Tag Archives: Harvard Medical School

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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Help Me

Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time by Paul Hammerness, M.D., and Margaret Moore, with John Hanc (Harlequin, $16.95, 272 pages)

Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95, 304 pages)

Often the focus of self-help books is the reader’s feelings of discomfort, inadequacy or anger.   That said, the two books reviewed here are pragmatic and filled with specific science-based ideas formulated by well-respected professionals in their respective fields.

The first book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time, was written by the team of Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Paul Hammerness, M.D., Margaret Moore, a certified wellness coach and cofounder of Harvard’s Institute of Coaching with assistance from John Hanc, an associate professor of journalism and communications at the New York Institute of Technology.   The premise of Organize Your Mind is that daily stress is produced by too much to do and this overload, in turn, produces a sense of helplessness.   The book looks at how your conscious actions can bring about a sense of mastery and control to daily life as well as assist in long-range planning.

Each area discussed is introduced by Dr. Hammerness in what he calls “The Rules of Order.”   Each of the rules is about brain functioning and how it relates to ones’ actions and feelings.   The six rules are followed by pragmatic action steps outlined by Coach Margaret.   Accompanying each rule are highlighted sidebars filled with explanations and contextual comments that enhance the reader’s experience.   Dr. Hammerness includes suggestions for readers whose issues extend beyond the scope of the book.   He takes a kindly attitude and suggests that there are situations where professional help beyond that offered in the book is indicated.

The chapters and rules are cumulative which allows the reader to follow along and build skills.   The tone of the authors’ writing is non-judgmental, realistic and yet not a buddy-buddy one.   There are really good puns scattered in the text.   Alas, this reviewer is not able to quote any of them as an advance uncorrected proof was provided by the publisher.

Highly recommended.

The second book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World was written by Sam Sommers, a remarkably young-looking psychology professor at Tufts University.   Sommers is also an expert witness who is called upon to testify as to whether actions and statements are racially motivated or merely meaningful descriptors that may be admitted as evidence in court proceedings.

This book is an excellent complement to Organize Your Mind that can be best appreciated if read as a follow-up in the reader’s self-improvement strategy.   Sommers makes good use of scientific findings to support his conclusions.   However, his assertion is that introspection will not bring someone to discover the means to the life they wish to have.   Rather, his focus is on the ways that environmental influences assert significant power over the decisions people make and the actions they take every day.   Watchfulness and awareness of the context (location, group or ethnic background) in which one finds one’s self can lead to a significantly different outcome, such as summoning police assistance, questioning odd behavior or just realizing that people mindlessly parrot what they think is true.   An excellent parallel can be made with reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, particularly Tipping Point.   Several of the studies he cites are common to both books.

The chapter structure of Situations Matter follows that of a survey book.   Sommers does tie back to his beginning hypothesis that we see the world as a “what you see is what you get” sort of place.   (The computer shorthand is WYSIWYG.)   He also makes good use of examples from his university classroom exercises.   The tone of the book is friendly and it reads like a transcript from the psychology class you wish you’d taken.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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