Book Review: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks


Musicophilia (2007) by Oliver Sacks tells the stories of people with neurological conditions that involve music, and a study of the human brain and music in general.  The book relies largely on case studies of Sacks’ patients and others in the annals of medical literature, and more uniquely on Sacks’ own experiences.  Cases include people who have musical hallucinations more powerful and persistent than the ordinary earworm,  people with physical and neurological disorders who excel at music, and the unique role of music in therapy.

I found the book repetitive both within itself and to the previous Sacks’ book I’ve read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It’s as if Sacks just keeps piling on examples of the same or similar disorders without really coming to a conclusion or a big picture.  I guess I expected more from this book, and Sacks certainly has fascinating stories to share, but I think he needs a ghost writer.

Musicophilia unabridged library edition by Oliver Sacks. Books on Tape (2007), Audio CD

Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan


In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) is Michael Pollan‘s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he answers the question the most readers of that earlier book have when finished “Ok, so what should I eat?”

Pollan’s simple answer is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  A simple phrase, but it requires this slim book to explicate, especially in this era where the prominence of processed food products make it difficult to determine what food is.  A good portion of the book is a set of rules for identifying foods and how to enjoy them.  I’ve listed the rules below for my own memory, but it is important to read the book for Pollan’s explication of each rule.

At it’s heart, In Defense of Food is an indictment of nutritionism.  This is the process where by scientific reductionism food is broken down into it’s basic nutrients.  In nutritionism, it is at the nutrient-level where “foods” are recommend for their healthful benefits or condemned for their ill-effects.  Pollan contends that a lot of these recommendations are made under pressure from food processing companies and government agencies without thorough research on how the food (or food products) acts at the macro-level.  This lack of understanding about how food works leads to the contradictory recommendations that a food is healthy one year and deadly the next (and vice versa). Furthermore, it ignores how whole foods act as a nutrient delivery system.  For example, a plant leaf may dissolve in the digestive system releasing nutrients in a healthful way, while the same nutrient as an additive to a food product can flood the body in unhealthful ways.  Additionally, Pollan states there is little research how nutrients act in balance with one another.

The processing of food often removes the nutrients needed, even when the cartons make claims to the healthfulness of what should be inside. As a result, we live in a country where people are eating and eating and eating in search of nutrients they cannot find.  Thus the oxymoron of a people who overeat but are still undernourished.

On the one hand this book is a vindication.  I always felt better eating real butter, sugar and other whole foods when everyone told me it’s healthier to consume margarine and aspartame and the like (ok, I could cut back on the sugar some more).  I  never trusted high fructose corn syrup.  The way people glom onto fad diets withouth much evidence that they’re healthful drives me crazy.  I would add to Pollan’s rules: “Never trust a diet with a name (ex. Adkins, South Beach, et al). On the other hand I live on a supposedly healthy vegetarian diet, but I don’t eat nearly enough leafy plants and I rely way too much on processed foods even if they’re supposedly healthy meals from Trader Joe’s.

Pollan often refers to the traditional nutritionist we should trust as “Mom.”  Unfortunately, he fails to acknowledge that Mom is now working 40+ hours out of the home. So is Dad and sometimes the kids are too. The time crunch many Americans face that put real pressures on the time available to select, prepare and eat food. This is not to be critical of Pollan, but I’d like to come up with extra rules that would help people incorporate healthy relationships with food into their busy lives. It seems it would need to be a cultural change as well as individual.  It could be as simple as teaching someone like me what to look for at a farmer’s market:  which type of produce should I look for, how should I judge it’s quality, how much do I bring home, and what do I do with it when I get home?  It sounds dumb, but I really need such remedial training, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

A good book to pair with In Defense of Food is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which author Barbara Kingsolver and her family spend a year eating locally, organically, and sustainably.  It come recommended by my sister and is central to this great episode of Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet called The Ethics of Eating.

