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Book Prize Blog: The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, by John Coates

7 Nov, 2012

Cover image for ‘The Hour Between Dog and Wolf’

In the last of our Book Prize Blogs, Holly Story reads ‘The Hour Between Dog and Wolf‘ – a non-fiction book by former Wall Street trader John Coates, which explores how human biology may influence the financial markets.

I expected that The Hour Between Dog and Wolf would introduce me to an unfamiliar world, a complex and baffling place that I knew almost nothing about. And I was right. But it was not the author’s insights into the obscurities of the financial markets that kept me reading for three hundred pages. Instead I found myself on a journey of discovery around the equally mysterious workings of the human body.

John Coates’s book is an exploration of how our brains and bodies work together to produce gut feelings, fast reactions, thrilling highs and stress-induced lows. He combines his scientific knowledge with first-hand experience of financial trading to produce a hypothesis of how biological processes may fuel the behaviour of city traders.

Each chapter engages with a characteristic of a trader or his work: his ability to react quickly to new information for instance, or how gut feelings inform the decisions he makes. Coates then unravels the biology behind these behaviours. He also introduces us to a fictional group of Wall Street traders – Martin, Gwen, Scott and Logan – who are unwittingly hurtling towards a financial crisis, picking up their story intermittently throughout the book and using it to show biology in action.

It is an interesting approach to explaining the culture of city trading, and Coates constructs a compelling argument. But for me, it was the biology that stole the show.

Throughout the book, Coates treats us to entertaining information about the human body or shows us unexpected new ways of considering our day-to-day activities. Collapsing in front of a film may seem far from a physical activity – but doesn’t your heart thump as James Bond leaps into his Aston Martin? As Coates points out, we go to the movies because they “take our bodies on a rollercoaster ride”. And did you know that taking a cold plunge after a sauna could help you to react better to stressful situations? Or that, according to the ‘facial feedback theory of emotions’, botox may inhibit your emotions?

Biology thus provides us with a novel perspective on our habitual behaviour. But as I processed all this new information, I couldn’t help thinking that biology often seemed to be confirming what old wives have been telling us for centuries. Coates presents a lot of recent research in the book, both his own and that of others, but it is fascinating how often fresh knowledge about our bodies seems to confirm old suspicions. For example, biology may teach us how our physical response to a situation could shape our experience of emotion. But, as Coates points out, this link has always been evident in “our everyday use of emotional language” such as when we speak of “receiving bad news with a sinking stomach, a broken heart, or blood- boiling anger”.

Similarly, many of us, when feeling reluctant to try something new or challenge ourselves, have been counselled that it is ‘good for us’ to get out of our ‘comfort zone’. Well, this common wisdom may just contain a nugget of biological truth. Scientists experimenting with techniques to build our resilience to stress, have found that we might be able to build our mental toughness in the same way that we develop physical fitness, that is by a “process of challenge … followed by recovery”.  So it seems we are right in our suspicion that tackling new and challenging experiences is good for us – even if we would rather stay in bed.

Of course, not all old wives’ tales are true, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that we have nothing to learn from science. However, as Coates points out, sometimes it’s nice when scientific discoveries “do not scare the pants off us”. It is easy to be frightened of scientific knowledge, but Coates does a brilliant job of showing us that looking at ourselves as a biological organism, scrutinising our emotions or dissecting our decision-making, “[is not] a dehumanizing experience at all”.

What is far more dangerous, and, Coates argues, far more costly, is to ignore our biology and the power of our bodies to influence our brains.

Below is a short film which has been produced by the Wellcome Trust as part of a series of shorts about the shortlisted titles. To view the full playlist visit the Wellcome Trust YouTube channel.

For further information and book club reading packs for all the shortlisted entries please visit the Book Prize website

One Comment leave one →
  1. 8 Nov, 2012 1:58 pm

    Thank you for this review – I now plan to read the book to see whether the author draws any conclusions from his observations on the biological factors driving the decisions of City traders. Having worked on the periphery of the financial markets for years, my personal observation is that those who succeed are those with the best-honed fight or flight response in a time of extreme volatility – their decisions based on almost imperceptible clues about the way the market is moving, largely ‘gut’, rather than conscious reactions. I have often wondered whether women would be just as successful in the trading room, given their enhanced gut instinct, were it not for the myth (?) about trading being a testosterone-driven world. This may be the case, but I question the causality. I prefer to think of it as testosterone-drenched but cortisol-driven world – a dangerous, unhealthy and unsustainable one, to boot!

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