig’s individual experience, however, he sometimes speaks about depression more broadly. A frequently highlighted passage of the book reads “If you have ever believed a depressive wants to be happy, you are wrong. They could not care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain.” But he does also acknowledge unique experiences of depression up front, writing “there is no right or wrong way to have depression or to have a panic attack, or feel suicidal.” Given the overwhelming number of depressed or anxious readers who have praised Haig for capturing their own experiences, this seems like a strong pick for both those who have experienced the illness, and their friends and family who want to better understand it.

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The Marshmallow Test

Cover image for The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischelby Walter Mischel

ISBN 978-0-316-23086-5

“The power is not in the stimulus itself, however, but in how it’s mentally appraised: if you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes.”

Walter Mischel is the originator of the delayed gratification experiments that have come to be popularly known as the Marshmallow Test (even though the treat is question was not always a marshmallow). He began studying the ability of children to delay immediate gratification in exchange for a later, larger reward at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School in the 1960s. Initially, Mischel was trying to understand what enabled some people to delay, while others could not wait. But because his own daughters attended the school, he would hear about their former nursery school peers from time to time, and he noticed that there appeared to be a correlation between their success on the test, and their later achievements. He instituted longitudinal tests in order to determine if his informal observations had any validity. The correlation held up in laboratory tests, and Mischel subsequently dedicated his career to understanding the relationship between self-control and success in other endeavours.

The Marshmallow Test has had a variety of marketing-oriented subtitles in its various editions, including “Mastering Self-Control,” “Understanding Self-Control and How to Master It”, “Self-Control Demystified,” and “Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success.” But while Mischel does elucidate the strategies that allow those with strong self-control to delay immediate gratification, only a small portion of the book is dedicated to the application of these strategies to the life of the reader. Marketing aside, Mischel is more concerned with scientific questions, such as what other factors—besides executive function—are important to self-control? Is this trait a product of nature or nurture, and is it malleable or fixed?

Mischel is concerned with these questions because they add nuance to a test that has been greatly oversimplified in the popular imagination. While it is true that a significant correlation has been found between successfully delaying gratification on the marshmallow test and later success in life, it is by no means a fixed relationship. For example, Mischel found that trust was extremely significant for an accurate test; if the child did not trust that the researcher would actually provide the second treat, they had no incentive to delay. Emotional states are also important; if you are feeling sad or bad, it is more difficult to resist something that will offer some immediate gratification. These two factors could easily change from one test to another with the same subject, and must be controlled for. In order to further test his findings, Mischel also ventured out from the rarified sample of the initial Stanford study, and took the marshmallow test to the South Bronx in order to check if his findings held up across racial and socioeconomic lines.

Thanks to the marshmallow test, Mischel is an oft-consulted figure, a media favourite when it comes time to ask for an expert to opine on why an otherwise seemingly trustworthy public figure would sleep with an intern, or hire a prostitute. People seem to believe that self-control is a fixed characteristic that will remain steady across all situations, but Mischel’s studies have shown that someone may have iron-clad self-control when it comes to resisting the temptation to slack off at work, but at the same time be completely unable to stick to a diet. Motivations and consequences can be a significant factor. However, I think Mischel is overly quick to dismiss Roy Baumeister’s research on the finitude of willpower. It has been amply demonstrated that being tired, sad, or hungry can cause your self-control to become depleted more quickly, even in an area in which you are normally very disciplined.

Mischel explains his subject clearly, but does not tend to oversimplify. Rather than pressing an explanation of either nature or nurture, he argues for a complex interaction between the two factors. He provides real cases as examples in order to illustrate a point, but does not conflate anecdotes with data. He carefully accounts for variables, as is evidenced by the many factors he has found and manipulated, in order to account for how they might impact a trial. Race, class, emotional state, and even how the subjects are prepared by researchers have all been carefully checked. The chapters are well annotated, and the book is thoroughly indexed. All of this points towards the fact that this is a work by an academic, albeit one intended to be accessible to a general audience. Despite the marketing, it is not a self-help book, and I think most who are disappointed with The Marshmallow Test will find that it is because they were led to expect something else.

