Ooh, look, shiny official Brain Awareness Day poster!
Well, yesterday was stressful. For the first time in my life, I had to take full responsibility for the life of another living creature.
My darling little rat, Bubble, developed a mammary tumour last week (very suddenly appeared – I was alarmed that an acorn-sized bump appeared on her belly practically overnight). Naturally, I was massively worried and upset – rats only live for 2-3 years, and at 14 months, Bubble is too young to go yet. But we couldn’t let her live with this – it was clearly draining her bodily resources, and in time it would likely increase in size, affect her mobility and ultimately her quality of life.
So, on Tuesday afternoon last week, it was off to the vet (for the first time in a whole year – I have healthy little babies usually!)
Well, the vet confirmed my dreaded suspicions – and then drilled it home that an operation had 50/50 chances of survival. And in rats, tumours are often malignant, so now she’s had one, she’ll likely have more later on in life.
But that’s not my concern at the moment. My concern is the fact that she had a very trying day yesterday (I dropped her off at 9am, and only got to pick her up at 4:30pm), but she is now on the mend.
She was very quiet when I got her home – very unusual for her. She spent the majority of the evening in either my or Ben’s jumper, feeling a bit sorry for herself. But she is behaving a bit more like her usual self this morning!!
Yay for Bubble – my little soldier.
Wow. I honestly don’t want to say too much, because I really think you should go and read this book yourself. All of the reader reviews are right: it’s fascinating, it’s educational and most importantly, it is very very readable.
I’ve seen Ramachandran talk live (at the Royal Institution) and the enthusiasm and showmanship that he presented then really comes through in this book.
I actually got two copies for Christmas – one from Ben and one from my dad. Confusion over Amazon wishlists – Ben obviously doesn’t know how to use them! Bless him. So rather than send the book back, we gave one copy right back to my dad (as he is all about consciousness, phenomenology, and the mystery of the mind).
Now, it took me three weeks to read this. It took my dad one flight back to Dubai. He reads insanely fast! But he says he couldn’t put it down. He’s a very brain-modular sort of person, and his favourite chapters were towards the end, when Ramachandran discusses qualia, and the source and purpose of consciousness.
Personally, I’m all about the earlier chapters, when Ramachandran looks at a variety of different neurological phenomena. He presents us with a variety of case studies, each with very particular forms of brain damage, leading to very unusual problems. There are his famous “phantom limb” patients – people who, following an amputation, can still feel sensation in their absent limb. Later, he returns to the subject of phantoms, by discussing the mindboggling (but increasingly rare) phenomenon of pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy.
But I don’t want to discuss this book at length – I feel it would detract from your own experience when reading it.
If you like Oliver Sacks, you will love this. If you like “unusualness” and maybe even mystery stories, this is for you. Go get it. There are even some optical illusions you can play with (just don’t do them on the train – you’ll look like an idiot).
Don’t fancy reading? Ramachandran has also presented his cases in a two-part BBC4 documentary.
I’m on a pescetarian diet. Yes, you heard that right.
For those of you who have never heard of it, pescetarianism is what it says on the tin: a diet that revolves around fish. Etymologically, the word is the bastard child of the Italian “pesce” meaning fish, and the more commonly used “vegetarian” (or anything-ian to be perfectly honest). It means that, whilst I cannot cut out the flesh of all beasts from my diet, I can just about narrow it down to sea-dwelling beasties (watch out, whales and seals).
I’ve not gone down this route for ethical reasons (I’m not sure how that’s possible, anyway – killing is killing), but for health reasons. I’m sure it hasn’t passed your notice by now that I am some extreme glutton, and one of my first loves is red meat. But red meat is fatty, gloopy stuff – cut out the meat in your diet and notice a massive drop in calories, fat and all sorts of nastiness. Also, see a massive relief for your wallet, as I discovered today whilst doing my weekly grocery shop.
But fish is a different beast – all that swimming around must keep them in awfully good shape, because they are a very lean source of protein. Plus (extra bonus!) they are a fantastic source of a massive variety of vitamins and minerals. Oh, and those omega 3 thingies that you’ve been hearing (herring?) so much about. Well, some more than others, but we’ll get to that later.
I don’t eat enough fish usually anyway. It doesn’t help that Ben hates the stuff (so I never bother to buy or cook it), but incorporating fish into your diet is a tricky business. At this point, you might be shouting “no it isn’t – buy fish, eat fish!!”. You might think I’m a bit simple. But no – reading some articles online have made the whole business n-times more complicated.
