It’s hard to read This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression and not feel deeply sad for the author, whose euphemistically tagged “treatment-resistant” depression has followed her since childhood, with multiple severe episodes following stressful life events. But she seems to attribute most of her problems to her upbringing, which was clearly cold, even neglectful but not out-of-bounds cruel — just clueless. It made me wonder whether holding on to the notion that she deserved a better childhood may not have made it even more difficult for her to live with her illness. It also made me wonder why she clung to a mother whom she describes as indifferent and callous well into adulthood. Wouldn’t she be better off to put some physical and mental space between her and her mother? In any case, the book is a reminder of the great travails of depression, and the gap still to be bridged by medicine when it comes to treating it.
I agree with the author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less that the current mania for not just appearing to be very busy, but wearing it as a badge of honor, is silly and destructive.
But the book is written from a bubble (and addressed clearly at the same bubble) so the point of ridicule. Do you want to be like Bill Gates? Like Charles Darwin? Like Winston Churchill? Then schedule deliberate rest, limit work to 4 hours a day, and please take a nap (never mind that the august characters being cited did not all follow this specific prescription). And why are all the role models male (except for Barbara McClintock)? It does seem like an oversight rather than a deliberate choice, but it left me wondering…
With Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, Cordelia Fine (of Delusion of Gender fame) is at it again, this time attacking the supposedly obvious finding that biological sex causes testosterone-laden men to take more risks, be more aggressive, and in general want to subjugate the world. She counter-attacks by showing how some classic experiments were designed with obvious biases, or used statistics in frowned-upon methods (the testosterone probably made the researchers do it, right?), and in any case are now supplanted by newer, better-designed studies of animals and humans that show both sexes making similar decisions, seemingly ignoring their T hormone levels.
It’s funny and personal anecdotes are skillfully woven in, which is not a given in nerdy books. The first page features a dinner-table discussion of what to do with the family dog’s soon-to-be-removed testicles. Lovely, in my book!
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds tells the story of the collaboration and friendship between Amos Tversky and Dan Kahneman, which produced so many insights in behavioral economics (and indeed, founded the field). The most interesting part of the book to me was not so much the science, although tantalizing anecdotes abound, but the friendship, and how accidents of life and egos eventually terminated a tight working and personal relationship that seemed to be able to bring out the best qualities of each partner, until they quarreled.
We are used to thinking that a little more empathy would make the world such a better place, but the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion is not afraid to swim against the current and shows that empathy can be biased, capricious, and, well, too emotional. Much better, he argues, to use rational thought to decide whom to help, and in some circumstances to cut off empathy entirely for the sake of a clear head (think about some medical decisions). Better control our emotional empathy in favor of cognitive empathy. This book will make you think,
Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation takes us from who decides what time it is (it’s very complicated!) to how humans perceive time — and, it seems, are easily fooled! The author happily discusses the synchronization of transplanted kidneys, how our eyes seem to anticipate the random changes of direction of a computer dot, and what happens to grad students during an Arctic summer. Easy to read, enjoyable, but I would have liked a bit more structure.
The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves covers a variety of studies on how our inner voices can help us, scare us, or hinder us, and how they can veer towards abnormal visions and hallucinations. The book felt a little disjointed to me, one chapter about the creative process, one about deaf people, one about schizophrenia. My favorite part was the description of how children talk to themselves more, and out loud, when facing difficulties. Funny!