Book Reviews

Everything psychologists need to know about philosophy
Philosophy for life and other dangerous situations
Jules Evans

Don’t know Epictetus from Lucretius? Confused about Stoicism and Platonism?

This historical romp is an ideal introduction for the philosophical novice and those interested in how philosophy underpins many psychological constructs, theories and approaches. In particular, readers interested in the origins of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and positive psychology will find this book informative.

Evans’ engaging and reflective style posits a day in the school of Athens. We are invited to engage with an array of topics and characters beginning with morning sessions exploring virtue and expectations, moving through a luncheon buffet featuring Epicurus with hedonism and happiness on the menu, cosmic and mystical afternoon teachings, and graduation with Socrates considering death and dying. It is a whistle-stop yet well-researched history of key players including Epictetus, Plato et al., interspersed with fascinating case studies elucidating philosophical teachings.

Take for example the faux-adoption of Pythagorean memorisation in the New Thought movement of the 90s exemplified by Rhonda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’. Her strategy – think yourself happy and rich. Or the influence of the Stoic Epictetus on theories of resilience which focus on identifying and controlling our beliefs, seen in the recitation of the Serenity Prayer in 12-step recovery programmes and at the core of CBT. The recent Occupy movement and its followers camped outside St Paul’s cathedral in London are paralleled with Cynicism and its proponent Diogenes who wore rags and lived in a barrel on the streets of Athens. Cynics supported the dismantling of civilisation and its urbane values, instead choosing moral freedom and asceticism, sentiments that will chime with anti-capitalists, those in search of a simpler existence, and those concerned about climate change.

An assortment of case studies present individuals who have overcome adversity by utilising philosophical principles and approaches and those who gone further, radically altering their life course. These showcase positive psychology in action and post-traumatic growth in particular. Evans leads by example and shares his own experience of overcoming social anxiety and establishing philosophy groups and social networks with an international reach. The themes of overcoming adversity and leading the ‘good life’ recur throughout the book and make for seductive reading. Far from the often obtuse philosophical texts that can quickly alienate the reader, this is a witty and accessible book. It comes highly recommended for those who want to know more about how philosophy impacts our understanding of psychological approaches and addresses the more fundamental questions of consciousness, ethics and motivation for those wishing to delve further. Also, dare I say it, some may find it an appealing self-help book. As the book notes Cicero’s words, philosophy is a medical art for the soul.

Random House; 2012; Pb £11.99
Reviewed by Victoria Tischler who is a Chartered Psychologist and Lecturer in Behavioural Sciences, University of Nottingham

Infectious enthusiasm

The Ravenous Brain
Daniel Bor

At the beginning of The Ravenous Brain, Daniel Bor reminds us ‘There is nothing more important to us than our own awareness’. But only 20 years ago, the science of consciousness was regarded
as a fringe endeavour. Now, consciousness is going mainstream, spearheaded by the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, where Bor is based. Of course, psychologists have long studied signature aspects of consciousness, such as attention and working memory; but only recently has a broader question been asked: How might these functions come together to underpin awareness?

Bor is that rare combination of working scientist and storyteller, and the central chapters provide an excellent introduction to the field. With infectious enthusiasm, he takes us on a tour of the latest research into the neural basis of consciousness. One of the most difficult questions is addressing what consciousness is for, and just-so stories abound. It’s unclear whether Bor’s proposal, that consciousness underlies innovation, slips the bonds of circularity – might innovation be possible without awareness, for instance? – but it is bold, and sets up intriguing possibilities for future research.

