The Top Five Longreads of 2011 (So Far)

I am a huge fan of Longreads. I am a yearly subscriber and often use the #longreads tag on Twitter and Facebook to point out superb longform articles. At the end of last year, I published a post highlighting the top five longreads of the year. It is still the most popular post here on Reading By Eugene.

After  I published that post, some people commented that the list was too short — I could have easily made a top ten list, or at least included five honorable mentions. That is all true, and I will probably follow this advice at the end of 2011 with my (what I now hope to be) annual longreads round-up.

Until then, I’ve decided to highlight the best longreads of the first half of 2011. Here they are, in no particular order.

(1) “The Clock in the Mountain” [The Technium] — amazing story by Kevin Kelly of a clock being built in Texas, designed to last ten thousand years:

There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody. Each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years. Most times the Clock rings when a visitor has wound it, but the Clock hoards energy from a different source and occasionally it will ring itself when no one is around to hear it. It’s anyone’s guess how many beautiful songs will never be heard over the Clock’s 10 millennial lifespan.

Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants was the last book I read in 2010. Highly, highly recommended.

(2) “The Man Who Played Rockefeller” [Wall Street Journal] – first highlighted in this post, I wrote: “riveting, at times unbelievable, account of how a German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter came to the United States at the tender age of 17 and proceeded to climb up the ranks of society. But he did it through conniving tactics, playing cool, and always acting the impostor.” It is already on my short list for best long read of the year.

When he entered the magnificent Gothic church in early 1992, the former Christopher Crowe had a new name and a meticulously researched persona to go with it. “Hello,” he greeted his fellow worshippers in his perfectly enunciated East Coast prep-school accent, wearing a blue blazer and private-club necktie, which he would usually accent with khaki pants embroidered with tiny ducks, hounds or bumblebees, worn always with Top-Sider boat shoes, without socks. “Clark,” he said, “Clark Rockefeller.”

(3) “The Assassin in the Vineyard” [Vanity Fair] – what can I say? I am a huge fan of reads that involve mystery, espionage, and crime. This piece by Maximillian Potter, which I first highlighted here, is far and away one of the most thrilling short reads I’ve read in 2011. In that post I wrote:

The gist of the story: La Romanée-Conti is a small, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine. But when Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous and sophisticated note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his heritage, unless he paid a 1 million euro ransom, he did not treat it seriously at first. Who was the mastermind behind this crime? And did the criminal get caught? All is revealed in the article…

Thoroughly engaging and entertaining read.

(4) “The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See” [Men’s Journal] — truly an incredible story of how one man, Daniel Kish, has learned to see. How? By learning echolocation (what bats use to navigate):

Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. Since his infancy — Kish is now 44 — he has been adapting to his blindness in such remarkable ways that some people have wondered if he’s playing a grand practical joke. But Kish, I can confirm, is completely blind.

He knew my car was poorly parked because he produced a brief, sharp click with his tongue. The sound waves he created traveled at a speed of more than 1,000 feet per second, bounced off every object around him, and returned to his ears at the same rate, though vastly decreased in volume.

But not silent. Kish has trained himself to hear these slight echoes and to interpret their meaning. Standing on his front stoop, he could visualize, with an extraordinary degree of precision, the two pine trees on his front lawn, the curb at the edge of his street, and finally, a bit too far from that curb, my rental car. Kish has given a name to what he does — he calls it “FlashSonar” — but it’s more commonly known by its scientific term, echolocation.

(5) “The Epidemic of Mental Illness” (Part I) and “The Illusions of Psychiatry” (Part 2) [New York Review of Books] — this two part series, written by Marcia Angell changed my perspective on depression, the medicine used to treat it, and the field of psychiatry in general. I point out both reads because they are meant to be read in order (Part I then Part II).

