Book Review: The Body Keeps the Score

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This should be required reading for anyone majoring in psych. Associate’s. Hell, standard grade school curriculum, if that weren’t such a joke. We all need to know this. This book isn’t just going to change your treatment approach, or the way you think about trauma. It’s going to change your life.

The first thing you need to know about trauma in general and PTSD in particular is also the last thing, and they’re both the title of the book. The body keeps the score. Every time you experience a traumatic event, especially of the kind that are so severe that your brain goes offline, your body, like a sketchy 3rd party emulator, takes a save state. There’s an evolutionary reason for this. Every cell you’ve got is convinced you’re facing annihilation – whether this is brought about by physical abuse, incest, or getting royally and publicly dunked on in gym class is only relevant in terms of depth of response – and the system that is You agrees that if you make it out of this alive, whatever you did to survive is obviously the plan you’ll need to stick to the next time something like this happens.

It’s adaptation, and our capacity for it brought us from being tall, gregarious monkeys to owning the world. In PTSD, the triggering event to implement that survival script can get a little overeager. Better safe than sorry, after all, even if the safety save state is blackout violence, a dissociative episode, or full catatonia.

And that, my beauties, is the process a veteran undergoes when he returns from the atrocities he witnessed and, in many cases, committed, and tries to integrate back into society. The fireworks go off, and they sound like gunshots. The save state is quickloaded, and you have to understand, it’s not remembering what happens last time. It’s a complete neurochemical and hormonal overhaul to match the conditions of “the last time this happened”. His brain replicates the circumstances of the war, his endocrine system double-times the adrenaline and cortisol he needs to do whatever it was he did the first time to survive. Obviously, the neighbor kid playing with firecrackers in the suburbs is not the same as his 12th straight day of being shelled in Fallujah, but it doesn’t matter. His body can’t tell the difference, and neither can his brain.

Same is true of an abuse survivor. (Tap out here if you think this might trigger you).

Someone who lived through being molested in their early childhood, when they were dependent on the adults in their lives to literally keep them alive, they internalize the necessity of cooperation, often to the point where they identify with their abuser and condemn their victimized self, because it’s easier to hate yourself than to be without the anchor points of your childhood world. The desire to escape or to fight will necessarily give way to the freeze response, and that “compliance” will go on to fuse with the frustration, the trustlessness, the self-loathing to form a melange of cognitive dissonance that the victim internalizes and eventually spills over onto their adult relationships.

The thing to remember is, should a panic attack and dissociative episode emerge at a triggering point (most likely when the victim is having regular, consensual sex with a significant other who cares about them), it’s not that they’re being reminded of their assault, or drawing similarities or associations. They are quickloaded into their childhood bodies. A flashback is time travel. They are reliving it, and they need to follow the script that let them survive it the first time. It’s not a mind over matter situation, and it’s not a decision they’re making. As far as the whole system of their selfhood is concerned, it’s their only way they’re going to live through what’s happening.

Heavy, right? The whole book is like that. When I say it’ll change your life, I mean it. No matter how self-possessed you are, you’re not going to walk through this particular thicket without getting some scars.

Van der Kolk is the last word in trauma treatment. He’s a psychiatrist (boo hiss) but he rails against overuse of psychopharmaceutical interventions (wooooo yea), especially the widely overprescribed antipsychotics that blunt the physiological responses causing most of the problems. In PTSD therapy, as in most things, the only way out is through.

Van der Kolk suggests that it’s an issue of integration. A good way to think about it is corrupted data. Once upon a time, saving things on a computer took more than a microsecond. If you turned off the power before the file was saved, the data would be corrupted and unusable, and every time you tried to open that file, something bad would happen. Maybe it would just be computer code gibberish, or crash the program, or short out the whole computer. Maybe it would fry your entire motherboard.

That’s trauma. We encode memories on the fly, integrating episodic information into the personal narrative that comprises our life, and from this narrative we extract the information of who we are. Our concept of self comes from our ideas about identity, which we draw from the stories about ourselves, and the only place we can source those are from our memory.

