Friday, February 13, 2015

Ghosts of the past leading to modern science

Detail from the cover of "History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory and the Brain," by Clifton Crais.

Among the raft of recent books by Emory faculty are three from historians that draw heavily from science to tell their stories. Below are summaries of the volumes from the latest issue of Emory Magazine.

HISTORY LESSONS: A MEMOIR OF MADNESS, MEMORY AND THE BRAIN, by Clifton Crais.  For those moved to tears easily, prepare for a river. Crais offers a haunting account of his childhood—the parts he can remember. He suffers from chronic childhood amnesia, the most common and least understood form of the disorder. Crais grew up in New Orleans with an alcoholic mother who tried to drown him in the bathtub at the age of three. A year later, she tried to kill herself.

As Crais notes of his training as a historian, “I have spent a lifetime sifting through the records of others . . . revealing the hidden patterns of our common past.” And yet—“It’s my own life I can’t remember.” He turns to plane tickets, postmarks, court and medical records, and crumbling photo albums for answers. And he consults experts about the neuroscience of memory. In the end, Crais reaches, if not an epiphany, at least accommodation with what is. “There is something different now,” he writes. “It’s not memory but still powerful: the knowledge that helps fill in the blank spaces where a child once walked all those lost years ago.”

A CLIMATE OF CRISIS: AMERICA IN THE AGE OF ENVIRONMENTALISM, by Patrick AllittAlthough environmentalism has been widely reported for more than four decades, this is the first general intellectual history of the movement. Allitt takes readers back, well beyond the first Earth Day in April 1970. In his mind, the movement owes its birth to the “mood of crisis created by the first atom bombs and the Cold War arms race,” which influenced ideas about population, resources, and climate change. 

Does the media hype the dangers to the planet? The answer is almost certainly, in part because the science is complicated. As Allitt notes, “Only when scientists’ cautious conclusions were turned into thrilling headlines predicting disaster would citizens take notice.”

VACCINE NATION: AMERICA'S CHANGING RELATIONSHIP WITH IMMUNIZATION, by Elena Conis.  The sugar cube that many of us remember containing our polio vaccine was a treat for the tongue. The recent history of vaccination in the US is more bitter, but it wasn’t always so.

As Conis reports, in 1943 New York health official Leona Baumgartner reported results of a poll exploring Americans’ attitudes toward immunization: more than 90 percent trusted in vaccines. This is a far cry from conditions in the new millennium, as the role of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine in autism is debated endlessly; the vaccine against HPV (human papillomavirus) sparked controversy when lawmakers attempted to require it for sixth graders; and parents marched on Washington. As Conis points out, “The larger debate over vaccination . . . wasn’t just about vaccine risks. At a deeper level, it was a debate about the roles of children in our society, our heath care politics, gender relations, chronic disease risks, and more.”

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