science

The hungry brain

This is a review of The Hungry Brain, by Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph. D. (sic).

The 300 odd page book is written for an audience that urgently seeks answers to an important question: what makes us overeat even though we want to be healthy?

Apparently many things, some that we can control, but (to my simple mind) many factors that cannot be controlled. Among the controllable factors are the immediate environment in which we work/live – most environments nudge you to overeat; another factor is the amount of exercise you put in, which trains the lipostat in your brain to set itself up for a lower adiposity level (ie., by exercising, you’re training your body to prefer to contain lesser fat). But among uncontrollable factors are the genes we’re born with, being on medication to treat life threatening diseases, and in my view, the food processing industry that is askew with a profiteering axis that makes (almost all) our food sugary, fattening and very tasty, all at the same time. (cue: workers of the world!)

Some of the chapters repeated what most of us already know. For a non-medico many others were a novelty. But the nuance of the novelty is not explained, leading to yours truly to be quite disappointed.

The written word is unfortunately sprinkled with compelling and vexing illustrations that boggle the mind with its pointlessness and blunt lack of creativity. For instance, there’s one illustration with a picture of the brain, and arrows that go in four directions, with the labels, up, down, left and (can you believe it?) right. The illustrations with pictures of the brain are presumably included to make the book seem like an intellectual work, but they should really be removed, simply to not reduce the credibility of the text.


From the book, a condensed brain-obesity relationship primer:

  1. Modernity makes us fat: technology, market forces, incurably sugar hungry brains (your brain loves cookies and cake; mine goes plain bonkers).
  2. Our evolution from hunters and gatherers to supermarket shoppers hasn’t helped. Some thousand years ago, humans ran after gazelles, and dug for tubers that they then didn’t really cook. Today, all I have to do is order food on Swiggy/Zomato/UberEats (and a poorly paid gentleman (only men so far) comes to my door with my box of food, ready for my gluttonous experience).
  3. Some of us have genes that are easily expressed for obesity. Especially so when our environments are so toxic.
  4. The ‘lipostat’ is stubborn. The lipostat is this system that responds to the hormone leptin that’s secreted by fat tissue. The objective of the system is to maintain homeostasis, specifically, the amount of adiposity in our bodies. Now the lipostat doesn’t care about our goals, it merely does what it must. And that’s why losing weight and staying that way is harder than we thought. The lazy lipostat adjusts itself to make us gain all that weight back. The good news, though, is that exercise inherently tunes the lipostat to a lower set point (is that good news?).
  5. Leptin, insulin, the hypothalamus: the three together are rascals. And circadian rhythm. These guys basically are very sensitive to external and internal cues. So, management of our circadian rhythm and the amount of insulin and leptin we allow our bodies to generate with the kind of food we consume greatly affects the hypothalamus, which then has a direct bearing on how much we eat (at each sitting or between). But managing them is no easy feat. It involves controlling the uncontrollable. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, Bruce?
  6. Stress is bad. And knowing this is no help. Big nope.
  7. PS: special mention and thanks to all the mice that participated, surely involuntarily, in experiments that involved sawing their brains off, starving them, and sometimes feeding them pop tarts. Monkeys too. And people!

The book is a decent primer if one starts with a clean slate on obesity research. The easy penmanship is good for a quick read. But the easy content has sacrificed substance, in most cases. I, for one, would’ve liked knowing more about the lipostat, about how stress actually triggers harmful behaviour, etc. The footnotes were like french fries, really – all fluff and minimal satiety.

I’d be failing the book if I didn’t mention the mature writing style. Something that the writer deserves high praise for is that even though the book is on a topic that readers are seeking personal solutions to, the writing is only limited on the pontification scale. One might posit that it may have been tempting for a lesser writer to add a “tips that will change your life” postscript after every chapter. Thank you for not caving in, Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph.D. (sic).

I’d rate the book a 3/5. Read it if you enjoy learning about how the brain works, but don’t stop here! The right question is, is your time best utilised by reading The Hungry Brain, to learn about the brain-obesity relationship? Maybe so, if you have high reading speed and don’t mind being spoken to like a toddler sometimes.

