“What was he thinking?” is the first line of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, and anyone who has ever given birth to or even encountered a teenager at some point may very well have uttered that same question. Being a teenager is difficult, and interacting with a teenager can also be very hard. Luckily, Dr. Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt are here to answer that particular query: The answer is brain science.
In The Teenage Brain, Jensen breaks down the tumultuous and terrifying teenage brain, a long-neglected niche in the field of brain study. While more has been learned about the human brain in the last 10 years than the whole of human history, the startling revelations of what actually happens to us in those years from 12 to 22 are just recently becoming well known. While past research has been quick to blame “hormones” for every idiotic thing teens do on a day-to-day basis, Jensen points out, it is really the teen brain’s inability to deal with those surging hormones that is the real culprit. As she explores the myriad of ways that teens are wired for impulsivity and poor decision-making skills, we get a better sense of why everything is a big deal to a teen. Minor inconveniences seem like life-and-death situations to teenagers because in their blossoming dendrites they are!
This book is written in such a way that doesn’t intimidate or talk-down to the reader. Chock-full of helpful information on everything from risk-taking, driving, sex, drug and alcohol use, video game addiction and the differences in the genders (and with plenty of great ammunition for winning that argument against your teen who wants to wear earbuds while studying), this is the perfect read for parents, educators and everyone who enjoys working with young people in this age range.
So the next time you think you’ve had it up to here with your teen, take a deep breath, remember this book and think that it isn’t personal; it’s just brain science.
Ask parents to share their deepest fear and, inevitably, it involves something tragic happening to their child. In Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps, Mainardi writes about the intersection of grandeur and error which led to his son’s disabling cerebral palsy. On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss examines modern medicine’s sometimes controversial practice of vaccination.
424. That’s the number of footsteps taken by Tito Mainardi as he and his father walk to Venice Hospital where he was born, and where physician error resulted in his brain injury. It’s also the number of brief passages that make up this small memoir in which Mainardi finds connections between art, architecture, music and history, and relates them back to Tito and his illness. Profoundly moving and structured by concentric links, The Fall demonstrates that tragedy and beauty may not be such a dichotomy after all.
Red-faced and screaming or silently stoic: either way, it can be tough as a parent to put a child through the often painful series of recommended inoculations. Even more difficult would be wondering if your child’s autism was triggered by a vaccine or passing on those shots only to see a child hospitalized with whooping cough. Biss looks at the varied reasons behind a parent’s decision to decline immunizations, which include African and Middle Eastern Muslim fears of a western plot to harm their children via the polio vaccine to American concerns about greedy pharmaceutical companies or political agendas pushing unnecessary and invasive medicine — all of which compromise the “herd immunity” protecting communities from disease outbreak. On Immunity provides a thoughtful view on the impact of vaccines on contemporary public health.
In some circumstances, 10 percent may seem insignificant. A $50 item listed at 10 percent off, in reality, only saves you $5. Yet Dan Harris, in his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, demonstrates that his 10 percent increase in the happiness department really has made a significant difference. Harris is the co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline. His years of covering international combat, followed by hard recreational drug use, culminated in an on-air panic attack about 10 years ago. Realizing that his greatest battle was with the “voice in his head,” Harris researched non-traditional remedies which led to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness development as a way to improve health and his outlook on life.
Described as a book written for, and by, “someone who would otherwise never read a spiritual book,” 10% Happier provides plenty of practical, authoritative information about meditation and its benefits, as well as Harris’ own journey to master his internal struggles. His time at a meditation retreat is especially telling of his progression and introspection. Along the way, readers learn about his career, his encounters with famous figures like the now-notorious Ted Haggard and James Arthur Ray, and his time with news legends like Peter Jennings. Some of the laugh-out-loud moments include his research into famous gurus like Eckhart Tolle, as well as his memories of yoga class as a child.
I recently read The Last Best Cure, and much of Harris’s research and experiences affirm the lessons in that book: There are scientifically founded ways to “green” your mind and repair your brain’s damaged pathways. Hilarious and well-written, this book steers clear of being a hokey, clichéd self-help guide. I especially recommend the audio version, which Harris narrates.
