Chapter four, “Travelogue: Journeying Underground,” takes the reader through Pollan’s personal experiences with three different psychedelic compounds. Once psychedelics were categorized as class one substances, the use of psychedelics went underground. Many people were, and still are, interested in using psychedelics and seek to undertake psychedelic experiences under the watchful eye of an underground guide. Despite not being formally regulated, many underground guides adhere to strict standards when assisting individuals under the influence of psychedelics.
Chapter two, “Bemushroomed,” covers the history of psychoactive mushrooms. In a laboratory setting, a synthetic version of the psilocybin molecule is prepared for research purposes rather than using a psilocybin containing mushrooms. Although synthetic psilocybin is more practical for research studies, the synthetic psilocybin molecule has become separated from its fungal origin. To better understand the mushrooms, specifically of the genus Psilocybe, Pollan teamed up with famous mycologist Paul Stamets.
The prologue of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan serves to provide the reader with important context for both the content of the book as well as the more personal nature of the book for Pollan. The concept for the book came from research Pollan did while writing a New Yorker article about the use of psychedelics as medical treatment, specifically the use of a guided psilocybin session to help reduce anxiety around death for cancer patients.
The final section of the book covers the many ways that modern life has impacted how much we sleep. The invention of the light bulb has allowed us to restructure our daily schedules at the cost of our natural sleep cycles. Exposure to electric lights in the evening shifts the timing of our sleep schedules due to a delayed release of melatonin leading to later bedtimes. The more constant environmental temperatures afforded by central heating and cooling also alter our ability to sleep by reducing natural temperature changes that help aid in sleep.
In chapters 9 - 11, Dr. Walker delves into the science of dreams. MRI scans taken while individuals dream during REM sleep show that certain areas of the brain, including those associated with spatial perception and emotion, are more active while individuals dream compared to during deep NREM sleep. Researchers have even been able to generally determine certain patterns of brain activity identified by an MRI in response to specific objects.
Part one of Why We Sleep closes with a summary of how sleep patterns change with age. Babies and young children exhibit polyphasic sleep, where they sleep in small doses throughout the day and night compared to older children and adults who have more regular monophasic sleep. As humans age, there is also a decrease in the amount of time spent in REM sleep and an increase in NREM sleep. This pattern highlights the importance of NREM sleep as a driver of brain maturation.
In part one, “This Thing Called Sleep,” Dr. Walker highlights sleep as a biological necessity and introduces us to basic sleep physiology. Inherently, we all know the importance of sleep but many of us do not know the true extent to which skimping on sleep or poor quality sleep affects our lives. Poor sleep is connected to complex health issues like weight gain as well as more obvious dangers such as traffic fatalities caused by driving while sleepy.
In part five of an Emperor of all Maladies, we learn about the discoveries that elucidated the mechanisms underlying the biology of cancer. Mukherjee starts the section with a reflection on his time as a medical oncology fellow, reminding the reader of the human costs of cancer as he and the other fellows reflect on the patients they have lost. We also get an update on his leukemia patient Carla, who is now in remission and through the worst of her treatments.
In part three of the Emperor of all Maladies, the treatment of cancer begins to shift from the previously seen extremes to being more patient centered. There is a rift in the field of surgery as surgeons such as Dr. Crile and Dr. Keynes begin to question the radical and disfiguring surgeries relied upon by an entire generation of surgeons to treat cancer.
The second part of Mukherjee’s compelling biography of cancer details the early stages of a war against cancer. The section begins by introducing a new protagonist in our story, Mary Lasker, the “fairy godmother” of cancer research. With friends in high places and an insatiable motivation to pour more money into battling diseases, she was the perfect teammate for Sydney Farber, who was looking to expand his own cancer research efforts.
The book begins with the story of Carla Reed, a 31-year-old kindergarten teacher and mother of three who experiences headaches, strange bruising, white gums, and exhaustion. The author learns about Carla as he is heading into work at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. His beeper informs him to see a patient with leukemia when he arrives. Leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, is “breathtaking” with regard to its pace and acuity. Ten months into his two-year fellowship in oncology, the author already feels drained and inured to the death around him.
Montgomery and Wilson mourn the loss of Kali, but with Octavia’s health still declining they order a new octopus. Together Sy and jellyfish researchers at the aquarium go to the airport to pick up the new octopus Karma around New Years. This octopus was caught in the wild and kept at a British Columbia facility until it was ready to be shipped. Upon arrival, the dirty water and shedded suckers are a dismal sight, but the team must go through a slow tank transfer process to avoid sending the new octopus into shock.
To kick off chapter 5, Montgomery details the struggles of her scuba certification. She notes that her joy of being underwater is detrimental because she can’t stop smiling and allowing water into her regulator. She overcomes several challenges (eardrum pressure, trouble with the regulator, becoming certified in the New England cold) in order to make it to her first official dive in Cozumel. Their first dive is a drift dive and Montgomery actualizes her dream. She and her fellow divers come face to face with an octopus in its natural habitat for the first time, rather than in an aquarium.
In chapter three, we are introduced to a new baby octopus at the New England Aquarium named Kali. Kali is one of the first octopuses at the aquarium to maintain specific coloring, in her case a white spot on her head. The coloring of an octopus is thought to be used for not only camouflage, but also potentially to express the emotional state of an octopus. As the author engages with Kali, we are introduced to some of the history of how the interactions between humans and sea creatures have changed at the New England Aquarium over time.
In chapter one of the Soul of an Octopus, we are introduced to the world of the octopus through the author’s first meeting with Athena the giant Pacific octopus. The author’s encounter with Athena provides context for how humans have historically viewed octopuses as sometimes frightening but mainly fascinating creatures. As invertebrates, octopuses are not necessarily some of the first creatures that people think of when they imagine animal intelligence. However, there are many instances of octopuses exhibiting behaviors that portray them as intelligent.