Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of
Fear and Cool
by Taylor Clark. Little,
Brown, 2011 ($25.99)

What is the most common mental health issue in America? You might be tempted to say depression. But you would be wrong.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety disorders now take the top spot, with 18 percent of Americans suffering from one. In his new book Nerve, journalist Taylor Clark begins by highlighting our extreme levels of anxiety, writing that the average high school student today has the same anxiety level as a psychiatric patient did in the 1950s and that Americans are five times as likely to suffer from anxiety as Nigerians, who arguably have more to fear.

Clark does not spend much time speculating on how we became a society awash in worry. He does something perhaps more significant—he clarifies what anxiety is and how we can treat it. There is, Clark says, a “nervous trinity” that can wreak havoc on our minds: anxiety, fear and stress. Fear primarily involves the amygdala, the emotional memory center of the brain. The amygdala evaluates the significance of a potential threat and triggers emotional responses such as freezing or fleeing. Anxiety is more of a cognitive problem, with a locus in the prefrontal cortex—a region of the brain that helps us plan ahead. Anxious people tend to focus on possible future threats, such as “Will I lose my job?” or “Will I get run over by a car?” Stress is harder to pin down but generally signifies the body's response to feeling overwhelmed and may show up as a range of physical and emotional symptoms, including worry, moodiness, depression or overeating.

Experiencing these feelings can make life miserable, but the good news is it is possible to overcome them. Clark relays the stories of people who have worked to beat their anxious tendencies and discusses techniques readers can use to do the same. For instance, he writes that simply accepting that bad things will happen and facing problems head-on can alleviate anxiety. To this end, Clark quotes philosopher Sren Kierkegaard as saying, “We cannot mature and be fully creative by burying or displacing anxiety, but only by moving through it.” —Frank Bures


The Moral Lives of Animals
by Dale Peterson.
Bloomsbury Press, 2011 ($26)

In the summer of 2000 scientists saw a young elephant collapse and die on a trail in the African forest. In the following hours, elephants passing by attempted to help and revive her by lifting her dead body off the ground.

In The Moral Lives of Animals, Tufts University lecturer Dale Peterson argues that this kind of behavior provides evidence that humans are not the only animals that developed a sense of morality—other mammals, among them elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees, also have strong impulses for cooperation, kindness and fairness. Peterson, a long-time collaborator of primatologist Jane Goodall, makes the case that the morality of animals, such as humans, requires obeying certain social rules and evolved as a means to mediate conflicts that inevitably arise within communities.

Peterson asserts that animals are capable of exhibiting moral behaviors because these behaviors do not require advanced intellectual capabilities—they only result from strong emotional responses: “A bully makes you angry. A cheater leaves you depressed.” Some of Peterson's stories illustrate animal emotions vividly, such as accounts of elephants committing suicide. Peterson writes that loggers in Myanmar (Burma) capture and train elephants to help with timber extraction. The taming procedure can be so distressing to the animals that some cut off their own air supply by stepping on their trunks.

Peterson also presents evidence that mammals can distinguish right from wrong. For example, a primatologist at a Tanzanian research site once tried to distract a chimp by pretending he had seen something intriguing in the distance. The chimp fell for the deception and went to explore but soon returned and slapped the mischievous primatologist on the head. Peterson interprets the chimp's reaction as evidence that he recognized the researcher's deceit as immoral and punished him.

Although the underlying motivations for many of these behaviors are a matter of interpretation, Moral Lives is a thought-provoking read that glimpses into the minds and behaviors of mammals. —Nicole Branan