Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization by John J. Ratey and Richard manning (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)
I've neither the time nor the inclination for a full review of Go Wild, which I borrowed from the library while waiting for them to acquire Spark, another book by John Ratey, which was highly recommended by a friend. Fortunately, the friend said about Go Wild that she found it good but not worth paying for, so I'm still looking forward to Spark. I found Go Wild too annoying to call "good," but I am glad I read it, as there's a reasonable amount of inspiring information in it.
To begin with, the author pushes several wrong buttons for me, from the trivial to the overwhelming. As an example of the former, there's this (emphasis mine):
Even the child's song knows that the leg bone is connected to the thigh bone; we mean to press this idea a lot further to provide some appreciation of the enormous complexity and interconnectedness of the various elements of human life.
I'm sure he's referring to the spiritual, Dem Bones, which is not a child's song, even if it might end up in a collection of songs intended for children. And I know there are different versions, as there always are with songs of the people, but all the versions I've found acknowledge that the thigh bone is connected to the knee and the hip, not the "leg bone" (or "shin bone" as I know it). Yes, it's trivial—but to me it points to carelessness on the part of the author, which doesn't increase my confidence in what he says. (Or maybe I should blame his proofreaders.) There are other occasions where I get the same feeling.
Then there's this, which to me undercuts all his arguments: I'm fine with evolution as a scientific theory of origins and change. I'd go so far as to say it does an excellent job of explaining much of the available data. But I am not okay with evolution personified and deified, which is what happens in this book. All over, everywhere: "Evolution endowed," "evolution created," "evolution designed." Not only is evolution the basis for all the book's arguments, but the language makes evolution seem like a living, sentient, personal entity—though not, the authors are careful to point out, a loving one.
I was late in coming to the appreciation of religion, but I've always loved science. The religion of science horrifies me, however, and with that this book abounds. Add to that a significant dose of Eastern spirituality, and the feeling that the authors have been, perhaps, a little too selective in the studies they choose to believe—well, I wasn't too happy with the book.
It's also hard to take too seriously someone who—although he loves the outdoors and runs ultramarathons, will also drive 45 minutes to find a gym in the middle of nowhere.
That said, it's almost amazing that I found much of value here, but I did.
The authors cover a lot of ground. Here's a brief summary, although it doesn't come close to doing the ideas justice.
- Do what works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all. Take the first step in any of the areas they recommend changing, and you will find yourself gradually taking on more and more.
- Don't eat sugar in any form.
- Eat no wheat, rice, oats, or any other grain, not even in whole-grain form. No high-carb vegetables like sweet potatoes. No manufactured fats, no processed food, no fast food.
- Eat eggs, grass-finished beef, cold-water fish, nuts, simple fresh fruits and vegetables—but no fruit juices.
- Variety is important—as long as you avoid the long list of don'ts.
- Find a form of exercise you like, and do it.
- Exercise that invovles a variety of movements, the whole body, and lots of variation is best.
- Exercise is better out in nature.
- Exercise is better with other people.
- Get more sleep. If you live in 21st century America, it's guaranteed you're not getting enough sleep.
- Sleeping in the same room with the rest of your family is more healthful. (And we thought better sleep at the Maggie P. was due to the salt air.)
- Don't make your babies sleep alone.
- Soothing sounds, such as a crackling fire, or trusted adults moving around and talking quietly, lead to more satisfying sleep.
- Sleep doesn't have to happen all at once. Naps are fine. If you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night, don't fight it, but get up and do something. Go back to bed later.
- The authors clearly admire Eastern spirituality, and thus promote the practice of meditation. But what they are trying to replicate is the relaxed hyper-awareness common among hunter-gatherer peoples, an ability to calm the brain of distractions while being alert—even more alert than otherwise. This turns out to be good for both brain and body health.
- Being out in nature is enormously healthful. Even an indoor potted plant helps.
- We need other people. We need our own "tribe."
- I wish he had dealt with the differences between introverts and extroverts in this section. We all need people, but they way we need each other is very different for the different personality types, and the authors appear to consider only the extrovert point of view.
As usual, this started out as the place to record a few interesting quotations, and ended up being a long review after all, though my summary did peter out at the end. There's a lot to think about here. I steadfastly reject the authors' extremes: for example, when it comes to food I am an omnivore by inclination but even more by principle, and I would no more adopt this no-carb regimen than I would go vegetarian. At the same time, it's good to eat a lot of vegetables, and it's also good to reduce our intake of carbohydrates, at least of the empty variety. I won't become a marathon runner, much less tackle an ultramarathon—but the book's thesis on the importance of movement is not only convincing, but provides inspiration to do things I've known for a long time that I should be doing.
