The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

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What is middle age? As human life expectancy changes, so does this marker. I did wonder about those in today’s world who are born with a life expectancy in the 30s or 40s. Surely their teenage years can’t be called their “middle age”. Luckily for the purposes of containing such definitional wild goose chases, Ms Strauch points out quickly that most researchers consider middle age to be between 40 and 68.

Both our body and brain change with age but few of us know that our brain doesn’t decline, if that is the word for what happens to our skin and fitness with age, at the same rate as our body does. In fact, this book aims to show that the change that occurs in the brain isn’t a decline at all but that the brain continues to remain at its peak for longer than we imagine. While our ability to retain bits of data such as people’s names may suffer, our judgment – our knowledge combined with our ability to make connections – improves and we generally start becoming happier. She also explains why the soi-disant midlife crisis really doesn’t exist.

Organised in three parts addressing what changes, why the change and how to improve our brain, the book presents a simplified overview of existing research on the aging of the brain. In the process, Ms Strauch uncovers phenomena such as how the use of both of the brain’s halves – bilateralisation – helps the brain adapt to the changes brought by age, and how myelin (the white matter) continues to grow with age aiding the brain’s processing abilities.

I found the third section “Healthier Brains” particularly interesting. Ms Strauch casts a wide net here, discussing evidence of how aerobic or heart-rate raising exercise helps brain cell growth; and how the beliefs regarding anti-oxidant rich foods, low-calorie diets and ORAC etc have never had a clinical trial; and how low distress and rich social connections can help the brain cope and remain high-functioning.

If you are the sort of reader, who likes to read the bibliography as much as you do the book, then you may be a bit disappointed. This book is not of the calibre of Dr Louann Brizendine’s books on the female and the male brains. Unlike Dr Brizendine, Ms Strauch is not a specialist in the subject of brain science. And that is also why she has succeeded in writing an accessible and simple book on a timely topic.

That said, I think that the book could have been much shorter that the 230 pages (including references) or 198 pages (including Epilogue). I sometimes found myself nodding off because the argument appears to be being made a bit too slowly. Good editing would have made this book a quicker read. The time we saved could have been spent enjoying some time doing a brain gym puzzle perhaps, or eating blueberries and nattering with a friend, all of which evidently would help our brains.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book, written accessibly and simply, has wide appeal. After all sooner than later, most of us will reach “middle age”, however it may be being defined at the time. It is better to understand why and how our brains are changing, if nothing else, then just to avoid worrying.

The Checklist Manifesto

Link: You can vote on my Amazon Review here.

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right comes close on the heels of Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists. Both books are about lists and both emphasise the ability of lists to bring about order and control. Both books attracted me because I am a consummate list-maker. More “practical” than “poetic”, a taxonomical distinction that Eco proposes in his book, I write my lists in blue, striking out the “done” items in red, thus also making it a motivational tool. It is therefore safe to say that the title of Gawande’s book was immediately attractive.

Despite my prejudicial preference for lists and reading about lists, it is a credit to the engaging quality of Atul Gawande’s writing that the book kept me absorbed for the 3 hours it took to read all 193 pages of it.

The author proposes “checklists” as a functional tool to deal with the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of making mistakes in the face of complex problems. Using stories from construction management, airline piloting and disaster management, and surgery, he shows how checklists can be used to break down complex tasks into simpler steps, thus helping prevent expensive mistakes. The author delves further into two kinds of lists (Do-Confirm or Read-Do) using a story from how the airline manufacturing industry writes their “user manuals”.

Early on, he points out that checklists are not some silver bullet, and that there is judgement involved. Some situations may benefit from checklists, while others may not need any. Later in the book, he also admits that to many, lists are protocols and embody rigidity. He then proceeds to illustrate why this needn’t be so and to demonstrate the importance of team work and how checklists enable that discipline, especially in disasters.

I found Chapters 7 and 8 most interesting. The stories told so far describe the complexity of the work/ task itself but these two chapters introduce another layer, that of institutional complexity.

