Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations
by Dan Ariely
Simon & Schuster/TED, 2016 ($16.99; 120 pages)

Instead of writing this review, I'd rather be fussing with my phone or eating lunch. Luckily, Ariely's book Payoff provides concrete mind-hacking strategies to achieve a state of satisfying productivity. What better way to motivate myself than by road testing its recommendations?

According to Ariely, a Duke University psychology professor, real motivation—the kind that fountains up of its own accord—is all about meaning. He begins his argument by impishly describing how to demolish the meaning in any task: force someone into it and then ignore the results. Even better: undo whatever they just did, ideally right in front of them. Ariely describes a hilariously cruel experiment in which participants were paid to circle pairs of identical letters on papers filled with random characters. On completion, the experimenter would immediately insert the papers into a shredder and then ask subjects if they would consider performing the same task again for even less money. Needless to say, most gave up after about five rounds.

This review may encounter a similar fate—metaphorically speaking, at least—with paper copies ultimately landing in the recycling bin and the online version consigned to the digital void. What force could counter this sense of futility? Craft, Ariely says. Simply seeing a task through to completion with a modicum of competence and autonomy can imbue even the most thankless labor with surprising meaning. Take assembling IKEA furniture. The process may be tedious and the results adequate at best. But in the end, it's yours, damn it.

If that fails, money talks—and pizza and encouragement may speak even louder. Ariely found that workers at a computer-chip factory were nearly 7 percent more productive when promised free pizza vouchers in exchange for hitting their targets. A text message from the boss saying, “Well done!” elicited similar results, but a cash bonus boosted productivity by less than 5 percent. Why? The free food and feedback enhanced the personal connection between workers and managers, making the extra effort more worthwhile. Payoff swerves into mushier territory in its final pages, as Ariely sermonizes on capital-M meaning as the key to living a fulfilling life, not just producing more widgets. Here the book lives up to its origins in a TED talk Ariely gave in 2012 called “What Makes Us Feel Good about Our Work?” A dense exegesis of human psychological machinery this book is not. Think of Payoff more like a feel-good-then-kinda-bad-then-good-again amuse-bouche for getting on with whatever it is that you don't particularly feel like doing. If you've read this far, I can confirm: it worked for me. —J.P.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
by Luke Dittrich.
Random House: 2016 ($28; 464 pages)

Henry Molaison became epileptic following a childhood head injury. His condition worsened until even extreme doses of medication could not control it, leaving him unable to live independently. In 1953, at age 27, he resorted to having a lobotomy to stop his seizures.

Using a drill, neurosurgeon William Scoville bore two holes in Henry's skull above his eyes, lifted up his frontal lobes with a long, skinny spatula and vacuumed out large portions of the temporal lobes underneath. When Henry woke up, he was no longer epileptic, but he was also no longer himself. He could not make new memories or access many old ones. He would never recall family Christmases, his first crush or what he ate for breakfast.

Henry, or H.M., as he is now best known, ultimately had a foundational influence on memory science. In Patient H.M., journalist Dittrich describes how investigations of his condition helped to drive the pivotal discovery of the hippocampus and its role in semantic memories (general knowledge), which Henry retained from before his surgery, and episodic or autobiographical memories, which he lost. “Studies of Henry unexpectedly led to a second revolution: the notion that the brain contained at least two distinct and independent memory systems, one that was intact in Henry and one that was not,” Dittrich writes.

But memory science is not the book's central focus. Dittrich is more interested in ethics, largely because Scoville was his grandfather. He narrates Scoville's story and presents a comprehensive and gruesome history of lobotomy up to its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. He also tries to dissect his grandfather's motives. How could Scoville remain confident in the lobotomy procedure, despite the overwhelming evidence that it harmed his patients? Dittrich cannot exonerate or fully understand his grandfather's actions, but he does paint them as well within the medical mores of the time.

The remainder of the book chronicles the scientists who worked with H.M. and their research, and Dittrich finds their ethics as questionable as those of the lobotomizers. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by psychologist Suzanne Corkin, put H.M. through intensive testing. In one experiment, they stretched his pain tolerance to the limit, burning him so severely with electric current that it scarred his skin, according to Dittrich's telling. H.M. remembered almost none of it.

Dittrich has said that Corkin, who passed away last year, told him in recorded interviews that she shredded H.M.'s data. But since the book's release, faculty at M.I.T.'s brain and cognitive sciences department have publicly investigated and refuted that claim. “All the evidence we were able to find, from those who worked with Professor Corkin and from reviewing the actual filing cabinets filled with data from research with Henry Molaison, indicates that these records were maintained and not destroyed,” department head James DiCarlo wrote in a statement. Dittrich also alleges that Corkin was so fiercely protective of her legacy that she tried to stifle evidence that H.M. had a secondary brain lesion, found after his death. But again, M.I.T. professors responded, noting that Corkin had published descriptions of the lesion.

