Some people can do really weird, amazing things with their bodies or minds. While I myself have no strange talents or unique abilities, I’ve always been curious about those who do. How is it possible for someone to fold themselves into tiny spaces, or spend more time underwater without breathing than it takes me to build and eat a sandwich?
Author Galadriel Watson attempts to answer these burning questions and more with her newest book, Extreme Abilities: Amazing Human Feats and the Simple Science Behind Them. The attempt to explain the simple science is nice, but don’t let the offering fool you. After reading about half the book, it took every fiber of my being to work through to the end. And then it got worse.
When this book is good, it’s fun and lighthearted, but when it isn’t? It’s pseudoscience and poor sources at best.
Just meh ….
There are nine chapters in Extreme Abilities, and each one is designed to explore a specific athletic or mental skill. The first page of every chapter introduces a person who has experienced success because of their ability. While these intros do include some interesting information, they feel awkwardly bloated and stretched out.
The interesting and fun information is usually found in the third and fourth pages of each chapter. It varies, but it may include an overview of what you can do with the type of ability, historical records of those who’ve achieved fame or fortune, other notable people, similar abilities, or a “fast-fact” that is some interesting or random thing that’s quasi-relevant.
Pages five and six are where the “simple science” part of Extreme Abilities comes in, but they’re fluffed up and seem to get bit dry or shallow at times. Here you’ll find two sections dedicated to exploring behind the scenes: “How it’s Done,” based on scientific principles mixed with anatomy and physiology, and “Hazard Alert,” which discusses problems that can arise for those affected by their unique skills.
These sections don’t (or can’t) go into enough detail to express precisely how or why the people gifted with the extreme, unique abilities are different than those who have the abilities to a lesser extent, but they do provide important insight on how things work in the body or brain.
The last two pages of each chapter explore how kids, or any reader, may be able to safely expand their own skills. In some cases, Watson suggests memory exercises, lifting weights, practicing balance, and … perhaps meditating? Which brings me to my concerns.
The trouble is with my third eye
Yes, there’s a chapter dedicated to the brain-body connection that speaks on mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness has been poorly defined over the years and needs a lot more research. Currently, there are no methodologies, defined practices, or even exact philosophical descriptions as to what mindfulness is, which really puts a nail in the coffin of searching for empirical evidence.
Meditation, however, is easier to define and has been said to reduce anxiety, relieve pain, promote weight loss, assist with addiction, you name it. But so far science hasn’t proven that it can help with hardly any of these things. There are studies citing lower blood pressure and stress relief, but they’re practically useless.
The studies so far have all had major issues: extremely small sample sizes, poor design, too many variables, no control group, conflicting results, etc. Is it possible there’s more to meditation? Maybe we’ll know in time, but for now it shouldn’t be touted as settled science.
Including this kind of info in a science-based book geared toward young readers is bad form, but that’s not even the worst of it. The opening of Extreme Abilities fifth chapter is a glowing profile of Lama Oser that comes from a book called Destructive Emotions, written by the “godfather” of emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman.
This case study is interesting but has problems. It can’t be applied to the masses, it hasn’t been widely replicated, there’s limited success finding similar results in the studies that have replicated it, conclusions are blown out of proportion, and so on. (I might add that apparently the directors of the study were in a rush because the actual Dalai Lama himself was going to be dropping by the next day. They were very excited and wanted to provide him with some of their findings.)
There’s an 82-year-old “breatharian” named Prahlad Jani who hasn’t eaten since he was a child, according to an article from CollectiveEvolution, a site known for its conspiratorial articles and quackery. Outside reading explains Jani believes a goddess gave him a special hole above his palate where some form of liquid sustenance and water can drip down to nourish him. There’s a ton of criticism of the whole study and, FYI, others have died while attempting to live this way.
Also, there’s the part about Wim Hof, who uses meditation to change his body temperature (plausible for some) and control his immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria (much less plausible). It’s just bad. Bad research, junk science, and no critical thinking. There are other places in the book where bad writing happens, but this takes the cake.
Just make it stop
In typical fashion, I gave this book to my 10-year-old son, Orion, first. He’s kind of obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records and has been working on various ways to get his own entry. When he finished, I took a turn so we could discuss it together.
He struggled to explain his feelings. Despite the beautiful illustrations by Cornelia Li, he says it was overall too boring. For me it wasn’t just boring, it was excruciating. At least now I know what my Extreme Abilities are — persevering through mental anguish and seeing things through to the end, even if I don’t like them. It was a struggle to get to the finish line but I did it! Okay, where’s my medal?