Book reviews

a Rough Guide to Psychology from The Psychologist journalist and Research Digest editor; media and youth; psychometric theory; and web-only reviews

Shining a torch into the mental nooks and crannies

The Rough Guide to Psychology
Christian Jarrett 

The saying goes that almost all of us psychologists took up the subject because of the desire ‘to know about ourselves’ and that after only a few weeks into the first term, this nonsense goes right out of our heads. Instead we are excruciatingly embarrassed to ever have had such a silly idea about the rigorous, empirical study of mind, brain and behaviour. Only the uncool non-scientific versions of psychology, the psychobabble type, would pretend to be able to reveal our innermost being. Christian Jarrett has turned the tables. He has succeeded in shaking off the cobwebs over a well-kept secret, namely, that cool scientific psychology can do this much better. So, we don’t need to be embarrassed any more, but can embrace the refreshing idea that rigorous, respectable academic psychology can shine a torch into the ‘crooks and nannies’ of our mental life.

Jarrett has a brilliant track record as science journalist in the blogosphere. He unerringly picks those nuggets of information from the thousands of currently published papers that contain streaks of gold. Like his many other followers, I have long been impressed at how he manages to dig out the really interesting bits. It has to be admitted that among the thousands of publications in psychology, there are always only a very few that deserve to attract attention. Yet, all these bits make up a steady stream of information. Moreover, this stream flows in a landscape that has shape and form, and this is where the Rough Guide leads you to explore. The landscape of the mind offers surprising vistas, and there are signposts to future explorations. Like any proper guide it gives warnings as well as recommendations. Some of Jarrett’s most intriguing sections are about the new advances in linking mind and brain. He does not shrink from discussing notorious critiques of neuroimaging, or from debates about such controversial topics as ‘nudge’, gender differences, intelligence testing, false memories and false confessions.

Because this book is disarmingly appealing to the deep desire to know ourselves it follows a nice and logical path from what psychology offers about your own mind, and this includes emotions, to what it can tell about personal relationships, to the social psychological phenomena that are among the most important insights gained by psychologists. For example, stereotype threat, altruism, persuasion and compliance are all soundly discussed in the context of the groundbreaking experiments that established them as topics of further study. But what is so appealing in this book is that you are given everyday context; for instance, what happens when we are shopping, working with others, doing sports, learning in the classroom. As obligatory in any ‘know yourself’ book there are also excellent short sections on mental disorders and their treatments.

This book presents psychology today ‘in a nutshell’, and it is almost frighteningly up to date. But then this is what you should expect of a Rough Guide that is properly researched. This guide tells readers about the outstanding discoveries made by explorers of psychology in an extremely engaging way. It invites travellers to consider these discoveries not only with due wonder but also healthy scepticism. The invitation to follow up with recommended readings is well judged. You should be able to find the primary references using Google Scholar and PubMed; but besides these there are other sources of information on the web, notably in blogs, and these you have to explore by yourself.
If I had to help a young person choose the subject they should study I would not make any direct suggestions, but if I was convinced they should take up psychology, I would simply recommend this book. The rest would follow.  

 - Penguin; 2011; Pb £11.99
Reviewed by Uta Frith who is Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London

For your chance to win a copy of The Rough Guide to Psychology, simply follow @psychmag on Twitter.

Comprehensive survey
Media and Youth: A Developmental Perspective
Steven J. Kirsh

The impact of media on youth has long been a contentious issue. As Steven J. Kirsh makes clear, there have been scares for as long as there have been worried parents. Along with violent video games, we could cite skinny models encouraging anorexia, predators lurking in internet chatrooms, and children’s academic potential wilting under the glare of all those screens.

Kirsh’s objective is neither to create nor dispel such fears. Rather, he provides a clear-headed and admirably comprehensive survey of the available evidence, discussing how youth consume media and how it affects them both positively and negatively as they grow up.

A diverse range of topics are addressed from a developmental perspective, giving readers a good grounding in theory and findings alike. With his lucid writing style, clearly structured chapters and a slew of rather endearing personal anecdotes, Kirsch makes a labyrinthine subject remarkably navigable. He reveals that the areas most influenced by media are not necessarily what we might think.

Media and Youth: A Developmental Perspective has much to offer both inside and outside an academic context.

 - Wiley-Blackwell; 2010; Pb £25.99
Reviewed by Abi Millar who is a Science Journalism postgraduate at City University

New autism theory

The Passionate Mind: How People with Autism Learn
Wendy Lawson

Wendy Lawson writes passionately about how her cognitive theory of autism – selective attention and associated cognition in autism (SAACA) – fills the gaps left by other theorists.