Baltimore author Donna Jackson Nakazawa discusses her latest book, The Last Best Cure, on Wednesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at the Perry Hall Branch, sponsored by the Friends of the Perry Hall Library. The award-winning science journalist and writer recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her book.
Before The Last Best Cure, you authored another book about autoimmune diseases, The Autoimmune Epidemic. What insights or new knowledge did you gain between that book and The Last Best Cure? What was going on in your life prior to writing these books?
The Autoimmune Epidemic focused on how modern chemicals in the world around us and in our diet are overwhelming the human immune system, contributing to rising disease rates and chronic illnesses. The Last Best Cure takes this research a step further and investigates “psychoneuroimmunology,” a new field of study that investigates how mind states, such as anxiety, fear, worry, rumination, anger and pain, can end up damaging our immune function in much the same way as environmental chemicals. Prior to this, I was struggling with my own health crises. The Last Best Cure is my chronicle of a one-year doctor/patient experiment to see if altering my mood state might shift my inflammatory markers and perhaps even improve my physical well-being.
The Last Best Cure has received much critical praise, described as a book that will offer hope for recovery, and change and save lives. What is the most important insight or piece of information you want readers to take away from your book?
I want people to know that there already exists an understanding as to how we can activate the healing potential of the brain. Understanding how to do this gives us powerful tools, ways to change the messages our brain is sending to our cells and our body. Everyone deserves to live the life they want, and these tools can help us all achieve a greater sense of well-being, and even joy.
You were already an award-winning science journalist and writer when you began writing these last two books. What was it like writing professionally about a topic that was also very personal to you? Were there any “aha” moments for your own life as you were writing?
At first, I was only going to write about my personal experiences in the introduction to The Last Best Cure, but my editor thought readers would want to read more about how I also went on this transformational journey myself. She thought it would help convey to readers that we can all take this journey, no matter what physical or emotional health challenges we face. There was so much that I realized along the way about adversity, self-respect and how they play a role in adult illness. Now I’m profoundly grateful to have taken this journey: Life is sweeter, relationships are better and it’s a better, more meaningful way to live.
In addition to being about healing and recovering personal joy, The Last Best Cure is a story about a health epidemic. What steps do we need to take now to secure a better health outlook for future generations?
We need to absolutely, completely and radically change how we view the doctor/patient relationship. If we keep up the current “medical factory” model we’re going to see very little progress in managing chronic health issues. Right now, 133 million adults in America have chronic illnesses, not counting the 22 million with addiction – and these numbers are rapidly climbing. The tools to help patients participate in their own healing and facilitate greater well-being exist; it just requires that physicians incorporate new practices into their doctor/patient paradigm. In order to do this, we must change the way we as a society view treatment, health care and the doctor/patient relationship.
Are there any new books in the works?
Yes, one due out at the end of next year called Childhood Interrupted: How Adversity in the Past Writes the Story of Our Future – And How We Can Change the Script (Atria/Simon & Schuster). It’s a deeper, more extended study of how childhood adversity can create changes in the brain and in our immunology that impact our health long into adulthood – and what we can do to reverse those effects as adults. I’m telling cutting-edge stories of science, about how even very common forms of childhood adversity can reset our immune system to be more stress-reactive, sparking a state of chronic low-grade neuroinflammation for life. I want to help readers understand how the stress we meet in childhood can determine our lifelong "set point" for emotional reactivity, inflammation, disease and depression – and what we can do to reverse the impact of early adversity and trauma years later, in adulthood, to regain our physical and emotional well-being.
How long has the Baltimore area been home to you? What do you like best about living in this area?
My family moved to Baltimore four years ago from Annapolis; my mom and my husband’s parents were already living here, so it just made sense. What I like best about Baltimore is its people. Baltimoreans are real, genuine, honest, intellectual, creative, smart and energetic. They’re committed to their community and engaged in making this a better place to live. We love it here. It’s a vibrant place to be.
To learn more about The Last Best Cure, please visit the author’s website or link with her on Facebook.
