Sent to me by Little, Brown UK in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: 09/10/17
Publisher: Little, Brown UK
Format: Paperback, 320pp
Summed up in a word: Altruistic
Neuroscience is hands down my all time Non-Fiction subject as there is so much to explore and it is all ground-breaking research. The element I struggle with is delivery, I like bold, intriguing writing that is also slightly informal. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than an author who takes themselves far too seriously. I was in luck with Good For Nothing, Abigail Marsh is a fantastic writer and a pioneering scientist in the field of neuroscience. Her writing is an excellent balance of personal and professional, with plenty of meaningful and amusing stories, case studies and anecdotes that help the reader connect with Abigail’s cause. Highly recommended to those who enjoy neuroscience, the human condition and exceptional cases of the brain going haywire.
If humans are fundamentally good, why do we engage in acts of great cruelty? If we are evil, why do we sometimes help others at a cost to ourselves?
Whether humans are good or evil is a question that has plagued philosophers and scientists for as long as there have been philosophers and scientists.
Many argue that we are fundamentally selfish, and only the rules and laws of our societies and our own relentless efforts of will can save us from ourselves. But is this really true?
Abigail Marsh is a social neuroscientist who has closely studied the brains of both the worst and the best among us-from children with psychopathic traits whose families live in fear of them, to adult altruists who have given their own kidneys to strangers. Her groundbreaking findings suggest a possibility that is more optimistic than the dominant view. Humans are not good or evil, but are equally (and fundamentally) capable of good and evil.
In Good for Nothing Marsh explores the human capacity for caring, drawing on cutting edge research findings from clinical, translational and brain imaging investigations on the nature of empathy, altruism, and aggression and brings us closer to understanding the basis of humans’ social nature.
“Good For Nothing delves deep inside the human brain to explore why sensitivity to others’ fear is such a powerful marker for altruism, on the one hand, and for psychopathy, on the other. Findings from my own research, coupled with emerging knowledge from brain imaging and genetic studies, have provided new insights into the origins of empathy, psychopathy and altruism.” Abigail Marsh p7
Abigail Marsh was deeply encouraged to pursuit the idea of Altruism when her own life was saved by a complete stranger. Already in the field of Neuroscience, Abigail turned her sights on a key question. Are humans innately good or evil? Marsh has set out to answer that question from a neurological, behavioural and psychological perspective; and it is a huge treat. I was fascinated about how certain brain chemistry and physiology can determine whether we are innately altruistic or even psychopathic. I haven’t ever been in a situation where I have another person’s life in my hands but with what AM has shared with us in Good For Nothing, it is great to know I am capable of being there for someone when they need me.
AM writes with a captivating blend of personal insight and professional technicality, never crossing too over to far into either writing style; running the line between formal and informal. Both psychotic and altruistic behaviour is fascinating and AM explores what it takes for an individual to become one or the other; the capacity for emotionless violence or spontaneous fear for a stranger’s safety. It was intriguing to see what can makes us good could easily have been altered to make us bad. And though it does focus on psychopathy and twisted minds, AM mainly acknowledges all the good that humans are capable of, which for me was hugely important in the constant minefield of terror that is gripping the world day-in-day-out.
Good For Nothing has so much to offer the reader in terms of knowledge and content. I enjoyed a vast array of topics and subjects related to extraordinary Altruists (those with an unsuppressible urge to help others, not matter what) and the science behind their intentions. From people who run into burning buildings to save their neighbours to those who individuals who can’t rest until they donate their organs to a good cause. There is plenty of psychology, sociology, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, natural history and behavioural science to tuck into. AM provides us with both an objective and subjective view on her field of study. Her personal story is an amazing one and it is certainly a great reason for fuelling such an important study.
My only complaint about Good For Nothing (apart from the fact that the title is a misnomer) is that the text isn’t formatted as well as I would have wanted. There are long chapters that stream large quantities on information, case studies, hypotheses and findings without much to break it up. This forced me to pause far more than I would have due to having to losing focus and fighting distraction. But I prevailed and was rewarded with a pivotal neurological treat. AM does actually help break up her own stream of ideas with case studies (some overly familiar) and stories of the cause and effects of behaviour. The stories within add plenty of heart to the essence of the book, taking it from scientific study to meaningful mission for knowledge.
The most important aspect is of course, did AM answer her question? I feel AM did a superb job with laying out the facts about her ideas. Taking the time (nearly two decades) to map people’s brains, studying the amygdala (the main source of chemicals that induce, or not in the case of psychopaths, altruism) and working through the history of the human species to determine the path of altruism throughout the ages. It is a tremendous amount of work and AM easily shows us that she is passionate about her findings.
Why should you read this book? Because it not only provides fascinating and important details about the human mind but it also highlights our capacity for goodness, kindness and generosity, which to me is a much needed injection of hope into our society’s fixation on the negativity bias. Though it was a bit of a dangerous read as it made me feel like I was massively failing in my own pursuit of helping a good cause! I may not donate a kidney (my wife will probably want that) but giving blood more often or even bone marrow is probably on the cards now.
About Abigail Marsh
Abigail Marsh is an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University. She received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard University and completed post-doctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Mental Health. For over 10 years, she has conducted behavioural and brain research aimed at understanding how we understand each other’s feelings, why we care about one another’s welfare, and the causes of the worst and best impulses within us, from violent aggression to life-saving altruism.Her work has been covered in The Times, Slate, The Huffington Post, NPR, The Economist and New York Magazine.