GOT MEDS?

The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth
by Irving Kirsch. Basic Books, 2010 ($23.95)

Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, Celexa. These popular antidepressants are effective—but their function arises mainly from the placebo effect. Psychologist Irving Kirsch arrived at this conclusion a few years ago after he and his colleagues took a thorough look at all the data from experiments with antidepressants.

In The Emperor's New Drugs, Kirsch reports that sugar pills are about as effective as antidepressants and that for many years drug companies withheld this information. Moreover, these placebos don't have to be sugar pills; even a synthetic thyroid hormone, disguised as an antidepressant, helped to alleviate depression in subjects with no thyroid problems.

Kirsch reveals some unsavory pharmaceutical company practices. He reports that drug companies frequently manipulate scientific data—by cherry-picking positive results, withholding negative findings from publication, and “salami slicing” (publishing positive data multiple times). For instance, in the 1990s GlaxoSmithKline conducted several trials on the effectiveness of the antidepressant Paxil, which showed the drug was no more effective than a placebo. The trials also revealed some dangerous side effects, including a possible increased risk of suicide. GSK, however, decided not to release most of the negative data to the public. When this negligent behavior was later uncovered, the company was sued by the New York attorney general for engaging in “repeated and persistent fraud.” The company was forced to make all the data public.

In light of the fact that tens of millions of Americans—including many children—are taking antidepressants, it's hard not to find Kirsch's account disturbing. Moreover, it makes one wonder about the testing and approval processes for other medications. “For society as a whole, knowledge of what the data on antidepressants really say should be a clarion call,” Kirsch says. We can only hope that the call will be heard. —Nicole Branan

SENSORY SWAP

See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses
by Lawrence D. Rosenblum.                                                                                                              W. W. Nor ton, 2010 ($26.95)

Here's some advice for your next job interview: mimic your interviewer's gestures and mannerisms. It may sound odd, but research suggests that people think highly of individuals who mimic them, even though they do not consciously notice the copycatting. Actually, you know what? Forget that I mentioned it—you're probably going to do it anyway. As it turns out, we typically mimic people when we really want them to like us.

This tendency to mimic—and to like being mimicked—stems from the fact that our senses and emotions are intimately and inextricably linked, argues Lawrence D. Rosenblum, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. In his new book Rosenblum provides hundreds of fascinating examples of the ways in which our sensory entanglements influence our daily lives and make us, well, us. Not only do our senses influence our emotions and perceptions—they also influence one another and can't really be thought of as separate entities at all.

Ever walked through the office reading a memo? You avoided colliding with the wall in part because you could hear where you were going. What happens if you eat with your eyes shut? Your meal will seem bland, because what we taste is so closely tied to what we see. And when you converse in a noisy crowd, you are really reading your friends’ lips rather than hearing what they are saying. “The long-held concept of the perceptual brain being composed of separate sense regions is being overturned,” Rosenblum writes. “Your brain seems designed around multisensory input, and much of it doesn't care through which sense information comes.”

See What I'm Saying will help you discover abilities you never knew you had, such as perceiving personalities from faces, assessing fertility in potential partners, and locating objects by sensing their vibrations, the way a spider does on its web. When you finally put the book down—which could take a while—you might start experiencing the world in a richer way. —Melinda Wenner Moyer