@NathanWPyle: you killin' me softly.

@NathanWPyle: you killin’ me softly.

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Sapiens

Survival of the fittest and generous amounts of luck (probably) has ensured it is us, here, rather than any other species. Thus, the tone of the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is set at the very beginning – we’re here by chance, so let’s appreciate and respect that.

From there on, the run begins, from one thesis and hypothesis to another. Some of them stood out. Such as the one that it was a sort of data processing system that was one of the most seminal reasons for civilisation. “The Sumerians called it writing.”

The genre of the book falls somewhere between history, anthropology and sociology. In its study of humans and their ways of life, it devotes substantial attention to cultures – their diffusion across communities, their thorny myths, etc. Harari asserts that every bit of human life as we know it is cocooned in myths, or the “most gigantic lies” ever told, which include human rights, justice, religious beliefs, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

Harari writes about various interesting evolution-determining topics, including culturally prescribed ideas of what is “natural”, human tendency to be or not to be xenophobic, social institutions like patriarchy (but he touches too few theories for any sociologist to turn the pages, satisfied), and most importantly, about the three factors that are seemingly universal and have cultivated thick cultural bonds across societies – the monetary order (money, currency exchange, banking, etc), the imperial order (with the expansion of powerful empires, their ideologies and practices and the wiping away of diverse and unique cultures), and the religious order (with universalistic religions that propounded good of mankind, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam; or ideologies like Communism, Capitalism etc).

Harari asks, poignantly, if we are happy, after all the progress that Homo Sapiens have apparently made since our forager days. The answer is predictable – yes and no. He suggests (with a twinkle in his eye, I think) that if the objective of humanity is to attain happiness, we should indulge in some soma (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley), a mild drug, to feel a constant and harmless high all the time. Ha-ha.

Finally, he speculates on the future of evolution. He writes that Homo Sapiens will be (or did he say may be?) wiped off and survival of the fittest will be (may be?) replaced by intelligent design – cyborgs, bioengineered beings etc. This was, by far, the most dissatisfying chapter, but it was entertaining too, nevertheless.

Despite the superb narrative style and flow of thought in the book, I have a criticism or two to make. Some of the ideas presented felt far fetched, and were obviously not backed by research or evidence. Take, for instance, the idea that humankind has been colonised by agriculture, with a life that’s far poorer in quality when compared to the forager, who was apparently more intelligent than his agriculturist progeny. This was a rather sweeping judgment on agriculture and man’s potential, I thought. It also tended towards romanticising the life of the forager, whose lifespan was no more than 30years and whose children dropped dead like flies. In Harari’s defence, he acknowledges this defect in his argument, but he brushes it under the carpet anyway.

There are also some theories that I found to be slightly off-the-cuff and hence undeserving of place in the book, such as his idea on why most societies are monogamous (you’ll have to read the book to know what he’s suggesting), and how that has translated to the hierarchy and nepotism in North Korea and Syria (!). Such extrapolation didn’t sit very well with me.

But, these little faults made the book a good read, because it held my attention as I volleyed assertion after assertion. It is a thorough page turner and entertainer with its unceasing trail of ideas, witticisms and pop-cultural references.

The book is a must read for anyone who is even slightly interested in anthropology, history or/and sociology; or for anyone who loves well written stuff about things that they would otherwise not bother to read or think about; or just to know a little something about the past so as to understand the present, as well as the probable extinction of the Homo Sapiens in the future.

It was a 4/5 read for me, primarily because it is the most interesting and well written short version of liberal arts subjects that I have come across, and will go back to time and time again. Whatever its faults, it surely is an unputdownable and relevant read that belongs to the ages.

I hear that the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, is even better – more objective and slightly, helpfully, more elaborate without compromising readability. Can’t wait to hit the bookstore for that one!

Feature image: Cave painting in Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. Dates between 13,000-9,000 BP (Before Present).


Excerpt

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The Salviati World Map – this mostly empty map was an admission of the European Scholar’s that they didn’t know it all, thus providing for intellectual space to explore and know.

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’”

Size doesn’t matter

This is my review of the short story The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

I rated this story 5/5, so you might want to skip this review and go straight to the story.

