Holiday Special: 5 favorite reads of the year
Friday Brainstorm S2 E12 🧠
Hello and happy holidays!
As I’m warming up to being consistent about this newsletter in 2022, I wanted to share some of my favorite neuroscience-y books (📖) and essays (📝) from this year. I’m also including an excerpt or a takeaway from each one to give you a quick taste.
Here’s the full list (with links):
Let’s get into it.
I’ve been spending a lot of time this year learning about abstract art, which is not something I’ve really understood before. On a recent trip to Dia:Beacon, I picked up Eric Kandel’s book on the history of modern art from the perspective of neuroscience.
Kandel demonstrates through bottom-up sensory and top-down cognitive functions how science can explore the complexities of human perception and help us to perceive, appreciate, and understand great works of art.
Abstract art poses an enormous challenge to the viewer by asking our visual system to interpret images that are fundamentally different from the kind of images our brains have evolved to reconstruct. Modern artists distill their subjects into the primitive building blocks of perception – color, form, and light – so that we project our own impressions, memories, aspirations, and feelings onto the canvas.
I’m really excited about how interdisciplinary artists may use our new understanding of the biology of perception and of emotional and empathic response to create new art forms and other expressions of creativity.
Karl Deisseroth stands out to me as one of the few people who is both an incredible researcher and a gifted storyteller. His biggest contribution to science was developing a research tool called optogenetics, which gives neuroscientists the ability control neurons using light.
In his book, Deisseroth details how the past 15 years of research using this technique has revised our understanding of mental disorders.
In his practice as a psychiatrist, he had a particular interest in autism-spectrum disorder. Many adult autism patients avoid eye contact, which was previously attributed to social anxiety. An observation by a high-functioning autism patient of his seems to suggest more subtle information processing challenges:
Well, when I’m looking at you and talking, if your face changes then I have to think about what that means, and how I should react to that, and change what I’m saying.
The anxiety stemmed from the patient’s brain detecting its own inability to keep up with the social data stream, while being aware that it should be keeping up. This is just one of many case studies on eating disorders, depression, dementia, and more.
📝 Thin Places 📝
This essay by Jordan Kisner explores the experience of living with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and the life-changing impact of a new, experimental application of deep brain stimulation, which is usually reserved for Parkinson’s patients.
What I like most about this piece is that Kisner is not an expert in psychiatry or medicine, instead relying on months of research, “reviewing articles, deciphering studies, interviewing physicians, scrolling through procedure videos on YouTube”.
Instead, she’s exceptionally talented at humanizing the people suffering from OCD and the emotional journey of going through the experimental medical procedure. The beautiful writing alternates between memoir-style narrative and fictional patients that are a composite of people Kisner has encountered in her research.
It seems important to cling to the concrete, to remember that illness is not a metaphor or a study but a phenomenon unfolding in (and on) real bodies in real rooms. Its qualia, the crinkly paper hospital gown and metallic adrenaline taste, the mutable and inexpressible shades of pain, demand articulation because they matter.
We work so hard at telling others what it is like to be sick in whichever particular way we are sick; we are reassured to hear that our particulars fit within larger known narratives of illness. With sickness as with anything else, communicating what it is like so others can know, or understanding others in precisely the way they wish we could, is next to impossible. We try anyway.
It’s rare to find a review of a book that’s better than the book itself. Kaj Sotala summarizes the authors’ claims and draws on scientific literature to evaluate whether we should believe in them. This genre of content — bringing together analysis, commentary, and research — is something I’d like to see more of.
The book itself offers a neuroscience-grounded, comprehensive model of how effective talk therapy works. It claims that
change from a wide variety of therapeutic approaches [. . .] results from the updating of prior emotional memories through a process of reconsolidation that incorporates new emotional experiences.
Delving into a fictional series of therapy sessions, Kaj illustrates how the science of emotional reconsolidation is implicitly modelled in the process of these therapy techniques. As someone who sees the value of therapy but always had trouble grasping how it works on a mechanistic level, the book’s model is very promising.
Malcolm Ocean points out that we implicitly assume that questions are just for asking, when they can be used in many other ways. The deceptively simple technique he describes is holding questions, meaning both holding off on asking them and holding onto them:
Effectively working with curiosity involves being able relax yourself while experiencing a tension of not-knowing, without insisting on immediate resolution.
Whereas some questions can be easily answered, many will take time and non-obvious exploration. Being comfortable with the tension of holding them helps you organize your attention towards the problem space, so that your mind can figure it out as you encounter new ideas and processes.
I’ve put this into practice by going through the exercise of writing down my favorite problems/questions so that they are top of mind when answers appear in front of me.
In the spirit of holding questions, I wanted to cap off this newsletter with one of my favorite passages from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.
Don't search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of Friday Brainstorm — until next year!