Book Review: Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control your Thoughts and Feelings

Sci recently got asked to be a book reviewer for Oxford University Press again! She is thrilled about this. Having recently moved to Huge New City (and consequently to Very Small New Apartment) she ended up having to…*gulp*…get rid of some books. It was a painful process, but she firmly believes her books are going to a good home (or at least the guys at the used bookstore started setting them aside into little piles with their names on them and begging Sci to return with more).
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(*sniff* Goodbye, my lovely, lovely friends! Sci will miss you and think of you fondly! Go to a good home and don’t ever let anyone break your spine!)
But book reviewing is great! Sci gets more books! She can replenish her depleted supplies! Well. Ok. Very Small New Apartment probably can’t deal with much of that. We’ll see how far it gets.
Anyway, Sci was glancing through the list of books that Oxford sent along, and was immediately caught by this title:
“Your brain on food: how chemicals control your thoughts and feelings” by Gary L Wenk.
(Sorry there’s no pic, but Sci got a galley copy and doesn’t have the cover and can’t find it online. As an aside though, Much❤ to Oxford Uni Press for BINDING their galley copies in little plastic covers with little plastic spines! YAY! Sci doesn't have to cart around a 400 page pile of paper! Other presses, take note. Your reviewers will LOVE you for this.)
Food! Chemicals! Brain! W00t! That's totally up Sci's alley. Sci pounced.
And so when the book arrived a few days later, I was very hopeful and opened it up first (oh yes, they sent a PILE, Sci's book shelves will soon be restored to their former glory).
And…well. See below.
Sci would like to note that writing this review gave her angst. So much angst that she ate most of a giant chocolate bar while she read it. I sacrifice my waistline for my art. Sigh…


First off “your brain on food” is an entirely misleading title. There is, maybe, the contents of one whole page on actual FOOD. No no, it’s about your brain on drugs. Which is fine, but there are lots of books about your brain on drugs, and Sci rather wishes that someone would ACTUALLY write a book about your brain on food, lots of stuff about leptin and ghrelin. Also, titling it “your brain on food” is probably going to neatly pass by the majority of Weng’s intended audience.
But when Sci got into the meat of the book, she started to notice something disturbing. The book was making her…annoyed. It took me a while to figure out WHY I was being annoyed. But while I was in the laundromat with the book patiently waiting, I had it.
Here it is: There is a fine, fine line between simplifying for a lay audience, and simplifying SO MUCH that you end up, well, wrong. And Weng ends up wrong. And this makes Sci mad for several reasons:
1) Weng is a professor of psychology, neuroscience, and a bunch of other stuff and should know better.
2) This book is going to be published, and it’s going to be read, by people who will take what Weng is writing at face value. What they will then DO with that information is up to them, but the fact that it is so simplified as to be inaccurate isn’t going to help them any. And given that a lot of his stories center on kids in his class trying all sorts of ridiculous things (“hahah, a kid in my class thought nutmeg would get him high because I told him so, and then he spent a whole weekend on the toilet after eating the entire bottle because I didn’t really put emphasis on the severe gastrointestinal side effects!”), it’s clear that people have been listening.
Anyway, we’ll get back to that later. The book is about your brain on chemicals. Weng makes the argument (and it is not incorrect) that everything we eat or ingest will act on our brain some way as a chemical. And he goes on to talk about several different classes of chemicals, including things like stimulants (cocaine, amphetamine, stuff like that), opiates (morphine, heroin, etc), cannabinoids (marijuana), and others. Each major class gets its own chapter, and Weng throws in anecdotes of people who have performed work in the field, as well as people working on specific aspects of certain drugs in his own laboratory.
All of that is well and good, but there’s a lot of stuff lacking in this book, and it’s mostly in the details. The book provides lots of vague outlines of what drugs do, outlines that, if you were trained in the field (points to self) would make you instantly recognize what the author was talking about. However, if you AREN’T trained in the field (and most people who will read this book probably aren’t) you might be asking for trouble. There are some pictures of some things working, but when Weng describes mechanisms for drugs, there are no pictures, no diagrams, nothing to help you along. The mechanisms, which are incredibly important in how drugs act, are described in the middle of a paragraph and get maybe half a sentence. And, to Sci’s infinite consternation…some of the mechanisms are wrong.
For example, in the chapter on hallucinogens, Weng talks about decreases in serotonin neuron activity in response to hallucinogens and illustrates this decrease as the reason hallucinogens work. Well…yes and no. Hallucinogens like LSD DO act on serotonin 1A receptors, and DO decrease serotonin neuron firing…but that’s not why people have hallucinations. Scientists believe now that hallucinogens produce hallucinations via their actions at the serotonin 2A receptor, which is entirely different and does not control serotonin neuron firing directly. (Yes, this is complicated, for more on the serotonin system, you can see my overview here, it comes with an awesome serotonin tattoo and some illustrations). When I was reading this book, I actually worried that maybe MY information on this subject was wrong (Weng didn’t provide any citations), so I asked a friend of mine, who’s in the hallucinogen field (yes, Sci-bro, people DO study these things all the time), who confirmed what I was thinking, and pointed me to literature on the subject. So…he’s not WRONG exactly…he’s just so vague as to be not entirely right.
And there’s nothing that gets Sci’s goat quite so much as someone giving out the wrong kinds of information. It’s like the gossip of the science world. (As an aside, Sci is similarly MASSIVELY annoyed when people come up to her saying that they’ve totally read Phillipa Gregory and DIDN’T you KNOW that Mary Boleyn had children by Henry VIII!!!! NO. HE. DIDN’T. Phillipa Gregory is a writer of HISTORICAL FICTION. NOT HISTORY. Reading any of the many many biographies out there on Henry VIII and on Anne Boleyn will tell you that this is totally wrong. ARGH! */rant*)
Of course the serotonin example cited above is not the only one. Sci’s personal moment of head-explodery came when he mentioned off hand that stimulants like Ritalin used for treating ADHD actually made you MORE hyperactive, not less. Why then, is there such a MASSIVE paradox, extensively covered in the literature, about how ADHD medications CALM PEOPLE. The mechanism for this (as far as we know) may be because of low doses of ADHD medications preferentially activating the norepinephrine transporters in the cortex, rather than the dopamine transporters in the striatum, which are hit at higher doses (for more on that, you can see my Ritalin post). Where is he getting this information?
There’s even a part in the cannabinoids section where the science gossip gets extreme. After all, did you KNOW that some of the plant varieties connected with modern day marijuana were used in the mid east for things like anointing oil? And did you know that Jesus was called the “anointed one”?! The somewhat grinning assumption is that we’re supposed to grin and think Jesus did pot, or perhaps to assume that maybe the anointing oil had psychoactive properties. No, he probably didn’t. And anointing oil probably wasn’t used at all for it’s psychoactive properties. And I’m not sure where he’s getting his recipe for anointing oil, but Sci’s involves olive oil, myrrh, sweet flag, cinnamon, and cassia (Exodus, 30;22-25). No hemp seeds or hemp oil.
Citation needed, Sir. Citation needed.
And now we get to the final part of this book that gave Sci trouble. There’s a brief list of “suggested readings” at the end of the book, but there are no citations. And with the amount of mechanisms the author is talking about, I really feel that there should be. Sure, most of the people who pick this book up won’t be scientists, but a lot of the things the author mentions in the book…need citations. Or clarifications.
So to sum it up, Sci is upset. She’s upset that this book is going to be published, and is going to educate people with vague points so vague as to be almost wrong. For people in the field, we can get past that, for people who just want some info? Probably not.

