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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
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Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison

Kristin Giamanco

"A passion for life is life's ultimate affirmation. To ask the question is to know this to be so; it is to know that exuberance is a god within" ((1), 308).

If you were to stroll down an aisle in your local bookstore, chances are most of the books you would see are geared towards helping an individual with depression, hypochondriasis, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, for example. Very few books discuss individuals who are healthy and happy. However, Kay Redfield Jamison's book discusses and focuses primarily on people who are exuberant and effervescent. Jamison's book serves to separate the notions of happiness and exuberance while explaining how the latter plays a role in creative and scientific explorations. "Exuberance is an abounding, ebullient, effervescent emotion. It is kinetic and unrestrained, joyful, irrepressible. It is not happiness, although they share a border. It is instead, at its core, a more restless, billowing state," ((1), 4).

After reading Jamison's book, I was left with many questions and thoughts for further research that can be done in order to address these issues. This paper focuses on looking at the ubiquitous nature versus nurture topic as well as the positive and negative roles exuberance can play in one's life. Furthermore, I will attempt to address the role of the I-function in monitoring exuberance and use Jamison's ideas to help me on the quest to continue to determine the role between brain and behavior. Lastly, I have examined the transition between childhood and adulthood as well as the transference of exuberance.

Jamison opens her book with an examination of the exuberance (which she later describes as the bubbly effervescent nature of champagne) of John Muir, a naturalist and conservationist and as well as that of Theodore Roosevelt, America's 26th president, possessed. It was their infectious and exuberant natures which drove them to change America with their vision and actions. She also discusses the beauty of nature by chronicling Wilson Bentley's, a New England farmer, obsession with the beauty of each unique snowflake. Another aspect of exuberance Jamison focuses on involves the advantages of playing for animals and young children, discussing the impact of playing on the brain. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book comes when Jamison describes A.A. Milne's Tigger and Kenneth Grahame's Toad. These two characters ooze exuberance as Jamison reports and their unbridled enthusiasm, lust for adventure, are compared to the nature of Snoopy and Peter Pan. All of these characters are found within children's books.

Furthermore, Jamison correlates manic depression with exuberance, citing that individuals who experience manic highs are extremely exuberant, animated, and often restless. She also opts to discuss the exuberant nature of falling in love for the first time, the contagious nature of laughter, use of chemicals, such as cocaine and marijuana to help sustain and reinforce exuberance. Another fascinating aspect of this book involves the investigation of exuberance in the role of scientific achievements. Jamison cites that successful scientists are often exuberant at heart and cannot tell the difference between work and play. These individuals are usually driven by their thirst and creativity within the field. Moreover, Jamison believes that great teaching involves exuberance and also involves the spreading of this magic from teacher to student.

The tone of the book changes somewhat towards the end as the author moves to expound upon the exuberance of soldiers engaged in battle and their quest for killing. Jamison concludes with a look at America as a Nation, being exuberant, a country that is world renown for its enthusiasm and infectious happiness as evidenced by the thousands of pioneers, scientists and politicians who have left their footprints on our country.

While I enjoyed this refreshingly optimistic book, I felt that at times, Jamison's focus was lacking as she skipped from example to example within her ten chapters. There was no clear thesis in the book. While she aimed to explain the prevalence and the nature of exuberance, she herself was too restless. She does have a central theme in each chapter, but with the plethora of examples she provides, her argument is often hard to follow (2), (3). However, her writing is captivating and eloquent, so that as a reader, you come to have an intimate appreciation and understanding of exuberance.

Personally, I enjoyed the discussion of the exuberant scientists most and was particularly interested in examining some of Jamison's claims concerning these individuals. Jamison discusses the lives and work of Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, Richard Feynman, James Watson and Francis Crick, as a few examples. All of these scientists were described as exuberant; they lived for and loved what they did, could not imagine doing anything else in the world and were constantly striving for more. The hunger and thirst for understanding science that these men all possessed allowed them to become extraordinary scientists. Is it true to become a great scientist, you have to fully immerse yourself in all things science? In all of the examples Jamison went through, most of the individuals hardly slept or ate when they were working on their various projects and one scientist even bought shoes without laces so that he would not waste time in the morning on his way to work. Ordinary, less famous scientists greatly outnumber extraordinary famous scientists, which leads me to think that a great scientist is born rather than made. Furthermore, it seems to me that while you can train a scientist to be functional, you cannot train one to be extraordinary. The nature versus nurture question is one that we have been battling with in class and based upon the idea that brain equals behavior as set forth by Emily Dickinson and in the class forum; I firmly believe that nature in this case rules over nurture (4).

A subject that Jamison does not delve into, but one which I think would help in further understanding is the question of whether exuberance within the scientific field is hereditarily transmitted. Perhaps one could accomplish this with a study of scientists and their children. Generally, scientists of all talents and spanning all fields are curious by nature and all possess a degree of passion for their work, therefore, it would be interesting to determine if this enthusiasm is inherited by their children. Will the children inherit this exuberance, but will it be for another field? Is the exuberance inherited or the passion for a particular lifestyle inherited? I feel these future studies would help me to resolve the discussions we have had in class about nature and nurture. Moreover, if you were to place a naturally animated child in a stifling household lacking positive energy, would this child still flourish and pursue their goals?

