Showing 1 - 10 of 210 annotations tagged with the keyword "Science"

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This engaging and informative book describes the latest scientific understanding of the brain, primarily in humans, but also in other animals. The author, a leading brain researcher, writes clearly and often with humor. 

As Barrett explores the deep history of brains, she emphasizes that as much as some humans may prize thinking, the brain’s central task is not thinking but monitoring and guiding—day and night—the many systems of the body. Brains of all creatures manage a “budget” for various factors such as water, salt, glucose, blood gases, etc., to create an on-going fitness against any future threats.

Our brains and bodies are interlinked, interactive, and unified, not the “triune” brain Carl Sagan popularized in 1977. All animal brains have similar neurons, and all mammals share a “single manufacturing plan” for brain development after birth. Babies’ brains develop according to their genes and in response to their environment, especially to their caregivers. Human brains have flexible networks much like the global air-travel system and can vary from person to person and, individually, over time because of brain plasticity.           

Our individual brains influence—even create—our perceptions and relate to brains of other people through family, language, gesture, culture, and more. Barrett concludes, “Social reality is a superpower that emerges from an ensemble of human brains. It gives us the possibility to chart our own destiny and even influence the evolution of our species” (p. 123). 

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Transcendent Kingdom

Gyasi, Yaa

Last Updated: Oct-12-2020
Annotated by:
Martel, Rachel

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Transcendent Kingdom opens with a reminder that the past rarely stays put. Gifty, a sixth year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine, is reckoning with a relapse of her mother’s depression. After years of remission, Gifty’s mother is unable to get out of bed, and Gifty decides that she should come stay with her in California. With her mother lying in her bed at home, Gifty’s work in the neuroscience lab is charged with a weight beyond that of a typical student trying to publish papers and make it to graduation. Her study of the neural circuits that underlie reward seeking behavior and addiction in mice not only applies to her mother’s disease, but also to the impetus for her mother’s first depressive episode—her cherished older brother Nana’s long struggle with opioid addiction and death by heroin overdose. As Gifty, long accustomed to keeping her emotions to herself and clutching her past close to the chest struggles to keep her mother afloat, she reflects on how her past continues to hold power and relevance.           

The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Gifty grew up in the predominantly white community of Huntsville, Alabama. Homesick and miserable amid a climate of overt racism and everyday micro-aggressions, Gifty’s father abandoned the family to return to Ghana, leaving four-year-old Gifty and 10-year-old Nana to be raised by their mother. Wryly referred to as “The Black Mamba” by Gifty, their mother, an enigmatic mix of deep tenderness and removed resolve, works long hours as a home health aide to make ends meet. A deeply religious woman, she finds solace in The First Assemblies of God Church, a Pentecostal congregation that, at times, seems to be the only thing keeping her afloat. Gifty, too, is deeply pious as a child. Continuously striving to be good and consumed by questions about God, she writes to God in her journal in an attempt to find religion in the everyday.            

Yet Gifty’s faith starts to fracture in early adolescence. Her brother Nana, a basketball star and hometown hero, becomes addicted to prescription opioids following an injury on the court. The ensuing years of conflict overwhelm Gifty with feelings of shame, and sometimes even hatred towards her brother. This, combined with increasing recognition that her religious community—so reverent of Nana when he was healthy and so quick to give up on him when he became ill—is not the bastion of morality she once idealized it to be, prompts Gifty to reevaluate her upbringing. When Nana dies and her mother sinks into a depression that culminates in a suicide attempt, Gifty gives up on religion altogether.              

As a college student at Harvard, Gifty continues to eschew overt religious affiliation. Still, she can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be understood about the human experience. Call it the soul, call it the mind, call it the sub-conscious, Gifty longs to understand the neurologic underpinnings of the behavioral choices that make us who we are. She ultimately chooses to study neuroscience because its rigor appeals to her—if she can decipher which neurons control the behaviors that led to her brother’s addiction, then maybe those behaviors can be changed and controlled. But the more experiments she conducts the more she is forced to grapple with the fact that science can only take her so far. Reconciling her prior absolute belief in God with her current scientific practice isn’t as easy as switching one for the other. Maybe, transcending to a higher level of understanding requires a merging of the two, a recognition that understanding ourselves takes, and is in it of itself, an act of faith.      