Firstly – which fish? We’ve each got our favourites (and breaded&deep fried is off limits for the purpose of this exercise. It’s a diet, after all). Personally, I love salmon, but unfortunately, that’s one of the more expensive supermarket options. But there is a massive selection of different fishes widely available, and each is good for different reasons.
Broadly, fish can be separated into two main categories: oily, and white. Oily fish are those that contain the large amounts of omega-3 that everyone keeps telling us we need more of: this includes salmon, mackerel, herring (including kippers!), sardines, anchovies, trout and fresh tuna. You’ll notice that I’ve specified FRESH tuna, and that’s because (according to the Food Standards Agency), the process of canning tuna reduces its naturally occurring oil levels down to that of white fish.So, as well as tinned tuna, the white fishes include: haddock, cod, plaice, coley, pollock and Dover sole. Obviously, neither of these list is anywhere near complete, but those are just some of the more well known fish right there.
So far so good. White fish is lower in calories, but oily fish has essential fats. BUT WAIT. You can’t just toddle off and eat whatever fish you fancy every day of the week. Oh no. Oily fish contains low levels of pollutants (including dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)) – they have no immediate effect on health (don’t panic) but they can build up in the body over time. For that reason, it’s recommended you limit your intake of oily fish. But to how much? It depends on who you are. Most women should limit their weekly intake to two portions of oily fish, whilst men (and women who don’t plan on having kids) can have up to four portions a week.
And it gets worse! Crab, sea bream, sea bass, turbot, halibut and rock salmon have also been found to have similar levels of pollutants to oily fish, so you better keep an eye on them too.
And keep an eye on swordfish and shark (who really eats shark?) too – they have unusually high levels of mercury in them. Limit your intake of these bad boys to just once a week.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – don’t be frightened away from seafood altogether, as the benefits well outweigh the costs. You just need to be careful, and mix it up a bit – a wider variety of fish (and seafood! prawns, crab, etc. all good for you too) is good for you AND lessens the environmental impact, too (if that’s your bag).
So, the long and short of it is: fish is good. Fin. (ahha)
Well, at the start of 2010, I resolved to read more. And I think I’ve done pretty damn well. Here, as we stand at the edge of the abyss, and the last dregs of 2010 filter away, I can happily say that I have read quite a few books this year.
It’s been tricky, too: throwing myself into a scientific discipline at the last minute (shut up, physicists: psychology so is a science. It has ology and everything) meant that I faced a lot of academic reading, in the form of text books and journal articles. But in between all of that, I have managed a grand total of 39 books this year – 23 non-fiction, and 16 fiction (where I’ve listed text books, that’s where I have actually read them, cover to cover). And this is what they were:
- 30.01.10 – Nicky Hayes – A First Course in Psychology (nf)
- 09.02.10 – Matt Ridley – Nature Via Nurture (nf)
- 01.03.10 – James Hogg – The Three Perils of Man (f)
- 07.03.10 – Adam Phillips – Monogamy (nf)
- 22.03.10 – John Marzillier & John Hall – What is clinical psychology? (nf)
- 24.03.10 – Aldous Huxley – Brave New World (f)
- 30.03.10 – Terry Pratchett – Nation (f)
- 22.04.10 – Walter J. Freeman – How Brains Make Up Their Minds (nf)
- 15.05.10 – G. K. Chesterton – Father Brown Stories (f)
- 19.05.10 – Russell L. Ackoff, Herbert J. Addison & Sally Bibb – Management f-Laws (nf)
- 20.05.10 – Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (f)
- 26.05.10 – Siri Hustvedt – The Shaking Woman or A History Of My Nerves (nf)
- 29.05.10 – Terry Pratchett – Thud! (f)
- 02.06.10 – Oliver Sacks – The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (nf)
- 23.06.10 – Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White (f)
- 29.06.10 – Joseph Conrad – Heart Of Darkness (f)
- 02.07.10 – David Hume – On Suicide (nf)
- 05.07.10 – *Iain Banks – Complicity (f)
- 22.07.10 – Jonathan Weiner – Time, Love, Memory (nf)
- 26.07.10 – Christopher Fowler – Spanky (f)
- 14.08.10 – Robert Winston – Human Instinct (nf)
- 22.08.10 – Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas (f)
- 28.08.10 – American Psychological Association – Concise Rules of APA Style (nf)
- 08.09.10 – Andy Field & Graham Hole – How to Design and Report Experiments (nf)
- 13.09.10 – Nick Braisby (ed.) – Cognitive Psychology: A Methods Companion (nf)
- 20.09.10 – Ken Kesey – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (f)
- 07.10.10 – Steven Pinker – The Language Instinct (nf)
- 12.10.10 – *Paul Broks – Into The Silent Land (nf)
- 21.10.10 – Daniel Levitin – This Is Your Brain On Music (nf)
- 31.10.10 – Oliver Sacks – Musicophilia (nf)
- 07.11.10 – The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker (f)
- 10.11.10 – Alain de Botton – Status Anxiety (nf)
- 11.11.10 – Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (f)
- 14.11.10 – Richard P. Feynman – The Meaning of it All (nf)
- 29.11.10 – *Andrew Solomon – The Noonday Demon (nf)
- 04.12.10 – Iain Banks – The Bridge (f)
- 26.12.10 – Axel Scheffler – How to Keep a Pet Squirrel (f)
- 27.12.10 – Dr Liz Miller – Mood Mapping (nf)
- 29.12.10 – Michael S. Gazzaniga – Nature’s Mind (nf)
And I’ve just started the first one for 2011. How about you? Did you chomp through some good reads this year? Which were your favourites? I’ve put an asterisk by my three absolute favourites this year, and massively recommend them.
