Book Reviews

the empathic brain; the madness of women; rethinking school bullying; psychology in social contexts

Ahead of the game

The Empathic Brain: How the Discovery of Mirror Neurons Changes Our Understanding of Human Nature

Christian Keysers

Very few psychologists or members of the popular science reading public will not have heard about mirror neurons. The neuroscientist Ramachandran made the startling comparison of their discovery as of equal importance to neuroscience, as the structure of DNA to biology. With that sort of hype, it is not surprising that discussion of mirror neurons turns up in just about every popular science book on the brain and mind. These books now overpopulate the science section of bookstores (if you can find one still open that is), but few of these books have been written by someone who has actually conducted the research on them.

So I was delighted to discover the recent publication of The Empathic Brain by Christian Keysers, a leading researcher in the field. About 10 years ago Keysers undertook his postdoctoral training with Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team in Parma who discovered mirror neurons and, soon after, he had a meteoric rise to become director of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in his early thirties.

If anyone can write about the brain mechanisms of empathy, Keysers is the man, as his whole research agenda has focused on this area for the last decade. Also anyone who has heard Keysers speak at conferences cannot fail to be impressed by his energy, wit and personable charm.

Keysers’ book captures these qualities in spades. Written for the general public in a lively style, he immediately pulls the reader into his vision of human nature as an animal specialised for empathy. It opens with his account of almost losing emotional control at the altar during his own wedding, and then noting the same resonating emotions in his friends and family in the congregation. Keysers is not ashamed to wear his heart on his sleeve, as revealed in the many anecdotes and personal stories that punctuate the book. But these are not gratuitous.

I particularly liked the one where he was momentarily confused lying in bed with his legs intertwined with his wife’s and could not understand why the foot he could see at the end of the bed that usually occupies the space where his own foot should be, did not budge when he tried to move it. (Those of you familiar with the rubber hand illusion will know the answer.) At other times some of the anecdotes make for uncomfortable reading, such as the argument and eventual breakup with a former girlfriend. It is, after all, a book about the emotional relationship between humans.

The science of brain mechanisms is here of course. The book covers the candidate regions of the brain, the circuits identified and the relatively different neural activity in those who score high or low on measures of empathy, as well as the special populations, such as individuals with autism or psychopaths. Various aspects of this research field have been reported in other popular accounts of mirror neurons already. What sets The Empathic Brain ahead of all other books in my opinion, is that it is such a great authoritative read, providing wonderful insights into the day-to-day running of these studies. Keysers with his wife Valeria and his close associates and colleagues are the guys that did the actual studies that others report. Through Keysers’ personal voice the reader learns details that are just never reported in scientific papers – details that make the studies come alive as real events rather than abstracted clinical reports. For example, in one particularly evocative passage, Keysers tells the reader the exact wording of an experimental scenario to induce feelings of disgust. I think the account is best left to the imagination, but let’s just say it requires a strong stomach to read about a tramp who vomits in your face! We also learn how Keysers subjected his beloved Valeria to disgusting smells to prove that the mirroring system extended to beyond just actions. ‘I almost started retching at one point,’ she recounts. One cannot help but get carried away with his enthusiasm. These snippets of real conversations bring personality to the individuals, which makes for such page-turning reading.

Despite the popularity of reporting mirror neuron research, there are still controversies in the field regarding whether they constitute a special class of neuron or rather a more general purpose property of about 10 per cent of neurons found in the premotor areas that simply reflect the activity of associative learning networks. Keysers does not address this, but then I am not sure that this is a controversy that the general reader would understand or, more importantly, care about. What Keysers does offer is a grand perspective on many aspects of the empathic brain that could benefit from understanding the interconnectedness of humans. In the closing chapters he explains why we should rethink morality, education and ethics in light of the way we have evolved to resonate with each other. And these are issues that we should all care about.

Finally, it is worth noting that The Empathic Brain is also published as a Kindle ebook at an extremely competitive price in comparison to conventional books. This is a growing trend in publishing and so it is only a matter of time before ebooks become the industry standard. So in another way The Empathic Brain is a book ahead of the game.

- Createspace; 2011; Pb £8.25; Kindle ebook £2.14

Reviewed by Bruce Hood, who is the Chair of Developmental Psychology at Bristol University and author of SuperSense: From Superstition to Religion – the Brain Science of Belief and the forthcoming The Self Illusion, both published in the UK by Constable & Robinson

Crossing discipline boundaries

Rethinking School Bullying: Towards an Integrated Model

Roz Dixon

The question of how anti-bullying interventions can be improved has been a central concern for those studying bullying since the phenomenon was first recognised as a problem for schools. Different answers to this question have been provided by those working in education, psychology, counselling and health.

In the present book the author outlines a systemic model for tackling bullying, which draws together the different ways in which bullying has been studied. The model focuses at varying theoretical levels on the processes that underpin bullying, and therefore provides a means by which practitioners and academics from a range of disciplines can inform each other’s thinking. The model is largely motivated and illustrated by the author’s own published research.

