Book Reviews

a history lesson with attitude; mindsight; the newborn brain; rehabilitation psychology; and web-only reviews

Psychology: Pythagoras to Present John C. Malone                                                                                                MIT Press; 2009; Pb/Hb £29.95

Psychology: Pythagoras to Present surveys 25 centuries of ideas and questions that its author, John C. Malone, considers ‘important to psychology’. Malone, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, writes in his preface that a sympathetic editor from MIT Press suggested he write a book for general readers instead of a ‘textbook’. The result is an idiosyncratic survey of the history of ideas about the mind in the English-speaking West, in the form of lecture notes written by a slightly feisty professor who happens to be a radical behaviourist.

However, Pythagoras to Present remains organised like a textbook – albeit an old-fashioned one. (In fact, its chapter structure adheres closely to the abridged 1965 MIT Press edition of G.S. Brett’s History of Psychology – source cited but not adequately acknowledged here.) After the requisite introductory chapter on the philosophy of science, 16 chapters take the reader on a journey from pre-Socratic mysticism to cognitive science. The tour stops at the usual landmarks: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant, Darwin, Helmholtz, Wundt, James, Freud and, last but not least, Skinner. Malone surrounds these geniuses (and yes, he believes in geniuses) with a host of supporting actors, including a higher than usual number of women. His chronology is not strict – the chapter on Aristotle ends with Ayn Rand, for example – and the account is peppered with factoids apparently meant to keep drowsy undergraduates engaged. (Did you know the Huns introduced trousers? Can you believe that Titchener learned Dutch in a week?) Under a stricter editorial regime, some of these asides might have been cut. But that would have made this a different sort of book.

Malone is no professional historian, nor does he claim to be one. His approach to historiography is alarmingly simple: ‘If we read [genuine] original sources, assuming fair translation, we can know that we are getting the author’s account firsthand.’ Comfortable in that assurance, he spends most of the book saying what his authors actually said (as opposed to what most psychologists think they said). In general, Malone relegates his most obvious value judgements to sarcastic section titles like ‘Originality in Aquinas?’ or ‘Freudian Theory When It Made Sense’. To a disappointing extent, this is a history that makes
its argument in bullet points and punch-lines. The book neither engages with nor contributes to current scholarship in the history of psychology, and except for a few histories of behaviourism, it cites only three historical monographs published in the past 20 years. Whenever possible, Malone relies on historians who can’t talk back – the three chapters on ancient Greece and Rome, for example, rest on six ‘standard sources’ written between 1860 and 1960. By not engaging critically with what previous interpreters have said, this book offers its readers few tools with which to tease apart the primary sources from Malone’s interpretation of them. This may be a residue of the book’s origins; in the classroom, Malone presumably balanced his lectures with assigned readings from the original sources. Malone perhaps hopes the interested reader will take the trouble to track down the primary sources, but the book nowhere makes this explicit.

Malone’s account of 20th-century psychology breaks with existing textbook accounts in two ways. The first is in juxtaposing Titchener and Freud in a single chapter, apparently as a way to suggest that these men represent the two main strands in American psychology. ‘Science or Therapy?’ asks one section heading – an interesting question, but one which the chapter unfortunately never explores. Second, the book gestures toward an unorthodox understanding of the relationship between behaviourism and cognitive science, by suggesting that radical behaviourism never died but simply went undercover. This is a territory Malone has explored before, particularly in his well-edited 1991 textbook Theories of Learning. (‘I do not find the behavioral/cognitive distinction useful,’ he wrote in the preface to that book; ‘it is at best a misleading simplification.’) Malone again confines his boldest argument to a section heading: ‘Radical Behaviourism and Cognitive Psychology Blend in Modern Social Psychology?’ His answer appears to be a hopeful yes.

Several editorial lapses trouble the reader’s faith in the book’s production: there are many misdated citations; and it is disconcerting, in a book from the MIT Press, to see the name of MIT psychologist Alex Bavelas consistently misprinted as ‘Bakelas’. Still more troubling is that the book’s illustrations appear to have been selected on the basis of cutting costs (and time) rather than adding value. Most chapters discuss 10 or 12 historical figures and give portraits of two or three, but it’s not often clear from the text why these particular few merit portraits (why Alexander the Great, for example?), and the minimalist captions offer no further clues. The images’ sources range from the respectable Archives of the History of American Psychology to more suspect public-domain web offerings.

What makes Pythagoras to Present interesting is not the history it tells, which has been told better elsewhere, but the tension between the book’s manifest content and the half-hidden polemic at its heart. The history of psychology is worth knowing, Malone writes, because historical ideas ‘are frequently better than modern ones’ (his emphasis). This is only superficially a statement about the past. Ultimately, what readers are meant to take away from this history lesson is a sense of what makes today’s ideas so poor. ‘Contemporary psychology is a shambles, a junkyard, and by no means a pinnacle of achievement,’ Malone wrote in his contribution to a book honouring historian of behaviourism John Staddon, published by the MIT Press in 2008. In that essay, he argued that today’s understanding of psychology, especially as represented in textbooks, is not fundamentally different from Pythagoras’s and Plato’s, and the discipline will remain stagnant until enough psychologists finally catch on to what the good guys (Aristotle, Bacon, Hume, James and Skinner) have been saying all along. Here he has toned down the invective a notch, but the underlying argument is the same. It is one that Malone has been rehearsing and refining in conference talks and specialist publications for more than 30 years, and it is not yet ready for wider circulation.

