Book Reviews

Including web-only reviews

Marking the Mind:A History of Memory
Kurt Danziger
Cambridge University Press; 2008; Pb £23.99 Reviewed by Toni Brennanwho is in the Department of Psychology, University of Surrey 

Few topics are more fascinating than memory, seemingly woven into the fabric of whatever makes us human, and what enthusiasm the thought of studying it at university level usually elicits in the psychology undergraduate! However, before you go all Proustian, you are told, ‘Hold the madeleine!’ – for the study of memory seems to become a game of word completion under experimental conditions, or a photographic negative, whereby we learn about memory from neurological patients who have lost different facets of the ability to remember. All this is fascinating, but it may still leave students (and lecturers) with the impression that memory is like a big box divided into smaller boxes (with different theories as to the criteria for this division) and, ultimately, with a sense that there is a ‘bigger picture’ that eludes us.

Kurt Danziger’s latest book is set to change this state
of affairs. Danziger considers that, although psychology
is a relatively new discipline, the concept of memory
pre-exists it by millennia, with different meanings in different historical and geographical contexts. He uncovers what has been there all along but a conspiracy of silence has kept hidden: that memory is far from an ahistorical, static concept. What shines through this book is the effort that has been spent by psychology to keep memory and its investigation isolated, eliding the sociality underlying any form of remembering, and the neglect of the role that socio-economic conditions and power have played in shaping understandings of memory through (mainly Western) history. One example is the rise of medical discourse (with the attendant separation of ‘expert’ and ‘lay’ knowledge), which produced a proliferation of terms and diagnoses around memory and forgetting in the second part of the 19th century, from ‘suggestion’ and ‘suggestibility’, to ‘paramnesia’ – ‘“remembering” things that were never there in the first place’ – to repressed memories.

It is a fascinating and sometimes uphill journey – with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Locke used to illuminate the philosophical underpinnings of memory – but the book is relatively accessible to the reader who has no background in philosophy. It is a great read from cover to cover, which makes it difficult to single out a topic; my personal preference is for the pages that describe the transition between oral tradition and the consolidation of literacy, the time when the idea of memory as ‘inscription’ began to take shape. According to Danziger, Plato, with his ambivalence towards writing, which he saw as ‘the freezing of living memory’, highlights this shift: ‘placed in a transitional situation…Plato was able to discern complexities in the relation of literacy and memory that became increasingly invisible to subsequent generations’.

Another favourite is the ‘reminder’ (lame pun intended) of how prescient Frederic Bartlett was in interrogating a ‘static’ view of memory, arguing that ‘remembering’
(an activity, and a continuous one at that) would be a more appropriate conceptualisation, and in his attention to the social aspects of remembering. ‘Social organization’, he stated, ‘gives a persistent framework into which all detailed recall must fit, and it very powerfully influences both the matter and the manner of recall’ (Bartlett, 1932/1995, p.296). As Danziger notes, these insights were neglected until the emergence of discursive psychology towards the end of the century.

In conclusion, this is a book to remember!

Creativity, Mental Illness and Crime
Russell Eisenman
Kendall/Hunt; 2008; Pb £25.00Reviewed by Lisa Halley who is an assistant psychologist in the Forensic Directorate, NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde

Eisenman begins by looking at the relationship between creativity and mental illness in prisoners. He uses data from his own research and experience, as well as from several different sources, to reflect upon other issues also, such as the desirability of the death penalty; availability of drugs in schools; characteristics of adolescent sex offenders; and mistreatment of mentally ill individuals in prison treatment programmes.

Although these topics are interesting in their own right, Eisenman fails to provide a unified theme that links the issues mentioned in the title. Instead, he considers topics that could be viewed as largely unrelated, leaving the reader somewhat confused about the agenda of this work.

Although it is difficult to grasp the aim and purpose of the book, each chapter is written in a direct and honest manner, which ultimately provides insight into Eisenman’s interests on what are arguably neglected areas of research. However, this book should not be treated as another academic book but considered simply as one that is thought-provoking and highlights avenues for further research.

Raising Kids in the 21st Century
Sharon Hall
Wiley-Blackwell; 2008;
Pb £14.99
Reviewed by Jasmin Aquan-Assee who is with St Mary’s Hospital/Imperial College NHS Trust

The author’s aim is to ‘paint an overall picture of the skills children need to become functioning adults through translating the latest scientific research into workable guidelines’. In short, follow the guidelines dictated by research and a psychologically healthy adult is seemingly guaranteed. However, this book tries too hard to provide a synthesis of current child development literature and fails in its ambition to provide a straightforward guide for raising psychologically healthy children. It is also pitched at a US audience, which can be distracting.

Despite these criticisms, it is worth picking up as long as you are not seeking a step-by-step guide to psychological/social health. The author presents a cogent discussion on her specific concept of ‘psychological health’ and how early cognitive and social development is linked to issues such as resilience and to wider social issues like tolerance and racism. Parents and teachers interested in exploring children’s social development/behaviour should find this easy-to-read book interesting and informative and perhaps even a spur to delving further into the complex area of psychological health.

Christian Jarrett & Joannah Ginsburg
Continuum; 2008; Hb £12.99
Reviewed by Michael Reddy
who is Director of MavEdu, a multilingual social and career network for psychologists

This book walks a line between the ‘pop’ psychology of newsstands and the published work of professional psychologists, and with Christian Jarrett as co-author, there was a guarantee it would be a good read. His fingerprints (so to speak) are all over the new-style Psychologist, and this book is full of the juicy research items he is adept at finding.

The other author, Joannah Ginsburg, is likewise both psychologist (psychotherapist) and journalist, contributing three of the eight chapters including the ones on stress (how did the god Pan first sow panic?) and sleep (a way to better remember your dreams?). Jarrett contributes the other five chapters, such as memory and personality – you may have missed the sea slug’s critical contribution to memory research, or an answer to the important question of what makes an effective leader.

Each chapter contains a handful of two-page articles, making a total of 61 short pieces, all based on valid research and attractively laid out; there is a compact reference section at the end (index of psychologists, subject index, background research references).

What Is Special about the Human Brain?
Richard Passingham
Oxford University Press; 2008; Hb £29.95
Reviewed by Gary Christopher
who is a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of the West of England

This title attempts to tackle the current debate about the similarities between humans and primates. However, it does so by focusing instead on differences and by emphasising what makes humans unique.

The first chapter makes a good job of expressing the intricacies of the debate. What follows is a series of chapters dedicated to a different skill or behaviour. Chapters include among other things language skills and decision-making activity. Each chapter focuses largely on experimental evidence to demonstrate such differences.

The discussion concerning the actual level of language understanding possessed by primates when compared with humans was engaging. Although chimpanzees have been shown to hold a rudimentary understanding of language, it is not a patch on our abilities as humans. Indeed, the hemispheric specialisation in humans is a great example of just how much we differ. Passingham ends by reflecting that neuroscience is a relatively new science. The majority of such studies use macaques as a comparison. This has major implications as it is possible that ‘the chimpanzee brain differs from the macaque brain in the same way as does the human brain’. This means that a full understanding of just how humans differ from chimpanzees in particular will not be possible until similar methodologies can be utilised in the study of both. Until then examination of differences can be, to a large extent, conjecture. As an introduction to this debate I would definitely recommend this title. 


Web-only reviews

Positively cinematic
Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths
Ryan M Niemiec & Dann Wedding
The authors assert to show readers how to use films to learn about the concepts and benefits of positive psychology.  The reader is immediately struck by the sheer encyclopedic scope of movie references assembled by the authors, representing every conceivable genre, industry and audience.
Each chapter describes the strengths and virtues of positive psychology, including practical self-improvement applications and relevant research.    The use of movie references throughout serves to illustrate concepts or signpost the reader to movies that provide further insight.  While this approach was effective, I felt a greater sense of connection was achieved between theory and movies when the authors focused their descriptions on single movie exemplars that exemplified a particular virtue rather than a spread of films.   
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book, Niemiec and Wedding present an accessible introduction to positive psychology enlivened and empowered by their enthusiasm for the movies.  In using films they enable the concepts of positive psychology to be recognisable and familiar for newcomers to this field while providing a useful alternative perspective to those with existing knowledge. 
Hogrefe; 2008; Pb £34.95
Reviewed by Neill Thompson

Avoid the ‘seven sins’
Emotion Science: Cognitive and Neuroscientific Approaches to Understanding Human Emotions
Elaine Fox
This is a comprehensive and authoritative book on emotion science that was written for audiences from various subject backgrounds and levels of understanding. Excellent discussions are raised in each chapter about current knowledge with clear identifications of gaps in research arising from integrating different findings from diverse areas of work. Postgraduates and researchers will find this particularly useful.
The strength of this book is that it brings together key aspects of emotion science by utilising empirical evidence and theories from a wide range of sources to offer a new perspective arising from this integration. My favourite chapters were on the determinants of emotional disorders and of resilience and well-being, where Professor Fox was not afraid to call for embracing the holistic approach to understand human emotions.
In the last chapter the unifying framework offered provides a platform that many would find useful to re-examine their own research approach to study emotions. In particular the list of ‘seven sins’ in the study of emotions will aid critical examinations of current practice.
I highly recommend this book to all studying emotion science.

Palgrave Macmillan; 2008; Pb £26.99
Reviewed by Erika Borkoles, who is an exercise and health psychologist, Leeds Metropolitan University

Accepting autism
Dasha’s Journal: A Cat Reflects on Life, Catness and Autism
T. O. Daria
Dasha, the feline narrator, is a witty cat-scientist. Her research focuses on Alex, an autistic boy, whose family has learned the hard way how best to accommodate his needs. Dasha presents autism as a different world, not a disabled one, affirming that it is society that must adapt accordingly.
Weaving together the themes of autism and animal research, Dasha rejects social hierarchy, dismissing the traditional differences between humans and animals, autistic and non-autistic individuals. She asserts a refreshing, all-encompassing equality.
This is a delightful easy-read for young people, beginners in the field or those simply wishing to gain insight into living with autism.

Jessica Kingsley; 2008; Pb £12.99
Reviewed by Rosie Powling who is an assistant psychologist at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol

 

 


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