- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007


By Dennis Cass

HarperCollins, $24.95, 224 pages


Dennis Cass’ “Head Case” may only contain 200-odd pages, but it’s really three books in one.

At its most basic level, it’s a rather unremarkable work of amateur science. Mr. Cass explores the human mind, discovering all sorts of neurotransmitters, brain parts and cognitive theories, and he explains them in a way the average reader can understand.

At another level, it’s a rather unremarkable memoir. Mr. Cass has experienced some troubling events, to be sure, but these days readers only want autobiographies from important figures (Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father”), tell-alls from celebrities (“The Dirt,” from Eighties metal band Motley Crue) and tales of ultra-disturbed childhoods (“A Child Called ‘It’” or the turned-out-it’s-fiction “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things”).

Finally, it’s a rather unremarkable, “Super Size Me”-inspired take on self-experimentation (in that documentary, Morgan Spurlock lived off McDonald’s food for a month). Mr. Cass finds himself rolled into a dark brain scanner, clenching his jaw as electric shocks flow through him, smoking the cigarettes he gave up years before and experimenting with Adderall, an amphetamine that makes the world so much brighter and easier to concentrate on.

Put it all together, though, and it comprises a fast-reading story with educational tidbits snuck in. And that is remarkable.

Mr. Cass relates his ideas in a breezy, conversational style, organizing his thoughts well but jumping haphazardly between experiments and years of his life — the experiments have a certain chronology, as do the life events, but the science concepts determine the narrative’s flow. The chapters read well, but it’s no shocker when readers discover Mr. Cass has a minor case of adult ADD.

The basic concept: Writer goes through mildly uncomfortable experiment and discusses the concepts behind it. Said concepts remind him of this or that life experience.

Readers meet Mr. Cass’ parents, both of whom abuse prescription drugs. When they end up on methadone treatments, they save the week’s supply for a Friday binge. Stepfather Bill — never “Dad” — is manic-depressive to boot, and he moves the family to New York, staying there long past the revelation that it’s made no one happy. At all stages of life, the writer comes off as more nurturing, responsible and parent-like than his parents do.

Then there are Liz and Owen, wife and son. The former plays a minor and quite humorous role, refusing to wrap her husband in bedsheets and leave him alone for four or five hours to raise his stress levels. Thus Mr. Cass can’t replicate an experiment scientists perform on rats, and few could suppress smiles at Liz’s exasperation.

Another amusing Liz scene finds the couple at baby classes. Mr. Cass notes another expectant father’s absurd behavior — playing Tetris, dribbling a birthing ball in front of his wife “as if challenging her to a game of one-on-one” — and feels superior:

“Knucklehead, I thought, then I turned to Liz to see if she was laughing, too. Instead her disapproving smile was directed at me.

“‘Are you taking notes on the class or on him?’ she said.”

Owen, though, serves to introduce a number of psychological concepts. Before he’s born, the expectant father’s amygdala, a structure in the brain that processes emotions, becomes extra-sensitive to fear. Afterward, Owen stimulates oxytocin, a hormone that induces a feeling of bonding. Interesting fact: If a father isn’t present at birth, he doesn’t get the same hormone rush as a father who is there — that’s one reason Bill has trouble connecting with his son. In his early years, Owen needs constant attention, wearing Mr. Cass’ brain down so that it seeks homeostasis, or its natural, satisfied resting state.

The most fascinating discussion, though, is that of drug addiction. It turns out that drug addicts tend to have fewer dopamine D2 receptors than non-addicts. This leaves addicts less stimulated by the world around them and tending to find drugs exhilirating. Researchers call it “reward deficiency syndrome.” Chronic alcohol abuse can lower the number of receptors to boot, worsening the problem.

The kicker is that people with enough dopamine D2 receptors can even find drug use unpleasant. As Mr. Cass puts it, “Drugs feel good to people who like to take drugs, but also, drugs don’t feel as good to people who don’t like to take drugs.”

The writer deserves credit for discussing biological factors without arguing too forcefully that drug addicts bear no responsibility for their behavior. Indeed, he remarks, “Genes are like a movie script. There are some basic plot elements that remain firm … [but y]ou can give the same script to different directors and casts and it will turn out differently each time.”

The biggest problem with “Head Case” is that Mr. Cass’ brain, though the center of the narrative, does not work in a very scientific manner. Indeed, an “author’s note” states that, while the science is factual, “I am only human. As a result, the information in this book is to be used for entertainment purposes only.”

He takes a group of college students to the mall and has them write down everything they see, but evidently he forgot to come up with a hypothesis to test first. He talks about the data for a little bit — how the students all wrote down that they’d seen something or other, but didn’t talk about it at lunch, or the other way around — before mercifully dropping it.

His personalized stress experiments are even more bizarre. He decides to test the scientific fact that stress raises cortisol, much as Morgan Spurlock tested the scientific fact that eating McDonald’s for three meals a day will make one gain weight.

He hears of one test where subjects write essays about being dissatisfied with their bodies. They’re told they will present the essays to an audience, but of course they don’t, and the test actually measures how the apprehension affects their stress levels. Mr. Cass tries this himself, knowing full well he won’t have to present the essay (though he includes the piece in “Head Case”) and compensating by ramping up the self-effacement.

Only later does he realize it’s the fear of public presentation, not the body-loathing, the experiment mainly relies on to induce stress. So he plunges his arm into a bowl of ice and keeps it there a bit, waking Liz in the process. He gives a spit sample and sends the vial to the lab.

A few days later, he intentionally brings on professional jealousy by reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Web site (his man-crush on Mr. Gladwell is another story entirely). Another spit sample off to the lab.

It turns out that stress, indeed, raises cortisol. There you have it, if the scientific literature wasn’t proof enough. Mr. Cass finds it odd that self-loathing, ice bathing and waking up his wife combined were worse for his cortisol than reading Malcolm Gladwell was, even though the latter had been “the most subjectively miserable.”

So all told, “Head Case” is a fun and informative read, even if for “entertainment purposes only.”

Robert VerBruggen ([email protected]) is Assistant Book Editor.

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