Category: Psychology

Brain On Fire

Cover image for Brain On Fire by Sussanah Cahalan by Susannah Cahalan

ISBN 978-1-4516-2137-2

Though she attempts to communicate some deep, dark part of herself in her writing, she remains incomprehensible, even to myself.”

In 2009, at the age of 24, New York Post reporter Susannah Cahalan seemed to be losing her grip on her life. She found herself suddenly forgetting to do the necessary preparations for her job, snooping through her boyfriend’s things, and having emotional breakdowns at work. All of this was out of character, but then she went suddenly and inexplicably mad, suffering from auditory and visual hallucinations, and paranoid delusions. Her physical symptoms, including numbness and tingling, seizures, and catatonia all suggested that there was something neurological rather than psychological at work, but doctors struggled to find anything physically wrong with her, and a transfer to a psychiatric facility seemed inevitable. Then a new doctor joined her team, and made a life-saving diagnosis of an autoimmune disease discovered only two years before. But when Cahalan finally woke up in the hospital, she didn’t remember any of this, and Brain On Fire constitutes her effort to piece together her own story from the available medical records, videos, and accounts from family and friends, all presented in the clear and straight-forward prose of a talented journalist.

Cahalan initially reported on her own story in the New York Post in an October 2009 article entitled My Mysterious Lost Month of Madness. Brain On Fire expands on this telling, with considerably more polish and detail than the original article, with Cahalan delving deeper into records of her illness. Some of the memories reported in her initial article turned out to be hallucinatory or misremembered after further investigation. Though she had made leaps and bounds in her recovery at the time of the article, her increased re-mastery of language is evident in Brain On Fire. The only drawback in comparison to the article was that the nearly three hundred page book didn’t contain many more direct quotes from her friends and family. Although Cahalan’s own descriptions are incredibly emotionally resonant, her family remains somewhat at a remove as a result of this choice.

Cahalan’s story is a real-life episode of House, complete with misdiagnoses and unsuccessful treatments.  One of her early doctors, assuming that she was lying in her medical history, estimated that she was drinking several bottles of wine per day, and was thus suffering from alcohol withdrawal and job-related stress. However, what is most incredible about Cahalan’s story is the number of pieces that had to fall into place in order for her tale to be inspirational rather than tragic (though it is frightening regardless). Cahalan is candid about how lucky she was to finally receive a correct diagnosis. Just three years earlier, no one would have known what was wrong with her, despite the fact that doctors believe her disease is not a new one. Even after the disease was discovered, only those up to date on the most current medical literature would have read about it. She also had medical insurance to cover her one million dollars of medical expenses, and a supportive family that fought to ensure that she received the best treatment when she was unable to advocate for herself.

Although the dark part of this tale is supposed to be the threat of misdiagnosis and slipping through the cracks of the system, another feature was more disturbing. Working beneath the surface of this narrative is an incredible fear of mental illness. Cahalan recounts incidents in which her parents positively bristle at the suggestion that she might be mentally ill or developmentally disabled. Yet in her case, and some others, it was the right thing for her parents to fight against a psychiatric diagnosis. After writing about her illness, Cahalan received letters from another family whose daughter was saved by their refusal to believe their child had schizophrenia after reading about NDMA autoimmune encephalitis. Despite the evident stigmatization of mental illness, Cahalan’s diagnosis also hints at the as-yet undiscovered physiological causes that may underlie some of these conditions, and perhaps ultimately lead to better treatments.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinkerby Steven Pinker

ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2

“If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence.”

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker offers up a thesis which, for some, may seem wildly unbelievable. Pinker contends that we are currently living in the least violent period ever known in human history. Using the number of violent deaths relative to the population of the time, Pinker examines trends in murder, war, terrorism and violent crime, and charts a consistent decline in their prevalence in cultures around the world. Having established this decline, Pinker sets out to find the psychological and sociological factors which contribute to the trend.

The structure of the book is predicated on the idea that people will find the thesis difficult to swallow, as Pinker explains in the introduction. He spends six exhaustive chapters—well over half of this 800 page tome—in extensive statistical demonstrations of the decline. While the trends themselves are interesting, the constant barrage of statistics will likely wear thin for the reader who doesn’t find the thesis as difficult to believe as the author assumes. Overall, these statistics are well-explained for the average reader, and clearly illustrated in numerous charts and graphs. However, an understanding of statistics would undoubtedly be beneficial to any critical analysis of Pinker’s findings.