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Cover image for Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness

Cover image for Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbertby Daniel Gilbert

ISBN 978-1-4000-7742-7

“This is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can image its own future, and about how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.”

Realism is the belief that things are in reality as they appear in the mind, provided that all the relevant equipment is working correctly. However, the brain relies on a number of tricks and shortcuts to do its job; otherwise we would always be seeing the blind spot in our field of vision where the optic nerve connects to the retina, and reviewing our memory of something that happened in the past would take precisely as long as the original event. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware of the tricks our brains perform to give us an apparently seamless experience of the world, but they are numerous. These quirks and tricks develop because they are generally useful, but sometimes have unusual or detrimental side effects. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert explores how certain elements of cognition contribute to the human tendency to be extremely bad at accurately predicting what will make us happy in the future.

Stumbling on Happiness is an opportunity to explore mental processes we normally take for granted, or accept at face value. For example, people like completion and closure, believing that it is always better to have more information. When asked, people almost always choose certainty over uncertainty. Yet we are more likely to keep thinking about a story if it has an ambiguous ending, since it leaves us with a kernel to turn over in our minds. Would Eleanor & Park be the same if Rainbow Rowell had revealed the three words on the post card? Would Inception have been such a big hit if the totem in the final shot could not be ambiguously interpreted? Would Blade Runner remain popular to this day if not for the question about whether or not Deckard is a replicant? Our love of explanation generally works in our favour because it helps us to understand why negative events occurred, thus reducing their traumatic impact, but applied to positive events, it can destroy our ability to savour those experiences.

Gilbert approaches his topic with a healthy dose of humour. Writing about the potential differences between two peoples’ subject emotion experience of the same thing, he comments that “philosophers have flung themselves headlong at this problem for quite some time with little more than bruises to show for it.” Sometimes the jokes and puns are bad, but mostly they are entertaining, and help make this book accessible for the general reader. However, those who prefer their straight science in their non-fiction reading may grow tired of Gilbert’s humourous tangents, which persist throughout.

Despite the humourous tone, Stumbling on Happiness is rooted in research. In addition to backing up his ideas with numerous studies, Gilbert frequently sets up tests and diagrams that demonstrate the shortcuts our brains take, rather than merely asking the reader to trust his word that they exist. These proofs do have a tendency to prolonging each section, because Gilbert cannot reveal too many details until after the reader has tried the test or thought experiment, but the increase in understanding seems well worth the initial ambiguity.

By the final chapter of the book, you will probably be thoroughly doubting your competency to go about life, and questioning your every prediction about the future. Unfortunately, learning about the foibles of the human mind won’t necessarily help you overcome them, or make you happier. After all, the clinically depressed make some of the most accurate predictions about their future happiness, so a certain amount of delusion appears to be healthy. Gilbert does have an answer about the best way to make the most accurate prediction about how happy something will make you, but unfortunately, some of the same cognitive errors that make us bad at predicting our futures also tend to make us prejudiced against this method, because it is predicated on the idea that we are much more like other people than we are willing to believe.

Highly readable and full of insight, Stumbling on Happiness is illuminating, but its lack of applicability will probably discourage many readers who want a prescription for happiness rather than an explanation of why it is so difficult to achieve. Provided you go in expecting a book about cognitive science and psychology, it is an excellent read that will increase your understanding of the workings of your brain.