Chapter 7 details the WHO sponsored study to examine if checklists made any difference to safety, infections, post-surgery deaths in 8 quite disparate hospitals around the world. The settings varied from a hospital in Tanzania where 4 surgeons, aided by 5 untrained anaesthesia staff, work on thousands of surgeries; to one in New Zealand that has 92 anaesthetists for some 20,000 surgeries per year, a number also dealt with in an Indian hospital using just 7 anaesthetists. The settings were also culturally diverse adding a layer of complexity not foreseen in the design of the checklist. For instance, the author mentions a different kind of English being spoken in an English NHS hospital, and observes the interplay of gender segregation and professional responsibility in a Jordanian surgery theatre. The results – from using the checklist – regarding reduction in technical problems, complications, infections and deaths were encouraging, for all cultural settings and even allowing for the Hawthorne Effect.

In Chapter 8, much mainstream media coverage of Jan 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson River” is debunked while the author tells the story of the pilots Sullenberger and Stiles and their calm use of appropriate procedures, while their cabin crew prepared passengers for and then monitored safe evacuation, to strengthen his thesis. The other half of Chapter 8 particularly resonated with me because I work with investors and entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by the stories of the 3 investors who have incorporated checklists into their investment decisions, favouring dispassionate analysis over irrational exuberance, so to speak.

The title is deceptively simple for this is a profound book, written accessibly and clearly. It is a defence of rational, systems-thinking approach to solving complex problems, to creating team work and collegiality amongst narrow specialists while ensuring desirable outcomes, no matter what the setting.

Managers, entrepreneurs, investors as well as professional project managers such as event planners would do well to read, ponder, internalise and practise the idea proposed in the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: The varied examples from learned professions such as surgery, airline piloting, construction management and investing should make the book broadly readable.

The Tiger That Isn’t, or why you needn’t be afraid of numbers

Link: You can vote on the Amazon review of this book here.

“I think numbers are the best way to represent the world’s uncertainties”, “I see numbers, I question them and I can interpret them for the less numerate”, “I see numbers and I freeze”.

These three possible options are based on a rough categorisation of the attitudes I have seen towards numbers. Depending on my mood, they can amuse me or cause me despair.

In fact, I believe that, with the right degree of scepticism, and a willingness and an ability to question numbers both in absolute and relative terms, it is possible for everyone to make sense of numbers thrown at us every day. That is pretty much the premise – and the promise – of The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through A World of Numbers, by the journalist Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, an Oxford Don. The book delivers brilliantly on the premise and the promise.

The introduction of the book says, rightly, that it is written from the point of view of the consumers of numbers; in fact, it is written for the consumers of numbers, which means people like you and me. Each chapter presents some examples that illustrate a typical problem with comprehending numbers, and then proceeds to demonstrate how to see those numbers in context and how to make sense of them. There are, in addition to the introduction, eleven chapters dealing with numbers-related issues including Size, Chance, Averages, Risk (my personal favourite), Data (my favourite heading in this book “Know the Unknowns”) and Causation. While most of the examples are British – understandably because both authors are British – it is not difficult for the reader to apply the ‘lessons’ to numbers being bandied about in his or her own country.

Aimed at the non-numerate reader, the tone of the book is easy, the language accessible, the explanations lucid. Yet the book is not patronising in the least, which, in my book, is a considerable achievement in explaining apparently complex things. At 184 pages in all, it is not a hugely difficult read; the section on Further Reading will serve those, whose curiosities are piqued and whose courage with numbers restored on reading this book.

Reviewing this book is not easy. I could summarise all chapters for you, but it would be pointless. Yet not saying much about the contents of the individual chapters may make the review meaningless.

So here is a possibility.  If some numbers in the news have been bothering you, do leave a comment and I shall try and explain them in a manner consistent with that suggested by Blastland and Dilnot. It is however worth every one of the 90 or so minutes you will spend on the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I am known for buying books as presents for friends of all ages. This book would make an ideal present for a curious teenager, as well as those adults who have let 10 simple symbols terrify them for years. For younger readers, I would suggest conversations around the themes of the chapters so that they can get a feel for the numbers being bandied about.