Book Review: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

The story of the friendship between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is the story of how our minds lead us to make mistakes. The Undoing Project: A friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis focuses on the relationship between two extraordinary psychologists. However, in telling the story of that relationship, Lewis educates the reader about behavioural economics, discipline that arose out of the work of Kahneman and Tversky.

Lewis is a prolific American non-fiction writer, probably best know for his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. He is a remarkable storyteller – in fact, even after I had read The Undoing Project, I couldn’t quite figure out whether Lewis had meant to write about a friendship or behavioural economics. Even in the introduction to the book, Lewis hints at this dilemma himself:

“What possessed two guys in the Middle East to sit down and figure out what the mind was doing when it tried to judge a baseball player, or an investment, or a presidential candidate? And how on earth does a psychologist win a Nobel Prize in Economics? In the answers to those questions, it emerged, there was another story to tell.” (p.19)

With this beginning, Lewis tells the story of Tversky and Kahneman and their friendship – and the tale is compelling. Most people would find that they cannot stop reading. Two clever men, both Israeli, with very different personalities are intellectually attracted and out of their collaboration they make discoveries about how we think that will ultimately change how we think.

Those of us who practice medicine are certainly aware of Kahneman’s and Tversky’s work. Their work, as extrapolated in to medicine by Dr. Don Redelmeier, working with Tversky. They examined how errors in medical judgment occurred, and particularly in the case of expert physicians who sometimes ignored the data in favour of their own intuition. Most often, in these cases, the doctor will be wrong. This important work has helped physicians to check their thinking, to confirm that they are basing decisions on facts and not impressions.

Because Lewis uses the history of a friendship to help describe important discoveries about how we think, I found that I learned about Tversky’s and Kahneman’s work without having to think about it. I think most readers would have the same experience.

(I read the hardcover W. W. Norton edition of The Undoing Project: A friendship That Changed Our Minds, published in 2017.)

Book Review: Stir

Stir: My Broken Brain and The Meals That Brought Me Home is a cross between a memoir and a cookbook. The theme, however, is not one that many can relate to, although the book will help the reader understand what it’s like to live recovering from a brain injury. At age 28, Jessica Fechtor was on a treadmill when an aneurysm in her brain burst. This is her account of how her favourite recipes helped her to recover.

As a physician, I was particularly struck by Ms. Fechtor’s accounts of her encounters with the health care system. These were certainly a stark reminder that, even in the United States, care is not always what it could be. Consider this description of an occupational therapy assessment:

‘ “How did you bathe before you got sick?” The healthy, unterrified version of myself would have realized that all of this “before you got sick” business was just standard language. The therapist had probably been taught to ask the same things in exactly the same way of each of her patients, many of whom – unlike me – had limited mobility before whatever had landed them in the hospital, orhad suffered debilitating physical or cognitive deficits. But hadn’t she read my file? And if she had, and she still thought these questions applied, was I worse off than I knew? Panic crept along the back of my neck.

‘ “I got into the shower. I washed my hair.” My throat was so tight that it hurt to talk. Why was I speaking in the past tense?

‘ “Can you show me how?” she asked. I lifted both my hands and wiggled my fingers around. She scribbled another something down. Silent tears had begun to squeeze out from the corners of my eyes. I wiped at them with the back of my hand.’ (Page 143)

As well as this interaction, the account of a hospitalization when Ms. Fechtor develops a fever after surgery would leave anyone with concerns about health care. In other words, this is not a book for the fainthearted. Having said this, the book also describes how the health care system comes back after a worrisome encounter and goes on to deliver topnotch care. It is this kind of honesty that characterizes the best memoirs.

Leaving the health memoir to consider the recipes, their integration into the text is extremely powerful. As one reads why certain recipes are chosen, the reader realizes in no uncertain terms that food facilitates health and healing. Ms. Fechtor traces the origins of some recipes to her childhood, others to her travels, but all of the recipes are linked to her own life. It is because of this connection that the food becomes an elixir for her.

Think about this for a moment. Think of the foods that you want when you’re not well. Food, preparing food, sharing a meal are linked to healing and comfort in all cultures. Fechtor’s memoir reminds us of this, and tells us in particular how the recipes she cooked, and that others cooked for her, helped her to recover. Food is not just about nourishing the body; it is about nourishing the spirit and this nourishment is linked inextricably to recovery.

An example to illustrate this idea could be chicken soup. Many people have a chicken soup recipe in their family that is felt to be almost a magic remedy. This book does have a recipe for chicken soup – and its history in Ms. Fechtor’s family. She also provides the secret to producing a clear broth, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. If you’d like to get a feeling for Ms. Fechtor’s writing, you can find it on her blog. You can also find some of the recipes there. Why not find one and think about the food you like when you’re not feeling well? I made the pumpkin bread.

(Note: I read the first hardcover edition of the book published in 2015 by Penguin.)


A book that rethinks cancer

Book: Malignant Metaphor: Confronting Cancer Myths by Alanna Mitchell (Toronto: ECW Press, 2015)

Cancer is one of the mythological illnesses and in this spare, riveting book Alanna Mitchell confronts the myths that surround cancer diagnosis, treatment and living with cancer as few writers have done. To do this she uses the premise provided by Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1978.) Sontag’s premise is that we build mythologies around illnesses we don’t understand. Cancer is one of these illnesses.

