Going viral: Infectious and Touch - book reviews

by Danyl Mclauchlan / 08 June, 2016
Horror stories and odd findings are common ground in studies of infectious diseases and the science of touch.
Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration
Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

Microbiologists often find themselves marvelling at the terrible beauty of the deadly pathogens they study. The marketing blurb for Australian physician Dr Frank Bowden’s second book, ­Infectious, is itself a thing of terrible beauty: “A young woman’s FLU symptoms mask a rare tick infection. A man develops SHINGLES then suffers excruciating FACIAL PAIN later in life. After years of frustration, a family eradicates HEAD LICE forever.”

I love this stuff. I love the clinical diagnostics: the patient case histories about normal, healthy young people whose names have been changed, who present at hospitals with runny noses or fatigue and suddenly find themselves fighting for their lives, battling rare infections contracted from parrot feathers. I love being terrified by the potentially apocalyptic threat of future pandemics like Ebola or a mutated influenza virus. I love using the knowledge I glean from these books to diagnose the minor complaints of friends and colleagues: “Tired and headachey? Classic early symptoms of haemorrhagic fever, which are quickly followed by ­massive internal bleeding, then death.”

Infectious is an easily readable blend of case history, microbiology, immunology and autobiography. The family ravaged by head lice is revealed to be the author’s, and Bowden recounts his daughters’ pleas never to publicise their years of infestation with some amusement, adding that in epidemiological terms they functioned as “super-spreaders”. I hope his Father’s Days are not too wintery.

LS2216_b&c_InfectiousHe also overviews several contemporary issues in modern medicine: antibiotic resistance; the link between poverty and illness; evidence-based medicine; the unethical rapacity of pharmaceutical companies; and the baffling refusal of some research funding bodies to fund his grants. It’s a good introduction to some of the wider issues facing contemporary medicine.

US neuroscientist David J Linden’s book Touch contains traces of autobiography, but it’s mostly about the science “of hand, heart and mind”. Yet in his opening chapter Linden inadvertently raises deeper questions. Touch begins with a series of experiments about what psychologists call “priming”. In one of these experiments, subjects travelling in an elevator on the way to a test were asked to hold a cup containing either hot or iced coffee. They subsequently filled in a personality assessment of a fictional person. Those who held the warm coffee cup judged the target person as having a “warmer” personality than those who held the cold cup.

Priming experiments raise fascinating questions about the sway of external stimuli on human decision-making. The theory has influenced marketing, politics and therapy, and inspired countless books, papers and documentaries, all marvelling at what these experiments reveal about the mystery and complexity of the human mind. There’s just one problem: many of these findings might not be true.

Psychology is a science undergoing a painful period of introspection after a series of reports finding that many experiments published in top psychology journals couldn’t be replicated. A group of psychologists called the Open Science Collaboration found that of 100 experiments, only 40% held up. The remainder failed or yielded inconclusive data. And the replications that worked showed weaker results than the original papers.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate whose book Thinking Fast and Slow introduced millions of readers to the theory of social priming, has published an open letter to researchers in the field urging them to check the robustness of their findings, writing that priming has become “the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research”.

LS2216_b&c_TouchMost of Touch is on firmer ground. It’s a detailed book, sometimes reading more like a textbook than popular science, filled with lists of nerves and neurological regions that medical students resort to mnemonics to memorise.

There’s a lengthy chapter on sexual touch, always an odd subject to approach from a medical point of view. (I recall an elderly professor of anatomy lecturing a crowded class of fascinated and appalled undergraduates. “And now the orgasm occurs.” He paused a video and gestured with a laser pointer. “And we see the cervix drinking from the semen pool.”) Linden begins with a description of a terrifying erotic experience involving a young sweetheart, her nipples and an earplug, and then compares sex to eating a particularly delicious falafel sandwich before diving into the science with gusto. “If one regularly engages in anal sex,” he muses, “will that expand the cortical representation of the anus and rectum in much the same way that daily violin practice expands the sensory map of the fingering hand?”

He goes on to discuss pain and emotion, anaesthesia, phantom limbs. The section on tickling tackles the immortal question of why humans cannot tickle themselves and includes many fine sentences: “When a computerised mechanical tickler was interposed between the self-tickling hand and the skin … the self-tickling ­sensation became much stronger.” What will happen to society when technology grants humans the power to self-tickle? Linden does not speculate. He sticks to the science.

INFECTIOUS, by Frank Bowden (New South Books, $34.99)

TOUCH, by David Linden (Penguin, $30)

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


The clean-energy revolution is already under way
78094 2017-08-16 00:00:00Z Environment

The clean-energy revolution is already under way

by Rebecca Macfie

The question is whether it is accelerating fast enough to turn the tide on climate change.

Read more
Premature babies: The business of keeping tiny humans alive
78131 2017-08-16 00:00:00Z Science

Premature babies: The business of keeping tiny hum…

by Mava Enoka

Science is helping more premature babies survive, but for parents it's still a journey marked by fear, pain and joy.

Read more
Tim Minchin: The man behind Matilda’s musical magic
78107 2017-08-16 00:00:00Z Theatre

Tim Minchin: The man behind Matilda’s musical magi…

by Linda Herrick

A Roald Dahl fan from an early age, Australian composer Tim Minchin has helped turn a children’s classic into a hit musical.

Read more
HRT: The return of menopause therapy
78098 2017-08-16 00:00:00Z Health

HRT: The return of menopause therapy

by Nicky Pellegrino

Hormone treatment of menopause symptoms is back from exile.

Read more
Why NZ Super Fund is ditching millions worth of climate-damaging investments
78102 2017-08-15 14:46:41Z Investment

Why NZ Super Fund is ditching millions worth of cl…

by Rebecca Macfie

The New Zealand Super Fund has moved to reduce the risk of losses on fossil fuel assets, as part of its strategy on climate change.

Read more
Win a double pass to My Year with Helen
78081 2017-08-15 11:09:55Z Win

Win a double pass to My Year with Helen

by The Listener

Following its premiere screenings at the NZIFF, My Year With Helen returns to New Zealand cinemas for a general release.

Read more
Govt gives details for $100m mental health spend
78078 2017-08-15 11:04:37Z Health

Govt gives details for $100m mental health spend

by RNZ

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has given more details about where money earmarked for mental health will be spent.

Read more
How will DoC deal with the environmental pressures of runaway tourism?
78074 2017-08-15 10:32:53Z Business

How will DoC deal with the environmental pressures…

by Jonathan Underhill

The environmental pressures of runaway tourism and commercial land use aren’t fazing the country’s conservation chief.

Read more