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Pain Studies

Olstein, Lisa

Last Updated: Jun-10-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

“All pain is simple” reads the opening sentence of this unusual and striking book. The next sentence reads, “And all pain is complex.” These two sentences foreshadow many puzzles to come: how do we live between chaos and control? Why can’t doctors figure migraines out? Why don’t they agree on a treatment for a particular patient? Olstein is a poet and long-term migraine sufferer. Her book offers many observations about pain, and her attempts to define it, describe it, and plumb its nature through language. There is no linear narrative or argument, rather 38 very brief chapters—usually three to five pages—and many of these could be read in a different order. 

Olstein uses the terms “studies” and “research” for her efforts to capture pain, to explain it, and to understand the cause(s) of her disease. Her mother had migraines; women have three times the rate of men; she had a childhood head injury. Do any of these factors explain her disease? No. And what treatments work? She lists some 50 drugs/supplements/activities she has tried to deal with her illness. None of these have worked in a definitive way. Further, she lists some 30 side-effects she has experienced from these various treatments (pp. 74-75). She has had multiple migraines, one lasting three months, but she also says drugs keep pain at bay: “mostly the medication does work” (p 90).

Some disparate figures help her focus her inquiry: Joan of Arc (possibly a migraine sufferer), the TV character Dr. Gregory House (racked with chronic pain, he is an opioid addict), Virginia Woolf, and Hildegard of Bingen (possibly a migraine sufferer). Also ancient writers such as Lucretius, Pliny the Elder, and Antiphon the Sophist, and contemporaries from different fields, such as mathematics and neurology. Also she refers to poems by Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and C. D. Wright, as well as to an article on gendered literature by Siri Hustvedt. 

Largely written during a writing residency, these are incisive notes plus associations as she plumbs not only her illness but also her responses—as poet, as thinker, as searcher for healing—to the bizarre, long, difficult path of her migraines. (We have only brief mentions of her personal and family life.) While she refers to some scientific literature, it is more often that her insights come from artistic fields such a literature, sculpture, drama, and popular music. She writes that her work with a therapist over a dozen years has been helpful to her.

There is no conclusion…nor can there be. Her illness, treatment, and writing are all works in progress. Patients are different; doctors are different; science evolves. In their many forms and presentations, migraines are mysterious and complex, as this book creatively and powerfully shows. Olstein writes, “The beauty, the love, is in what we perceive” (p. 144). We may take this observation as the guiding principle for the book.   

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Summary:

Richard Holmes refers to this book as his “account of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science” (p. xv). He pins the first scientific revolution to the seventeenth century and centers it on the work of Newton, Hooke, Locke, and Descartes. He brackets the second around 1768, when James Cook began his voyage circumnavigating the world, and 1831, when Charles Darwin began his voyage to the Galapagos islands. Holmes calls this period “The Age of Wonder.” 

Cook’s voyage carried Joseph Banks among its crew. Banks, a young man of great wealth and privilege, joined the expedition as a botanist to assist in the collection of botanical and zoological specimens from stops in the southern hemisphere. He was successful in this endeavor, and made observations about island life along the way (especially while on Tahiti). A few years after his return, he became the president of the Royal Society and would remain so for the next forty–two years.

The Society offered scientists (known then as “natural philosophers”) a place to publish papers, present findings, gain notoriety, receive funding, and develop networks. In his role as President, Banks was connected to many of the scientists included in the book. 

William Herschel and Humphrey Davy are the most prominent figures Holmes covers. Herschel was an accomplished musician and amateur astronomer before he built telescopes that helped him see, characterize, and record heavenly bodies never seen before. While conventional thinking of the time considered the universe to be static, placed by a divine hand, Herschel viewed it as continually evolving. Holmes also gives Herschel’s sister, Caroline, her just due as first his assistant and then as a noted astronomer in her own right.

Holmes focuses on Davy’s more well-known advances in chemistry: finding new elements; analyzing human effects of gasses comprising “common air” and “factitious airs” (e.g., nitrous oxide); inventing a safety lamp for miners; and applying the voltaic battery to chemical analysis. Holmes also details Davy’s role as a popularizer of science through well-received public lectures.

