You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice
by Tom Vanderbilt
Knopf, 2016 ($26.95; 320 pages)
How does a book whose very title telegraphs “noncommittal” still end up feeling like it doesn't do what it says on the tin? As I loped through writer Vanderbilt's breezy chapters, I struggled to categorize You May Also Like among things that I knew I liked, in hopes of getting a sense of where the book was taking me. Was it a vivid collection of social science parables à la Malcolm Gladwell's best sellers? A cerebral diagnosis of our technocultural anxieties, as in Nicholas Carr's The Shallows? A first-person mystery tour, to be shelved with Mary Roach's Stiff, Gulp and Bonk in bookstores? The answer: Yes, all of the above. But also, no. Kind of?
Vanderbilt does not seem too concerned to impress any organizing theory on his subject, the vagaries of human preference. “The picture of taste I have presented is hardly reassuring,” he writes in the book's conclusion. “We often do not seem to know what we like or why we like what we do.” Remember, that's the end of his book. While many pop-sci authors unspool their epiphanies with logical, airtight precision, Vanderbilt offers up a kind of book-length “shruggie”—that modern ideogram for affable bemusement: ¯\_()_/¯. You end up rather where you started; comme ci, comme ça.
That said, the scenes, hypotheses and musings that Vanderbilt shares are informative in their own free-associative ways. He explains that when we “like” an experience, especially a conspicuously affective one such as a taste or smell, it seems to emerge from cross talk among cognition and emotion, expectation and adaptation. Some preferences, he notes, may be biologically “hardwired”: even babies born tragically without a fully developed brain prefer sugary substances to neutral ones. “No one living really dislikes sweetness,” as Vanderbilt puts it. But memories and stories can exert a tidal pull on taste, too. Scientists at the Department of Defense's Combat Feeding Directorate, for example, know that soldiers prefer Green Giant–branded corn to an identical military ration—just because most of them expect rations to taste terrible.
The book roams through other intriguing anecdotes on topics ranging from cat fancier conventions to search engine results. My favorite section came in the final pages, where Vanderbilt provides a “field guide to liking” that synthesizes the “small themes [and] little signposts” in his book. Some of these “tasting notes,” as he wryly calls them, may sound profound and vacuous at the same time—“liking is learning,” says one; “do not trust the easy like,” warns another—but they do deliver a Zen Buddhist–like payload of unity and sense that, after ambling pleasantly but aimlessly along for 300 pages, I took as blessed relief.
That's just a reflection of what I like. Your mileage, as the Internet expression goes, may vary. But I suspect that is Vanderbilt's point: to investigate, accept and ultimately celebrate the unbearable shruggie-ness of being. —John Pavlus
The Fate of Gender: Nature, Nurture, and the Human Future
by Frank Browning.
Bloomsbury: 2016 ($28; 320 pages)
In 2015 Caitlyn Jenner became one of the world's most famous transgender women, gracing the cover of Vanity Fair and making the short list for Time magazine's “Person of the Year.” Jenner's public transition from Bruce to Caitlyn—along with a new focus on gender fluidity in mainstream television programs, such as Transparent—has helped build awareness of the trans community. But greater acceptance has not proved universal. Some segments of society have expressed a fear that these recent developments mark the “death of gender”—in which the distinctions between men and women will simply vanish.
In his new book, former NPR reporter Browning buries that idea. He argues that rather than disappearing, gender categories are morphing to fit our biological reality. He relays the science of gender while acquainting readers with the turbulent history of gender politics. Through this exploration, he makes the case that gender has always existed along a spectrum: “We are all of us both male and female, and the way we express our ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ depends on the circumstances in which we find ourselves living.”
He further dismantles the idea that gender ambiguity is unnatural, noting that transsexual and homosexual plants and animals abound. The California sheephead fish, for example, begins life as an egg-bearing female and may transition to a male. Among humans, about one in every 2,000 babies is born with ambiguous genitals, such as undescended testes or an enlarged clitoris that could be considered a micro penis. In the past, physicians routinely chose one sex for these “intersex” individuals and performed gender-assignment surgeries. But pediatricians are increasingly opposing such interventions as growing evidence suggests they can cause psychological trauma and gender confusion.
Regardless of their genitalia, children experience gender stereotypes from the minute society labels them a boy or girl. These influences, along with hormonal ones—such as levels of estrogen and testosterone—affect brain development, shaping male and female differences in physiology and behavior that continue to unfold as we age. Gender, Browning explains, emerges through the dynamic interaction between our biology and environment. Kids start to form their gender identities early, and many transgender individuals report gender dysphoria, or unease with their apparent sexual identity, well before puberty.