During episodes of extreme trauma, the encoding process shuts off. Huge chunks of the brain shut off. You can’t be running all that extra hardware right now, you’re fighting for your life. We go into shock. So we save bits and pieces of the information coming through – impressions, sensory data, feelings – but not a comprehensive understanding of what happened, because at the time of the trauma, it’s too horrible for us to comprehend, and our thinking brain simply refuses to the task.

But the brain is continually referring to previous experiences for reference, especially in what it deems similar situations. So the brain tries to load that corrupted data, and the whole system crashes, and there’s the sudden onset of explosive PTSD symptoms, dissociation, panic attacks, numbing, crushing depression, and whatever might naturally follow from these experiences (risky behavior as self-soothing, self-harm, suicidality, etc.)

Van der Kolk’s answer is surprisingly direct and intuitive. Integrate the trauma. The flashbacks offer a doorway directly to the trauma, and if we can descalate the physiological response sufficiently to reintegrate the data into our story, we can accept the trauma as “something that happened in the past” and move on, rather than an ongoing experience we continually live and relive.

Since the brain is slackin’ ass, which is the entire problem, and trauma is stored in the body, the body is how treatment is approached. Trauma survivors usually have terrible relationships with their bodies. Eating disorders, obesity, dysmorphia, self-harm, chronic pain, alexithymia, you name it, all born of a disconnect from the body’s wants and needs, originally developing as a mechanism to survive the trauma. “If thine eye offend thee,” and all that. The first step is reconnecting the survivor with their body. Any physical modality will get them there, so long as there’s an element of interpersonal connection to it – martial arts, dance, gymnastics, theater, most forms of structured group exercise. In theory, crossfit would do the job, although weight training alone might be too isolationist, and can worsen things like body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Van der Kolk himself is absolutely horny for yoga. I’ve never heard anyone pop off about yoga with such fanatical adoration. Like, I’ve known a lot of yoga practitioners and teachers, and they tend to be like, “yeah, it’s pretty nice”. Van der Kolk is straight up yoga street-teaming.

It makes sense. The point of yoga is reintegration with the needs of the body, releasing the energy from the muscles, being kind to yourself and compassionate to others. Those are exactly the issues of PTSD. It’s an ideal counterbalance.

Once the body is grounded, the trauma work itself can begin. Van der Kolk is dismissive of “just talk therapy” to the point of contempt, which is not normally what you want to see from a guy who prescribes psychotropic drugs, but he acknowledges it’s a necessary component of childhood trauma processing. The trauma is stirred up, brought to the surface, then “experienced” and processed along with the new arsenal of improved bodily awareness, often “dipping the toe in” a little at a time until the whole of the traumatic experience can be mapped out and integrated into the memory. The reflexive responses that the body needed at the moment are manifested, allowed, and released. The system’s job queue is cleared, and the trauma can be accepted as something that happened, not something that’s happening. The physiological responses to it die off, and the PTSD just… disappears. It goes away. The spirits are exorcised.

Van der Kolk also talks about fringier approaches like EMDR, IFS, and biofeedback, all of which have seen fantastic results in certain populations of PTSD sufferers, and all of which are pooh-poohed by establishment shrinks and researchers because they’re expensive and difficult to understand empirically (beyond the demonstrable improvements in patients), and everybody in the field just wants to rave about how great CBT is, rather than gamble with their tenure.

It’s an incredible book, and everyone should read it. Not just every clinician, not just everyone who’s been traumatized. Every living person. If we all knew this information and we all applied it, it would be a much, much better world.



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Book Review: Elric of Melnibone

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’m a big Conan the Barbarian fan, which is unfortunate, since I never cared for the books. I’ve always loved the prehistoric aspects of the setting, the easy ferocity of the sword and sorcery genre, and the prospect that all of these ancient and unknowable Lovecraftian evils weren’t an instant sanity-breaker. Once, when men were better, we could oppose them with nothing but steel and sinew, and we could win. It’s a good message. It’s the kind of thing that pushes you to grind out the last few reps in the gym.

