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See Inside November/December 2011

MIND Reviews Books: November/December 2011

 

MAKING NOISE
 
Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man
by Mark Changizi. BenBella Books, 2011 ($16.95)

 

Once upon a time, humans could not hold conversations or sing songs together. Now we chatter incessantly, not only with speech but also through text messages, tweets and status updates. How we transformed into the highly social species we are today remains the subject of many theories.

Two competing hypotheses center on whether our capacity for language is an innate skill that grew stronger through natural selection or whether we lacked any such ability and instead trained our brains to collect new information using objects and sounds in our environment. In his new book Harnessed, Mark Changizi stakes out the middle ground: cultural—not natural—selection explains our language ability.

Generating controversial theories is not new to this evolutionary neurobiologist. In his previous book, The Vision Revolution, he argued that writing evolved from the shapes our ancestors saw in nature. In Harnessed he extends that logic to claim that the most common sounds we hear in nature—of objects making contact or sliding across one another, such as the patter of footsteps or the hiss of a hunted animal dragged across the ground by a predator—occur more frequently and consistently in human language than chance would allow. People evolved auditory systems that process natural noises efficiently, although we are capable of producing a range of sounds broader than those found in nature. Changizi proposes that our culture—that is, language and music, among other artifacts—evolved around, or “harnessed,” the sounds we already process best.

The tricky part, however, is that Changizi's theory is almost impossible to test. The bulk of his evidence consists of correlations he observes between sounds in nature and those in language, and he devotes much of the book to acoustical analyses of the two. But the examples he cites are just that—correlations, not causes. In addition, Changizi never explains why other apes, which heard the same sounds as early humans, did not develop language.

Nevertheless, the idea of culture as an actor in the evolutionary process, rather than its by-product, provides an interesting way to frame the question of how we learned to communicate through language. —Frank Bures

ATTACK PANIC

Learning to Breathe: My Year-long Quest to Bring Calm to My Life
by Priscilla Warner. Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2011 ($23)

For the millions of people who suffer from panic disorder, every passing minute brings them closer to the next attack.

Writer Priscilla Warner has lived on edge her whole life. Crippled by panic attacks for four decades and tired of relying on drugs to help manage them, she finally decided to take control of her illness. Her new book, Learning to Breathe, details her journey as she seeks to break her addiction to clonazepam, a drug for relieving panic attacks, to achieve a monklike state of calm.

The book follows Warner as she struggles to transform her fast-paced, pill-popping New York lifestyle to a more peaceful existence filled with meditative retreats, Buddhist teachings, Kabbalah rituals and sessions with psychotherapists. She also seeks the counsel of friends, relatives and gracious strangers to help her cope with her unresolved problems—a difficult upbringing and her mother's decline as she battles Alzheimer's disease, among other troubles.

Warner is exhaustive in describing every meditation, teaching and treatment she discovers, each of which seems to help her in some way. Although the reader wishes Warner all the best, the narrative quickly becomes predictable and monotonous. When she participates in a brain-imaging study to track her progress, she misses a chance to create a powerful moment: she skims over the neural underpinnings of her recovery and instead simply marvels at how colorful her MRI scan is. Many recent brain studies have shown connections between meditation and improved cognitive function, including better concentration and mood regulation. Had she explored the neuroscience, she could have tracked the physical effects different treatments had on her brain to determine which ones were truly working and how.

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