BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

On rosier planes ...

I've been trying to get caught up with my Library Thing “Early Reviewer” reading … back when I was plowing through six books a month, having that month's LTER “win” in the mix wasn't much of a problem, but these days when I'm lucky to get three books done in a month, I'm having to make sure I muscle those into the queue.

Needless to say, Jim Davies' Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe was a LTER selection (or I'd not be mentioning it, would I?), and a fairly recent one at that. As you no doubt recall, I'd been getting bitchy about all the “business books” that I'd had from that channel over the past year of so, so I was pretty happy to have a science book show up!

Given this, I really had hoped to have liked Davies' book more than I did. I'm pretty sure that this is one of those “your mileage may vary” instances, but for me, at least, I came away with a sense that it meandered (indeed, at one point the author describes it as “super lumpy”), didn't solidly build point-to-point, and was given to making pronouncements that were not particularly convincing on their surface (for instance, while he, rather credibly, assigns an evolutionary role of the avoidance of rubber snakes by birds in places that have no snakes - suggesting that some ancient predecessor of said birds had developed a hard-wired reaction to the shape that carried down to the present … he also asserts that the Northern European's ability to digest milk past infancy was a culturally derived trait based on “a desire to drink milk” which drove the genetic shift – this appearing notably without a source attribution).

I don't typically read other people's reviews before digging into a book, but my curiosity was piqued by the relatively low star rating that this had over on LibraryThing. Others there had some similar issues as I ended up with in terms of focus, etc., but there was also a sub-theme of the broadsides that Davies launches at religion. Now, as regular readers of this space know, I'm a deep agnostic when it comes to organized religions, but am also given to a rather promiscuous openness when it comes to metaphysical/spiritual topics. Where I was the choir being preached to in sections like:
If you hear something {health related} that you hope or fear is true, treat it with skepticism, because there are forces within you suppressing your doubts.
* * *
Like medical quackery, religion too is filled with hope and fear. Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, in particular, have a great deal to say about what risk one takes by not following their edicts and the benefits to be experienced in following them, both now and in an afterlife.
I also found myself mentally countering him (a bit like Graham Hancock critiquing Richard Dawkins) when it came to rather blanket insistence that all spiritual experience originated in electric or chemical processes in the brain.

The book is in seven sections, each taking on a different area for looking at our interfaces with the world. These are, generally: socialization, hope & fear, pattern perception, incongruity and the like, biological nature, psychological biases, and the foundations of compellingness. Each is full of references to various types of studies (and in a full spectrum of style: from off-hand nods to a particular theory to back-noted details of the research), with the author “patting himself on the back” for his thoroughness: “It's easy to cherry pick evidence to support these ideas, so I took care to report any counterevidence I discovered.”. Frankly, I might have preferred this had Davies taken each of those sections and fleshed it out into a small book on that one aspect and released the seven as a boxed set. That would have (hopefully) provided him with the “breathing room” to make a coherent statement about each area, which could (perhaps with an eighth book to pull “the broad strokes” of the others together) have been a far more convincing statement than Riveted ends up being.

Again, while these structural complaints are not trivial, they don't necessarily diminish the value of the book. There is an awful lot of very interesting stuff in here, just in a form that is less accessible and persuasive that it might have been. Of the sections of the book, I probably found the “incongruity” section (the “Incongruity: Absurdism, Mystery, and Puzzle” chapter) the most fascinating, and am somewhat frustrated that the individual points brought up in there (which could have been built into workable chapters in an “Incongruity” book) sort of flash by with just enough detail draw one in, before moving on to the next thing. In this he discusses physical evolutionary pressures (newborn brain size vs. the size of the birth canal), art, movies, sports, and music (including the concept of “categorical perception” which leads to mental “autocorrection” in experts but not in people untrained in music – the pro will hear a slightly-off note as the intended note, while the novice will be more sensitive to the actual pitch), product design (people prefer “conventional” design, but with one unusual feature), and many more. Incongruity is contrasted with pattern recognition, and between them the fact that we start by preferring the familiar, but become bored, and move towards the unusual … this is why it's more exciting to root for a sports team that wins by small margins and dramatic finishes, than one that steamrolls it's competition game after game.

There is also an on-going theme of “old brain” vs. “new brain”, which plays into everything from tribalism to religion and beyond. In the introduction Davies presents a very concrete example (in this case, encountering a pack of cupcakes), the dynamics of which everybody should find familiar:
The old brain “knows” that sugar and fat are scarce and should always be eaten when the opportunity arises. Thousands of years of evolution taught it that. It doesn't know that fat, sugar, and salt are now plentiful and contributing to an obesity problem in the industrial world. In contrast, the new brain knows that too much sugar isn't good for you. But who are you going to listen to?
That last bit is indicative of the humor that's woven through the various parts of the book. One could argue that this lends a somewhat flippant attitude to the text, but I didn't find it objectionable.

While Riveted was not as wonderful read as I'd hoped it would be, it certainly provided a whole lot of “food for thought”. As noted, I did find it rambling and uneven, but in a way that had me wanting more rather than less. This just came out in August, so should certainly be out in those remaining brick-and-mortar book stores that handle science. Of course, the online big boys have it, with the current offering being at about ten bucks off of the cover price.

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Tags: book review
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