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The Secret Life of the Brain

Lisa Feldman Barrett • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This book has made a sensation, since it claims to run counter to the prevailing thinking in the psychology of emotions, what Barrett calls the classical view of emotion. This view holds, according to Barrett, that we have emotion circuits in our brain built in since birth that cover a range of responses. Each of these has a kind of signature in various parts of our anatomy. If we’re experiencing fear, say, our face will show a telltale wide-eyed look while our palms may sweat, and so forth. Leading psychologists have done extensive work cataloging our range of emotions.

Barrett first casts doubt on the evidence for these fixed emotions, arguing that the names and ranges of emotional responses differ by culture and that even within a homogenous culture, people show much wider ranges of response than are captured by the research that purports to identify our emotional menu. She goes on to say that emotions are constructed on the spot, not hard-wired. Our brains create emotions based on memory of previous responses to similar stimuli and these are based on culture and a variety of other factors. Further, she claims that clinging to the belief in hard-wired emotions makes us overconfident in assessing how people are feeling. We think we know more than we know.

This is an intriguing work that has captured the attention of some mindfulness teachers, who feel this description may be more compatible with how we experience emotion in meditation. It remains to be seen whether she has overstated her differences, and some parts of the book are confusing, such as when she says emotions are not triggered, they are internally created. It’s hard to square that with the experience of someone at work driving you crazy. Also, the second half of the book, where she delves into self-help, shows that the laboratory is her more effective domain.

A MBSR Guide for Clinicians and Clients

Elana Rosenbaum PESI

One of the first instructors in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical School, Rosenbaum knows what she’s talking about. The book is also aptly named, since she brings a great deal of heart to the topic. It’s anything but dry. For anyone interested in learning what MBSR is all about, and particularly for those who are learning how to present it to others, the short essays, instructions, and tools in this guide will be invaluable.

A User’s Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds

Steve Casner Riverhead

Many of us fear flying but will happily ride our bike on a city street. Even when we intellectually know which poses a greater risk (cycling is much more dangerous), our behavior doesn’t seem to get in line. Author Steve Casner, a research psychologist and safety expert at NASA, has studied the accident-prone mind for years. Accident- and injury-related deaths steadily declined through the 20th century thanks to safety measures like seatbelts, smoke alarms, and air traffic systems. But they have been on the rise since the 1990s. In Careful, Casner shows us how our attitude toward risks—like our tendency to assume accidents are flukes—is adding insult to injury. Ultimately, he says, with a few tweaks to how we see ourselves and the world, we can save ourselves a lot of trouble.

Why We Never Think Alone

Steven Sloman and
Philip Fernbach

The message at the heart of this book is simultaneously humbling and inspiring: We don’t know very much individually, but what we know collectively is astounding. Sloman and Fernbach are cognitive scientists who marvel at the power of the human mind but also count it as “pathetic.” Yes, we’ve accomplished great things, but each of us can often be irrational, error-prone, and ignorant. It’s the collective that saves us. As a group, we share knowledge developed by others and we can correct each other’s mistakes. “Intelligence,” they write, “resides in the community and not in any individual.” Their ultimate prescription: Let’s work together.

“Unlike beehives, which
have operated pretty much the
same way for millions of years, our shared pursuits are always growing more complex and our shared intelligence more powerful.”

The Corruption of Mindfulness
in a Culture of Narcissism

Thomas Joiner Oxford

In a freewheeling essay filled with lengthy rants about modern cultural sins (such as the selfie) that have little direct connection to the mindfulness movement, Joiner does manage to pinpoint one of the main traps
of meditation practice (and any effort to increase awareness of one’s habits): self-involvement. A society, culture, and media that promote and exploit high degrees of self-regard will inevitably yield people who twist mindfulness around to be “all about me.” But does that justify blanket statements such as “Authentic mindfulness has been perverted into solipsism”? Perhaps it just means that more authentic mindfulness is needed.

Our Family’s Journey  Saying “Yes” to Living

Tim Bauerschmidt and
Ramie Liddle

This touching memoir chronicles the year-long journey that nomadic couple Ramie Liddle and Tim Bauerschmidt took with Tim’s mom, Norma, after her husband’s death and her cancer diagnosis. Instead of opting for medical treatment in her 90s, Norma chose to hit the road with her family. Together they traveled in an RV across the US and into Mexico, kept company by Tim and Ramie’s poodle, Ringo. Along the way Norma visits a cannabis dispensary, takes a ride in a hot air balloon, eats lots of cake, drinks lots of beer, becomes famous on the internet, and discovers a fresh way of life as her days wind to a close. This book lays bare the fragile reality of human life, the deep strength of family bonds, and what it means
to truly take in all the world has to offer.

“We got to see the truth in
people, including in Norma: her glow, her tenacity, her joy, and
her confidence.”

50 Mindfulness-Based Practices

Chris Willard, Mitch Abblett,
and Tim Desmond

This 50-card deck offers simple, succinct practices to bring compassion into daily life. Creators Abblett, a clinical psychologist, Desmond, a therapist and scholar, and Willard, a psychologist and mindfulness education specialist, came up with
the cards to help people regulate emotions, work with anxiety, and generally improve their well-being. Plus, the deck comes with an extra 4 blank cards so you can write your own. ●


Episode: Science vs. Meditation. What is meditation and does it do anything?

In this series, host Wendy Zukerman “takes on fads, trends, and the opinionated mob to find out what’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere in between.” The meditation instruction in here by acclaimed researcher Britta Holzel is a good representation of mindfulness, but many of the host’s opening descriptions of what meditation is are distorted and not well-informed. Fortunately, Holzel’s presentation of the results of hers and others’ research is articulate and balanced. Bottom line: Even though there are promising early results, there’s a lot of hope and a lot of hype and the research on meditation is in its early days. That’s no big surprise—as Mindful has made that point many times—but the value of this podcast is the engaging interviews with leading neuroscientists like Holzel, Gaelle
Desbordes, and Clifford Saran. It turns out
to be a good brief survey of interesting areas
of mindfulness meditation research.

Episode: Practicing Equanimity

The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA presents weekly lunchtime guided meditation practice on Thursdays, with a slightly different emphasis each week, in an auditorium at the Hammer Museum. They’re available as half-hour podcasts. In this episode, MARC’s director of mindfulness education, Diana Winston, focuses on the power of “the willingness to be with what is.” It starts with an intro and then leads into guided meditation.
Be prepared for long stretches of silence.

Episode: Everyday Bravery in Love & Loss

Sponsorship by Prudential ensures high production values for this uplifting and poignant series that started in March. This episode focuses on stories from a woman going blind, another who steers through her grief by singing, and a group of people who use their imagination to celebrate their memories of a revered theater teacher and producer.