Audible listener who's grateful for a long commute!
Every few years, Malcolm Gladwell publishes a fascinating, engaging book on an overarching sociological concept. He started in 2000 with "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," defining that point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." Gladwell isn't creating trends, as the subjects of his 2008 book "Outliers: The Story of Success" do. Gladwell, after extensive research, gives the concepts names and stories everyone can understand.
"David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants" (2013) is a collection of stories about people who do things differently, either because they are different or because they have no choice but to ignore 'conventional wisdom' to fight and win. Gladwell provides many examples of underdogs using unconventional warfare: Irish Catholics; a girl's under 12 basketball coached by a dad who'd never played the game; The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the American Civil Rights Movement . . .
By illustration, Gladwell tells the story of Emil Freireich, an oncologist and an incredible social misfit in the pediatric oncology ward he worked in. Dr. Freireich's inability to let emotions into his work - and his ability to think beyond common practices - made him instrumental in finding cures for childhood leukemia. Hundreds of thousands of people owe their lives to a man with the bedside manner of a gruff truck driver who has had one too many coffees and still has five hundred miles to go before the sun rises again.
Gladwell also points out the loss that can happen when someone tries to fit in the wrong place and wrong time. He illustrates that concept using a woman who went to an Ivy League university and lost her passion for science among all the 'big fish' in the competitive shark classes. If she'd gone to a state university, which actually had more qualified, published professors, she would be living her dream now. I have two teenagers, and that resonated with me. My oldest, inculcated by the mantra of 'you must get into A Good College', wonders if I know what I'm talking about when I tell him I want him to find a school that's good for him. Now I've got backup.
Gladwell's books are occasionally fiercely criticized by the scientific community, because they are too general; or because someone believes he has misinterpreted studies and data. Those are valid points, but Gladwell isn't writing a peer reviewed article for publication in "Evolutionary Behavioral Science". He's writing for everyone, not just PhD's and MD's, and he's writing to start a conversation, not answer all questions.
I've heard Gladwell in interviews, but this is the first Audible Gladwell book I've listened to. (I have the rest of in hardback, and my favorite is 2005's "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.") Gladwell is a great narrator.
The Audible comes with a PDF file with a photo Gladwell discusses extensively in the book; charts and graphs; and footnotes.
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The first time I remember evil – real evil – was more than 40 years ago, when I heard of awful things a boy down the block had done to a cat. I was too young to put a name to it, and the boy was spoken of in whispers. We were told to stay far away from him, and I did, crossing the street if he was on the way to grade school at the same time I was. He disappeared from the neighborhood several months later, and I am still relieved I never saw him again.
About ten years later, I put a name to evil, at least in fiction, reading Stephen King’s “Carrie”. The true evil wasn’t Carrie herself – it was Chris Hargensen, the beautiful, taunting classmate; and Margaret White, Carrie’s mother. Both had a complete lack of empathy for Carrie – and for anyone else.
In “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty”, Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge, argues that all we consider evil presents as a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy can be momentary, chronic or innate, and to some extent, conditioned by being around others with a lack of empathy . The consequences can be disastrous. Baron-Cohen starts with the Holocaust as an example. Since research recently determined more than 40,000 Nazi ghettos and death camps were in operation, his conclusions have merit.
In this book, Baron-Cohen discusses signs and symptoms to some extent, but his emphasis is the neuroscience of evil. Baron-Cohen discusses the regions of the brain controlling empathy response, and how physical damage, fetal development, and environmental factors can affect these areas, causing them to function differently than those of empathetic people. Baron-Cohen does a good job at discussing the malfunctioning areas of the brain. As a layperson, I had to listen to those sections several times to understand what he was talking about.
Since reading “Carrie” more than 30 years ago, I’ve run into a lot of actual people who completely lack empathy. I have wondered the whole time how that happens. Setting aside the theological theory, this book explains at least some of it.
I enjoyed the narration, and the unedited use of British terms. And yes, for anyone wondering, Simon Baron-Cohen is Sacha Baron-Cohen’s cousin – and Simon, in a very apropos discussion later in the book, mentions Sacha’s work.
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As I listened to Temple Grandin and Richard Panek’s 2013 “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum” I realized Grandin’s book is much more than “just” a book on autism. I desperately hope this book it isn’t overlooked or undervalued because of its title.
In Grandin’s parlance, I am “neuro-typical” (not autistic), and so is my entire family. I do know people with autism and I have friends with autistic children, but I don’t have a particular passionate interest in the disorder. The Amazon reviews I’ve read make it clear that “The Autistic Brain” is an extremely important book for the autistic community who have the passionate interest I lack. I believe “The Autistic Brain” is equally important for “neuro-typicals” - especially parents.
The seachange in “The Autistic Brain” is Grandin’s hypothesis that people think in at least three different ways: in pictures, or visually, as she does; verbally, or in words, like the majority of people do; or in a new category, patterns. I know I am primarily a verbal thinker, but by concentrating, I can and do think in pictures or in patterns, for short periods of time. When I am able to do that, I often solve problems I can’t solve otherwise. Grandin proposes the idea that an autistic person’s education, skill development, likely abilities and strengths should be tailored to their type of thinking. I agree completely, and it should be taken a step further: it should apply to “neuro-typicals” too.
For parents, she talks about some important child raising tactics: for example, if you’ve got a kid who really knows math well and the kid’s in “baby math”, the kid may get bored and act out. A lot. Give the kid real math to do, and you may have a model student. And math doesn’t have to go in the order it’s usually taught: basic math; algebra; geometry; calculus . . . and if a kid doesn’t ‘get’ algebra, try geometry, or statistics, or something else. These, and her other education recommendations, apply equally as well to “neuro-typicals.”
The book starts with a discussion of the genetic, biological and environmental causes of autism – as well as other usually less disruptive neurological conditions, such as migraine and depression. Grandin’s explanation of how and why the brain works, and some of the things that can go wrong, is the most understandable I have ever heard. By analogy, Grandin describes an engine (the brain) misfiring by describing how the engine is supposed to run, but pointing out that the engine is missing a sparkplug, has a clogged hose, or doesn’t have enough gas – or perhaps, all three.
For those of us who have long been puzzled by the actions of autistics acting out, Grandin discusses the often extreme sensory problems autistics can have. I realized I actually knew what that was like. Twenty years ago, I had a case of the flu so severe that I lost the ability to screen out noises in other apartments in my building, and I could only wear the softest cotton clothing – and that hurt. When the landlord started refinishing the hardwood floor in the next apartment over, the noise was so excruciating all I could do was put my hands over my ears and cry. I was only that sick for a day. Some autistic children were born that way. I will never again wonder, in annoyance, why a parent ‘can’t control’ their autistic child’s sensory tantrum again.
Grandin’s book also discusses, among so many other things: problems with even peer reviewed and published scientific studies caused by inaccurate assumptions, improper data collection, and bad analysis; the problem with diagnosing hypersensitivity or under sensitivity based on outward behavior; incorrectly applying diagnostic labels to individuals, and how that can hurt their development; how a typographic error erroneously caused a misdiagnosis of autism; why the ‘epidemic’ of autism may not really be an epidemic at all; the tablet/iPad revolution, and why it works so well for autistics; identifying sensory disorders; the number of undiagnosed autistics in Silicon Valley (she estimates 50%); what drugs may help autistics, and why; the upcoming and new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (DSM-V) . . . and so much more.
The narration was clear and crisp, and Andrea Gallo did a good job with the scientific terms and distinguishing the authors’ voices from discussion; and with quotes.