Aside from a chapter on Mungo Park’s ill-fated expedition to Africa, the other chapters have less focus on individuals and more on notable events. One concerns the first flights of hot air balloons, and another on the speculations of electricity as a life force that led to Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. The final two chapters are in the service of Holmes’s view that “Science is truly a relay race, with each discovery handed on to the next generation” (p.468). He identifies the next generation of scientists and pays particular attention to William Herschel’s son, John, and to Davy’s protégé, Michael Faraday. Both went on to accomplished and celebrated careers. 

Holmes embeds the historical scientific developments and legendary figures into the ordinary daily life and human follies of the time. He describes how scientists and explorers sought public and private funding, and how they collaborated with one other on some occasions and competed with one another on others. We read of court intrigues, societal jostling, courtships and marriages, extramarital affairs (chaste and tawdry), and family relationships (devoted and fractious).  

A broader context Holmes provides involves the interplay among the scientists and explorers he covers and some of the important figures in literature, poetry, and art of Romantic era. Samuel Coleridge, William Cowper, John Keats, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, and Joseph Wright of Derby among others make appearances in the stories Holmes tells. He details the friendships between them and the influences they had on each other.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Louise Aronson, a geriatrician, argues that we should create Elderhood as the third era of human aging, joining the earlier Childhood and Adulthood. This new concept will allow us to re-evaluate the richness of this later time, its challenges as body systems decline, and, of course, the choices of managing death. This important and valuable book is a polemic against modern medicine’s limits, its reductive focus, and structural violence against both patients and physicians. She argues for a wider vision of care that emphasizes well-being and health maintenance for not only elders but for every stage of life.   
          
Aronson argues that contemporary society favors youth and values of action, speed, and ambition, while it ignores—even dislikes—aging, older people, and the elderly. She says ageism is more powerful than sexism or racism—as bad as those are. Medical schools ignore the elderly, focusing on younger patients, especially men, and medical students perceive geriatrics as boring, sad, and poorly paid. Primary care, in general, seems routine and dull. By contrast, medical treatments, especially high-tech, are exciting and lucrative. In medical schools a “hidden curriculum” focuses on pathophysiology, organ systems, and drugs, ignoring patients’ variability as well as their suffering and pathos. Further, business and industrial models make “healthcare” a commodity, and nowadays “doctors treat computers, not people” (p. 237). Aging has become “medicalized” as a disease. Medicine fights death as an enemy, often with futile treatment that may extend a dying process.
        
Instead, Aronson says we need to bring back the human element, putting care of people at the center, not science. She calls for a new paradigm with ten assumptions (p. 378). Number 2 reads: “Health matters more to both individuals and society than medicine.” Number 9 claims, “As an institution, medicine should prioritize the interests of the people over its own.”  
      
Many practical changes would follow, from redesigned “child-proof” drug containers to buildings and public spaces that are more congenial to older people—and, in fact, to everyone else. We should change our attitudes about old age. For example, we might use the adjective “silver” for a medical facility that is friendly to and usable by older people. Changing our attitudes about aging can help all of us imagine more positive futures for each one of us and for all of our society.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Mallory Smith died of complications following a double-lung transplant for cystic fibrosis (CF). She was twenty-five years old and kept an extensive journal on her computer for 10 years. Salt in My Soul: An Unfinished Life is her memoir, edited by her mother, Diane Shader Smith, from the 2,500 pages of notes, observations and reflections which Mallory Smith wrote. The title refers to the intimate relationship of salt imbalance in cystic fibrosis, and the fact that Mallory felt her most well while swimming in the sea. Diagnosed at age three, she spent much of her days and nights treating the disease with medication, nutrition, chest percussive treatments, breathing treatments, adequate sleep, and aggressive treatment of infections. Unfortunately, while still a child her lungs were colonized with B. cepacia, a resistant bacteria ‘superbug’ which makes transplantation highly risky and hence leads to most centers to not accept CF patients onto their wait lists. Ultimately, University of Pittsburgh does accept Mallory as a transplant candidate, although her health insurance puts up every road block possible to her receiving care. 