Professional reviews:

Favorite Passages

How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity, which is exactly what you don’t want in a society dedicated to the ideal of “Americanization.”  To make food choices more  scientific is to empty them of their ethnic content and history; in theory, at least, nutrionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking and potentially unifying answer to the  question of what it might mean to eat like an American.  It is also a way to moralize about other people’s choices without seeming to.  In this, nutrionism is a  little like the institution of the American front lawn, an unobjectionable, if bland way to pave over our differences and Americanize the landscape.  Of course in both cases unity comes at the price of aesthetic diversity and sensory pleasure.  Which may be precisely the point.  – pp. 57-58

When most of us think about food and health, we think in fairly narrow nutritionist terms — about our personal physical health and how ingestion of this particular nutrient or rejection of that affects it.  But I no longer think it’s possible to seperate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat or, for that matter, from the healt of our general outlook about food (and health).  If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it’s that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind.  So you will find rules here concerning not only what to eat but also how to eat it as well as how that food is produced.  Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reach back to the land and outward to other people. – p. 144

But meat, which humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain and have been relishing for a very long time, is nutritious  food, supplying all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins and minerals, and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet (That’s not to say there aren’t good ethical or enviromental reasons to do so).

That said, eating meat in the tremendous quantaties we do (each American now consumes and average of two hundred pounds of meat a year) is probably not a good idea, especially when that meat comes from a highly industrialized food chain.  Several studies point to the conclusion that the more meat there is in your diet — read meat especially — the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer.  Yet studies of flexitarians suggest that small amounts of meat — less than one serving a day — don’t appear to increase one’s risk.  Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he reccomended using meat more as a flavoring princinple than as a main course, treating it as a “condiment for vegetables.” — p. 165-6

EAT FOOD

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Unpronouncable
    • More than five in number
    • Or, include High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible

MOSTLY PLANTS

  • Eat mostly plants. Especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer (to preserve cuts of meat)
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements (but don’t waste your money unless you’re over 50)
  • Eat more like the French.  Or the Italians. Or the Japanese.  Or the Indians.  Or the Greeks.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner

NOT TOO MUCH

  • Pay more, eat less
  • Eat meals
  • Do all you’re eating at a table (a desk doesn’t count)
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden

Pollan, Michael.
In defense of food : an eater’s manifesto / Michael Pollan.
New York : Penguin Press, 2008.
244 p. ; 23 cm

Somerville Works Together Against Child Obesity


My hometown made the front page of the Wall Street Journal on May 10, 2007 (As Child Obesity Surges, One Town Finds Way to Slim: Somerville, Mass Goes Beyond Schools to Push Exercise, Good Eating by Tara Parker-Pope). I do love how they characterize a densely-populated urban area as a town.

Anyhow, it’s good to learn things you don’t know about your own community from nationally-published media. It sounds like an intelligent program that’s achieving excellent results.

The Somerville study is believed to be the first controlled experiment demonstrating the value of a communitywide effort. It’s only a small dent, but slowing the pace of weight gain among kids is the key to conquering childhood obesity, says lead author Christina Economos, an assistant professor at Tufts University. “It could be the difference between graduating overweight and graduating at a normal weight,” she says. “We need to think about how it plays out long term.”

The Somerville program, designed primarily by Dr. Economos and fellow researchers at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, offers a surprising blueprint. It didn’t force schoolchildren to go on diets. Instead, the goal was to change their environment with small and inexpensive steps. Dr. Economos, a specialist in pediatric nutrition and the mother of two school-age children, has long believed that the battle against obesity can’t be fought at the dinner table alone but requires social and political changes.

For inspiration, she turned to other successful social movements of the past 40 years, analyzing tobacco control, seat-belt use and breastfeeding. All were thorny public-health problems lacking a quick fix, yet significant progress was made on each. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Dr. Economos a $1.5 million grant to find out whether the same social forces could work in nutrition.

The goal of the researchers’ Shape Up plan was to have Somerville children burn more calories through exercise and take in fewer with a healthier diet, for a total benefit of 125 calories a day.

I’m particularly pleased by the efforts to encourage walking to school. I live next to an elementary school, and each day a convoy of cars jam up the streets of our neighborhood as parents drop kids off. This bothers me for several reasons:

  1. All the wasted gas and emissions caused by driving kids to school when numerous other options are available. School buses, for one, would be more efficient. Walking and public transit are even better.
  2. The congestion caused by all those cars. Again school buses would reduce the traffic, but the roads are narrow so they still might cause obstructions. Thus walking and public transit are still better options.
  3. <cranky old man voice> When I was a boy I walked 3/4’s mile to elementary school every day! Why when I was in middle school I walked nearly a mile just to get to the bus stop. Kids these days! </cranky old man voice> A true cranky old man would add “And we liked it!” to the end, but I’m young enough to remember that I hated it, especially when it was cold. Still I do see parents walking their children to school and that looks like fun for everyone.