I should probably start by saying I did not like this book. In fact, there are no significant redeeming features, in my honest opinion. So, if you have read this book, use this book or like this book for whatever reason, then please give this review a miss. Because I didn’t like it, this review will mainly concentrate on WHY I didn’t like it. These opinions, being opinions, are not debatable.
Where to start? Probably at the beginning, is best. When this book was first released, I read an interesting review of it in the Guardian. So, when I saw this book in my local BHF book shop, I thought “what the hell” and thought I’d give it a go. I have never read a self-help style book in my life, and now I know why.
Dr Liz Miller is an ex-neurosurgeon, and so you would expect her to be a sensible woman of science. She’s not: she is full of absolute crap. I was willing to sit through her sad stories of struggling through her breakdowns (she says in the text that she is bipolar, but she doesn’t specify what type. I suspect cyclothymia), and to start with, her advice is pretty sound. However, it is also common sense: keep a mood diary so that you can try and see patterns in mood vs. time of day, events, foods, etc.
Anything that didn’t fall under this header of “common sense advice” was not useful at all, and in fact made me rather angry. One of my common gripes is preachy, self-righteous types: Miller is one of these. Her favourite thing to preach about, it would seem, is food. I knew this would be a problem from the Introduction, where she gently declares a war on meat, alcohol, and processed food. Later in the book, she all but blames mood disorders solely on what we eat.
Let me get one thing straight: PROCESSED FOOD WILL NOT MAKE YOU DROP DEAD. You do not need to be on a “raw food diet” to be happy. Let’s look at the evidence: you know plenty of people who eat microwave meals, take aways and stuff from tins on an almost daily basis, and yet they are functioning perfectly. And then there is “Doctor” Gillian McKeith. I’m sure you’ve all been forwarded a copy of the McKeith vs. Nigella email (they’re both 50, and yet…) She doesn’t look like a happy bunny. She looks fucking miserable.
Fair enough, we’re all sensitive to different foods in different ways – I’m not all that susceptible to caffeine, but I am more careful about alcohol nowadays. And I think that’s the key: you do NOT have to give up everything fun or delicious to live well. You need to know your own body. And that’s where Mood Mapping MIGHT be useful: just for finding patterns in your mood in response to external stimuli. But you do NOT NEED TO BUY THIS BOOK (RRP: £12.99) to be able to do that. Food is not the root to aaaaaall your problems.
On a housekeeping note: Miller needs to get hold of a better proofreader. Even my casual, half-attentive reading of this book (often accompanied by a background of Christmas TV and the sound of family members reading articles from the newspaper outloud) spotted a whole menagerie of errors. Most hilarious IMHO was pp. 237-8, and the supposed “Causes of bipolar”…
“…Bipolar disorder can also start after head injury, treatment with anti-malarial drugs, particularly mefloquinine, head injury, childhood abuse, drug abuse…”
And later on in this ridiculous list of madness and repetition: post-traumatic stress disorder. WHAT?! PTSD is a mental illness in its own right, not a “cause” of bipolar. I think she’s getting confused: violent mood swings are not the only characteristic feature of bipolar. They are a symptom. And guess what? They just so happen to be quite a significant symptom of PTSD, too. Just because someone is having severe mood swings does not mean they have suddenly “come down with” bipolar disorder.