The style of the book is likely to make it most accessible to academics with a knowledge of research in the area, in that it concentrates on explaining the author’s systemic model rather than giving a thorough account of previous research. The central message of the book is nevertheless convincing: we need to work together if we are to deal with bullying effectively.

- Cambridge University Press; 2011; Hb £55.00

Reviewed by Siân E. Jones who is a PhD student at Cardiff University

One side of a debate

The Madness of Women: Myth and Experience

Jane M. Ussher

This book raised a few eyebrows on the tube. The provocative title reflects the book’s stance, that women are disadvantaged by a social construction of madness that makes them more vulnerable to psychiatric labelling and drug prescription.

As is usual in the qualitative research tradition, Ussher begins with a personal account, ‘outing’ her own perspective. Subsequent chapters present an extensively analysed research literature. Ussher delineates feminist ideas that tend to get lost in the busy world of NHS targets and the searching for a solvable problem.

Ussher writes persuasively and clearly, using nuggets of examples to provoke thought. However, her own views sometimes came across too obviously, particularly in the first part of the book, tending to push me into position of devil’s advocate.

Although I might have liked a more balanced perspective, this was a fascinating and evidence-based book, which never claims to be representing two sides of a debate. I think Ussher might argue that her side of the argument needs more airtime in the psychiatric climate it is being voiced in, and perhaps she is right.

- Routledge; 2011; Pb £19.95

Reviewed by Lucy Maddox who is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist at the Michael Rutter Centre for Children and Young People, London


Psychology in Social Context: Issues and Debates

Philip John Tyson, Dai Jones & Jonathan Elcock

This introduction to critical psychology explores some of the key areas in the history and current practice of the discipline. It is an extremely well structured tour, aimed at psychology students, with each chapter bookended by learning outcomes, thinking points and further reading.

The authors identify the prejudices and assumptions that are the implicit basis of much of mainstream psychology. It is really brought alive by the historical illustrations, vividly illustrating the social context in which psychology operates.

I was disappointed that they did not go on to offer any alternatives; for example, any discussion of an explicitly black or feminist psychology, or ideas of how psychology could be used as a force for social change rather than yet another way of perpetuating social inequality.

I also struggled with some of the subject choices, which seemed to be based on an assumption of a white, male mainstream even though in some areas of psychology, women are the mainstream; and sexual orientation is almost absent, except as a psychiatric diagnosis. It was surprising to see a whole chapter on parapsychology but no mention of religion, given the interesting ways in which it has been both the mainstream and the oppressed at different times.

These issues aside, this is a compelling and wide-ranging book that encourages the reader to look for the moral values and cultural assumptions at the heart of the apparently unbiased science that is psychology.

- Wiley-Blackwell; 2011; Pb: £26.99

Reviewed by Emma Taylor who is a clinical psychologist in eating disorders services

Web-only reviews

Culture & Cognition: Evolutionary Perspectives

Bradley Franks

In Culture & Cognition: Evolutionary Perspectives social psychologist and author Bradley Franks aims to bridge the gap between the nurture versus nature divide by basing his arguments on the tenets of the often highly political evolutionary psychology. In brief, Franks argues that the minds of human beings are biologically predisposed to providing the foundation for productivity, culture, interaction and meaning, but that our mental structures are also interdependent on feedback, exchange and interpretation of our environment.

Although evolutionary psychology is a relatively new subdiscipline within the wider umbrella school, and often highly controversial, Franks makes an admirable, if fairly obvious, stab at unifying both often implacable traditions. To use the word 'obvious' is not a slur on the author or his thesis, because even the most extreme of zealots must admit that both genetics and our surroundings shape human lives. Because he roots his arguments within social construction theory and evolution, Franks offers a convincing viewpoint.

The book is not a straightforward read and requires dedication and concentration and is perhaps best designed for the graduate student or committed academic. For those with little background in the field, I would recommend a more accessible, introductory read. For those who do persevere, however, Franks's arguments are well presented and thoroughly researched and offer a critical balance. He covers a wide, overarching range of pertinent subjects, including motivation and affect, theory of mind and cultural transmission. As evolutionary psychology is an emerging discipline, despite its often inflammatory reception, its tenets will no doubt, at some stage, obtain mainstream status, requiring familiarity. This book is, if not for the beginner, certainly for the advanced reader.

- Palgrave Macmillan; 2011; Pb £24.99

Reviewed by Kristina Downing-Orr, who is a clinical psychologist in London

Intergroup Conflicts and Their Resolution: A Social Psychological Perspective

Daniel Bar-Tal

The way individuals interact within- and between groups is a topic of great importance for a number of disciplines, including psychology, economics and anthropology. This book, edited by Daniel Bar-Tal, focuses on the causes and dynamics of conflicts between groups, and on their resolution. Bar-Tal has succeeded in putting together some of the main experts on between-group conflicts and in providing a comprehensive review of the topic. Despite being strongly grounded in the theories on between-group conflicts, the book makes frequent reference to the implications that such topic has for racism, terrorism and other forms of violence.