Reviewed by Philip Loring
who is the BPS Curator of Psychology at the Science Museum

Mindsight                                                                                              Daniel Siegel                                                                                 Oneworld; 2010; Pb £12.99

Fundamentally, mindsight is an ability to accurately perceive ourselves and others. Clients develop a mindsight lens (Dr Siegel’s own terms italicised) through awareness-enhancing exercises, primarily, derived from meditation. The therapeutic aim is to achieve integration by reaching a balance between excessive polar chaos and rigidity across the mind, brain and relationships. Great emphasis is placed on the way the nervous system affects the mind and is itself shaped by experience (known as neuroplasticity). Such knowledge can act as a motivator for change, increase self-awareness, and displace destructive emotions.

Siegel’s clinical explanations make fascinating reading, though his conclusions drawn from case studies are questionable, based on therapy sessions alone. Many of the ideas throughout the book can be seen in other works. Arguably, mindsight is little more than a collective term for insight and empathy.

Marketed as a self-help guide, Mindsight would perhaps be better described as a popular introduction to the topic, with no practical implementation for the reader. All of which left me wondering how much mindsight the work was produced with.            

Reviewed by Donald Crees
who is a graduate psychologist living in Birmingham

The Newborn Brain: Neuroscience and Clinical Applications (2nd edn)
Hugo Lagercrantz, M.A. Hanson, Laura R. Ment & Donald M. Peebles (Eds.)                                                                           Cambridge University Press; 2010; Hb £75.00

The book deals with a complex subject, but the editors successfully guide the reader through the modern science of brain development by providing a fantastically rich collection of studies and essays from internationally acclaimed contributors.

This is a comprehensive and accessible text with chapters smoothly leading the reader through topics addressing subjects such as the making of the brain, sensory systems and behaviour, radiological and neurophysical investigations, clinical aspects and consciousness. The clear and structured format allows for dipping into chapters or exploring themes individually.

My only quibble is for such a brightly coloured, welcoming front of the book, I was a little disappointed that most of the illustrations, diagrams and charts were in black and white, which I felt did not do justice to such a vibrant and impressive subject.

A fascinating text and an extremely useful resource for all those interested in human brain development.

Reviewed by Hannah Butler
who is an assistant psychologist for Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Psychology Service for Children, Young People and Their Families

Handbook of Rehabilitation Psychology (2nd edn)Robert Frank, Mitchell Rosenthal & Bruce Caplan (Eds.)                                American Psychological Association; 2010; Hb £82.50

Comprising 34 chapters, each written by an expert in the field, this second edition of the Handbook of Rehabilitation Psychology is a compendium of current evidence and issues for psychologists working with individuals with disabilities or chronic health conditions.

The text covers a range of clinical conditions requiring rehabilitation – spinal cord injury, limb amputation, traumatic brain injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, burn injuries, chronic pain and geriatric rehabilitation, demonstrating the importance and roles of psychologist in these areas. Some medical background is given for the conditions that set the context for the physical and psychological impacts that require input from a psychologist. Assessment and intervention issues for psychologists in these settings are discussed and linked to current research. A separate section is devoted to paediatrics, focusing on neuropsychology, chronic illness and the family-systems illness model to consider the broader impact of a child’s condition. The book provides an up-to-date review of evidence for each of the topics and highlights areas to be addressed in future research.

The scope of the book is broadened by the section on emerging topics for rehabilitation psychology, with interesting chapters discussing spirituality and the potential role of positive psychology in rehabilitation for acquired disabilities.

This book is a useful reference that may be of interest to research, health and clinical psychologists in rehabilitation settings for people with disabilities or some chronic health conditions.

Reviewed by Shirley Thomas
who is a Lecturer in Rehabilitation Psychology at the University of Nottingham

Web Reviews  

Why We Kill

Nancy Loucks, Sally Smith Holt & Joanna R. Adler                  Middlesex University Press; 2009; Pb £20.99


From the outset Why We Kill looks at how culture and context influence our ethics and our subsequent views on taking life, and tries to understand the many different forms of killing. Each of the nine chapters discusses in detail a way of taking life, including serial killing, abortion, suicide, domestic homicide and genocide. Documenting some shocking examples from around the world, this book really challenges one’s personal beliefs and ethics.


The book concludes with a chapter on Rwanda, where once law-abiding neighbours set about each other and committed horrific murders. How did these ordinary people come to act in this extraordinarily violent manner? The authors argue that they did what they thought they needed to do in the extreme circumstances they found themselves in, and that anyone is capable of taking a life in the right (or wrong) situation.


This book really is an eye-opener and should interest anyone. I for one could not put it down.


Reviewed by Samantha L. Heaton who is an assistant psychologist at Rampton Hospital


Health Anxiety: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive-Behavioural Techniques

Rob Willson & David Veale
Constable and Robinson; 2009; Pb £10.99

The ‘Overcoming’ series is endorsed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and provides a broad range of books in both hard copy and electronic form. This edition provides a comprehensive look at health anxiety using CBT. Some of the terminology may not be familiar to lay readers but there is a consistent effort to explain the core points. The text is normalising and supportive in delivery.


The layout and content is aimed at people with a good reading level and the style may appeal to people who are already motivated towards change. There is a large range of CBT techniques introduced which aim to get the reader to consider points in relation to themselves. As many questions and techniques are introduced quickly, time may be needed to digest and reflect. Investment in the concept of CBT is required.

This book could be suggested as a self-help guide safe in the knowledge that it covers the topic with clarity and breadth.  As an assistant psychologist, I would use sections and certain examples to imbue my clinical work with greater depth.   

Reviewed by Hannah Nelson, who is an assistant psychologist working at Greater Manchester West, MATS service

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