Lawson argues that ‘neurotypical’ individuals access and process information in a polytropic way; attention can shift between multiple topics or channels. Conversely, autism spectrum (AS) individuals are monotropic in their approach; attention occupies a single topic or direction. This ‘attention tunnel’ is determined by the individual’s interest, and is proposed to connect to the sensory motor loop to create a specific cognitive style. Lawson believes that a better understanding of this allows for personalised interventions to be successful.

Unfortunately, little evidence exists to support her theory. Lawson cites anecdotal evidence or re-interprets the existing literature, but recognises the weaknesses of this approach, calling for researchers to test her theory. I would second this, as what SAACA cleverly does is provide a simple yet comprehensive theory of cognitive style in autism – one that is interesting and warrants further attention.

 - Jessica Kingsley; 2011; Pb £15.99
Reviewed by Léonie McDonald who is a clinical psychologist with Suffolk Community Healthcare

Passes the test

Introduction to Psychometric Theory
Tenko Raykov & George A. Marcoulides

This book is a wide-ranging introductory text to psychometric theory, covering latent variable models such as exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis, generalisability theory, and item response theory. The mixture of written accounts, equations, software commands (including code for several packages such as MPlus, SPSS, and R), and software outputs is highly commendable. This mixed approach does a good job of ‘mentoring’ you from study design all the way to analysing and interpreting your data.

The book easily passes the ‘Did I wish I had used this book during my PhD?’ test, and some of the more advanced chapters (e.g. regarding item response theory) have dropped several pennies for me. The writing itself can be a little difficult, quite dense and featuring several over-long and (to me, at least) baffling sentences. The book does assume basic statistical knowledge, and potential readers should be aware that, with only 318 pages, it’s a whistle-stop tour. Having recourse to fuller treatments of the material is likely to be beneficial for those less gifted souls such as myself.

 - Routledge; 2010; Hb £44.95
Reviewed by Chris Beeley
who is with the Institute of Mental Health, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust

A wealth of material

Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development (2nd edn)
Usha Goswami (Ed.)

This is an authoritative, comprehensive and cutting-edge account of psychological theory and research on children’s cognitive development from infants to early adolescence. Written by a cast of world leading academics, this handbook provides a single volume resource that covers all the major topics. The material is organised into sections each with a useful introduction, which provides an important thread of contextual coherence across the book.

This second edition reflects the significant developments within the field arising from the latest cognitive neuropsychological research. New data about the connections between neural mechanisms and children’s learning is considered in relation to topics as diverse as memory, spatial development and theory of mind, leading to new insights and explanatory frameworks for cognitive development. A theme that runs through many of these accounts is the incredible learning power and plasticity of the infant brain and its superbly adapted capacity for learning through experience.

Subsequent chapters consider the development of core cognitive functions, such as imitation, categorisation, concept development and causal reasoning, and broader aspects of development, such as reading, mathematical understanding, scientific thinking, moral reasoning, as well as executive functioning and language development. A final section critically reviews established theories (i.e. Piaget and Vygotsky) while also introducing newer theoretical frameworks, such as information processing and neuroconstructivism.

This handbook brings together such a wealth of material to constitute possibly the single best reference book in its subject area and, as such, should serve as a key text for advanced students, researchers and practitioners.

I    Wiley-Blackwell; 2010; £120.00
Reviewed by Paul Riddick
who is Senior Educational Psychologist, Leicester City

Web-only reviews

In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness
Peter Levine

The psychologist Peter Levine is a major figure in the trauma field. His earlier book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (North Atlantic Books, 1997), aimed at a general readership, was very successful. In it he promoted the idea that the way to help those affected by trauma was not through talking but through action. Somatic Experiencing, as he has calls it, combines body awareness work with a sensitive assessment of the psychological causes of trauma. It is not enough, and in fact it may make people worse, to ask people to relive traumas purely verbally. The body needs to be involved so that physical actions that were inhibited are re-enacted in therapy and latent energy can be discharged.

In Waking the Tiger Levine’s notion of ‘energy’ was relatively undeveloped, a weakness in his model. In this new book he goes a long way to correcting that by drawing upon recent advances in brain functioning. In fact, as anyone familiar with the trauma field will know, in the past decade there has been a distinct shift towards biopsychological models, in particular the view that trauma memories are processed differently in the brain from other memories. Chris Brewin, on the one hand, and Anke Ehlers and David Clark on the other, have elaborated useful psychological models reflecting that assumed difference. Levine goes one step further by asserting that the key to understanding the effects of trauma lies in the basic innate survival reactions in particular, ‘freezing’ or ‘tonic immobility.’ As he puts it, ‘Traumatized individuals repeatedly frighten themselves as they begin to come out of immobility… A traumatized individual is literally imprisoned, repeatedly frightened and restrained – by his or her own persistent physiological reactions and by fear of those reactions and emotions’ (p.66).

The therapeutic focus is inwards, into the body’s reactions, and into getting traumatised people to complete actions that they had been unable to do in the past. Emotions rather than cognitions are what matter though he rejects simplistic ideas of catharsis and correctly warns against the increasingly common belief that if you have been through trauma, you need to talk about it.

This is an excellent book, made all the better for the passion that infuses Levine’s writing throughout. He has lived and breathed trauma for some 40 years, and readers will get the benefit of both his clinical acumen and his wide-ranging knowledge. In an epilogue he tells us that two other books are in the pipeline, one on trauma memory, and the other on trauma and spirituality. I look forward to both.

North Atlantic Books; 2010; Pb £19.99
Reviewed by John Marzillier, who is a retired clinical psychologist and psychotherapist now working principally as a writer


Life Happens: Waking Up to Yourself and Your Life in a Mindful Way
Cheryl A. Rezek

How to engage ourselves in life more positively and productively is one of the central topics in enhancing psychological well-being. Drawing on considerable experience in both clinical and academic fields, the author invites everyone to embark on a ‘mindful journey’ to increase self-awareness and ultimately develop a different way of managing life.

The book begins with an introduction to the core psychological theories and empirical studies of the mind and human development. A discussion of different concepts and meditation practices follows in sections suggesting progressive steps for cultivating a practice of mindfulness. Examples include paying attention; being aware of our own existence and engaged with that sensitivity; overcoming the mind/body and nature/nurture divisions; and being open to our own feelings.

The book seems to be ambitious in its intention to cover both research and practice. However, its real strength comes in its practical suggestions and through using friendly language, which provides the reader an effective and straightforward approach to life and well-being. It focuses on the present and uses strategies relevant for everyday contexts. Therefore, though ‘living in the here-and-now’ is not a new idea of cultivating mindfulness, the book should prove accessible to a wide audience.

Leachcroft; 2010; Pb 16.99
Reviewed by Qing Wang, who is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol


Psychological Aspects of Functioning, Disability and Health
David B. Peterson

Under the very title Psychological Aspects of Functioning, Disability and Health David B. Peterson provides a very specific and detailed integration of two prominent classification systems: the WHO’s International Classification System of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) and the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

In a very accessible and well-written book Peterson introduces the reader to both taxonomies independently and in detail before integrating both models. By doing so Pearson provides a text that is of interest to a multidisciplinary audience of rehabilitation and clinical psychologists (and related disciplines) and shows how both classification systems can complement each other to arrive at a fuller and richer understanding of patients.

The book thereby fosters cross-fertilisation between two instruments that have the potential to advance research and treatment, which could be of tremendous benefit to a diverse array of patients. I can recommend this book to anyone working with either of the classification systems who wants to learn more about the potential to learn and benefit another well-established tool.

Springer; 2011; Hb £57.95
Reviewed by Stephan U. Dombrowski, who is a Research Associate at Newcastle University


Handbook of the Psychology of Aging (7th edn)
K. Warner Schaie & Sherry L. Willis (Eds.)

The Handbook of the Psychology of Aging is a good resource for anybody working with older adults. Researchers working with older adults should have a good understanding of the psychology of adult development and aging. This book provides comprehensive reviews of research on social and health influences that impact on aging, including chapters on age stereotypes, aging in the workplace, disparities in health among different social class and how control beliefs can impact on health and aging. The book also contains a section on neuroscience and cognitive aging.

I particularly liked the chapter on cognitive interventions looking at training studies such as memory training and component-specific training, as well as looking at the link between physical activity and cognition, lifestyle interventions and even computer-based activities to improve cognitive abilities. However, working at the National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing, I find it surprising that the book does not contain a section on age-related hearing loss.

Overall, this is a great book for anyone working in gerontological research.

Elsevier; 2011; Pb £60.99
Reviewed by Abby McCormack, who is a Research Associate with the National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing, Nottingham


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