Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Untangling the Mind - review

I just finished reading the book Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave the Way We Do. It was one of those books that I read over the course of weeks because I was learning so much from it. It was written by David George, a psychiatrist who is a professor at GWU. The book doesn't actually try to explain all human behavior, despite the ambitious title. Dr. George focuses on the PAG (periaqueductal gray matter), amygdala, and cortex to explain why many people overreact to perceived threats with extreme anger, depression, fear, or predatory behavior. As I understand the gist of his book--I'm no expert on the brain--due to past experiences with threats, alcohol, or brain variations, the amygdala (the part of the brain most focused on reacting to help us survive dangers), which works much faster than our cortex (the conscious, thoughtful part of our brain), unnecessarily propels us into harmful fight, sadness, flight, or shutdown behaviors.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars. He clearly discusses how past events and current issues can trigger destructive behavior and how various treatments work to overcome the amygdala's unwanted impulses. For instance, talk therapy is helpful because it works to engage the cortex and slow down the fight, sadness, flight, or shutdown behaviors. Quitting drinking alcohol helps because alcohol impairs our brains' own mechanisms to inhibit impulsive behavior. SSRIs and other prescription drugs can help by allowing the brain to slow down. We can change our environment so that we are less likely to face threats that will act as triggers. This book is helpful to everyone, not just those dealing with people with diagnosed mental issues, for I think we all have amygdalas.

I have disliked some "pop psychology" books because I saw a friend use them to justify her own behavior ("I can't help what I do because that's just how I am, according to this awesome book.") and criticize others for not accepting everything she does. This book is great because it illustrates how the brain can be malfunctioning, provides reasons for why it could be doing so, and gives realistic steps people can take to work towards improving their own problematic behavior. It lays out a world I can accept, one where we all have different weaknesses yet possess and, in the absence of severe brain injury, can exercise free will to diminish the power of those weaknesses to hurt us and lead us to hurt others.

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