Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering
by David A. Kessler
Harper Wave, 2016 ($27.99; 416 pages)

When American novelist David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, he urged the graduating class to “exercise some control over how and what you think.” If you don't at least try to regulate your thoughts and behaviors, Wallace cautioned, you will go through life “dead, unconscious, a slave to your head.” Wallace himself long suffered with unwanted negative thoughts and crippling self-doubt—and took his own life three years after that speech.

But can our mind become a “terrible master,” as Wallace described? Kessler, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has considered that question for the past two decades, studying how substances such as food, alcohol and tobacco can hijack our brain chemistry and compel us to act against our own best intentions—bingeing on brownies, booze or cigarettes.

He shared his basic theory of how this happens in his 2009 New York Times best seller, The End of Overeating. But in his latest offering, Capture, Kessler takes those ideas one step further: he asserts that the same biological mechanism that can derail our self-control is also largely to blame for our emotional suffering.

He calls this mechanism “capture” and describes it as the process by which some stimulus—a substance, place, thought, memory or person—can take hold of our attention and shift our perception. “Once our attention becomes increasingly focused on this stimulus,” Kessler writes, “the way we think and feel, and often what we do may not be what we consciously want.” In other words, when capture is set in motion, it can make us feel that we have no control over our thoughts or actions.

For the most part, the book serves up a theoretical take on the psychological forces that dictate our destructive impulses, such as self-doubt and anger, and seed our mental afflictions, such as depression and addiction. But Kessler also sketches out some neurobiological underpinnings for his theory. In the brain, he explains, “capture is the result of neural patterns that are created in response to various experiences.” Over time our neural response to a stimulus can become automatic, and when that response does not match our conscious intentions, we feel blown off course.

Kessler illustrates his theory with a series of vignettes, exploring Wallace's lifelong struggles and Colorado cinema shooter James Holmes's obsessions, among others. Capture can poison the mind, Kessler notes, but it can also provide the antidote. He profiles some people who escaped distressing feedback loops and found stability by replacing an unhealthy mindset or preoccupation—say, overwhelming anxiety—with a more positive one, such as exercise.

These stories about real people are engaging yet ultimately provide only anecdotal support for Kessler's theory. Some readers may be left craving more scientific evidence to better understand just how capture works, what triggers it and how we can break free. —Lindsey Konkel

In Our Own Image: Savior or Destroyer? The History and Future of Artificial Intelligence
by George Zarkadakis
Pegasus Books, 2016 ($27.95; 384 pages)

In the film Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk) develop a powerful artificial intelligence to perfect Stark's global defense system. The AI, Ultron, immediately decides that the only good way to defend humans is by, well, destroying them. Skynet, the AI that wakes up in the Terminator movies, arrives at a similar conclusion, which perhaps gives new meaning to the old saying “Great minds think alike.”

Is the human race really racing down the road to its own extinction through the engineering of AIs that are smarter than we are? In his new book, In Our Own Image, AI expert Zarkadakis explores this and related questions with remarkable ingenuity, clarity and breadth, weaving together a tapestry of material drawn from a range of disciplines—not only computer science but history, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.

We have already created smart machines, but we are far from cracking the big nut, consciousness—and not, he adds, because this cannot be done but because we have been slow on the engineering side. Neuroscience is revealing that consciousness results from an integration of information flowing in complex loops from multiple parts of the brain to the neocortex. In theory, we can build circuits that work the same way, Zarkadakis says, and the “neuristors” and other so-called neuromorphic devices invented in recent years are gradually moving us in this direction.

He does a particularly good job answering one of the most basic questions about AI: Why are we trying so hard to create artificial minds when we have so many real ones right at hand? He argues that we are driven to do so by ancient, unconscious tendencies to imbue inanimate objects with humanlike spirits. We have created totems for thousands of years, and praying to them has given us a feeling of control over our lives; the ultimate expression of these tendencies would be the creation of an inorganic object that we can truly control, one that perfects human abilities.

The problem here is that a split second after we have created that entity, it will, like Ultron, almost certainly transform itself into a much more powerful entity over which we have no control. When that first AI wakes up into a state of humanlike consciousness, it will probably be concerned about its survival, and so its first act might just be to upload itself to the Internet. Zarkadakis notes that physicist Stephen Hawking and others have issued dire prognoses about what will happen next, but he suggests that what follows is “simply unpredictable”—and little more than a matter of faith at this point.