Basic Books; 2012; Hb £18.99
Reviewed by Stephen Fleming
who is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University


Happiness without the effort
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
Oliver Burkeman

This is Burkeman’s follow up to his 2011 collection of Guardian columns ‘Help!’, and The Antidote is an insightful and engaging reflection on the pursuit of happiness. We are taken on a journey through motivational speakers, Ancient Greek philosophers, meditation and, happily, psychologists. There are many familiar names and studies, such as Albert Ellis (I felt a hint of jealousy that Burkeman spoke to a 93-year-old Ellis who personally urged him to confront his fear of embarrassment through one of his exercises), white bears and goal setting. I found the dark side of goal setting rather convincing – what are willing to sacrifice to achieve our goals?
Certainly many of the ideas that Burkeman discusses are not new, and may be familiar to readers. What Burkeman does offer is journalistic insight with reflection and humour, recounting his visits and experiences exploring these ideas in various parts of the world.
Finally, as Burkeman himself describes a number
of self-help books in one sentence, so his book can also be described in the same way: Stop chasing happiness so intently.

Canongate; 2012; Pb £15.00
Reviewed by Julie Freeborn
who is an independent occupational psychologist


Useful, but…
The Psychology of Artists and the Arts
Edward W.L. Smith

Now here’s a book that tries to do too much. From the get-go, the title, with its sweeping offer would make anyone interested in the subject baulk. Then there’s that kitsch, overcrowded cover, with Dali and Freud set against a kaleidoscopic background embellished with
a psychotic font… who designs these things?

Rant over. Open it up, and what you get is actually quite useful. As Smith himself notes, psychoanalytic literature on the arts (and this is actually what the book is about) is rich but scattered, and some theorists ‘have expressed themselves in less than accessible ways’. That’s kind. So Smith has attempted to pull selected seminal works together – regrettably with some major omissions, Klein, Bion, Stokes for example, and explain them. Sometimes his own explanation is less than clear, but you get the point.

So useful, yes, but ultimately falling prey to a common malaise from which writers on the arts and psychology suffer: talking about the arts as a homogeneous field and not differentiating the creating, the product and the encounter as phenomena in which different psychological processes are involved.

McFarland; 2012; Pb £38.50
Reviewed by Olivia Sagan
who is at the Anna Freud Centre, London


Meticulously updated
Neuropsychological Assessment (5th edn)
Muriel Deutsch Lezak et al.

The fifth edition of this seminal text provides an excellent reference for psychologists working with people with neurological difficulties. The first section of the book discusses general issues pertinent to neuropsychological assessment, including chapters on cognitive functions, functional neuroanatomy, neuropathology, neuropsychological assessment, and interpretation. The second section discusses specific neuropsychological tests in relation to test characteristics and current research. The structure of this book makes topics of interest easily accessible due to separate test and subject indices.

This new edition includes description and evaluation of newly developed tests (e.g. Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales, 4th edn). The book also boasts a new section detailing neuroimaging techniques. However, the inclusion of a table highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of different imaging techniques would have been a useful addition. The latest edition has been meticulously updated with new research studies and the use of case studies really brings the material alive. In addition, the authors provide an interesting discussion of the historical development of neuropsychology and possible future directions for the discipline.

Also new is a link to useful supplementary online material (e.g. 3D videos of the brain). At the time of review the website was under construction so it was difficult to access all of the materials. However, if they are of the same calibre as the book, then I’m sure that they will be extremely useful.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for those working in neuropsychological services and for those with an interest in this area.

Oxford University Press; 2012; Hb £80.00   
Reviewed by Liane Hubbins who is a clinical psychologist


Sample titles just in:
Fathers in Cultural Context David Shwalb, Barbara Shwalb & Michael Lamb (Eds.)
Food and Addiction Kelly Brownell & Mark Gold (Eds.)
R.D. Laing: 50 years since Divided Self T. Itten & C. Young (Eds.)
Master-mind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes
Maria Konnikova

For a full list of books available for review and information on reviewing for The Psychologist, see www.bps.org.uk/books
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Reviews are changing
From next month, we will be amalgamating ‘Media’ and ‘Book reviews’ into a larger and more diverse reviews section. We would like to cover psychology in any form of media: books, TV, radio, newspapers, websites, films, theatre, exhibitions, music, apps… you name it, we’re interested.

If you would like to contribute, please contact the Associate Editor for Reviews, Lucy Maddox, by e-mailing her at [email protected].

 

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