What kept me from successfully finishing a Conan anthology is that he’s a Mary Sue. I’m a longtime Doom franchise devotee, for many of the same reasons I like sword and sorcery, so I’ve got a pretty high threshold tolerance for masculine power fantasies, but at a certain point they get embarrassing, and Conan always did a beautiful, muscular yet supple swan dive over that particular precipice within a couple paragraphs.

John L. Howard at his typewriter like: “And then Conan, who is powerful and sexual and smells good, rippled to his feet like a hot panther who girls like and said, ‘I WILL PUNCH YOU! WITH MY FISTS!’ And the crowd roared and cheered in unrestrained delight, for Conan was so honest and handsome with the deepest squat and biggest dingaling in all the land.”

Whereas Elric of Melnibone is a slouching albino goth who maintains a high dose meth addiction to counteract his anemia and perpetual caloric deficit. He’s the emperor of his floundering, ancient, neutral evil nation, but none of his subjects understand him because he reads too many books (which makes him a contemptible nerd) and as a result developed a moral compass.

Essentially, the plot of Elric of Melnibone is if Marcus Aurelius had an autoimmune disease and became a warlock about it.

It was spectacular. The writing was phenomenal, and not even hokey! I didn’t think that could be done, considering the subject matter. It’s easy to see Moorcock’s influence on modern fantasy greats like GRRM, although it might be more fair to call GRRM a past fantasy great, as big boy is never gonna write another book.

Elric has Mary Sue elements, sure, he’s one of the finest swordsmen who ever lived and he’s also the literal emperor, but he’s also deeply flawed. He’s a brooding, melancholy drug addict. A real Sigma male. Nobody understands him and it’s not a phase, mom.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves high fantasy in general and sword and sorcery in particular. It checked all the boxes. Moorcock is a tremendous writer with an appropriate surname.



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Book Review: Paleo for Beginners

Paleo for Beginners: Essentials to Get Started by John Chatham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


It could have been a pamphlet.

At no point is the paleo diet ever discussed in any detail, or any reasons provided why it’s a logical, or even sensical choice. This one’s like an arbitrary rulebook that makes vague, buzzwordy reference to things like “blood sugar” and “bad cholesterol” and expecting you to take that at face value, then condemning milk and beans without making any sort of explanation for why that isn’t on paleo.

And then, the “recipes”.

Cook a fish! And some vegetables! Delicious fish and vegetables, serves 4.

Craving steak? Grill a steak! And some vegetables! You won’t go back to eating anything other than meat and vegetables after you try THIS paleo classic!

Do you miss pancakes? Smash a bunch of bananas and eggs together! That’s “batter”, now. Just fry it up in olive oil because butter is dairy! Whatever! Just like the cavemen!

On some dumb.

Two stars because it made me hungry for trail mix, so I made my own trail mix, which rules.



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Book Review: The Culture Code (Coyle)

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of my favorite books is also called The Culture Code, so I figured I’d try my luck again. It panned out!

Unfortunately, the culture Coyle is talking about is not the interesting kind, with folklore and recipes, but the corporate kind. That would be enough to turn me off in most instances. I/O psychologists are barely better than advertisers, and advertisers don’t deserve to sleep indoors. But the studies that Coyle pulls and the conclusions he draws all generalize out of the office and into the parts of life that matter. And it was pretty well written, too.

“Safety” is the take home. The more rigid the hierarchy, the worse the performance. The more comfortable and familial the environment, the more people will collaborate, the better the output and happier the participants. It’s not rocket science, but it is actual science, and backed up with a bunch of blind experiments.

Four stars, because that’s the highest rating I can give a business book and maintain my integrity.



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Book Review: The Holy Sister

Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It’s an objectively good fantasy series, and this is a great installment. You feel for the characters and you get wrapped up in the DBZ-style power escalation that happens whenever the worldbuilding includes a magic system.

But I’ve seen what Mark Lawrence is capable of. Each book in the Broken Empire series are some of the best I have ever read, especially the Prince of Thorns. I’ve reread them so many times I’ve lost count and they only get better. I couldn’t do that with these. The Book of the Ancestor is good, but it’s also Lawrence punching way below his weight class.

If I’d never read Prince of Thorns, I’d probably have given this book 4 or 5 stars. It really did have everything a good fantasy novel needs, but unfortunately, I know what the man is capable of.



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Book Review: Go Wild

Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization by John J. Ratey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


One of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. The idea is that humans are wild animals, and for all the trappings of civilization we wrap ourselves in, we’re still running the old jungle OS. We’re primitive creatures with primitive drives trying to force ourselves into the shape demanded by a modern world, and it’s making us fat, sick, and crazy.

The concept is a sort of natural expansion of Freud’s suggestion from Civilization and its Discontents, but less pseudoscientific and quacky. Freud said we’re animals. So did the Bloodhound Gang, in their seminal 1999 treatise “Bad Touch”. According to Siggy, the root of all neurosis is our superego trying to cram our id into the acceptable conduct box, so We might continue to Live In A Society.

Ratey says the same thing in more modern and empirical terms. Evolution programmed us over the last couple million years to exercise constantly, socialize constantly, eat huge quantities of fats, and maintain a state of mindfulness (which is just awareness of our surroundings so we don’t get eaten by bears). Our stress was immediate, and faded as soon as the danger was gone.

Flash forward to the present day. The most physically fit among us exercise seven or eight hours a week. We live in privacy boxes with immediate family or a couple roommates, who we tend to avoid because of how stressful talking to people at work or school is. Most of what we eat is corn and sugar. We don’t have time to be aware of our surroundings due to the constant hyperstimulus beaming a stream of shining blue data from the attention-hog computer we keep in our pockets, directly into our frontal lobes. We are mad at our computers because someone said something WRONG about VIDEO GAMES on the INTERNET, and we maintain a constant high-boil of cortisol because the tried and true tactic of “sprint until you escape” doesn’t work on student loan debt.

The answer? Knock it off.

The first book I read by Ratey was Spark, which changed the way I looked at exercise. I’ve always been obsessive about it (I tend to be hyperactive to a point just south of mania, Jackie Chan snap-kicking out of bed a few seconds before my alarm goes off), but I didn’t realize the effect it has on mental health and hormone profile. Most of what ails you, regular exercise will cure. Present research suggests that in trials for treatment of depression, anxiety, and ADHD, daily cardio worked as well or better than medication in terms of treatment. So naturally, that’s what they lead with in Go Wild: get off your ass and get your heart pumping, remind your body it’s alive.

Then comes groundbreaking life advice like “Zebra Cakes aren’t dinner”, “Sleep regularly”, and “Talk to people you like, in real life”.

I’m doing it a disservice with the pithy summary, but it’s an amazing book, and one I took my time reading because I didn’t want it to be over.

SECOND READ:
Read it again. I was right the first time, although now that I’m older and wiser I can recognize some of the reaching Ratey did in the last few chapters. A lot of the evidence was anecdotal there and instead of providing sources or studies he was like, “Try it! You’ll like it!”

I also found myself getting a little defensive when he talked about his other psychiatrist friend who insisted that PTSD therapy didn’t work and qualified it as “yakking”. So how do you resolve a lifetime of the collected, complex trauma from childhood physical and sexual abuse? Just go ahead and dance it right out. Join a Zumba and all those scars will evaporate. Oh, and slam down a handful of these super special drugs every day, of course.

I was going to write “get fucked, van der Kolk”, but in googling what the hell his name actually is I found out that he initially formulated the PTSD diagnosis and has been researching it for 50 years. He’s an authority, and pretending I know better based on my own anecdotal treatment experiences would be disingenuous, especially considering how often I push physically active coping skills on my clients.

The bleedover is van der Kolk tends to focus on ritualized movement methods within cultures like dancing, shamanic and wildly boolin’ religious practices (Shaker/Quaker style), and ancient Greek theater. A lot of these things included elements of psychotherapy right in them. Catholic confession is the most on-the-nose example, but exercises like shamanic soul retrieval have persisted largely unchanged into modern psychotherapeutic practice, so maybe our man has a point. I’ll give you this round, van der Kolk, and I’ll read The Body Keeps the Score someday.