I’m trying to keep this short, so here’s the last and most important reason why I hate this book:
“…what my research and experience did prove is that mood and its associated chemicals respond more to the five keys to mood than they do to drugs. By physically managing your mood, it is often possible to dispense with drugs entirely.” (p. 233)
My, that’s a sweeping statement. And, “prove”? Really? Please, tell this to anyone suffering from psychosis, or chronic, major depression. Some people simply cannot function without medication. Some people can’t even cope WITH medication, it’s that bad. MY research and experience INDICATES this. Read a far better and more realistic account of mood disorder.
By all means, I am not poo-pooing Miller’s personal trauma and experience of the mental health system, but that is what it is: a personal trauma. She found something that works for her. Good. She has no right to prescribe it to others.
This book took me a long time to read. I had to put a lot of effort in to reading it. Usually, that is a sign that I am finding the book boring, or a chore. That is not true in this case: the sheer effort involved here was to overcome the deep sense of sadness held within the pages.
Andrew Solomon’s comprehensive masterpiece on depression is an incredibly painful read, especially if the experiences described are familiar to you. I’m fairly certain that everyone knows someone who has at some time suffered from clinical depression (whether mild or major), and it is still even now treated with some awkwardness, to say the least. As Solomon points out, “our society has little room in it for moping” – a common phrase thrown at depressives is “pull yourself together”. Solomon relates an incredibly provocative life event (which lead to his third breakdown) in which he dislocated his shoulder pretty badly: knowing his own body and how he reacts to prolonged physical pain (they are a large cause of his depressive episodes) he calmly asked the doctors at A&E to look up his psychiatric history in order to hurry along pain relief. He knew that without pain control, he was likely to plunge into a deep depression. Rather than listen to their patient, and be sympathetic to his suffering by offering a psychiatric consult, doctors told him: “Pull yourself together and stop feeling sorry for yourself”. He was also accused of being “uncooperative” and “childish”. Solomon later lapsed into suicidal ideation and later ended up having a minor breakdown.
Solomon bases this book around his own experiences of major depression (including three breakdowns, thousands of dollars worth of therapy and a rainbow of medications) but this is by no means a self-indulgent, autobiographical look-in. He relates stories from many cultures and classes, from people of all walks of life, all sharing a terrible common ground. Solomon shows us the world of self-help groups, animistic rituals to cure depression in Senegal (the ndeup ritual, in case you want to pursue further reading), the quiet world of Greenlandic depression and the ignored population suffering below the poverty line. All are fascinating. All are equally distressing. Much of it made me angry. All of it moved me deeply.
You know what you’re getting in to from the first page of the first chapter: Solomon tells us, truthfully, that “no matter what we do, we will in the end die”. It does not get any cheerier, even when Solomon devotes a chapter to statistics. But it is illuminating: within the first ten pages, I was already thinking that this should be essential reading for anyone working with depressives, be they psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, helpline volunteers… It explains an awful lot, and does so without fear and without apology.
Solomon mentions in the foreword that he is not a doctor or a psychologist, and this is a purely personal book, with interpretations only, and is not a substitute for appropriate treatment. However, early on, he throws away common misconceptions about depression: for example, that it is “just chemical”. Well, if you want to be accurate, EVERYTHING is “just chemical”, but that doesn’t make it any less personal or painful.
Depression isn’t intrinsically linked to suicide, but a lot of depressives do think suicidal thoughts (even if they do not enact suicidal acts). It’s incredibly sad to consider the logic behind suicide: the pain so great that you wish everything could just go away, forever. Solomon includes a beautifully poignant quote from one of my old favourites, G. K. Chesterton:
The man who kills a man kills a man.
The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
But it is not all doom and gloom (hah!). Solomon also shares with us his journey towards managing his depression, as well as the stories of others, and how their lives were turned around by patience and treatment. The final chapter of the book is lovingly titled “Hope”, and Solomon ends his work beautifully, asking us to “Hold on to time; don’t wish your life away. Even the minutes when you feel you are going to explode are minutes of your life, and you will never get those minutes again”.
In his foreword, Solomon warns us that he is “not a doctor or a psychologist or even a philosopher”. I disagree with the last part, and I urge you to read this book.
I used to volunteer at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill (it’s fantastic – if you haven’t been, go. It’s particularly family friendly). Sadly, I had to stop my regular volunteering there earlier this year, when I began my MSc – there are only so many hours in the day.
But I still like to keep abreast of how things are going – and it was my great pleasure to help with some research into the volunteering experience this week. It gave me a chance to catch up with some friendly faces, but unfortunately I had to rush off after the session, so didn’t get a chance to pop my head in to all the departments.