Still here? Let’s see if I can persuade you.

This is a sci-fi romance revolving around physics and linguistics and philosophy. Sounds intimidating? To be honest, it is a fairly dense work and packs a lot of content into its brief 33 pages. But you can get away with just a superficial understanding of the science (it took me a while to get my head around it, I’m not sure I would put in the effort if I hadn’t liked the story).

There’s not much I can say about the plot without spoilers. It’s mapped out so you have a sudden whoosh of understanding halfway through the book. It raises the interesting question- if time didn’t progress linearly, then there would be no causality, or ‘sequence’ of events. Does that mean that we would no longer have freedom? If our entire lives were prewritten, we’re just actors in a play.

An interesting thought. Back when classical physics was in its nascent stages, science was looked at as natural philosophy. A way of looking at the world that helped natural phenomena seem less random. We’ve come a long way since then, and no longer rely on conjectures to dictate scientific thought. But this story reminded me of how much the theoretical aspects of science- physics- mathematics- relies on intuition to formulate new ideas. Along these lines, doesn’t language count as a more constructive science, like engineering? I think that the non-linear temporal perception should be a prerequisite for  learning the alien language depicted in the story and not the other way round, but that’s just nit-picking.

I found out recently that the movie Arrival is based on this story. It would be interesting to see how the complex timeline of this story is translated into film.

Man’s search for Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. ~ Friedreich Neitzsche

This post is written in an attempt to review the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl based on his experiences during the Holocaust. Frankl formulated a theory in psychiatry after he graduated from medical school, which states that value and meaning in one’s life is what keeps one going, so to speak. He devoted much of his life, before the Second World War broke out, to developing this theory. But it was during his time at the Concentration Camps in Auschwitz and Dachau that the theory’s validity was reinforced. After the war, his theory found wide acceptance; and he has even been compared with Freud for his contribution to Psychology.

Scholarship, bordering on devotion to one’s vocation even in the worst of circumstances, during the most horrific times in recent human memory, is laudable in itself. But it’s all the more so for someone like Frankl, who lost everything in the Holocaust. His wife and parents were gassed in the gas chambers of the concentration camps, and all of his life’s work was thrown away and destroyed.

Frankl’s memoir of his time in the concentration camps is, for the most part, a scientific observation of the inmates. While it is not a gauche field study, since he himself is an inmate, it is an attempt to test his theory. By doing so, additionally, he also stays true to a purpose in his life. In the very first page he dispels any misconstrued notion about this book – “This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences… It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” Still, he restrains himself from sharing too much from a personal perspective. He states, clearly, the purpose of writing this particular book: “it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” So, it was to be a venture to further the science of psychiatry.

Frankl discusses the mindset of an inmate in the period following his admission into the camp, the period when he is well entrenched in the camp routine (the most heart wrenching, I thought), and the period following his release and liberation. It’s a thin book with many anecdotes, of other inmates, structured around Frankl’s own experiences. Despite this human element, in numerous places he seems to struggle to detach himself from the present and the past in order to present a somewhat objective view of what was happening, in scientific terms.

Without doubt, this book can change one’s view of life. Frankl provides us brief insights into the life of inmates in concentration camps, who endured the vilest known horrors in recent memory. By doing so, he illustrates to us how the last of human freedoms, which is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, can never be taken away.

On the other hand, the book can also confound the reader with its sprinkling of psychiatry-related terms and concepts. Brevity is, unfortunately, not one of the better virtues of the book, as it concludes. The last few pages of the book attempt to provide an insight to how Frankl uses his theory to found a novel therapy called Logotherapy, wherein he guides people to find meaning and value in their lives. Too much Chicken Soup? That’s what I thought, too. The last few chapters almost undid the book for me. So, my advice, in case you read the book, is to stop when the war is finished and when he describes the behavior and mental framework of the incredulous inmate who is free.

If you’re into self-help books, you’ve probably read variations of Frankl’s ideas already. But this is an original work, and hence worth a read. If you’re not into mushy self-help, you could try the book anyway, for its no-nonsense exploration of human nature in times of terrible adversity. 3.5/5.