Anyhow, I need Mayor Joseph Curtatone to advocate for programs to help me lose weight too.

Book Review: The Secret Family


The Secret Family: Twenty-four Hours inside the Mysterious Worlds of Our Minds and Bodies by David Bodanis spends one day in the life of a typical suburban family – mother, father, teenage daughter, 10-year old son, and baby. The family wakes up, eats breakfast, putter around the house, visit the mall, return home and go to bed. Bodanis focuses on all the details of well, just about everything. Much of this is microscopic — what microbes are crawling around the shafts of our eyebrows, what poison gases are welling up under the sink, what the hell are they putting in our food (big thing with Bodanis that gets huge gross-out points), and what germs are floating around the shopping mall. Bodanis also focuses on our human behavior, the things we do without even realizing it, and what qualities are predictors for that behavior. Technology, how it works, and how we work with it is also one of the many things explicated. Often Bodanis brings in brilliant if esoteric historical connections that are reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections. Each page is filled with fascinating details and this book is well worth the read for a quick insight into everyday life.

Book Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks is a collection of clinical case studies about people with neurological disorders. My one quibble with this book is Sacks’ writing style. He makes every patient speak like the same person in kind of Mayberry “gosh, golly” tone and frustratingly often makes references to chapters later in the book.

That being said, this book is a fascinating study of the things the brain can and cannot do and how that can shape a person’s perception of the world. Examples include:

  • The titular man who mistook his wife for a hat who cannot perceive objects in his immediate vicinity and be able to pick out features but not identify the whole.
  • A former sailor whose memories are frozen in 1945, unable to remember things that happen to him even a few moments later.
  • A woman unable to have awareness of her own body, or a loss of proprioception.
  • A man who cannot recognize his own leg as being part of his body and thus considers it a severed leg laying in his bed (and he falls out of bed each time he tries to throw away the “severed” leg).
  • Similarly, a blind woman with cerebral palsy has an agnosia that makes her think her hands are worthless lumps of clay. Sacks is able to nudge her into using her hands and eventually she becomes a sculptor.
  • A man whose sense of balance is disrupted by Parkinson’s disease and thus he always leans to one side and is not even aware of it. He develops his own special eyeglasses with a spirit level that he can see to adjust how he stands and walks.
  • A woman with visual hemi-inattention who is unable to see anything on her left, or for that matter be aware that there is a left. She has to rotate all the way around in her chair to even see all the food on her plate.
  • Witty Ticcy Ray, a man with Tourette’s who finds that Haldol treatment helps him manage a job during the work week but choses to not take medication on the weekends since it hampers his spontaneity and creativity.
  • A woman who constantly hears the music of her Irish childhood playing loudly, and other cases of people with a radio in their head.
  • A man who killed his girlfriend under the influence of PCP, has no memory of the event, an organic amnesia. After a severe head energy all the memories of the murder return in vivid detail.
  • The visions of Hildegard of Bingen and migraine hallucinations.
  • The son of a Metropolitan Opera Singer is a musical savant, able to recall Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians by heart even though he could not read.
  • Savant twins able to perform mental calculations of numbers and calendar dates with a special attention to numbers that are prime.
  • An autistic man able to draw images with great detail to the particulars.

The book is over 20 years old and seems a bit dated (especially in terms of language we’d consider insensitive today, even if they were medical terms), but I enjoyed learning about the losses and gains that can happen within the brain.

Not scared enough?


One of the things that push my buttons most when following the news is fearmongering. So you won’t be surprised how peeved I am by the following headline.

U.S. not scared enough of bird flu, Senate told” — By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor. Copyright 2007 Reuters.

I think the last thing that the news media and the government need to be telling our citizens is that they are not scared enough. Improve public health efforts and preventitive means? Yes. Develop preparedness plans to counteract possible outbreaks? Yes. Making people worry? No! Scaring people about one potential disease is counterproductive. We’ve seen in the past few years people stocking up on Cipro that they don’t need and making runs on flu shots that should be reserved for the elderly, children, and other high risk groups. Not to mention that diseases that are already among us are ignored as attention and funds are misappropriated to the scary disease du jour.

I read a good book last year on this trend called False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear by Dr Marc K. Siegel which I reccomend for those interested in reason over fear.