But on my way back to Forest Hill station, I saw the Horniman’s arm extending throughout the community, in the form of a commissioned street mural. I saw them starting work on it when I was last at the are (September?) but this was the first time I saw it for real. For those of you nearby, go and have a look. For faraway friends, I hope you enjoy the photos
OK, I’m going to do a series of posts leading up to Christmas: thematic gift ideas. Today’s theme is: BRAINS!
A bit of an odd one this. Brains aren’t for everyone (in fact, I’ve met many people who have given up on their own entirely), but I for one think brains are cool. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be on the road to neuropsychologydom.
First up, some neurons. Very, very important little blighters, these. So why not have a cuddly one? OK, the cell-plushies may not be news to some of you, but they are utterly adorable. My favourites at the moment are the “brain cell” and the “nerve cell” – look at their wee faces!!
You can buy these little guys from a variety of places, but notably I saw them in the Natural History Museum only recently. Very cool. Priced at around £7, but they do come in a few different sizes, so shop around.
Still on the subject of neurons, I had a quick search on Etsy for “brains” (you’d be amazed at how much comes up!!) and I found the beautiful creations of toybreaker. Including this gorgeous silk-screened design, priced at $30 (about £19):
Staying with Etsy for a moment, there seems to be a craze for vintage anatomical drawings in the crafting community. Fine by me, as they can be made into pretty fridge magnets such as this one from CrowBiz, priced at a mere $6 (about £4):
Here’s a find that went straight on to my Amazon Wish List – a brain colouring book?! Genius!! Get yours quick – it’s only £8.99!
Here’s one for the dinner table: brain shaped salt and pepper shakers! I wonder which hemisphere corresponds to what seasoning… It’s on ThinkGeek, and is therefore in dollars, at $9.99. Just over £6.
And finally, probably my personal favourites (because I love novelty shaped things, and I have many ice cube trays to attest to this): BRAIN FREEZE. Brain shaped ice cubes. Would make for the most awesome cocktail party ever. Why do psychology conferences not have these? It’d break the ice at parties (whaaa whaaaaaa… That’s the bad pun trumpet, by the way). I have seen these turn up in a lot of different shops – Hunterian Museum gift shop, the Science Museum shop (do I spend too much time in museum gift shops? Oh well…). They’re available on all sorts of websites, so browse around. The cheapest I could find them was on the website linked below, a mere £4.99.
So concludes the first instalment in my Quirky Christmas Gift Guide. I have a few more ideas for themes lined up, but as always, your feedback is always welcome. Got a theme you want me to explore? Suggest it in comments! And happy shopping
That’s more like it! After having a rather disappointing time with Daniel Levitin last week, Oliver Sacks delivered. Like his famous The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (and most of his other books), Musicophilia follows various case studies – this time, evidently, all related to music. Sacks offers us a potted history of each of his patients, with touching personal insight into their plight. It feels to me that Sacks is getting more sensitive with age – he used to be accused of being too detached from the humanity of his patients, treating them as oddities rather than people, but Musicophilia defies this accusation. Sacks connects with his patients, and some of the passages are not only very poignant, but show Sacks’ deep admiration for their ability to overcome adversity, sometimes in ingenious ways.
To give an example, Sacks talks of the famous amnesic, Clive Wearing who, despite not being able to remember anything that has happened more than a minute or so ago, is still able to play the piano and organ with the same fluency and skill as he could before he suffered the brain damage he bears today (as a result of severe encephalitis). This musicality is Clive’s link to his “former self”, as attested to by his wife.
Sacks also relates strange tales of musical hallucinations, of amusia and musical dystonia. He lets us in to the musical world of people with Williams syndrome and of the musical savants. But for me, the most incredible and moving thing of all is the obvious relief that music brings: helping people with Tourettes to channel their energy, giving people with dementia a pathway to their past, giving rhythm and the gateway to movement to people with Parkinsons, and expression to aphasics, who are unable to connect with language in any other way.
I have a couple of very minor issues: firstly, with the fact that Sacks revisits a lot of previously covered cases (ones mentioned already in his other books, which he could then ask you to read as well), and secondly Sacks really over uses footnotes. There was a footnote ever few pages, and some were incredibly long. In fact, some pages were more footnote than main body text. However, as I said: minor issues. These did not detract from the book’s wonderfulness.
It is a beautiful book, tempering science with humanity, and giving us an insight into worlds far detached from our own – some cases may be familiar (the stories touching upon depression were quite uncomfortable for me) but others are other-worldly. It gives a true appreciation of the breadth of human experience, and the wonder of music that connects us all.