We don’t expect very much from babies. They are supposed to be cute and cuddly but almost everything else has to be done for them. They can’t walk, talk, eat without assistance or clean up after themselves. And when one does something ridiculous it’s almost natural to say, “Oh, they don’t know any better; they’re just a baby.” But what if, in some ways, they did know better? In his new book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, would argue that they do.
Through his research at Yale and consulting the research of others, Bloom has found that even very small babies as young as three months have a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong, that they use to evaluate the people and the world around them. This sense, acquired at such a young age or perhaps even innate, can influence the moral development of a person through adulthood. But this nascent morality has its limits. Bloom describes how babies and young children are also less compassionate towards strangers and develop cultural biases that can lead to such negative behaviors as bigotry and indifference in the face of suffering.
Though his research is very new and his conclusions contain a fair bit of supposition, Bloom makes a very persuasive argument that our moral development and sense of justice is established at an astonishingly young age, and that it affects us throughout our lives. This is a great pick for those interested in evolutionary biology, psychology, childhood development or the study of ethics.
David Oliver Relin did not live long enough to witness the publication of his new book, Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives. It is a top-notch, inspiring account of two brilliant physicians from opposite ends of the world, one a Harvard-educated adrenaline junkie from America, and the other a disciplined trader's son from a remote Nepalese village. The unlikely duo combine their generous talents for one lofty goal: to cure preventable blindness. In 1995, they founded the Himalayan Cataract Project as a way to treat thousands of impoverished Himalayans in that isolated, mountainous region.
For ophthalmologists Geoffrey Tabin and Sanduk Ruit, the means to an end seemed simple yet difficult. In developing countries, cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness among the poor, including children. In wealthy countries, it is a common and treatable ailment of the elderly. "Some conditions of existence are more painful than others," Ruit tells Relin. Ruit would know; growing up, the nearest doctor was a six-day-walk away. He watched as his siblings died of curable illnesses.
Relin transports readers to Ruit's temporary eye hospital, formerly a filthy military post in the village of Kalikasthan, where young and old shuffle in from scorching heat to have red-brown dust scrubbed from their faces. The high energy Tabin, who early on abandoned a medical career to pursue athletic passions, was inspired by Ruit. Together, their respective stories led the dynamic pair to their calling. Thousands have been cured with their simple surgery that costs a mere pittance.
Relin, who co-authored the now controversial bestseller Three Cups of Tea with Greg Mortenson, committed suicide in November 2012. In telling this compelling and hopeful story of two medical pioneers, the author was not immune to the poignancy of what he was witnessing. When an elegant 56-year-old seamstress, who was forced to sell her sewing machine, finally sees again, Relin thrust into her hands a wad of bills. "For a sewing machine," he said.
It wasn’t merely a catchy slogan when the Lay’s potato chip commercial challenged you to eat just one. Like the rest of the food industry, Lay’s was banking on the fact that the ingredients in their products would make it difficult for consumers to stop crunching. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss’s new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us will make you think twice before you pick up another cookie or sip another soda.
Moss explores how the processed food industry uses key ingredients to make their products more addictive, and the negative impact that those foods have had on our health. The processed foods that we find at our supermarkets are carefully formulated and tested to hit the consumer’s “bliss point,” the precise amount of sugar that will make the product most appealing to the greatest number of people. Through both the ingredients and the companies’ carefully targeted marketing, consumers are manipulated to buy and eat more and more of these products. Moss goes beyond the nutrition of junk food. He also explores the science of food and creates a business history of the food industry. Salt Sugar Fat is an intriguing and sometimes terrifying, look at this one trillion dollar per year industry.
Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig also takes on the food industry in Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. After the US government recommended a low fat diet in the 1970s, the food industry responded by adding sugar to low fat products to make them taste better, which Lustig says has had disastrous results. Lustig, whose 90-minute lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has been viewed over 3 million times on YouTube, documents the connection between the added sugar in our food and the obesity epidemic.
