Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: "This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol..." by Annie Grace

tl;dr: If you've ever thought about your drinking, you should probably read This Naked Mind. It's that fundamental—it's the owner's manual for alcohol.
"Can I still drink alcohol?" — Everyone's First Question About Fixing Diet
Alcohol consumption is one of the first questions that comes up after I start discussing the topic of a healthy diet with people. I always laugh, and say, "Well, alcohol's a poison, of course, so you don't want to overdo it..."

And, like most who try to eat well, I make alcohol a part of my "healthy" diet.

We also hear in the media that "moderate" consumption of alcohol is healthier than consuming none. I've never believed this, first because it's based on epidemiology, and second because I think it's a bit silly. Alcohol is a poison, and I don't think that consuming "moderate" amounts of a poison is ever really going to improve health, unless it's counter-acting some other poison. In which case the logical course is to stop consuming the first poison, not to add the second.

I was discussing the topic of booze with a friend one day recently, and she recommended this book. Despite this blog basically being a self-help blog, inspired by a self-help book (McDougall's Born to Run), I hate self-help books. Most of them I find tedious, repetitions of obvious things that we all know and know we should do.

Those that I've found valuable and compelling enough to actually alter my behavior, like BtR or Stephan Guyenet's Whole Health Source blog, contained a combination of some truths that I was aware of, and had acted upon; some validation or proof of another truth that I had considered, but had not acted upon; and then, having been pulled to that point, some other truths that I would soon be acting upon. It has been a powerful combination.

Grace's book is that kind of self-help book.

This is not a hellfire-and-brimstone anti-drinking book. I had those classes in high school, and they're a bit ridiculous. My reaction upon reading the definition of an alcoholic in that class was, "That's everybody!" Defining a disease so broadly as to include everyone is silly.

Grace does not make that mistake. She observes how widespread drinking and abuse of drinking is, as a book like this must, but she doesn't harp on it, and there are no stupid generalizations. As she explains:
"I have not given you definitive direction to stop drinking altogether. I have a hard time with rules. If there is a rule I must follow, my every instinct is to break it. A definitive statement to answer this question is difficult. I don’t want to write a rule and have the rebels, like myself, feel that they are bound. I would much rather present you with all the facts, allowing you to come to the decision that is best for you."
And, compellingly, she focuses on the subtle effects that alcohol has on the individual, the moderate drinker. She states her goal early:
"As you uncover the truth, your perception will begin to change, both consciously and unconsciously, and with this knowledge you will no longer desire alcohol. You will be free."
Then she begins to go through the facts:
"As John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale, put it, “Unconscious systems are continually furnishing suggestions about what to do next and the brain is acting on those, all before conscious awareness. Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes and sometimes they’re not. ”
I've often thought that our conscious mind is really nothing more than a passenger in our body, driving to some extent, but often just carried along, so this really hit a note.
"While scientists used to believe dopamine was linked to feeling good, they now believe that dopamine is linked to learning, and learning includes wanting, expecting, and craving."
So essentially what is happening is that by activating your dopamine system, alcohol is training you, like a rat in a cage, to subconsciously crave more alcohol.

Grace goes through the consequences of that, and notes that while we can use our willpower to moderate that craving, "willpower is a finite and exhaustible resource, much like a muscle, that can be fatigued." So when you wake up in the morning and find out that you had "a little too much to drink last night", you're responding to a powerful chemical stimulus with a muscle that probably fatigued. It's no surprise that all find themselves over-indulging occasionally. The surprise would be if none did.

She does go through the many negative consequences of alcohol. It's a known carcinogen, with no non-carcinogenic dose, other than zero. We all know it alters behavior, but not how pervasive those alterations can be, and there were a few moments where I found myself thinking, "Oh...", with a bit of chagrin. None of us likes to discover we're an unwitting puppet to a chemical.
"Now that you know the naked truth about alcohol and what it has been doing to you, your body, and your mind, you’ll be able to act."
One particularly amusing little anecdote struck me, as it describes me and, probably, everyone who will read this review on this blog:
"Everyone at the table was intelligent and seemed very in control of their drinking, yet there they were, drinking a known poison in massive quantities and speculating about the possibility of plastic leaching into their drinking water."
Yes, put like that, it seems downright stupid.

The book is also well-written, and enjoyable. She has a terrific voice, is clearly intelligent, and includes some great quotes:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Rumi
So yes, the book is a mind-bomb.

If you've ever reflected on drinking and it's role in your life, this is a terrific book to read. It's a great book if you've wondered about the health consequences of drinking, and more important, may enlighten you to some behavioral consequences of drinking of which you had not been aware.

Her intent, if you choose to let her by reading the whole thing, is to alter how you think about and look at alcohol forever. It certainly had that effect on me. Much like first reading BtR, that niggling doubt, that nascent thought, has been validated, brought to the fore, and now demands action.

You couldn't ask for more from a book.

Highly Recommended.