Reviewed in Part I are books by  Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat. A notable paragraph of skepticism from Part I:

Do the drugs work? After all, regardless of the theory, that is the practical question. In his spare, remarkably engrossing book, The Emperor’s New Drugs, Kirsch describes his fifteen-year scientific quest to answer that question about antidepressants. When he began his work in 1995, his main interest was in the effects of placebos. To study them, he and a colleague reviewed thirty-eight published clinical trials that compared various treatments for depression with placebos, or compared psychotherapy with no treatment. Most such trials last for six to eight weeks, and during that time, patients tend to improve somewhat even without any treatment. But Kirsch found that placebos were three times as effective as no treatment. That didn’t particularly surprise him. What did surprise him was the fact that antidepressants were only marginally better than placebos.

I thought I’ve read a fair amount of skepticism in Part I. And then I read “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” which totally transplanted my thoughts on psychiatry from one mindset to another.

While Carlat believes that psychoactive drugs are sometimes effective, his evidence is anecdotal. What he objects to is their overuse and what he calls the “frenzy of psychiatric diagnoses.” As he puts it, “if you ask any psychiatrist in clinical practice, including me, whether antidepressants work for their patients, you will hear an unambiguous ‘yes.’ We see people getting better all the time.” But then he goes on to speculate, like Irving Kirsch in The Emperor’s New Drugs, that what they are really responding to could be an activated placebo effect. If psychoactive drugs are not all they’re cracked up to be—and the evidence is that they’re not—what about the diagnoses themselves?

One of Marcia Angell’s conclusions in that piece:

At the very least, we need to stop thinking of psychoactive drugs as the best, and often the only, treatment for mental illness or emotional distress. Both psychotherapy and exercise have been shown to be as effective as drugs for depression, and their effects are longer-lasting, but unfortunately, there is no industry to push these alternatives and Americans have come to believe that pills must be more potent. More research is needed to study alternatives to psychoactive drugs, and the results should be included in medical education.

So that’s my top five list of longreads of the first half of 2011? I mentioned honorable mentions at the beginning of the post, and I’ll include three of them below.

Honorable Mentions

(1) “What Happened to Air France Flight 447?” [New York Times] – a spectacular recounting of the Air France flight from Rio de Janiero to Paris, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009.

(2) “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” [Guernica Magazine] – a revealing look at what some call a slave business for interns on the campus of that magic place, Disney World:

“We’re not there to flip burgers or to give people food,” a fast-food intern said. “We’re there to create magic.”

(3) “The Brain on Trial” [The Atlantic] – my most recently featured long read, this piece by David Eagleman is a controversial read, in which, Eagleman argues that how the human brain is wired ultimately determines how people will act. There is no such thing as free will.

(4) “The Possibilian” [The New Yorker] – speaking of David Eagleman (see above), this is a fantastic profile of the scientist. What did a brush with death teach Eagleman about time, its perception, and the brain? Find out in this fascinating article.

Time isn’t like the other senses, Eagleman says. Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are relatively easy to isolate in the brain. They have discrete functions that rarely overlap: it’s hard to describe the taste of a sound, the color of a smell, or the scent of a feeling. (Unless, of course, you have synesthesia—another of Eagleman’s obsessions.) But a sense of time is threaded through everything we perceive. It’s there in the length of a song, the persistence of a scent, the flash of a light bulb.

(5) “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” [Awl] – I love Wikipedia. It’s my primary source to look up facts and yes, even current events. In this piece, Maria Bustillos goes in depth discussing its merits. I like this paragraph:

There’s an enormous difference between understanding something and deciding something. Only in the latter case must options be weighed, and one chosen. Wikipedia is like a laboratory for this new way of public reasoning for the purpose of understanding, an extended polylogue embracing every reader in an ever-larger, never-ending dialectic. Rather than being handed an “authoritative” decision, you’re given the means for rolling your own.

###

So there you have it. Top five long reads of the first half of 2011, plus five honorable mentions. It’s been a great year for #longreads so far, and it was tough to weed this list down to five (and it will be even harder to do so at the end of the year!). At least one or two of the pieces I mention here will be in my top five list at the end of the year. Of the best long reads I mentioned here, which one do you think already deserves that recognition? If I didn’t include a longreads post which you’ve thoroughly enjoyed and think should have made my list, please, do not hesitate to leave a comment below.

Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it. There are five buttons at the bottom: email this post, like it on Facebook, tweet it, +1 it on Google, or share (via LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, etc.). Of course, I also encourage you to subscribe to this blog via email using the box on the right side of the page.

