"I must not fear,” wrote Frank Herbert in “Dune,” his 1965 epic science-fiction novel. “Fear is the mind-killer.” Despite the fact that we now live longer and more pain-free than at any other time in history, that we are healthier than ever before, and that the world is arguably more peaceful right now than at any time in the last century, many of us are “mind-killingly” scared. We’re scared of everything from the food we eat to the death that awaits us all. But why are we so afraid, and what is the true source of all of this fear? The following five books explore the topic in various ways, each offering a chance to face — and possibly extinguish — our fears once and for all.
By Harvey Levenstein
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
If ordering from a menu or doing your weekly grocery shop fills you with anxiety, you’re not alone. From fat to salt to preservatives to pesticides, we are a society consumed with fear about what we consume. Health advocacy groups like the American Heart Association offer ever-changing guidelines, and doctors, scientists, and even economists weigh in on medical research that’s supposed to tell us why we’re fat and sick. Is this fear of our food justifiable or misguided? According to Harvey Levenstein, professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, it’s largely misguided.
His book “Fear of Food,” now available in paperback from University of Chicago Press, reveals the people and interests who have created and exploited these worries, causing an extraordinary number of Americans to allow fear to trump pleasure in dictating their food choices. As a historian, Levenstein works to put our contemporary concerns into a wider perspective, showing how ideas about foods healthfulness have changed drastically over the years. “Chemical preservatives went from being triumphs of modern science to poisons. Whole milk has swung back and forth like a pendulum. Yogurt experienced boom, bust, and revival. Processed foods went from bringing healthy variety to the table to being devoid of nutrients. Prime rib of beef was transformed from the pride of the American table into a one-way ticket to the cardiac ward. Margarine went from "heart-healthy" to artery-clogging, and so on. As of this writing, we are told that salt, historically regarded as absolutely essential to human existence, is swinging the grim reaper's scythe."
Taking a clear look at the history of our cultural attitudes toward food is a good way to quell one’s fears: It’s remarkable how little nutritional worries, misinformation, and food scares have changed since the late 1800s. Levenstein reminds us that one must always consider the source of nutritional counsel, the usual suspects typically being food companies trying to promote and profit from food fears. His personal advice? Interestingly, he finds a way to align Michael Pollan with Julia Child and advocates, eating everything in moderation, and enjoying yourself in the process.
By Michael McGuire
Publisher: Prometheus Books
What we believe with strong conviction biases our behavior in powerful and predictable ways. Fear of death has been shown to spur belief in intelligent design, and the existence of a divine entity and afterlife are widely held beliefs around the world. Our beliefs define who we are, shape our lives, influence our actions and affiliations, and pervade the human experience. But what exactly are beliefs, where and how do they originate, and why, once established, are most beliefs so difficult to change?
Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Michael McGuire attempts to answer these questions in his latest work, due out in September from Prometheus Books. “Believing: The Neuroscience of Fantasies, Fears, and Convictions,” focuses on the central and critical role of brain systems and the ways in which they interact with the environment to create and maintain beliefs. McGuire considers the latest contributions of philosophers, historians, cognitive psychologists, theologians, evolutionary biologists, and brain scientists. He also draws on his own research on the role of serotonin as he seeks out the biological mechanisms responsible for our fantasies, fears and convictions. Rather than being the cause of behavior, McGuire posits that beliefs are actually "afterthoughts" of unperceived brain activities, and that our consciousness has minimal influence on the neural systems that create them. This short and lively book offers a complete and entertaining summary of current knowledge on belief.
By Jaimal Yogis
Publisher: Rodale Books
Jaimal Yogis doesn’t seem like the type of person who struggles with fear. When he was 16, he bought a one-way ticket to Maui and ran away from home. He traveled, learned to surf, and explored Buddhism, and the outcome of his epic journey was his memoir, "Saltwater Buddha," which is now being made into a film. Since his adolescent adventures, he graduated with a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and has been published in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and The Toronto Star, among many others. Despite his early independence and adult successes though, Yogis was plagued by fear. After the publication of “Saltwater Buddha,” he found that giving public readings and networking at cocktail parties were nerve-wracking experiences, and a romantic breakup sent him into a downward spiral of self-doubt. He realized that fear "makes us forget what we know. It freezes us. And this fear had covered everything with such severe doubt that I even questioned the basic standby methods I'd used to fix things my whole life." Recognizing this inspired him to explore how we can overcome our fears to reach our full potential, and led to his most recent book, “The Fear Project.” He spent years subjecting himself to “exposure therapy” — facing his own greatest fears — and he interviewed some of the world’s best neuroscientists, psychologists, and extreme athletes. Relatable and engaging, “The Fear Project” offers insight into how fear evolved in the human brain, how to tell the difference between "good fear" and "bad fear," how to use the latest neuroscience to transform fear memories, why fear spreads between us and how to counteract fearful "group think," and how to turn fear into a performance enhancer — athletically and at work.
By Erica Brown
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Most of us fear death. Our own, and the deaths of those we love. It’s not exactly a popular topic of conversation, but writer and educator Dr. Erica Brown believes that if we can move past the fear and denial that stop us from preparing for death, we can live more meaningful lives – and even achieve more meaningful deaths.
“Life can hold more joy but only to a point. It will, one day, be over. Its inevitability should make us fear death less, but instead we fear it more,” she writes in her new book, “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death,” now out from Simon & Schuster. Just as its subtitle promises, “Happier Endings” is as much about what it means to be alive as it is facing the inevitability of death in constructive, positive ways. Brown writes with a refreshing sense of humor about this difficult subject, introducing people of all faiths who deal with death in enlightening ways, including a mother who arranged for her children to sprinkle her ashes on a favorite ski slope, an ex-nun who prepares people to die, a group of women who ritually wash the dead, and a family whose grandfather’s ethical will is read by his survivors each year. Surprisingly beautiful and not at all morbid, “Happier Endings” offers an enriching perspective on how to diffuse the fear and prepare for and accept death.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
What are you afraid of? According to bestselling satirists Henry Beard and Cristopher Cerf, not enough. Their book, “Encyclopedia Paranoiaca” currently out in hardcover and coming in paperback this fall, is the ultimate guide to the looming threats and hidden dangers of everyday life. Painstakingly researched and alarmingly thorough, “Encyclopedia Paranoiaca” is alphabetized, making it extra convenient to learn about everything that can harm, sicken, debilitate, impoverish, disenfranchise, and/or kill you. Beard and Cerf also include notes on what you can do to avert disaster, which turns out to be very little considering that nothing is safe. Kitty litter exposes you (and your pets) to radiation, leafy greens are often badly contaminated with pathogens, carrots can cause blindness, flip flops can lead to chronic ankle problems, and skinny jeans can cause a nerve condition called meralgia paresthetica. Think washing your hands is safe? Think again: “Because frequent hand washing (q.v.) can lead to a painful condition called hand dermatitis, Susan T. Nedorost, M.D., associate professor of dermatology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, recommends that, when there’s no alcohol-based hand sanitizer available and you’re forced to wash your hands, you should use a cream-based lotion immediately thereafter.” Of course, hand creams present their own set of hazards… Weirdly engrossing and endlessly amusing, “Encyclopedia Paranoiaca” urges readers to look at risk with a new perspective: If everything is dangerous, what should we really fear?
Related on MNN: