Monday, May 27, 2013

Book review: The Willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal (PhD)

Everyone thinks that their willpower fails them, often on a regular basis. Those people who say they have a lot of willpower often have the least. Willpower is undeniably good to have and in studies it is correlated with all kinds of positive outcomes.
Dr.McGonigal thankfully does not teach the reader never to “give in” to the things you like. Rather you should ask yourself what it is that you would like to stop/start doing and then focus on that goal. She refers to these goals as willpower challenges. Typical willpower challenges are to go to bed in time, to exercise more, to work instead of checking facebook updates, eat less snacks etc etc.

Most people have many willpower challenges. One important lesson from this book is that you do not have unlimited willpower. Therefore you should not take on too many willpower challenges simultaneously, because that will result in failure.
So what strategies does Dr.McGonigal propose for increasing willpower? This book includes a wealth of advice and I feel pretty confident in claiming that most people will find at least one strategy that helps them. Her first proposed strategy is meditation, which is just not my cup of tea (for me doing meditation would be a willpower challenge on its own). After taking about meditation and breathing exercises she moves on to more obvious candidates: exercise and sufficient sleep. I am sure that you have all heard it before but I will reiterate: exercise is good and getting enough sleep is important for all kinds of things, including willpower. Regarding sleep she also points out that people have started sleeping less in recent decades, and in the same time people have become more obese. In is not inconceivable that the rise in obesity in the recent decades in part is related to reduced willpower which in turn is due to the fact that we sleep less. After all, those evening snacks that we consume in the evening after a stressful day can contain quite a lot of calories.
Dr.McGonigal introduces plenty more strategies for overcoming willpower challenges. The ones I feel were most useful include the following: (1) If you really want say a snack, wait 10 minutes, and then, if you still want it, go ahead and take it. (2) Thinking more about your future self. People are often prone to ignoring the needs of their future selves I don’t care so much how their actions may affect their future selves. (3) Focusing on what you should do rather than what you shouldn’t do. Don’t think of pink elephants! Hard right? Similarly constantly telling yourself not to eat that snack will draw your attention to it, making it harder to resist. It is better to focus on what you should and do.   
There are many willpower traps. Perhaps the most obvious one is exposing yourself to the thing you try to avoid. If you want to eat less snacks, don’t keep them in the home cause if you are like me you will eat them, sooner or later. Another trap which I personally used to fall into, is rewarding yourself after a strenuous exercise i.e., now that I have exercised so much I deserve to eat several large burgers and some candy after that =). I am not saying that such a reward in undeserved, only that the calorie intake from a large meal is much larger than the calorie output during exercise. Yet another trap is the “what the hell effect”. Having succumbed to temptation many people say to themselves - what the hell, now that I have started eating this snack I might as well eat the rest...
I sum, this book provides an accessible introduction to willpower, what it is, how it works, and what you can do if you face a willpower challenge. Regardless of whether you decide to utilize any of Dr.McGonigal proposed strategies I believe that merely starting to think and learn about willpower will help you reach your personal goals. It is also nice to know that more or less everyone has willpower issues, and very few (sickly?) people never succumb to temptation.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Book review: Spillover by David Quammen -

This is the best book I have read in a long time. It is like a mystery thriller played out in various exotic locations around the world, that simultaneously, gives the reader intriguing and accurate knowledge about various exotic but dangerous pathogens that have the potential to forever change life as we know it. In other words, if you would put the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, a travel diary book by Bill Bryson, and an Agatha Christie thriller in the mixer, you would get something like this. It just doesn't get better than this!

David Quammen’s writing is accessible and throughout the book I was amazed by his ability to explaining difficult scientific concepts in a way that makes the reader understand... even crave science. Though I have read many scholarly articles, no single text I can recall have given me  such a deep understanding and appreciation for a scientific subject. I have always been fascinated by bacteria and viruses, however this book multiplied my fascination and my appreciation for the scientists that study viruses and other pathogens in humans as well as in other species.
This book is about spillovers (surprise!). A spillover is when a virus or a bacteria which normally live in one species transfer to a different species. Normally this transition spells the end for the pathogen because they evolved to live in their host species and not in the new species, but sometimes the pathogen survive or even thrive in their new host, which is typically bad news for the new host.
Think of pathogens such as Ebola, rabies, HIV, SARS, and the Spanish flu, all of which are spillovers from other species, and you will understand that pathogens that have the potential to spillover a.k.a zoonotic viruses can result in disaster.
Be assured, you will learn much about these intriguing pathogens, however, this book is not just a review of what we know about zoonotic viruses. On the very first page Quammen takes us to a sunny idyllic farm in Australia. Recently a number of horses have died following under mysterious circumstances. Worse still, several humans that came into contact with the horse also died. What caused these deaths and from where did the horses acquire it? Quammen instantly grips the reader. It was an instant page turner, with real science in it! You must know how these horses and humans died and you gladly, eagerly, follow Quammen when he takes you on a journey in the scientific literature as it develops over time, with frequent field visits that Quammen personally joined to understand the subject better.

Quammen cover several different pathogens, including HIV, Ebola, malaria, and SARS, and he travels accordingly. We get to follow scientists (and Quammen) into crowded Asian markets where hundreds of different animal species, each with their own set of nished pathogens, can be bought for that evenings dinner. We get to visit Bangladesh to analyse date-palm-sap to see if bats have pooped deadly virus into this popular drink. We visit the Congolese jungle where Ebola have completely eradicated large populations of gorillas as well as some smaller human populations. We go to caves filled with snakes, bats and guano. Of course we also get to visit high tech laboratories around the world to talk to researchers who try to understand these zoonotic viruses and predict where the next big pandemic will strike - because if or when “the next big one”, capable of killing us by the millions, comes, it will almost certainly be a spillover from another species.
The human species is vulnerable. We are around seven billion people. We are an urban species meaning that we tend of cluster in large groups (cities), which provides pathogens with the perfect springboard. We travel extensively, and could thus easily spread a virus around the globe in a short amount of time. We also continually mess with new ecological systems which may or may not have a deadly virus just waiting for a new host...

Put another way. Human population growth is an typical example of an outbreak i.e., explosive population growth. Just like with outbreaks of crickets that sweep across Africa eating everything it encounter, humans are sweeping across the entire planet, interfering with lots of ecological systems along the way. Indeed the most massive outbreak of any species that the world had ever seen is not a cricket or a larva, it is homo sapiens. And when there is an outbreak of a particular species what typically halts it? You guessed it - pathogens.