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Book Review: Talking to Crazy

Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life by Mark Goulston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


It’s sort of like a pop psych version of The Prince, but instead of manipulating snooty European nobles with “near truths” and tactical surrenders, you use it on coworkers and loved ones when they’re acting screwy.

Goulston gives examples of the various crazy people will act out in their day to day lives — focusing primarily on every day, garden variety crazy, not axe murderer crazy — and how to disarm it. Most of these disarmaments require a sacrifice of dignity. You’ll be flattering them unduly, you’ll be lying about their capability, you’ll be pretending they’re right or that you’re scared or something like that as a means of “leaning into their crazy” which gives you the leverage to frog-march them back into sanity.

He seems like an excellent psychiatrist, if duplicitous. I like the prospect of leaning into crazy. People get really embedded in delusional thinking, and to challenge that delusion challenges their whole self-concept, which feels like an attack not only on the individual, but on the whole foundation of the individual’s world. Burning it down and salting the earth. So when you try to talk somebody out of crazy, it feels like bombardment, and they’ll start deploying whatever weapons they have to stop what they perceive as your assault. And guess what? Those weapons? Real crazy.

Whereas, leaning into crazy, it’s like a trojan horse. They won’t realize you’re dragging them back into sanity until it’s too late, at which point they won’t be irrational anymore, which is the point.

Goulston’s methods are sketchy because yes, they are deliberately, premeditatedly manipulative. In that respect, it reads like a pick-up artist book. Here’s a list of canned responses and insight into the psychology of others to coax them into doing what you want. It’s just, in this case, doing what you want is “acting like a reasonable adult”, and I think that’s probably the greater good.




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Book Review: Dispelling Wetiko

Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil by Paul Levy

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


Incomprehensible and charmless, Dispelling Wetiko attempts to answer questions nobody asked with more meandering, answerless questions that don’t really even pertain to the initial question. Through the fog of schizoid babble and overuse of the meaningless signifier “nonlocal”, Paul Levy attempts to argue… something. He borrows heavily from Lovecraft in that, “Wetiko cannot be put into words (except the word Wetiko), Wetiko is so powerful and ultra spooky and pervasive that if you talk about it, it controls you, but if you don’t talk about it, it also controls you!”

Wetiko, as near as I could decipher, is being selfish and willfully noncreative. It’s etymologically linked to the indigenous concept of the Wendigo, who ate people; Wetiko as a “psychic disease” eats humanity by robbing us of what it means to be human, locking us in a non-generative box of self-absorbed consumption, something about “ego is a delusion” because Levy’s into Buddhism, blah blah, you get it. Oh, look, I used words to describe the indescribable.

He’s a miserable writer and it’s made worse by his flagrant self-obsession, which he props up on meaningless New Age jargon like an unconvincing scarecrow, periodically name-dropping Jung and Rollo May in an effort to salvage credibility.

The worst part is, it’s a book pretending to be about psychology, but no psychologist was even peripherally involved in its production. In the intro to the book, Paul Levy explains how the manifestation of Wetiko crept into his dreams, manifesting its vampiric and oogidy-boogidy nature by his recurrent dreamland dalliances with Dracula.

Multiple dreams about Dracula. One where they’re sitting in his parlor just vibing out, chatting, but Dracula keeps staring at him, eyes beginning to glow with a bestial hunger. In the second one, he and Dracula are laying in bed together, and Levy realizes “Wetiko” is aiming to consume him vampirically, so he jams something in Dracula’s mouth while chanting a Buddhist mantra that symbolized a very specific guru whom Levy idolizes.

Now, if at any point in the editing process, Levy had checked with a psychologist, therapist, psychoanalyst, or even a first-year psych student, they would have said:

“Paul, these Dracula dreams sound horny. The ‘charismatic, vampiric’ force manifesting in the form of Dracula, staring at you in a way that makes you feel desired and uncomfortable, literally sharing a bed with you… could that be your unconscious grappling with something latent? Maybe that’s why you chose to dissipate Dracula’s dark and alluring power with the sigil of your Buddhist father figure, who provides a channel by which to communicate that ‘compassion’ and ‘lovingkindness’ for other fellas? Is that maybe why you felt you had to mention waking up next to your girlfriend in the very next sentence?”