11 Responses

  1. And now he’s indirectly upset me because Sci’s title lead me believe I’d be getting some juicy information on the wrong subject.😦

  2. This subject has my full support.

  3. is the typo in the title a deliberate one?
    gossip science, is one of the worst kind after pulpit science.

  4. I’d be interested in a book on what eating food does to your brain. One on drugs, not so much. Food is rather more relevant to me than illegal drugs.

  5. Reader wrote,”…Sci’s title lead me to believe…”
    Now lead,ingested,is indeed bad for the brain.
    However, being led to believe, can be just as bad.
    ; )

  6. Oh, dear. Gary is a smart guy and an excellent scientist; this sounds very sad. [Plus, as someone whose neuro thesis title was “Food for thought: Brain glucose” I was very much looking forward to this after the title!]
    I have been vaguely thinking about writing the book that it seems you would want, Sci. Maybe your editor friends can hook me up? :))

  7. OMG I can’t believe I put that typo in the title. only Sci…
    Ewan: yeah, I was disappointed as well. Perhaps he was limited by the editor or something.
    As to whether Sci can hook you up, ask me once I actually HAVE some editor friends.🙂

  8. That’s frustrating. Just b/c it isn’t peer review doesn’t mean that citing your references should go out the window. Using tiny subscripts would be unintrusive to the reader and still provide a way for scientists to look up those references.

  9. The word you’re looking for is simplistic, which I would define as simplifying to the point of distortion or even error. This is a critical word that deserves to be used much more often, especially in discussions of science popularizations.

  10. “Book Review: Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control your Thoughts and Feelings”
    OK. What’s the typo?

  11. “Book Review: Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control your Thoughts and Feelings”
    OK. What’s the typo?

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