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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Cover image for Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyiby Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

ISBN 978-0-06-133920-2

“Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” 

Now more than twenty years old, this work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is still the foundation of modern study of happiness. Based on his work as a research psychologist at the University of Chicago, Flow seeks to summarize, for the general reader, “decades of research on the positive aspects of human experience—joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life.” Flow has floated around on the edges of my radar for years, so this year I decided to finally get it under my belt by including it in the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

2014tbrbuttonCsikszentmihalyi’s work is solidly based in research methods of the social sciences, and provides scientific backing for some things we already know through general wisdom. The basic things we might think of as pleasurable—sleep, rest, food and sex—are what Csikszentmihalyi describes as “homeostatic experiences.” The needs of the body must be fulfilled, and it can be pleasant to do so, but these experiences will rarely, if ever, “produce psychological growth.” For Csikszentmihalyi, the distinction between pleasure and enjoyment, or flow, is that “enjoyment includes change or growth. It gives a sense of accomplishment that mere pleasure does not. Enjoyment requires the investment of attention.” Flow focuses on identifying the characteristics of experiences that are truly enjoyable rather than merely pleasurable.

Eating and personal care by necessity take up about fifteen percent of our time according to Csikszentmihalyi, and sleep another thirty percent, but what we do with the rest of our time can be optimized to ensure enjoyment. Yet despite historically unprecedented amounts of leisure time, there is a paradoxical failure to transform that leisure time into genuine enjoyment. Studies that monitor flow states show that people more commonly report experiencing flow at work than in leisure, yet most people desire more leisure time. But while work has built in rules and parameters, leisure often suffers from anomie, or a lack of rules and goals, to guide and give meaning to the experience. We do not want to experience so many demands on our free time that we become anxious and overwhelmed, but nor do we want to feel bored or complacent.

Four principles should describe an activity that can induce flow:

  • You have a chance of completing the task
  • You are able to concentrate on the task
  • You understand the goals of the task clearly
  • You receive immediate feedback on your progress

Four feelings define the flow experience:

  • You feel an involvement so deep it eclipses other worries and frustrations
  • You feel in control of your actions
  • Your self-consciousness temporarily disappears
  • Your sense of the passage of time is altered

The overview of Csikszentmihalyi’s work provided in Flow is high level and largely theoretical, as “a joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.” It is left to the reader to figure out how to apply the broad principles to the specifics of their own situation. Nevertheless, Csikszentmihalyi’s studies have looked at many areas of life, from work to leisure to personal and community relationships, showing that the principles shared here can be applied to most areas of life. Flow is not quite academic, lacking citations though it includes end notes for those who wish to pursue particular items further, but it is aimed at a college reading level audience. Nor does Csikszentmihalyi neglect the potential downsides of the flow state. For example, people who are able to experience flow only in one activity or part of their life will engage in that activity at the expense of other things, not because they think other things are necessarily unimportant, but because the flow state does not come naturally to them there. I would especially recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand why certain experiences are so enjoyable, and what they can do to experience this feeling in other parts of their life.

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Quiet by Susan Cain

Coming Clean

Cover image for Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Millerby Kimberly Rae Miller

ISBN 9781477849224

It didn’t matter where I was, or who I pretended to be. I would always be the girl who grew up in garbage.”

Out in the world, the Millers seem like a normal family, going to school and work, and out to dinner together. Out in the world, they don’t have to think about, or be weighed down by, the disaster that awaits them at home. Piled with bags and stacks of decaying paper, infested with fleas and rats and, unbeknownst to the family, harbouring a squatter in the attic, their house is falling apart beneath the sludge of her father’s hoarding compulsion. Kimberly Rae Miller grows up in the midst of this garbage, in conditions that would surely cause Child Protective Services to remove her if they became aware of the situation. Miller learns early on to hide her home life, never inviting friends over, and always being picked up or dropped off around the corner from her house. The shame and the squalor in which she grows up contrast sharply with the deeply sympathetic and humanizing portraits of her otherwise loving parents, and have a profound impact on her life even after she escapes her parents’ home.

This book has a very strong opening, because Miller does a wonderful job of humanizing her father before getting into the details of his hoarding. She drives this home by describing a scene where her father is buckling her into the backseat of their car. His wife is berating him for letting his daughter sit in filth because he didn’t clean out the car before coming to pick them up, but as he buckles her in, Miller’s father is singing to her about the importance of wearing a seatbelt. The evidence of his love for her entirely overshadows his problem, and starting off on this note is so important, because it would be easy to see him as a horrible person when Miller fully reveals the depth of the filth she grew up surrounded by.

The filth was so bad that Miller prayed every night for almost two years that her house would burn down so that her family could start over without having to face the monumental task of cleaning up all the garbage. And one day, the house did burn down in an electrical fire, killing all but one of the family’s many pets. What seems like a clean start for Miller is a horrifying tragedy for her father, who loses his entire treasure trove in the blaze. When he wades into the ashes to try to salvage something, he emerges with pictures of his daughter. But despite this clear evidence of love, forcible separation from their collections can be extremely hard for hoarders, and it’s heart-wrenching to see Miller’s father unravel in the aftermath of the fire to the point where he lashes out at his daughter. Shortly thereafter, he is admitted to a mental hospital, but at time before hoarding was really understood by mental health professionals.

From a burned-down house, to a house sold as-is for a fraction of the value to the later shock of the buyers, to small apartments, a clean start never amounted to a real change for the Millers. Over the years, her father’s hoarding was exacerbated by her mother’s compulsive shopping habit, which began after a failed surgery to correct her spine, which was deformed by scoliosis. The kitchen is abandoned in favour of eating out or from sealed packages, and since no repairman can visit, the family is forced to shower at a nearby gym when the pipes break down. Miller eventually escapes this by going away to college, but when her financial aid is cut off after her first year and she can’t afford to return to the school of her dreams, she is forced back into her parent’s squalid home, and the result is a suicide attempt by an overdose of pain medication. Miller becomes homeless after her recovery, living in her meticulously cleaned car and working two jobs in order to get back to school.

Although Miller struggles all her life to keep her father’s problem a secret, when her mother has a botched surgery and comes home with an open stent leading directly into her abdominal cavity, she finally has to ask for help. Loyal friends step up to shovel out the garbage and scrub the house clean so that Miller’s mother can come home without risking her life. This transitional eventually leads to a vague happy ending, where her parents have managed to keep a clean house for over a year, and her father has promised to go to therapy. However, I was still left wondering about Miller’s own mental health, and hoping that she, too, would get the help she needed. 

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2)

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerThis was the first book I started in 2013, and it proved to be the most difficult and rewarding read I tackled the entire year. It is not uncommon for people to believe that we are living in the most violent period in human history. The record size of our current population means that the absolute number of violent deaths recorded today are larger than the numbers of historical violent deaths. Our global media structure also means that knowledge of these events is more widespread. But as a percentage of the population, Steven Pinker shows that the number of violent deaths in the modern world is lower than it has ever been in recorded history; you are less likely to die of violent causes today than at any other time in human history. Pinker expects readers to doubt his hypothesis, and the first part of the book is spent marshaling evidence for his claim, while the second part focuses on identifying the factors that may have contributed to this decline. Although the numerous examples of historical and modern violence make for heavy emotional reading, Pinker’s optimism that we can do better, and his insights into how, are incredibly important.

Categories: Science, History, Psychology, Sociology

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0)

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissLiterary history records two men called Alexandre Dumas, a father, who wrote well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers, and his somewhat less famous son, the playwright. But the novelist’s father, also Alexandre Dumas, the first of that name, is formidable character in his own right, and it his life that is chronicled here by Tom Reiss. Born the illegitimate son of an itinerant French noble on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Dumas became a free man upon his arrival in France. Dumas achieved power and success in the French Revolutionary Army, before the colour of his skin brought his fortunes crashing back to earth when Napoleon assumed power. His son eventually drew inspiration from his life story for many of his novels, but the real story is perhaps even more interesting. The Black Count is as much a history of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a biography, but Reiss writes about history with an immediacy that makes his overviews extremely readable.

