Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Things I've Been Reading Lately

Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is a story based on the town of Eyam, Derbyshire, that reportedly voluntarily quarantined itself from the outside world during the plague of 1666 in England. The story is told from the point of view of Anna Frith, a young peasant widow. Anna takes the reader through the journey in which everything she has known and loved and presumed would always be there is destroyed by the plague: her family, her community, her faith. The narrative is reach and detailed, evoking the life of the peasants and the local gentry; impeccably researched without being pedantic. Anna is taken under the wing of Elinor, the wife of the local minister. She learns to read, she learns herb lore and healing from the local wise woman, she considers women's role in society, she questions the dictates of the Church, and she examines the human condition. For a humble peasant, she asks some pretty big questions.

I won't give away the remarkable ending, but suffice to say that it is quite extraordinary. For all of its implausibility, every element of the resolution was carefully and deliberately foreshadowed over the course of the story, making the outrageous into something feasible. I enjoyed this book from start to finish and highly recommend it.

Five Quarters of the Orange
by Joanne Harris

Strangely unconvincing, perhaps because the characters were so unsympathetic: the morphine addicted mother who is cold and distant to her children, raised to a heroic figure fighting off the angry mob of villagers, and who was secretly beautiful to the German soldier; the bland older brother and sister; the unbelievably sophisticated nine-year-old. The author tries for depth of characterization, only to wind up making the characters inconsistent and less believable, rather than more. The writing style is slightly plodding, possibly because it is narrated in the voice of an old woman who, frankly, sounds tired. Set in France during the German occupation, the book begs comparison to Suite Française. I have to say that Némirovsky's work provides more intricate characterization, with the same careful attention to detail, and the richness and wealth of her descriptions resonate much more than Harris's effort. Both authors explore the goodness and badness that is brought to the forefront during times of stress. But whereas Némirovsky uses the device of exploring how different people react, Harris concentrates on an in-depth study of one family. Too bad she couldn't make me care about them more.

The Brain That Changes Itself
by Norman Doidge
This book made me reexamine what I believed about human behavior, in particular our ability to change. The author refers to neuroscience and brain studies to argue that every time we engage in a behavior, we create or reinforce pathways in our brain. Intuitively we know that the more you practice a skill, the better you get at it. The better you get at something, the less effort it takes. Brain scans demonstrate this process. The concept is known as brain plasticity, which means the brain's ability to adapt and change.

The technical explanation for this process is summarized in Hebb's law: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." I was surprised to find that Sigmund Freud --who started out as a neurologist before getting into psychoanalysis-- had proposed something very similar. In 1888, Freud stated that when two neurons fire simultaneously, this firing facilitates their ongoing association. This was the notion behind Freud's idea of free association: the concept that seemingly random pairings of words in fact have a neurological basis.

Author Norman Doidge argues that the same process of reinforcing neuron connections that allows the brain to change, is also responsible for the creation of behavioral rigidity: The more we engage in a certain behavior, the more entrenched that behavior becomes. As such, the same process that is responsible for our ability to adapt and change can also makes us more rigid and inflexible. This challenges the notion that we are "hardwired" for certain characteristics or behaviors, and suggests that human behavior is not predestined and inevitable.

The other side of the coin would be the school of thought that favors the notion of genetic predisposition, and questions whether human nature contains innate characteristics, personal inclination or tendencies. Doidge does not address these issues.

The book does not present plasticity as a panacea, and it directly cautions against the notion of human perfectibility (perfectibilité, Jean-Jacques Rousseau), but it does offer optimism concerning the brain's ability to adapt, and it looks at how this can be put to practical use.

Uses of plasticity:
Therapy for stroke victims who were previously thought beyond help.
Retraining for balance problems.
Sight and hearing for the blind/deaf.
Therapy for people with learning disabilities.
Training the older brain to keep it in shape.

For dealing with behaviors that we want to change.
Aim of therapy when dealing with incidents from the critical period of early life is to make these explicit and retranscribe them as a conscious language-based memory.

The Challenge
The author challenges us to look at our own behavior and ask the question: "Am I doing this because it is the best thing to be doing now, or am I doing this because it is what I tend to do in this situation?"
Never again will I say: That's just the way I am, it's in my nature. Rather I now look at my behavior and say: This is what I choose to do. This is what I choose to be.

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