Once he has established the statistical decline of violence, Pinker spends the second part of the book examining the sociological and psychological factors that encourage and inhibit violence, as well as identifying a number of popular culprits which are not actually borne out by the numbers. For example, he found that weaponry, affluence, resources and religion, while sometimes significant, were not consistent factors. The explanations rely heavily on neurobiology and the history of governance, necessitating numerous detours into the basics of these disciplines, and their relevant principles. Pinker finds extremely strong correlations between government and commerce, and the decline of violence.

Not unexpectedly, The Better Angels of Our Nature makes for heavy emotional, as well as intellectual, reading. A discussion of the nature and history of violence necessitates the inclusion of a variety of stomach-churning examples, such as the burning of cats for public entertainment in medieval Europe. However, these examples prove instrumental for demonstrating the extent to which we exaggerate contemporary violence and discount historical violence. Pinker has a deft hand for defamiliarization, a technique he uses to draw historical violence in perspective with its modern counterpart. For example, although we accept the cross, a historical instrument of violence, as the symbol for Christianity, Pinker points out that our modern sensibilities would likely be offended if a group of Holocaust survivors adopted a showerhead as their symbol, or if survivors of the Rwandan genocide rallied around a machete logo. This unusual comparison forces the reader to examine the familiar, even ubiquitous, symbol of the cross with fresh eyes. These numerous violent examples are not trotted out gratuitously, or ad nauseam, but always to illustrate a particular point about how we perceive violence, or why we commit it.

Despite the difficulty of getting through this book—it took me over six weeks to read—I  would rate it highly, and strongly recommend it for those interested in the subject. I agree with Bill Gate’s assertion that it is “one of the most important books I’ve read—not just this year, but ever.” We need both the optimism and the insight which Pinker’s work provides since, as he points out, the decline of violence is not ineluctable—it could be reversed at any time. That being the case, it’s probably a good idea to understand what we’re doing right, and how we can do better.

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

Quiet (978-0307352149)

Cover image for Quiet by Susan CainThis title is at the top of a number of booklists for 2012 with good reason. Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. This title was incredibly well written and researched, and Cain’s voice is passionate and compelling. You can watch Cain’s TED Talk on the power of introverts here.

Categories: Psychology

Joseph Anton (978-0812992786)

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, but for over a decade, his life was dominated by disparate public perceptions stemming from the aftermath of the fatwa in which Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence for the blasphemous contents of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie gives a compelling account of his struggles to hold on to his identity as a writer, and to continue to produce fiction under the incredibly trying circumstances of a protection. He filled many roles during this time, planning safe houses, engaging in free speech advocacy, lobbying the British government to intercede on his behalf, and struggling to secure a paperback edition of the book. I picked this book up because I admire Rushdie’s commitment to intellectual freedom, but I came away with much more respect for his integrity and determination as a writer, even as I felt I had seen the darkest and least flattering parts of the man.

Categories: Autobiography

The Portable Atheist (978-0306816086)

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensStretching from Greek philosophy to contemporary humour and science writing, The Portable Atheist contains a broad selection of essays chronicling the evolution of atheist, agnostic and humanist thought in Western culture. The essays are selected and introduced by “New Atheist” writer Christopher Hitchens, but the pieces demonstrate that some of our currents ideas about atheism have very old roots indeed. This volume was slow, hefty reading, but extremely rewarding.

Categories: History, Philosophy

Elizabeth the Queen (978-0812979794)

Cover image for Elizabeth the Queen by  Sally Bedell SmithWhether you are a royalist, and abolitionist, or simply indifferent to the British royal family, Elizabeth Windsor has had a long and interesting life and reign, presiding over six decades of rapid change. Queen Elizabeth II is simultaneously one of the most public figures in the world, and yet intensely private, so it is fascinating to catch in glimpse into her world, particularly in a way that so humanizing. Sally Bedell Smith profiles the Queen with the same attention to detail she is known for in her previous works on the Kennedys and the Clintons. This title focuses on Elizabeth’s time as queen with little attention to her childhood, and the author is certainly friendly to her subject, but overall this was a well-written and informative read.

Categories: Biography

The Storytelling Animal (978-0547391403)

Cover Image for The Storytelling AnimalThe storytelling phenomenon appears across time and cultures, raising the questions of what purpose, if any, it serves in human evolution. Gottschall examines contexts in which our desire to impose narrative order on the world is useful (recognizing patterns) and detrimental (eyewitness testimony is unreliable due to the plasticity of memory). Dreams and daydreams, the pretend play of children, and the relationship between empathy and fiction are all examined in this brief and tantalizing introduction to the neuroscience behind our narrative impulses.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Science