Book Review : Better Living Through Brain Chemistry

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Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery by Jeff Goldberg (Bantam: $17.95; 228 pages)

The more microbiologists learn about the workings of the human body, the more it seems that biology is a branch of chemistry. We are chemical machines who walk around and talk to each other.

This is a conjecture, to be sure, far from proved, and it makes many people uncomfortable if not unhappy. For it holds that every thought, every feeling, every emotion, every nuance of our inner lives corresponds to a specific chemical state of the brain and the nervous system.

It is unclear to me why this should dismay people, but it does. The thoughts, feelings and emotions that we experience are no less real, no less vivid, than if they popped up out of nothing. Poetry is still poetry even if it is linked to the synapses in our brains.


Of course, scientists are a long way from a full understanding and explanation of the correlation between chemical states and emotions. But they continue to amass evidence to support this view. And no one has found a scintilla of evidence to prove it wrong.

The Brain’s Own Morphine

“We’re machines, machines, machines,” one of the researchers asserts in “Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery,” a book about endorphins, those powerful substances manufactured by the brain that make you feel good. The brain’s own morphine.

The discovery of endorphins in the 1970s gave a boost to the body-as-machine model of life. Chemicals can produce good feelings.

Scientists suspected the existence of endorphins for several years before they actually found them, and once they did, they thought of a long list of ways in which such substances might be used to alter states of mind. This book is the history of that research.

It is also a book about scientists as much as it is a book about science. The author, Jeff Goldberg, a science writer, paints a picture of the personalities of the protagonists and the competitive forces that drive them.

After John Hughes of Aberdeen University in Scotland isolated the first endorphin after years of work, Goldberg describes the scene when he got home that night: “Hughes was positively jubilant . . . jumping up from the table at one point, and doing a little jig around the living room, singing in his monotone, at the top of his lungs, ‘We’re going to be famous! We’re going to be famous!’ ”


Full of Frailties

This is the school of science writing that portrays scientists as humans, full of all the frailties, jealousies and shortcomings with which we are familiar. In other words, an accurate portrait. This book is more like James Watson’s “Double Helix” than like Paul de Kruif’s “Microbe Hunters,” in which the scientists are demigods bent on helping mankind.

I mention De Kruif’s book, which was first published in 1926, because of the profound effect it had (and perhaps continues to have) on so many young people contemplating a career in science. I have met many scientists who speak reverently of that book.

Yet the Watson, tell-all approach, now exemplified by Jeff Goldberg, is more honest and revealing if less inspirational.

While Goldberg explores the underside of science, he never loses sight of the marvelous enterprise that it is. Science is a great intellectual endeavor, and it has enormous practical consequences. When Hughes announced his discovery of endorphins at a scientific meeting in Boston, one of the people who heard him, Huda Akil, had a near-religious experience.

“I think it is very rare,” she told Goldberg, “that a scientist is privileged to watch the birth of a new era in his or her field. It was something like waiting for the sun to come out and--all of a sudden it does. It had that feeling about it. We knew it was there, we knew it was important but nobody could quite get hold of it and then, all of a sudden, there it was in your lap and I remember thinking I’m never going to forget these days, because I may never live through anything like that again.”

Despite the enormous excitement generated by the discovery of endorphins, and the tremendous amount of further work that the discovery touched off, they have never quite lived up to the promise of being a powerful painkiller without side effects.


In recent years, there has been much speculation and research into the full range of roles that endorphins play. They have been linked to mental illness, drug addiction, acupuncture, the immune system, “runner’s high” and the pleasure of sex.

The thread that links all of this research is that the notion that the behavior of humans and animals is chemically based. It is the latest chapter in the age-old mind-body problem. Endorphin research, Goldberg writes, “increasingly merged the ‘hard’ sciences--physics, biology, and biophysics--with the behavioral sciences, psychology, and psychiatry.”

Though the jury is still out, Goldberg admirably tells the story of the science and the scientists in this cutting-edge work.