Browning introduces us to people who routinely challenge gender norms. He interviews transgender individuals who have struggled for acceptance in conservative Mormon-dense communities; women who act as surrogates for gay couples; sociologists who are working to break the taboo of female masturbation in China. He also describes educators who have discovered that in gender-neutral classrooms, where children take on both male and female roles, gender stereotypes largely disappear.
The Fate of Gender is a fascinating read. One quibble is that Browning overlooks some recent research on transgender brains. But overall the book will make readers think hard about how, as a society, we have shaped gender identity and are reshaping what it means to be male and female, either and both. —Diana Kwon
Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction
by Maia Szalavitz.
St. Martin's Press: 2016 ($27.99; 352 pages)
Forget everything you think you know about drug addiction. In this book, award-winning journalist Szalavitz dispels a range of common myths about drug abuse and presents an altogether fresh take: addiction, she maintains, is not a moral failing or even a medical disease, as it is so often portrayed. Instead, she writes, “addiction is a developmental disorder—a problem involving timing and learning, more similar to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia than it is to mumps or cancer.” Although we cannot discount the role our genes play, she suggests that addiction can be largely credited to life experiences—significant traumas or daily stresses that alter the brain and cause us to prioritize substances offering temporary relief.
Szalavitz makes a forceful case for addiction as a learned behavior, weaving together research from genetics, psychology and biology, along with insights into our less than laudable history of deficient, often racist, drug policies and inadequate treatment protocols. The book really sings, however, when Szalavitz delves into her own history of drug abuse.
Bullied throughout childhood, Szalavitz always felt like an outsider. In high school, she used hallucinogens in an attempt to connect with others and by college had found a new way to fit in. She began selling cocaine to her peers and soon became hooked herself. She finally felt wanted, popular even. After being suspended from school, she began supplementing her coke habit with heroin, and her life quickly spiraled out of control. At age 23, facing 15 years in prison for selling drugs, Szalavitz entered rehab. Fortunately, a sympathetic judge dropped the case against her, and she got her life back on track.
Inspired by this tumultuous period, Szalavitz dedicated herself to understanding it—what triggered her own abuse and what helped her recover. From her research, she concludes that the idea of a general “addictive personality” is a myth and that addiction is essentially a kind of coping mechanism gone awry. She asserts that her struggle with depression and social anxiety are what left her more vulnerable to pursue chemical outlets that offered at least some measure of relief.
This perspective has broad ramifications. If we understand addiction as a learned behavior, then many existing rehabilitation programs seem somewhat counterproductive. Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the largest treatment providers for addiction, frames the disorder as a kind of character defect—one that can be fixed and forgiven through willpower and spirituality, not science. Even more dangerous may be the common idea that an addict must hit “rock bottom” before recovery is possible: it encourages helplessness and dissuades addicts from taking agency over their lives, Szalavitz argues. As she puts it: drugs impair self-control, but they do not eliminate free will.
Szalavitz offers several alternative policy solutions and intervention strategies. She acknowledges the progress made by reducing brutal mandatory sentencing and zero-tolerance interpretations of the law but believes we have further to go by increasing research funding and expanding treatment programs. Ultimately, she hopes that a true portrait of addiction will help more people, like her, leave it behind them. —Roni Jacobson
Read an excerpt of this book online at ScientificAmerican.com/unbroken-brain-excerpt
Searching for compelling reads about the brain and how it works? Two recent tiles might pique your interest
“Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and hooked directly into a person's brain,” writes philosophy professor Michael P. Lynch in his new book The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data (Liveright, 2016; 256 pages). With one thought, we could retrieve information on anything. We would not need to remember facts or figures, as we tapped into “the collective wisdom of the ages.” Now imagine that our electrical grid goes dark, and we lose this wealth of information in an instant. This scenario may sound like science fiction, but Lynch asserts that it is actually not so far from our current reality. The Internet of Us explores how information technology has come to dominate our abilities to think, communicate, reason and remember and provides a slightly chilling look at what that means for us as independent thinkers and human beings.
Why is the human brain special? Compared with our fellow mammals, we do not have the largest brain. Yet our unique noggins pull off what are arguably the most impressive cognitive feats. In The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable (MIT Press, 2016; 272 pages), neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel unravels what really sets the human brain apart from that of other primates, tracing our evolutionary history and describing her efforts to tally our individual neurons. Her conclusion is deliciously surprising: the pivotal development was learning to control fire and cook, thereby enabling our species to get more energy from food in less time. “We cook what we eat: this is the exclusively human activity,” Herculano-Houzel writes, “one that allowed us to jump over the energetic wall that still curbs the evolution of all other species and put us on a different evolutionary path from all other animals.” —Victoria Stern