David Eagleman and The Brain on Trial

Imagine for a second that anything you know about the motivations behind criminal activity. For most of us, myself included, our assessment of burglars, murderers, and other deviants is that they have made a choice to act this way (to break the law).

In a remarkable, provocative piece by David Eagleman, he suggests that criminal activity is ingrained in our brains. In no uncertain terms, Eagleman argues that how the human brain is wired ultimately determines how people will act. There is no such thing as free will.

The piece is long (but a must-read in its entirety). I pull a few significant quotes below.

The piece begins about Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a former Marine who killed 16 people and wounded 32 others during a shooting rampage on and around the university’s campus on August 1, 1966. The question was why? Eagleman begins to make his argument here, after Whitman’s suicide:

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction.

Perhaps the paragraph that tells the whole story of the piece:

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.

It is fascinating to learn how changing brain chemistry affects our moods, emotions, and behaviors. A classic example:

Changes in the balance of brain chemistry, even small ones, can also cause large and unexpected changes in behavior. Victims of Parkinson’s disease offer an example. In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos.

Through the mini stories that Eagleman provides in his piece, he explains the lesson: there is no such thing as free will. Human behavior cannot be separated from our brain chemistry:

The lesson from all these stories is the same: human behavior cannot be separated from human biology. If we like to believe that people make free choices about their behavior (as in, “I don’t gamble, because I’m strong-willed”), cases like Alex the pedophile, the frontotemporal shoplifters, and the gambling Parkinson’s patients may encourage us to examine our views more carefully. Perhaps not everyone is equally “free” to make socially appropriate choices.

Now, it’s a little hard to digest that paragraph above. Cleverly, Eagleman begins to question you, the reader, on how you feel about this hypothesis:

Does the discovery of Charles Whitman’s brain tumor modify your feelings about the senseless murders he committed? Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? Does the tumor change the degree to which you consider the killings “his fault”? Couldn’t you just as easily be unlucky enough to develop a tumor and lose control of your behavior?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dangerous to conclude that people with a tumor are free of guilt, and that they should be let off the hook for their crimes?

As our understanding of the human brain improves, juries are increasingly challenged with these sorts of questions. When a criminal stands in front of the judge’s bench today, the legal system wants to know whether he is blameworthy. Was it his fault, or his biology’s fault?

At this point, Eagleman counters and perhaps worries that he is going to lose readers. Your ideas are crazy, you might think. But please read on, as Eagleman suggests:

If I seem to be heading in an uncomfortable direction—toward letting criminals off the hook—please read on, because I’m going to show the logic of a new argument, piece by piece. The upshot is that we can build a legal system more deeply informed by science, in which we will continue to take criminals off the streets, but we will customize sentencing, leverage new opportunities for rehabilitation, and structure better incentives for good behavior. 

Some overwhelming statistics about criminal behavior:

Who you even have the possibility to be starts at conception. If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.

But what about the environmental effects? Surely someone growing up on the mean streets of Detroit would become more predisposed to crime than someone growing up in the quiet suburbs of Wichita, Kansas.

When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.

Eagleman further espouses on free will, and explains that it doesn’t exist with a striking example of Tourette’s syndrome:

The legal system rests on the assumption that we are “practical reasoners,” a term of art that presumes, at bottom, the existence of free will. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions. This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic.

The existence of free will in human behavior is the subject of an ancient debate. Arguments in support of free will are typically based on direct subjective experience (“I feel like I made the decision to lift my finger just now”). But evaluating free will requires some nuance beyond our immediate intuitions.

Consider a decision to move or speak. It feels as though free will leads you to stick out your tongue, or scrunch up your face, or call someone a name. But free will is not required to play any role in these acts. People with Tourette’s syndrome, for instance, suffer from involuntary movements and vocalizations. A typical Touretter may stick out his tongue, scrunch up his face, or call someone a name—all without choosing to do so.

So what’s the purpose of this essay? What can we conclude? Comparatively speaking, we know so little of our brains, that the field of neuroscience can be said to be in its infancy.

