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)

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