The bottom line is that inexorable, largely unexamined forces are driving us at lightning speed toward a pivotal moment for our species. Let's examine this process, Zarkadakis says, rather than mindlessly allow it to overtake us.—Robert Epstein

Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg
Random House, 2016 ($28; 400 pages)

Executives, managers and psychology fans may not find many truly novel concepts in journalist Duhigg's new book about productivity. It sifts through much of the same theoretical territory around goal setting, team building and focus as many other psych and management texts. That said, no one has ever explained these ideas the way Duhigg does. He delves into the neuroscience behind superproductive people and illustrates key lessons through a stunningly diverse collection of real-life stories from Google engineers, airplane pilots, retirees, even creative mavericks, including Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels and the team behind the animated blockbuster Frozen.

The subject matter makes the book a dense read at times, but Duhigg makes up for it with moments of brilliant storytelling. Take chapter three, which reads more like the script for an action-packed thriller than a popular science book. Quoting conversations caught on the in-flight recorder, Duhigg recounts the terrifying 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil, killing everyone onboard. According to Duhigg, the captain fell victim to so-called cognitive tunneling, a “mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention.”

Trapped in a cognitive tunnel, people become preoccupied with immediate tasks and fail to see the bigger picture. So after cruising through most of the flight on literal autopilot, the captain and his copilot could not react effectively when the plane unexpectedly climbed too high and the engines started to stall. “As the … alarms blared, [the pilot] entered a cognitive tunnel. His attention had been relaxed for the past four hours,” Duhigg explains. “Now, amid flashing lights and ringing bells, his attention searched for a focal point.” Unfortunately for the 228 people onboard, he could not find one fast enough.

Duhigg's argument is not that this pilot was incompetent but that his brain had not been properly trained for such a moment of crisis. He contrasts this harrowing scene with another emergency, which occurred on Qantas Flight 32 a year later. You name it from the “in the event of” list on the in-flight safety card, and it happened: an oil fire, a shattered engine, a fuel leak. Panicked passengers actually watched the wing fall apart on the entertainment screens, thanks to a handy camera mounted on the plane's tail. And yet this pilot sidestepped cognitive tunneling to successfully crash-land at Singapore airport and save his passengers.

The difference? The Qantas captain was known for his habit of rehearsing what-if scenarios with his crew—a concept that psychologists refer to as mental modeling. Before each flight he would quiz his copilots about what screens they would look at first during a crisis or where their hands would go if an alarm sounded. “He had envisioned moments like this hundreds of times,” Duhigg writes. “He had a picture in his mind of how to react.” So as the nearly unimaginable unfolded, the pilot and crew had in fact already imagined how best to respond.

Such heroics may sound superhuman, but Duhigg makes the case that they are not. Anyone can learn how highly productive people operate and apply their secrets to situations in their own lives—from landing a crippled plane to calming a screaming toddler. One of the best ways to be “smarter, faster, better,” as it turns out, is just what your parents told you when you were a kid: practice, even if that practice is only in your head.—Sunny Sea Gold

Our spiritual path

Two books examine the science of enlightenment

“We are all mentally ill,” a Buddhist monk once told James Kingsland, a science editor for the Guardian newspaper. Intrigued, Kingsland decided to probe Buddhist philosophy and discovered a view of the human mind as deeply flawed: until we reach enlightenment, we continue to suffer, always wanting, obsessing and worrying. In Siddhartha's Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment (William Morrow, 2016; 352 pages), Kingsland explains that the Buddhist line between mental health and illness is not so clearly defined as it is in the West; instead Buddhism sees our psychological well-being along an expansive spectrum. In his book, Kingsland delves into the history of Buddhism and teachings of Siddhartha (also known as Buddha) while weaving in recent scientific research on mindfulness meditation. He reveals not only how mindfulness meditation can rewire the human brain and help us achieve a sense of spiritual fulfillment but also how we can easily integrate the practice into our daily lives.

But how do we know when we are truly on the path to enlightenment? Or when we have reached our goal? In How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation (Avery, 2016; 288 pages), neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and author Mark Robert Waldman try to unlock the neural foundations of enlightenment—which they both claim to have reached. The duo takes us on their research and personal journeys to understand this abstract state. They scan the brains of deeply religious individuals—Buddhist meditators, Franciscan nuns, Sufis—as well as their own brains, hoping to determine what neural circuits give rise to enlightenment. They also map out neural changes associated with an enlightened state—observing, for instance, a dip in activity in the frontal lobe, which oversees our logical reasoning skills. They conclude that most people can attain some form of enlightenment through a variety of meditative and religious practices.

The latter part of the book provides a rough guide. The authors tout many benefits—such as less stress and greater happiness—although some meta-analyses suggest the scientific evidence is thin. In chapter one, Newberg and Waldman confess that enlightenment is “almost impossible to relate in words.” It seems even harder to pin down with science. —Victoria Stern