Mallory Smith was extraordinarily accomplished – she graduated from Stanford University Phi Beta Kappa, and became an editor and freelance writer. She was also deeply engaged with life and others; she was grateful for her loving, devoted family, and she developed close, fierce friendships within the CF community, among classmates, and eventually, she fell in love. 

She resists being called ‘an inspiration.’ She writes: “I’m not an inspiration. I’m just a person, grounded in compassion, striving to achieve empathy and wanting to make my way with goodness and grace.” (p. 171) She marvels at the miracle of life: “Our existence is the result of stars exploding, solar systems forming. Our Earth having an environment hospitable to life, and then, finally, millions of highly improvable events accumulating over millions of years to bring us, a capable and conscious bag of stardust, to the here and now.” (p 111) Her memoir is a story of living and dying from CF, but it is also an inside look at the brief life of young gifted writer.

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Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling book “Sapiens” is subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind.”  While this may seem to bespeak a bit of hubris—it would seem that 414 pages might be, despite the modifying adjective of the subtitle, a little too condensed to cover 2.5 million years (albeit only the last 70,000 or so in any kind of detail)—the impression after finishing is that he may have done it, or at least, done the effort proud.  Mustering a combination of data and insights from the domains of history, archeology, genetics, biology, paleobiology, economics, and sociology, among others, Harari weaves an organized narrative that attempts to answer the questions of who we are and how we got here.

He divides the story into four assigned landmark periods in human history: The Cognitive Revolution (the earliest organization of humans into groups which evidence the use of tools and the beginnings of culture), The Agricultural Revolution (the impact of the learned ability to cultivate the land, with its shift from hunters and gatherers to farmers, and by necessity, from nomadic to settled tribes, and the beginnings of towns), The Unification of Humankind (the aggregation of people into larger groups and the emergence of money (and the earliest capitalism), religion, social expansion and conquest), and The Scientific Revolution (the development of science and the incredibly rapid acceleration of knowledge in the last five or six hundred years).  The titles of the periods are, however, only guideposts, for the sections are broader in scope than simply farming or science. The section on the scientific revolution, for example, interweaves scientific progress with economics and imperialism (which are themselves interwoven, after all), religion, and philosophy. And that same section leads Harari to speculate, at the end, as to where the digital revolution and the development of artificial intelligence might be leading us and what we might say about our future as a species.  




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Citing numerous studies that might be surprising to both lay and professional readers, Dr. Rakel makes a compelling case for the efficacy of empathic, compassionate, connective behavior in medical care.  Words, touch, body language, and open-ended questions are some of the ways caregivers communicate compassion, and they have been shown repeatedly to make significant differences in the rate of healing. The first half of the book develops the implications of these claims; the second half offers instruction and insight about how physicians and other caregivers can cultivate practices of compassion that make them better at what they do.  

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Hillel D. Braude, a physician and a philosopher, has written an important, albeit dense and narrowly circumscribed, study. While “Intuition in Medicine” is the main title, the subtitle, “A Philosophical Defense of Clinical Reasoning” is a more accurate description of the book, which originated as a doctoral dissertation.  While some of the prose will appeal only to specialists, there are important and thoughtful analyses of such topics as Evidence-Based Medicine, modern dehumanized medicine, the relation of beneficence and automony, and principalist ethics in general. Throughout, intuition is narrowly conceived and in the service of clinical reasoning, as it applies to standard, Western physicians and not to other healers (or nurses), and the emphasis is on interventive medicine to cure illness and relieve suffering more than on health promotion.
 