Categories: Biography, History 

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies  (ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4)

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine BasingerI Do and I Don’t articulates the important differences between romantic comedies and the genre  Jeanine Basinger defines as the marriage movie. The work is descriptive rather than analytic, assembling evidence for the existence of this new genre, and laying out the types of plots and problems most commonly dealt with in movies that are about marriages rather than courtships. Basinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema, sense of humour, and willingness to go against popular opinion make her the perfect guide. Existing in a space somewhere between academic writing and popular nonfiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to just any reader, but if you have an interest in film studies, or cultural portrayals of marriage, I Do and I Don’t delivers.

Categories: Criticism, Film, History

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2)

Cover image for Gulp by Mary RoachTake a sharp sense of humour, ruthless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to ask awkward questions, and you have the popular science oeuvre of Mary Roach, who is able to hit the mark time and time again with her humourous investigations into the grossest and most obscure areas of scientific research. Her sense of humour can carry even a squeamish reader through these topics, and her explanations and anecdotes are accessible even to those with little to no science background. In Gulp, Roach takes on the science of the digestive system, from saliva to flatulence and everything in between.

Categories: Science 

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4)

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael MossWell known for his investigative reporting on food issues, Michael Moss takes on the processed food industry, examining the roles that salt, sugar, and fat play in making these food products edible and craveable. Flavour and taste have been extensively researched, and food companies use this knowledge to design products with precisely honed “bliss points” that make them almost irresistible. However, this book is interesting not because it retreads the well known harms associated with processed food products, but because Moss delves into the difficulties these companies face in improving the health profiles of their products in the face of killer competition, and minimal government regulation. In fact, American government food subsidies for meat and cheese may even play a role in the high fat content of the American diet.

Categories: Business, Science 

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Looking for more recommended reads? Check out my top five non-fiction reads from 2012. 

Through the Withering Storm

Cover image for Through the Withering Storm by Leif Gregersenby Leif Gregersen

ISBN 978-1480205345

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this e-book through Sage’s Blog Tours.

It was just a cheap prank. I walked back to my car and I could see the group of them, the gun-nuts and whoever else, walking out of the woods, having a great time at my expense. I could have easily pulled the rifle out of my car and put the fear of God into them, or even killed one or two, but with all the moral training I had gleaned from my family and some church attendance, that option was the last thing on my mind.”

In 1985, on the cusp of junior high school in an Alberta suburb, Leif Gregersen seemed to be destined for a relatively normal life. He was a good student and a model air cadet, likely headed for a career in the Canadian military. His home life was pretty good, although his father drank a bit too much, and his mother suffered from depression, and sometimes attempted suicide. Unfortunately for Gregersen, he had inherited both of these problems from his parents, and soon his normal teenage life began spiralling out of control. He started to drink heavily and suffered from black moods and lack of impulse control. Taken individually, these behaviours seemed relatively normal for an adolescent, but eventually no one could deny there was something more serious going on. Through the Withering Storm chronicles Gregersen’s descent into mental illness, and his struggle to cope with it in an increasingly hostile home environment.

Gregersen’s style is simple and straightforward, always clear if not elegant, though he sometimes struggles to find the words to describe experiences and delusions that are incomprehensible to the sane mind. This is not a book to be picked up for its stylistic strengths, but rather to gain an inside perspective of the experience of living with a mental illness. Gregersen recounts numerous events that do not paint him in a good light, but are illustrative of the kinds of behaviour that accompanies bipolar disorder. Gregersen’s reflections also show how the cultural stigma attached to mental illness not only impacts how the mentally ill are treated, but how they perceive themselves and one another. Though his own mother suffered from depression, Gregersen was, for a long time, unable to recognize mental illness in himself, and unable to sympathize with his fellow patients. Even when he was in a mental hospital, he was afraid of the other patients on his ward, convinced that they were dangerous and that he didn’t belong there. At only 78 pages, Through the Withering Storm focuses on chronicling the onset of Gregersen’s mental illness, with scant attention paid to his eventual successful treatment, and rebuilding his life. However, it is this recovery that gives Gregersen the ability to look back and help others to gain some measure of understanding of what it means to lose your mind.

Already read Through the Withering Storm? I recommend Brain on Fire by Sussanah Cahalan.

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