For all the controversy, Dittrich's account is captivating as it argues the point that science stole H.M.'s humanity, removing his memory and turning him into a professional research subject. His case and the lingering ethical questions about it help to highlight how fundamentally fragile and malleable memory really is. —M.K.

America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks
by Ruth Whippman.
St. Martin's Press: 2016 ($25.99; 256 pages)

“Americans as a whole invest more time and money and emotional energy in the explicit pursuit of happiness than any other nation on earth,” writes Whippman, a British expat now living in California. But for all this effort, she adds, we are not a happy bunch. The World Health Organization has called the U.S. one of the least happy and most anxious of all developed countries.

In America the Anxious, Whippman strives to get to the bottom of this paradox: Why does a nation so infatuated with happiness seem so discontented? After combing through the scientific literature, she proposes an answer: relationships. Research consistently shows that fostering intimate bonds and close community ties makes people happier. And yet, Whippman observes, “increasingly, Americans are chasing happiness by looking inward into their own souls, rather than outward toward their friends and communities.”

We pursue solo activities, such as meditation and running, and nearly interaction-free group events, such as yoga classes and mindfulness seminars. As Whippman discovers, we have pared down our human connections to a bare minimum: the American Time Use Survey shows that the average American now spends just a few minutes a day attending or hosting social events and far less than an hour a day “doing any kind of ‘socializing and communicating’ at all.”

To research her book, Whippman embarked on a yearlong cultural immersion. She attended a “bliss-promising” self-help seminar, visited a self-proclaimed happiness evangelist's urban development project and even lived with a Mormon family in Utah, the happiest state in America, according to national polls. Ultimately, she writes, the more she actively pursued her own happiness, the more anxious and lonely she felt.

How did our desire to be happy devolve into a misguided, anxiety-provoking chase? Whippman looks to the multibillion-dollar positive psychology industry and how it influences prominent researchers. Projects focusing on happiness as a solo venture, she asserts, seem more likely to receive funding than those examining how long working hours, little vacation time, racism and inequality affect well-being.

Unfortunately, Whippman does not develop this angle in any great depth, which could have made America the Anxious truly significant. Her cheeky, outsider observations and self-deprecating humor make for an engaging read, but without a more probing analysis, the book ends up feeling glib. She concludes, for instance, that Americans need “to develop a vision of happiness that is inclusive and generous and socially aware.” Without specific strategies to do so, however, we are stuck observing happiness through the trophy case. —L.K.

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship between Parents and Children
by Alison Gopnik.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2016 ($26; 320 pages)

In the mid-20th century the experience of being a parent changed dramatically. Instead of focusing on nurturing children passively, parenting became more of a professional sport, centered on active, even aggressive, efforts to ensure we turn out well-adjusted, productive adults. That parenting approach has since become pervasive in Western society—and a constant source of anxiety for new moms and dads who fret that they are never doing enough to help their children succeed.

They can relax now. In The Gardener and the Carpenter, Gopnik draws on pioneering research and her own experiences as a mother and grandmother to explain why this parenting model is deeply flawed. A developmental psychologist and philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, she details the nuances of how children learn best and addresses controversial and often misunderstood subjects. She asserts, for instance, that technology does not harm children's brain development and challenges the current schooling methods that mimic overactive parenting styles.

Gopnik's main idea is that the more parents deliberate on how best to raise their children, the less successful they will be and the less happy and healthy their kids will become. Child development is ultimately a messy and complex process, so any attempts to shape it in a rigid way often fail spectacularly. Even when we try to explicitly teach youngsters certain facts and values, they will naturally grasp others—about the intentions and trustworthiness of adults, for example—in ways we do not really understand.

According to Gopnik, who reviews her own work and other research on brain development in this book, the way young children learn is akin to an acid trip. In early life, they absorb prodigious amounts of unfiltered information and, much like little scientists, test their ideas about how the world works through spontaneous play. Studies show that unstructured play supports children's cognitive and social development and fosters their imagination much more than structured play does.

The take-home message here is that there is no right way to raise children, and as a result, Gopnik offers few practical tips on how to be a better parent. She does provide more general advice, however: rather than acting like goal-directed “carpenters” who aim to structure their progeny into some predetermined form—say, a doctor like their grandfather—caregivers should be more like gardeners who cultivate a rich and loving environment in which children are free to flourish and become whoever they really are.

Gopnik's deep expertise and her compelling writing make this book an informative and entertaining account of the latest scientific research on childhood development—one that will undoubtedly bring comfort to many who worry whether their parenting skills are up to scratch. —M.C.