Tag Archives: biology

Have You Ever Been Mellow?

The Other Side of Normal: How Biology is Providing the Clues to Unlock the Secrets of Normal and Abnormal Behavior by Jordan Smoller (William Morrow, $27.99, 390 pages)

“When it comes to the human mind, we’ve long had an uneasy relationship with the concept of normal.”

Author Jordan Smoller has written a book with a purpose.   Smoller invites the reader to consider taking a new look at what is considered normal human behavior.   As an associate professor at both the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, he has the background and experience that make this book a compelling read.

There are multiple threads of thought that weave together as Smoller provides a survey of the approaches taken in psychology, psychiatry and biological research since the late 1880s.   Moreover, he states that the notion of normal has historically been viewed from the extremes of abnormality.   Smoller sees a continuum of behavior with abnormality arranged at the ends.   Rather than viewing mental disorders as sitting on one side of a bright line, a new approach would begin at the center of normal and establish how far normal extends before the abnormal is encountered.

A charming phrase that stayed with this reviewer is “the intersection of genes and experience.”   Smoller and others in his field have been examining brain/mind function with the intent of clarifying whether the old nature vs. nurture concept for determining causality for behaviors holds true in the 21st Century.   In light of the recent findings related to the human genome, genes are now seen as present in a person at birth and they are often activated by experience and exposure to nature (nurturing).   That is to say, genes and nature are dependent upon each other for bringing about human behavioral development.

This is a book that approaches textbook status.   A reader is well served to have some familiarity with or a strong curiosity about perceptions of normal.   To his credit, Smoller takes the time to explain in detail the study of genes and experience that he is so committed to recasting in a new format.   The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is referenced frequently throughout the text.   It has been a help for practitioners in the past and now, in Smoller’s view, it has become a hindrance due to a universal perception that it is “The” source for determining a diagnosis of mental disorder.

In the DSM, diagnoses are pigeonholed within rigid parameters and, in some cases, arranged and categorized in ways that hinder helpful treatment.   Alternatively, Smoller makes a strong case for exploring methods for effective treatment that are likely found outside of the current framework.   Practitioners are seeking cures at all levels – genetics, re-conditioning therapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy, and pharmaceuticals.   A new view of their methods for determining appropriate treatment seems like a breath of fresh air.

Much is at stake as normal is being fine-tuned.   Differentiating normal from abnormal has a measurable impact when viewed from the perspective of health insurance coverage as well as the setting of qualifying criteria for disability payments.   Hopefully, Smoller and his associates will prevail in their efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and provide better treatment for people whose position on the continuum is outside the range of normal.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Other Side of Normal is also available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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A review of The Other Side of Normal: How Biology is Providing the Clues to Unlock the Secrets of Normal and Abnormal Behavior by Jordan Smoller.

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A Furry and Feathered Giveaway

Thanks to Diane S., Munchy has two copies of a new book to give away!   This is Being with Animals: Why We Are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World by Barbara J. King.   This hardbound release from Doubleday has a value of $24.99 ($29.99 in Canada).

Here is a synopsis of the book:

We surround ourselves with animals, and yet rarely do we truly stop to think about the pull they have on us.   Animals have dominated our lives for tens of thousands of years and continue to rule our existence, but why?   Why do people the world over respond to a cartoon mouse named Mickey?   Why do sports teams name themselves the Bears and the Eagles?   Why does the pet industry thrive even in difficult economic times?   Why are we compelled to share our lives with cats, dogs, fish, snakes, turtles, or any other kind of domesticated creature?

In Being with Animals, King offers answers to these questions and more.   She looks at this phenomenon, from the most obvious animal connections in daily life and culture and over the whole of human history, to show the various roles animals have played in all civilizations.   She digs deeply into the importance of the human-animal bond as key to our evolution, as a signficant aspect of understanding what truly makes us human, and looks ahead to explore how our further technological development may affect these important ties.

King’s fresh look at the human-animal relationship will resonate deeply with animal lovers, the environmentally minded, and the armchair scientist.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist and Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary.   She has studied monkeys in Kenya and great apes in various captive settings.   Together with her husband, she cares for and arranges to spay and neuter homeless cats in Virginia.  (To this, Munchy says Yeowk!)

To enter our giveaway contest to win one of two copies of Being with Animals, you can either post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, answer this question, “How is it that an animal has added value to your life and/or to the lives of your loved ones?”  

Munchy will pick the 2 winners at random.   In order to be eligible for this giveaway, you must live in the United States or Canada and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to a P. O. box or to a business-related address.   You have until Monday, February 28, 2011 at Midnight PST to submit your entry or entries.

This is it for the “complex” contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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A furry, scaly, feathered book giveaway!

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A New Audio-book Giveaway!

