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


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.

That said, Warner's success warrants respect. Despite its flaws, the book describes a courageous woman transformed from an anxiety-stricken, neurotic victim to a calm and balanced figure. Her story is a message of hope for those who, like Warner, wonder if they will ever find such a thing as life without panic. —Samantha Murphy


Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switchedat Birth
by Nancy L. Segal. Prometheus Books, 2011 ($25)

In 1973 identical twins Delia and Begoa were accidentally separated in the Canary Islands hospital where they were born. Begoa went home with her parents and an unrelated baby, Beatriz, who was raised as her twin. Meanwhile, 50 miles away, Beatriz's parents brought up Delia as their daughter.

Fast-forward 28 years, when a local store clerk mistakes Begoa for Delia. Convinced the two are twins, she arranges a meeting. The meeting fundamentally alters the sisters' sense of identity—as well as that of their parents and siblings.

In Someone Else's Twin, Nancy L. Segal delves into this extraordinary, tragic case to tackle both the scientific significance of identical twins and the humanistic questions they spark about identity. Segal, a fraternal twin and psychologist who directs the Twin Studies Center at California State University, Fullerton, gained access to the women in exchange for acting as an expert witness in their lawsuit against the Canary Islands Health Services. Her position is clear: “Suddenly finding a twin in adulthood revises everything about one's personal identity—who one is and who one should have been.”

She bolsters her position with findings from the 20-year Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, in which Segal was an investigator, and other research. Regardless of how they are raised, identical twins are more alike than fraternal twins in height, weight, health, intelligence, athleticism, social attitudes and job satisfaction, underscoring the influence of genes on these qualities. Indeed, the relationship between identical twins is so unique that a Spanish physician contended that Delia and Begoa's separation violated their “fundamental right to personal identity.”

Segal describes how Beatriz, too, suffered a devastating loss when the switch was discovered. The twins' parents also were shattered. Research on maternity certainty—a mother's confidence that a child is her own—has shown that new mothers perform better than chance when trying to recognize their newborns within a couple of hours using senses other than sight; fathers are better at picking out their babies visually. Failing to spot a switch or to act forcefully on that instinct only adds to the grief of the new reality. “Saying your child has been switched,” the father of a switched pair tells Segal, “is like saying she's been killed.” —Jordan Lite


Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy
by Martin Lindstrom. Crown Business, 2011 ($25)

In the produce aisles of grocery stores, prices are often written in chalk on small slate signs, a subtle tactic to suggest the fruits and vegetables are farm fresh. Yet most of these signs are not handwritten; they are machine-made and cast in indelible ink. And the apple? It is far from fresh, picked some 14 months earlier.

Although we may think we make purchases for sensible reasons, Martin Lindstrom argues in Brandwashed that the choices we make are anything but rational. In reality, advertising companies convince us to buy things by exploiting our hopes and fears. For instance, the body spray manufacturer Axe planted marketers in bars across the country recently to watch unsuspecting twentysomething males try to pick up girls. In doing so, Axe advertisers stumbled on a niche market: the “Insecure Novice”—the guy who, despite his best efforts, left the bar alone every night. If the story sounds familiar, that is because it was echoed in the company's popular “nerd-sprays-Axe, nerd-gets-girl” commercials, a campaign that helped to solidify the company's multimillion-dollar hold on the personal hygiene market.

And did you recently “Like” a product on Facebook? Advertisers also mine publicly shared information to develop powerful marketing tools. Personalized ads, with your seal of approval, may now appear on your friends' profile pages.

Brandwashed's downside is that Lindstrom, a world-renowned advertising guru, overvalues neuromarketing functional MRI studies. For example, he writes that he once advised a luxury automaker to design a car that was “sex on four wheels” because experiments have shown that a man's brain was activated in the same areas when viewing a picture of a horse with a large penis as when ogling an image of his dream car. Many neuroscientists would argue that simply observing that the brain engages similar regions during an fMRI scan does not mean our underlying thoughts and desires are the same.

By Lindstrom's account, even when you know advertisers' tricks, avoiding them can be difficult, and he admits being fooled on occasion by sneaky advertising maneuvers. Which may make you wonder: In a free market, exactly how free are we, anyway? —Brian Mossop