Not my pig, not my farm, not my client. Maybe if he were my client, I would have finished this book. As it stands, there’s no way I’m sitting through 12 hours of this. If that means I stay wracked with Wetiko, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.



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Book Review: The Chimp Paradox

The Chimp Paradox: The Acclaimed Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness by Steve Peters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I know it looks like get-up-and-gotivation office jockey tripe, but it’s a ruse. The market for business books is probably better than the market for self help. Nobody wants to do things “for themselves”, especially in America, but everybody wants to make more money.

Peters hammers the reader with any number of meandering analogies that are impossible to keep track of, comparing aspects of the personality to various structures in our solar system including, for some reason, the Kuiper belt, and describes reflexive unconscious schema as either “autopilot”, “goblins”, or “gremlins”. He’s English, and maybe there’s a more pronounced and innately understood cultural difference between goblins and gremlins there. I’m an American. I will not learn about English culture under any circumstances.

Where the book and the theory really shines is the divvying up of the Freudian id and ego/superego into “chimp” and “human” aspects of our mind. The chimp is irrational, easily angered, highly defensive, functionally feral. The human is logical, rational, capable of delaying gratification to get two marshmallows later, that kind of thing. However, both in your head and in real life, chimps are 5x stronger than humans per square inch of muscle, and you will never overpower your internal chimpliness with sheer force of will.

Fortunately, you don’t have to. You just have to be on good terms with your chimp. Just like you positively condition a dog with treats to get it to do what you want, you bribe, bargain, and placate your chimp into cooperation. When it gets worked up and “makes you anxious”, give it ten minutes to vent. Let your chimp bitch and moan. Once it’s done, the human steps in and says, “I know it sucks. It’s okay. How about we pound through the homework assignment right quick, then after we can get a drink with the lads?”

A well-exercised chimp is much more manageable. Take it out, let it run around. Let it scream itself out when it needs to. Your chimp likes creature comforts like food and sex and smoking weed, but it also likes things that remind your body that you’re alive, like exercise, cold showers, and social achievement (as the chimp is deeply concerned about its place in the troop at all times).

Peters presents a concise owner’s manual for fruitful chimp companionship. Take care of your chimp (and your body). Address your chimp’s need to chimp out (your emotions). Distance yourself from those irrational aspects of yourself, but stop punishing yourself for feeling things strongly! There’s a chimp in there, but he’s not necessarily you, in that you are more than just the chimp.

You don’t need to fly into a rage and regret it later when the chimp is exhausted and the human needs to pick up the pieces, which in turn humiliates the chimp, creating a feedback loop of rage. You can get the chimp out of the crisis zone, let him hop around in the jungle for a while, then come back at this when he’s contentedly eating bananas and you can actually steer the damn vehicle.

Excuse the mixed metaphor. Chimps shouldn’t drive, unless they have demonstrated a natural talent.

An excellent book for anybody with even a passing interest in psychology. I’ve been pushing it on a bunch of people, even though nobody ever takes my book recommendations. I don’t take it personal. Reading is hard, especially for a chimp, and if you didn’t have chimp management issues I wouldn’t be pushing the book on you in the first place.



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Book Review: What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite

What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite by David DiSalvo

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Fisher-Price My First Neuroscience book. Somebody should have stopped him from publishing the introduction, it was so awkward that I almost stopped reading the book.

If you make it through that, it’s a primer on neuroscience and cognitive psych, citing the usual bunch of studies you would have learned about in a Psych 101 gen ed. The gorilla basketball experiment, the marshmallow one, monkeys creating a token economy, you know the drill.

The science was sturdy and the takeaway is that our brains are organized to prefer short-term benefits over the long-term promise of benefits due to an innate understanding of uncertainty, which served us fine living in the caves, but doesn’t fly as well trading crypto.







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