Thanks to Anna at Hachette Audio, we will be giving away three audio book copies of The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar.   This is an unabridged 9-CD set that has a value of $34.98.   You can see a video trailer-preview for this book at the Twelve Books website (Google it).   The following are some comments about this unique non-fiction book.

Sheena Iyengar’s work on choice and how our minds deal with it has been groundbreaking, repeatedly surprising, and enormously important.   She is someone we need to listen to.   Dr. Atul Gawande, author of Better and Complications

No one asks better questions, or comes up with more intriguing answers.   Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers

As you take exciting steps into this wide-ranging exploration of the choices we make, you will traverse the worlds of psychology, biology, philosophy, economics, business, public policy and medicine.   Malcolm Gladwell popularized some of Professor Iyengar’s research in Blink, but that is just a glimmer of what readers will discover in The Art of Choosing.

The author’s objective in these pages is a great one:  to help us become better choosers, with greater self-awareness of our biases and values.   She is tackling nothing less than the subtext of our lives – what we are thinking when we make choices; how our environment influences us; and how choice drives, frustrates, sustains and satisfies us.

You will learn why we need choice in our lives to feel control and contentment… (yet) we can sometimes be paralyzed by too many choices.   Unquestionably, it is one of the best books I’ve had the privilege of publishing.   Jonathan Karp, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, TWELVE

It’s easy to enter this book giveaway.   All you need to do is post a comment here or send an e-mail (using the subject line The Art of Choosing) to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second contest entry, tell us what the hardest choice was that you had to make in your life, and why it seemed so difficult at the time.   That’s it.

This contest will run until Midnight PST on Friday, May 7, 2010.   In order to enter, you must be a resident of the United States or Canada, with a residential address.   Audio books cannot be mailed to P.O. boxes.  

Good luck and good listening!

 

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Forever

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This begins as an excellent biography of a woman who might have remained unknown but for a miracle of medicine.   “At the age of twenty-one, Henrietta stared through the train window at rolling hills and wide-open bodies of water for the first time, heading toward a new life.”   Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer but her cells are still alive.   To be exact, only her cancer cells continue to live but they may live for up to 100 years if frozen.   They are the so-called HeLa cells that are used by researchers throughout the world to advance the knowledge of how to fight and halt disease.

Author Rebecca Skloot has taken on the challenge of melding a family’s story with a tale of medicine and law.   The personal story is engaging and quite well done.   The reader will come to feel that he or she not only becomes acquainted with Henrietta Lacks, but also her late daughter Deborah, and her other children and grandchildren.   And, as Skloot gracefully notes, they are quite beautiful grandchildren.

This reader felt the telling was less effective when addressing the medico-legal issues.   That’s because the case is made that Henrietta’s cells were, in effect, stolen from her by Johns Hopkins Hospital.   Yet once you’ve read through two-thirds of the book, you learn that Hopkins explicitly met the medical research standards (and the legal requirements) of the day.   Indeed, it was a much different time.   A relation of this reviewer gave consent for a cancer biopsy in 1950 in a northern California hospital.   Only later did the relative learn that her stomach cells were only removed in California; the cell slides were mailed to Johns Hopkins for the medical research and analysis.

There’s also an apparent contradiction in the events.   We’re told repeatedly that Henrietta did not consent to having her cells used for medical research.   Yet, her husband did authorize an autopsy and there’s also a reference to a death-bed conversation during which Henrietta was said to have told a physician that she was pleased that others might benefit from an examination of her cancerous cell tissues.   But even if this conversation never happened, the law at the time was what it was.The author tells us that the rights of research subjects were largely unprotected until 1966.   Yes, and this means that a lot of time is spent reviewing and debating the medical morality of an earlier time.   It is a moot point.

Henrietta’s daughter Deborah is the appealing figure in this account.   She is the family member who argued – passionately and perhaps appropriately – that one cannot hold yesterday’s medical professionals to today’s ethical and moral standards.   Deborah, in fact, jumps off the pages of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the person who is brought back to life in the writing.

The descendents of Henrietta Lacks have never benefited from the use of her cells, leaving aside the issue of whether they were properly appropriated.   They have not received any money, and although HeLa cells are sold for medical research, the family does not have health care.   This is truly a shame, an injustice, and it is hoped that Skloot’s account will – in highlighting this case – change things.

Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered, as does Deborah Lacks.   Rebecca Skloot has provided the tombstone that Henrietta’s family could never afford.   This true account is at its best when paying tribute to a woman whose life, in death, has benefited countless individuals worldwide.

It is encouraging to hope and think (and perhaps pray) that this account will result in a better life for the children, beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Henrietta and Deborah Lacks.   That would be the greatest tribute of all.

Highly recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books.

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