Today, neuroimaging [editor’s note: I studied medical imaging both in undergrad at Georgia Tech and at the Brain Imaging Center at California Institute of Technology; I am familiar with the subject matter and for what it’s worth, agree with Eagleman’s assessment] is a crude technology, unable to explain the details of individual behavior. We can detect only large-scale problems, but within the coming decades, we will be able to detect patterns at unimaginably small levels of the microcircuitry that correlate with behavioral problems. Neuroscience will be better able to say why people are predisposed to act the way they do. As we become more skilled at specifying how behavior results from the microscopic details of the brain, more defense lawyers will point to biological mitigators of guilt, and more juries will place defendants on the not-blameworthy side of the line.

Further conclusions from Eagleman. The wrong question to ask: how can we assign a blameworthiness scale in our legal system? Eagleman explain:

Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.

Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime?

Speaking of wrong questions to ask, Eagleman brilliantly defends here:

The important change will be in the way we respond to the vast range of criminal acts. Biological explanation will not exculpate criminals; we will still remove from the streets lawbreakers who prove overaggressive, underempathetic, and poor at controlling their impulses. Consider, for example, that the majority of known serial killers were abused as children. Does this make them less blameworthy? Who cares? It’s the wrong question. The knowledge that they were abused encourages us to support social programs to prevent child abuse, but it does nothing to change the way we deal with the particular serial murderer standing in front of the bench. We still need to keep him off the streets, irrespective of his past misfortunes. The child abuse cannot serve as an excuse to let him go; the judge must keep society safe.

And then we come to the meat of the essay, where Eagleman gives us an idea of a forward-looking legal system:

Beyond customized sentencing, a forward-thinking legal system informed by scientific insights into the brain will enable us to stop treating prison as a one-size-fits-all solution. To be clear, I’m not opposed to incarceration, and its purpose is not limited to the removal of dangerous people from the streets. The prospect of incarceration deters many crimes, and time actually spent in prison can steer some people away from further criminal acts upon their release. But that works only for those whose brains function normally. The problem is that prisons have become our de facto mental-health-care institutions—and inflicting punishment on the mentally ill usually has little influence on their future behavior. An encouraging trend is the establishment of mental-health courts around the nation: through such courts, people with mental illnesses can be helped while confined in a tailored environment. Cities such as Richmond, Virginia, are moving in this direction, for reasons of justice as well as cost-effectiveness. Sheriff C. T. Woody, who estimates that nearly 20 percent of Richmond’s prisoners are mentally ill, told CBS News, “The jail isn’t a place for them. They should be in a mental-health facility.” Similarly, many jurisdictions are opening drug courts and developing alternative sentences; they have realized that prisons are not as useful for solving addictions as are meaningful drug-rehabilitation programs.

A forward-thinking legal system will also parlay biological understanding into customized rehabilitation, viewing criminal behavior the way we understand other medical conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, and depression—conditions that now allow the seeking and giving of help. These and other brain disorders find themselves on the not-blameworthy side of the fault line, where they are now recognized as biological, not demonic, issues.

But Eagleman closes spectacularly:

As brain science improves, we will better understand that people exist along continua of capabilities, rather than in simplistic categories. And we will be better able to tailor sentencing and rehabilitation for the individual, rather than maintain the pretense that all brains respond identically to complex challenges and that all people therefore deserve the same punishments. Some people wonder whether it’s unfair to take a scientific approach to sentencing—after all, where’s the humanity in that? But what’s the alternative? As it stands now, ugly people receive longer sentences than attractive people; psychiatrists have no capacity to guess which sex offenders will reoffend; and our prisons are overcrowded with drug addicts and the mentally ill, both of whom could be better helped by rehabilitation. So is current sentencing really superior to a scientifically informed approach?

Neuroscience is beginning to touch on questions that were once only in the domain of philosophers and psychologists, questions about how people make decisions and the degree to which those decisions are truly “free.” These are not idle questions. Ultimately, they will shape the future of legal theory and create a more biologically informed jurisprudence.

###

I’ve highlighted the major sections of the essay, but of course, I encourage you to read the whole thing. It will change your perspective on how you view and think about criminality and our legal system. If for some chance it did not change your course of thinking, why not? Shout out in the comments.