As Susannah Cahalan waited in the doctor’s office the painting of Miro’s Carota, with its twisted, unnatural grin, seemed to smile down at her. She would revisit the colorful and distorted face over the next several months as she battled a mysterious neurological illness that almost permanently severed her connection with reality. In her candid and gripping new memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, the New York Post reporter reconstructs in a riveting fashion the journey that carried her to the brink of lunacy.
For twenty-four-year-old Cahalan the illness crept up innocently enough. She believed her flu symptoms were the result of bedbugs in her Manhattan apartment. Once she began experiencing numbness she sought out a doctor. Soon she was missing deadlines at work, and her increasingly erratic behavior now included paranoia and hallucinations. Cahalan and her family worried she was having a nervous breakdown. It was her first blackout at her boyfriend Stephen’s house that “marked the line between sanity and insanity,” she recalled. Doctors were baffled, and on March 23, 2009 she was admitted to the hospital. Eventually, a prominent neurologist's hunch followed by a brain biopsy confirmed that she suffered from rare autoimmune encephalitis. Recovery would take months. Her zombie-like behavior scared people who wondered what was wrong with her. She described running into an old high school friend as a "soul crushing moment." Her rock remained her family, Stephen and her parents, who never wavered.
Cahalan admits writing her story was difficult. With only flashes of memory intact she relied on interviews, medical records, journals, and hospital video footage to complete the picture. Absorbing and fast paced, the book’s short chapters read like a medical mystery that takes an eye-opening look inside the misfiring of the human mind and its ability to repair and emerge from the abyss.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen is a fascinating look into the world of infectious diseases, specifically those that travel from animals to humans, otherwise known as zoonosis or spillover. Humankind is all too familiar with zoonoses in the form of influenza, Ebola, SARS and AIDS. In order to get a sense of the scope of interspecies diseases, keep in mind that about 60% of all infectious disease cross between animals and humans. According to Quammen’s research, zoonosis has killed 30 million people since 1981. To investigate spillover viruses, he travels all over the world with virus hunters. He describes multiple mysterious outbreaks of disease, coming from a wide range of animals such as bats, gorillas and pigs. Quammen believes the next major pandemic will come from a nonhuman animal virus that will infect and spread into the human population.
David Quammen is a terrific science writer and he knows how to tell a good story. He is excited about his subject and takes a warm, personal approach with his readers. He makes this very complicated and frightening subject accessible and easy to understand. Spillover is thoroughly researched, includes an extensive bibliography and is chock-full of fascinating, engaging material. Although Quammen takes issue with Richard Preston’s Hot Zone, readers who enjoyed Hot Zone will love Spillover.
“Schizophrenia is a little like cancer. You can’t trust that it will ever go away completely.” Michael Schofield begins with these reflections as he chronicles his journey to understand and combat his daughter January’s mental illness in January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her. For the first five years of her life, Michael and his wife Susan knew only a few certainties about January. First, she was a genius, with an IQ of 146. Second, she had an extremely active imagination, to the point where she created her own private world and hundreds of imaginary friends. Third, she rarely slept and needed constant stimulation, keeping both parents in a state of total exhaustion and often despair. January was also more prone than the average child to tantrums and fits of rage, which intensified after the birth of her brother, Bodhi. The Schofields had hoped that a sibling would give January a much-needed companion, but were horrified when she tried time and again to physically harm the infant. After many wrong turns and countless battles with California’s mental health and education systems, January was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia, a condition much more severe in children than in adults.
Schofield’s complete honesty, even when it means portraying himself in a less than flattering light, is one of the most powerful draws of this book. He lays bare the family’s physical, emotional and financial struggles. Conveyed particularly well are the immense frustrations the Schofields experience on a daily basis, as they deal with insurance companies, doctors who won’t return calls, and a child who does not respond to traditional reinforcements or punishments. At present, the situation with January has improved, thanks in large part to a creative living situation – for several years the Schofields kept two apartments so January and Bodhi could live apart - and a drug cocktail which has reduced the severity of her hallucinations. As Schofield concludes, the family has learned to embrace the positive in each day but know that January’s condition may still deteriorate.