Here are the random quotes:
Cows evolved to eat grass, but mostly we no longer feed them grass; we feed them the corn and soybeans that are the prime products of our industrial agriculture system. The practice of fattening beef in feedlots and the preponderance of factory beef in the fast-food system passes this omega-3 shortage into our bodies. ... [T]his is also why eating red meat itself has gotten a bad rap, with endless strings of studies linking it to heart disease and a variety of other issues. The beef that is the basis of these conclusions is factory beef, and no wonder.
Although I agree with the authors' complaint that the studies were made with the wrong kind of beef, they provide no evidence that beef from grass-fed cows does not have the same bad effects. I suspect that to be the case, but a citation of some evidence would have been nice.
[W]e begin to understand why social sleeping seems to be a nearly universal characteristic of cultures.... While we are sleeping, we continue to monitor our surroundings for cues of safety: relaxed conversation, relaxed movement of others, popping fire. Those cues, subtle sounds signaling safely, tell us we can retreat to our deepest sleep.
Many cultures are, in fact, conscious of all of this and the importance of these arrangements, and no place is the importance more pronounced than in the case of infants. ... All of this helps explain ... an almost universal perplexed response among most other cultures upon hearing of the Western practice of making babies sleep alone. "They think of this as child abuse. They literally do."
A very recent paper correlates an increase in the incidence of autism with receiving Pitocin during delivery. [Neurobiologist Sue Carter] says that Pitocin is routinely administered to delivering mothers in, she estimates, 90 percent of cases, although there are some signs that this practice is waning.
Why does aggression persist beyond reasons for it? Why are we so riven with senseless killing and warfare?
I picked up on that last one just because it highlights the central problem for people who have no sense of the reality of sin, only of its consequences.
The vagus nerve links up all the tools we need to respond to an existential threat, and so the vagal brake is a signal sent through the system for everything to stand down and engage—at ease. ... There is a simple measure of this. It can be read in the tension or lack of tension in facial muscles, heard in voice timbre and edge, and counted in rate of respiration. ... There is such a thing as vagal tone, completely analogous to muscle tone—and the tone shows how clear and distinct a given individual's ability to apply the brake is.
The vagal brake can be driven by breath, a clear connection readable as blips on a chart. You are in control of your breath, to some degree. Thus, this is not simply a point for measuring or sensing arousal; it is a point for controlling arousal and, downstream, the health problems that stem from lack of control.
If you force yourself to smile, the specific spots in the brain that register depression suddenly say your depression is better. ... It turns out that a halfway, forced smile won't do the trick, because it won't light up the neurons of increased happiness in your brain. But if that forced smile goes so far as to engage the little muscles in the corners of your eyes—that is, if you do what socially adept people understand instinctively—these neurons do indeed light up. And the muscles at the corners of your eyes are within the reach of the vagus nerve.
[The breath] exerts control through the alarm system that is the autonomic nervous system. [Researcher Stephen Porges] says he realized a long time ago—because he is a musician, specifically a horn player—that the act of controlling the breath to control the rhythm of music and at the same time engaging the brain to execute the mechanics of music works like a mental therapy. To his mind, it has all the elements of pranayama yoga, a form of yoga that stresses breath control.
The act of controlling the breath has a parallel brain response of calming our instincts for fear and danger. It's easy enough to see this in deliberate practices like yoga, but the same idea applies in many more time-honored practices: choral singing, Gregorian chants, even social music like bluegrass or blues derived from the chants and work songs that African slaves developed to help them tolerate oppression.
Music or evidence of music appeared fifty thousand years ago in that sudden flourish of evidence of cultural evolution that defined humans as humans—and ever since, music has loomed as a cultural universal. All known cultures and people make music. Yet all of this also suggests that we lose something when the crane's leg bone gets replaced by an iPod. We lose the benefits of sitting in a circle of fellow humans and driving the breath and beat that drives the music. [Emphasis mine]
As my friend said, Go Wild is worth reading—but not worth buying. If what I can only describe as bizarre spirituality—bizarre for a book that claims to be scientific—doesn't bother you, and if you can overlook the extremities, which are at their worst in the section on food, there are a number of interesting and worthwhile points.