Two posts in one day. I know, I spoil you.
Really, I just wanted to share with you something that I feel is a beautiful homage, well put-together, and strangely enchanting. It is essentially a mash-up of documentary and lecture clips, auto-tuned to produce a flowing melody, on an electronic backing track, but the end result is, frankly, brilliant. Includes some of my true heroes, some more well-known faces of science, and also Bill Nye (the Science Guy) who taught me science via my telly when I was only 6 years old. Squee.
EDIT: If you enjoy this, you can watch Jill Bolte Taylor’s moving, inspiring TED talk (sampled here) in full here
It’s amazing to consider that I’m holding in my hands
The place where someone once felt, thought, and loved
For centuries, scientists have been battling to understand
What this unappealing object is all about
Here is this mass of jelly
You can hold in the palm of your hands
And it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space
The brain has evolved from the inside out
Its structure reflects all the stages through which it has passed
[Jill Bolte Taylor]
Information in the form of energy
Streams in simultaneously
Through all of our sensory systems
And then it explodes into this enormous collage
Of what this present moment looks like
What it feels like
And what it sounds like
And then it explodes into this enormous collage
And in this moment we are perfect
We are whole and we are beautiful
It appears rather gruesome
Wrinkled like a walnut, and with the consistency of mushroom
What we know is encoded in cells called neurons
And there are something like a hundred trillion neural connections
This intricate and marvelous network of neurons has been called
An enchanted loom
The neurons store sounds too, and snatches of music
Whole orchestras play inside our heads
20 million volumes worth of information
Is inside the heads of every one of us
The brain is a very big place
In a very small space
No longer at the mercy of the reptile brain
We can change ourselves
Think of the possibilities
Think of your brain as a newspaper
Think of all the information it can store
But it doesn’t take up too much room
Because it’s folded
We see with the eyes
But we see with the brain as well
And seeing with the brain
Is often called imagination
It is the most mysterious part of the human body
And yet it dominates the way we live our adult lives
It is the brain
As part of my assessment for my MSc, I have been doing a joint poster project with my friend Rebecca surrounding the topic of violent video games. Are violent video games really causing our kids to be more aggressive? I say “our” kids – I don’t have kids. But I WAS a kid. And I played violent video games. So did my brothers. I wouldn’t consider us to be particularly aggressive. Maybe we were boisterous kids, but that was arguably before the games, and plenty of people have boisterous kids.
Image from GeekWithLaptop.com
Anecdotal evidence, you say? Maybe. But some facts and figures from the US of A -
“According to the FBI in 2009,The arrest rate for juvenile murders has fallen 71.9% between 1995 and 2008. The arrest rate for all juvenile violent crimes has declined 49.3%. In this same period, video game sales have more than quadrupled. The FBI statistics show that video game sales have been on the rise, while all juvenile violent crimes have fallen in the same amount of time.”
OK, but that’s just someone saying a thing on a debating website, I hear you cry. I won’t lie: I’ve made no effort to track down that report from the FBI. It could be made up. This is the internet, afterall. EDIT: Oh look, found it.
You might have read some news articles talking about a correlation between violent video gameplay and subsequent aggressive behaviour in children. Bollocks to that, is what I say. Correlation, as any good scientist knows, does not equate to causation. It might be that children that already have an aggressive disposition are more likely to be drawn to play violent games in the first place. They see violent games as a way of directing their aggression, which surely is no bad thing. We don’t see a correlation between calm kids and violent video gamplay, maybe because calm kids don’t get attracted to play violent video games (they’d much rather play bonkers colourful games like Katarmari Forever or Hamster Ball.)
And what about extraneous variables? Studies that show these correlations tend to ignore the children’s family history, or trait violence. Who knows, these kids might come from abusive homes, and violence is all they know. Oh, and we usually only see the short term effects of violent influences – what about a longitudinal study, please? Do these same kids grow up into violent adults? Or is that a rare thing? Are the majority of violent video game players (i.e. MOST WESTERN TEENAGERS) likely to populate the globe with murderers? I think not. They will probably be accountants, or contestants on Britain’s Got Talent, or some other, (arguably) normal lifetime pursuit.
Perhaps some “more research is needed” – I hate to fall back on that old line, but it’s true. Video games are here to stay, so rather than bitch and moan about the possible influence of young children, and their subsequent development into aggressive teens (view not supported by evidence), maybe it’s high time we started looking into the other factors influencing aggression in young people. Maybe there’s deep-rooted issues. Maybe aggressive children need early-intervention programmes. Maybe we need to teach the negativity of violence to young people. What about anger management strategies for children? Don’t scoff – the naughty step works wonders for Supernanny.
Interested in reading more? Go for it -
Ooh, look, shiny official Brain Awareness Day poster!
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 promise promise PROMISE to write some intelligent, sciencey (sort of) posts SOON. But not right now. I am swamped at the moment, so you will just have to make do with an English National Treasure: the great Ralph Vaughan Williams.
I have loved Vaughan Williams for a long time. I think I was about 13 when I first performed his spellbinding Five Variations on Dives and Lazarus, and I was hooked straight away. It is an oft-cited hypothesis that Mozart is good for the developing brain because the phrasing and patterns in his music match brain-wave patterns (or some other vague quasi-neuroscientific tosh). But I feel far more drawn in by the patterns and “waves” in Vaughan Williams, in particular the aforementioned Dives & Lazarus.
Most people know Vaughan Williams for the Lark Ascending, or for Fantasia on Greensleeves. I know him for this. Enjoy:
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.