Braude writes in the introduction that intuition has long been understood to be “a direct perception of things,” but he resists a more precise definition: “Rather than defining and using a single concept of intuition—philosophical, practical, or neuroscientific—this study examines intuition as it occurs at different levels and in different contexts of clinical reasoning” (xviii).  Eight chapters explore these different levels in such topics as moral intuitionism, Aristotle’s phronesis (or practical reason), the rise of statistics (a basis for Evidence-Based Medicine), and C. S. Peirce’s notion of abduction. Braude’s careful analysis traces historical and theoretical developments in analytic philosophy and how these may be applied to clinical reasoning.  He uses an impressive range of thinkers: Achenwall, Albert, Allan, Andre, Ashcroft, Aristotle, Bacon, Barrow, Barton, Beauchamp, Bergson, Bernard, Bichat, Black, Bottero, Bourdieu, Brody, Browne—just to take names headed by A or B.  Throughout, Braude puts in dialectic two poles of a spectrum arguing that they both have contributions to make. He believes that between them is an “ethical space,” where discoveries and applications can be made.  One pole, which he clearly favors, includes the following qualities:  Aristotelian practical reasoning, naturalist approaches, primacy of beneficence, fact and value joined, case-based, individual patients, narrative experience, anthropocentric focus, and tacit/organic knowledge (Polanyi). The other pole, less desirable, includes Kantian abstraction, nonnaturalist approaches, primacy of autonomy, fact and value separated, Evidence-Based Medicine, large groups of patients, statistical correlations, mechanist/positivist foci, and Dualism (Descartes).

Braude believes intuition is a cognitive process but has other dimension, the corporeal and the social. While these provide a grounding, intuition for him is generally rational. He also argues for medical care at the personal, face-to-face level, not through applications of algorithms.   A brief conclusion, “Medical Ethics beyond Ontology” clarifies some of the arguments and sketches some valuable notions from Husserl and Levinas. He writes “intuition . . . does appear to be fundamental for human judgment” because “an intuition faculty” can “extract universals from the particular” (p. 170).  Drawing on Husserl, he defines phenomenological intuition as “the primary means through which objects are presented to consciousness.” This affirmation includes the basic human, which is also the focus for medicine. For Levinas (and my summary is much too brief), “interhuman solidarity” is a source for medical care, a form of responsibility that is different from Foucaultian power relationships, ethical rules and priniciples, or “an uncritical acceptance of medical authority” (p. 177).

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Victoria Sweet describes her training in medical school, residency, and work in various clinics and hospitals. From all of these she forms her own sense of what medical care should include: “Slow Medicine” that uses, ironically, the best aspects of today’s “Fast” medicine.   

Her dramatic “Introduction: Medicine Without a Soul” describes poor—even dangerous—care given to her elderly father at a hospital. An experienced physician, she calls Hospice and saves him from a “Death Express” the hospital has “quality-assured” (pp. 6, 8). 
 
The book continues with 16 chapters in chronological order. The first ten describe Sweet from a late ‘60s Stanford undergrad and “a sort of hippie” (p.14), next a learner of “facts” in preclinical studies at Harvard, plus the clinical rotations (including Psychiatry, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, and electives), then an internship as a doctor and her work in various clinics and hospitals. Throughout she’s collecting skills, concepts, even philosophies (Jung, feminism, Chinese chi, value of stories). She also describes particular patients important to her learning. She dislikes “just good enough” medicine at the VA (p. 95), “unapologetic budgetarianism” (p 141), medicine that is reductive and uncaring, and futile care for dying patients.  

Halfway through, we find an “Intermission: In which Fast Medicine and Slow Medicine Come Together.” With a year off, Sweet signs on as physician for a trekking group headed for Nepal. Unexpectedly, she treats an Englishman in the Himalayas. Returning home, she treats a man whose pulse is declining and rides a helicopter with him to a hospital. She realizes that she can take on the full responsibility of being a doctor, including when to use Fast medicine and when to use Slow.  

The following chapters deal with the 1980s emergence of AIDS, a hand injury to Sweet (she sees herself as “a wounded healer,” p. 182), her new understanding of medicine as “A Craft, A Science, and an Art” (Chapter 12) and conflicts between medical care and economics-driven medicine (“checked boxes,” administrators, quality assurance, even outright corruption).  She scorns use of the labels “health-care providers” and “health-care consumers” (p. 211) and discovers Hildegard of Bingen’s medieval vision of medicine. She works for 20 years at Laguna Honda, the topic of her earlier book God’s Hotel (2012). Chapter 16 closes the book with “A Slow Medicine Manifesto.”  

Sweet pays tribute to her teachers, both in a dedication to the book, and throughout the pages: professors, preceptors, nurses—especially a series of Irish Kathleens—and patients. There are some 20 case studies of patients throughout the book, their medical dilemmas, their personalities, and Sweet’s Slow Medicine that involves creating a healing relationship with them, finding the right path for treatment, even watching and waiting.

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