Chapters are rigorously written, clear and well connected with each other, although they can also be read as a ‘stand-alone’ piece of research. The reference list at the end of each chapter is particularly useful in this respect. Overall, this is a good book covering a key topic in human psychology from both a theoretical and applied perspective. As such, this book would be an excellent read not only for psychology students but also for, among others, social workers, political analysts and sociologists.

- Psychology Press; 2011; Hb £37.00

Reviewed by Bonaventura Majolo, who is in the School of Psychology, University of Lincoln

A Short Introduction to Promoting Resilience in Children

Colby Pearce

‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger’ (p.9). This eye-catching quote introduces the topic of resilience, which refers to the capacity to cope with adversity. This is a short introduction to the topic, yet the author discusses the biological, psychological and environmental influences upon resilience in depth using easily understood terminology.

The book is written in an accessible style for a wide audience. Throughout, the author uses examples and refers to personal experiences of resilience, which aids the readers understanding.

Although the basic principles for resilience may be generic for most children, coping strategies are more complex and should be individualised. What about improving self-regulation and resilience for children with special needs? It is difficult to promote resilience, especially when an individual’s cognitive ability and communication skills are limited. No consideration was given to this.

The book ends with a key point, adults need to be resilient themselves and have a good self-care protocol for numerous reasons, one being that of providing role-models for the next generation. I would recommend this book, and the introduction and conclusion are definitely thought-provoking.

- Jessica Kingsley; 2011; Pb £12.99

Reviewed by Charlotte Hague, who is an assistant psychologist at Higford School, Shifnal (one of numerous ASD specialist services within the Options Group)


Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty

Simon Baron-Cohen

Baron-Cohen draws upon evidence from psychiatry, psychology and neuroimaging studies in his quest to reconceptualise ‘evil’ as a ‘lack of empathy’ thus introducing a quantifiable measure of cruelty into the realm of science.

He discuses the empathy quotient (distinguishing between low, average and high levels of empathy in the general population) and includes the questionnaire in the appendix, which is a useful resource.

He acknowledges the importance of social (childhood trauma) as well as biological determinants of empathy although the book seems to be weighted towards biological (neuroimaging) evidence, and the abbreviations make it difficult to follow at times.

Drawing upon psychiatric cases, Baron-Cohen provides a convincing argument for changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) to include a ‘lack of empathy’ as part of the diagnostic criteria.

There are also examples, from the Asperger’s population, of when lack of empathy is positive. Baron-Cohen celebrates their talents (related to their systematic thinking) whilst acknowledging their difficulties in empathy (referring to them as ‘zero positive’). He touches upon political issues, quoting ‘[social difficulties in Asperger’s]…more reason to make our society zero positive friendly!’

- Allen Lane; 2011; Hb £20.00

Reviewed by Hatice Yildiran, who is an assistant psychologist working in Hertfordshire

Russell’s World: A Story for Kids about Autism

Charles A. Amenta

As Russell’s World is specifically for ‘kids’ I asked a child to assist! They enjoyed the book, suggesting it expressed what life was like for Russell ‘in the best way that it could’ and was positive in tone. They felt the illustrations – which strikingly combine sketches and photographs – had real meaning for Russell. For example, he often carries straws and there were drawings of straws along with robots to represent monotone speech and Cheerios, a favourite reward. The recommended age is four to eight, but I would suggest the language, and importantly the interpretation, is more appropriate for a slightly older child. For example, the young reader thought Russell had a lonely life, without realising it.

            The first page would benefit from clarifying that the symptoms discussed are specific to Russell and the ‘Note to Parents’ section was written in a format more appropriate for a reasonably well-educated adult, who would probably know this information already. ‘How You Can Help’ however gave very useful suggestions for everyday management as well as touching on the more significant issues in caring for a child with autism.

Magination Press; 2011; Pb £8.95

Reviewed by Audrey Espie, who is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, NHS GG&C

Challenging the Stigma of Mental Illness: Lessons for Therapists and Advocates

Patrick W. Corrigan, David Roe & Hector W.H. Tsang

This book challenges the stigma of mental illness on the premise that ‘Stigma hurts and it is personal’. The authors categorise stigma into public, self and structural stigma, and use three strategies in tackling each area – contact, education and protest.

There is a practical element throughout – useful step-by-step instructions are provided with templates, such as ‘values and mental illness worksheet’, to tackle stigma. The authors also recognise the contribution people with mental illness can make in challenging stigma. This is reflected in the frank writing style that attempts to remove taboos associated with mental illness.

While geared towards advocates and mental health professionals, the background information provided makes it navigable for readers with no pre-existing knowledge of the subject. In parts, however, the basics are reiterated, and sometimes elements seemed oversimplified to suit the newcomer.  

The value of this book is in its hands-on and refreshingly proactive approach. The exercises throughout, coupled with a comprehensive list of resources and references, creates a valuable resource to refer to. A recommended read for anyone with an interest in or experience with mental illness.

- Wiley-Blackwell; 2011; Hb £60.00

Reviewed by Philippa Sophie Connolly, who is an H.Dip. Psychology student in University College Dublin and Research Assistant


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