Another interesting aspect discussed is the difference between exuberance in terms of scientific and creative achievement versus the exuberance a soldier can develop for killing. It seems quite interesting to me that exuberant behavior can be used for both positive and negative actions. What makes the passion a scientist has to cure cancer different from a soldier engaged in war? " 'There is a part of me—maybe it is a part of many of us—that decided at certain moments that I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life,' " ((1), 259). This quote was taken from a soldier engaged in battle and Jamison is able to document the passion they have for killing, which although startling, has to taken into account since there are so many different ways that exuberance can affect individuals. While it seems that exuberance is only a positive attribute to possess, I began to realize that this passion for life may not always be entirely positive and healthy. Therefore, I found it helpful that Jamison provided stories about the soldiers to help highlight that exuberance is not only channeled into creative, literary or scientific achievements but can also spur on negative activity.

In conjunction with the solider stories, Jamison discusses Andrew Cheng who works at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and expounds upon how exuberance can negatively impact one's life. While being exuberant affords a scientist with the resilience, passion and drive to explore new ideas and experiments, it can be hard to focus on one task. " '...don't get things done, there are too many projects. You get excited. And you start forgetting meetings and ignoring your other responsibilities. And you start getting other people mad at you,' " ((1), 218). Therefore, it seems that the balance between being successful and responsible is dictated by an individual's exuberant nature. If a scientist is too exuberant, then they will have trouble focusing solely on one project and will put their efforts toward too many tasks at once, thereby spreading themselves too thin. Moreover, if a scientist is not exuberant enough, he/she will most likely lack the passion and drive to accomplish their goals. Perhaps the I-function of each individual serves to monitor their exuberance in the workplace, accounting for why some individuals are able to still accomplish a great deal while keeping focused and others are unable to do so. It would be interesting if Jamison had interviewed the exuberant scientists to see if they were even aware they were skipping out on their other responsibilities or if they were so caught up in their projects they did not even notice. In addition, Jamison could have asked the other scientists to see if they were actively monitoring themselves so that they were more focused, were participating in their meetings, and attending to their other responsibilities.

While we have tackled the role of the I-function in class for much of the semester, we have also looked at the elusive relationship between brain and behavior. Jamison does not directly answer this question but she does offer some theories about the role between brain and behavior by looking at the exuberant nature of animals at play. The act of playing in young animals helps to establish social ties, allowing members of a particular species to bond and communicate. Furthermore, this type of behavior helps to strengthen the immune system and increases the resilience of these animals under stress. Scientists have shown that rats raised in cages with toys and tunnels play more, explore more and in the long run, accrue more new neurons as compared to their counterparts in standard cages. An experiment that I would be interested in looking at entails moving rats from one cage to another and monitoring their brain activity in order to cement the idea that brain does equal behavior. Would the rats raised in standard cages and then moved, develop more neurons and by nature become playful, or are they so conditioned at this point in their maturation that they will not explore in these new cages? While Jamison provides an ample qualitative look at the exuberant nature of playing in young animals and young children, her discussion is lacking any quantitative evidence. She merely asserts that scientists have performed a battery of tests, but there is no real evidence to look at. However, using her discussion and ideas that I expressed in my first paper, thoughts of my classmates established in class and through the online forum, I believe Jamison's writings help me to firmly believe that brain equals behavior (4). Moreover, the experiments I proposed would help to further explore these issues.

Another interesting topic Jamison grapples with is the closing of childhood and the entrance into adulthood. Everyone must make this transition and it seems that some are able to do this more smoothly than others. The successful ones do not abandon their exuberance; rather they channel their passion and love into another venue. While they once enjoyed playing with dolls, building Barbie houses, or running around the neighborhood climbing trees, their childhood hearts and dreams have not been shattered. Rather, these individuals are able to capture their emotions and allow them to be expressed in their work. Most of the scientists Jamison interviews do not even know how many hours a week they work because they do not consider what they do each day actual work. How are some adults able to find careers that allow them to express their exuberance so well, while others are left at jobs that require them to stifle their passions? It seems that the former individuals are not only exuberant, but lucky to have a job that they truly love.

The ideas raised in Jamison's book left me with more unanswered questions than answered questions, but piqued my interest in a variety of topics, some of which we have dedicated class time to studying. The section where she interviews exuberant scientists and discusses their achievements was most interesting to me. Not only does Jamison detail the positive effects of exuberance, but she also describes the almost manic and somewhat scattered nature of these individuals. She juxtaposes the creative, scientific, and literary achievements due to exuberance to the passion that soldiers develop for killing while engaged in battle. These ideas force the reader to realize that exuberance may also play a negative role and there is a sensitive equilibrium that must be maintained within each individual. I propose that the I-function helps to regulate this almost homeostatic process within the brain. The discussion of nature versus nurture and the hereditary transmittance of exuberance also were of interest to me, as we have touched upon this topic in class. Moreover, I also employed Jamison's thoughts in order to come to a more solid conclusion that brain does equal behavior by examining the benefits of play in young animals and children. However, what interested me the most was Jamison's decision to publish a book that was so markedly different than her other work on moods, madness, suicide and manic-depression. It is refreshing to read a book that not only examines the way in which the brain and behavior interact in a negative or malfunctioning light, but also highlights the positive aspects. Her book ends on an optimistic note, instilling hope and exuberance in her readers, which I warmly welcomed.


1) Jamison, Kay Redfield. Exuberance: The Passion for Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

2)Mental Help Net , a review of Jamison's book, published by Christian Perring, PhD.

3)Houston Chronicle website, another review article on Jamison's book published by Diana K. Sugg of the Baltimore Sun.

4)Serendip Home Page, our class website and forum area.

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