This book is personal. Mitchell follows her brother-in-law’s and her daughter’s journeys with cancer. With dignity and an open mind, she examines the fictions that persist around the diagnosis of cancer and, in particular, that nagging view that, if you have cancer, then you’ve done something wrong. Most poignant was Mitchell’s account of her daughter’s brush with cancer and the myths she immediately encountered:

“Above all, I felt guilt. That it ought to have been me…That I ought to have been able to forestall this somehow…I replayed every second of her childhood that I could remember, wondering what I had done to fail her in this way.” (p. 155)

What is most important about Mitchell’s book is that the science is so thoroughly explored. She does a very credible job of examining what science exists around the homeopathic and naturopathic treatments of cancer. However, she also examines the most prevalent metaphor that health care systems and providers use in relation to treatments: the metaphor in which treatment is likened to conflict or a war. We have all heard those metaphors, even use them – fight cancer, combat heart disease, an arsenal of treatments.

How does the war metaphor benefit the treatment of cancer? Does it give us the energy to cope with the rounds of investigations, treatments, hospitalizations? Perhaps it does. What this metaphor does not do, however, is help us to understand the randomness of cancer in many cases. Cancer sometimes strikes out of the blue. We all know people who have no family history of cancer, who live healthy lives, eat organic food, exercise, and still get cancer. Do you notice how we seek reasons for these anomalies? Do you see how strongly we believe the myth that science will find all the answers – even when we know there are questions we haven’t even considered?

For the question Does science have the answers? Mitchell makes this point:

“The point is that if you think you can pinpoint the cause, then you can fool yourself into thinking that you can avert the cause. It’s deeply egotistical. It’s life played as a grand insurance policy. Our myth-making around cancer stems from the same impulse. Because we don’t know exactly why most of it happens, we weave a makeshift wisdom around it, a false prophet, which seeps into the common story and feeds our hunger to understand why. The guilt is a byproduct, a way to assign blame and seek absolution. It’s a lesser evil than the forces of randomness. And it gives us the illusion of control.” (p.163)

Mitchell posits that other metaphors might serve us better in our quest to understand our lives in the context of cancer. To me, this may be where other knowledge: literature, philosophy, faith may serve us better in managing disease. We speak of “random acts of kindness” but aspects of all illnesses are random, too.

Think about how so many good events in our lives are seen as serendipitous: falling in love, meeting a best friend, finding the “perfect house”. We don’t seem to agonize over why these things happened. We have a view that the best things are often random. Why can the worst things never be random?

In medicine, our excessive reliance on science (e.g. double blind trials, evidence-based practice) blinds us to the realities that we might confront illness more effectively if we remembered that the root of science is not just science. As Mitchell states: “…dream, experiment, fail and then dream again.” (p. 184)

Trying to understand cancer, or any illness, scientifically fails to help most of us live well with illness. The only thing certain about our lives is death. As the illnesses that will kill us develop, we need metaphors that feed our souls as well as sustain our physical comfort. Death is not our fault.

Book Review – “Universal Foam” by Sidney Perkowitz, Anchor Books, 2000

I cannot even remember how I found this book among the Ottawa Public Library’s lists, but I did and then was attracted to the subject as a matter of science. This is an informative book on an interesting subject that can easily be read on a snowy afternoon – preferably with a cappuccino. You will learn more about foam in those few hours than you ever thought possible. You may even bubble over with enthusiasm and spend another afternoon considering some chapters in greater detail or looking up Perkowitz’s references.

This is a witty, somewhat playful book and it encourages the reader to do what I just did above which is only excusable as an illustration of the properties of foam and its universality in our lives. Perkowitz begins with a description of the basic science of foam and then proceeds to illustrate these properties through considerations of types of foam with which we are all familiar. By beginning with familiar types of foam, the reader visualizes foams properties in the context of a substance she knows well – milk foam on a cappuccino or the foam of a mousse or soufflé. For example, the proteins in milk are the surfactant and heating the milk denatures the protein – breaks apart the bonds of a spherical protein such that it “unravels into long coil-shaped molecules” (page 48). I read those phrases thinking, “That’s how that works.”

From edible foams, Perkowitz moves on to such useful foams as shaving foam and foamed plastic and, again, we learn more properties of foam as they are illustrated in these substances. Then, however, the reader is brought into one of the main premises of Perkowitz’s book: understanding foam helps us to understand life, since the cellular matrix on which all life is based highly resembles foam.

From this consideration of how foam mimics the cellular matrix, Perkowitz begins a discussion of the foams that are present in the earth’s structure: pumice, sea foam. These descriptions allow the reader to consider the “global role of foam and its ties to the innermost and outermost processes of our planet” (page 145).

Perkowitz’s final consideration is of foam beyond the boundaries of earth into our solar system and galaxies beyond. I was fascinated by his account of how panels of aerogel will be deployed by the Stardust spaceship to trap small particles from the coma of the comet WILD-2. These small particles, we are told, “will slam into the aerogel at speeds of 14,000 miles per hour. Among all known materials, aerogel is the only one that can bring these tiny hyperbullets to a screeching halt with little damage.” (page149) Those few trapped particles will be studied to help us learn more about the cosmos.

Apart from the value of foam in learning about the cosmos, Perkowitz ultimately discusses how even the universe is structured like the bubbles of foam, how quanta are related to foam and “how the big bang theory views the cosmos as an expanding bubble of space and time that is now billions of light years across.” (page 157). A physicist himself, Perkowitz often reminds the reader of the tremendous contribution of the 20th century’s iconic physicist, Albert Einstein. Perkowitz’s book, however, brings to mind Einstein’s quote, which example this book follows:

“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”