A highly informative, readable, and wide-ranging discussion of “how psychology, neuroscience, and related disciplines are...

HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE

THE SECRET LIFE OF THE BRAIN

A well-argued, entertaining disputation of the prevailing view that emotion and reason are at odds.

As Barrett (Psychology/Northeastern Univ.; co-editor: The Psychological Construction of Emotion, 2014, etc.) writes, the “internal battle between emotion and reason is one of the great narratives of Western civilization. It helps define [us] as human.” From this perspective, emotion is treated as “a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality.” To the contrary, the author, who also has appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, contends that our emotions are not hard-wired in our brains and triggered by circumstances. Instead, they are flexible and vary from culture to culture. During the course of our lifetimes, our brains wire and rewire themselves in response to upbringing and individual experiences. This argument puts Barrett at odds with the prevailing review of well-regarded scientists, such as Antonio Damasio, who emphasize that not only are our emotions shaped subconsciously, but also many of our actions. The author makes a convincing case that such explanations are too simplistic. She emphasizes that our brains respond flexibly to the circumstances of our lives. The degree to which we are responsible for actions that occur in the heat of passion, or prejudices of which we are unaware, may be arguable; that we share responsibility as parents and citizens for the social norms of our culture—e.g. racial prejudice and gender stereotyping—is not. We are responsible for our individual actions, of course, but we also bear responsibility for working to eliminate racial prejudice, gender stereotyping, and the like from our society. As Barrett points out, this has important legal as well as moral implications and leads into the thorny questions surrounding free will.

A highly informative, readable, and wide-ranging discussion of “how psychology, neuroscience, and related disciplines are moving away from the search for emotion fingerprints and instead asking how emotions are constructed.”

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-544-13331-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Jan. 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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