Reviews

Chelsea Flower Show; Man of Steel; TED talks; The Human Swarm; secular Sunday service; reader recommends; and more in our broader ‘Reviews’ section

Participation in the garden

Chelsea Flower Show 2013
Royal Horticultural Society

The Chelsea Flower Show is not a typical venue for The Psychologist, so it was particularly interesting that at this year's centenary event psychologists were involved in a show garden. Not always obvious, given the predominance of plants and design, but psychology in collaboration with others.

The 'Digital Capabilities' social media garden was created by myself and colleagues in Social Computing and Architecture at the University of Lincoln, and Harfleet the garden designers. The concept of the garden arose from a combination of my research interests in the psychology of people and their gardens and Shaun Lawson’s interests in people’s interactions through social media.

Key to the garden design was to challenge typically passive engagement with flower show gardens by introducing interactivity and movement. The garden plot was small (6m x 3m) by Chelsea standards and was divided diagonally into two halves: an outer space filled with familiar plants in a cottagey style and an inner space filled with unusual tropical and subtropical planting. These were separated by the ‘Twitter wall’ made up of 20 motor-actuated panels controlled by a single raspberry pi computer, which accessed Twitter to determine volume of tweets around any given topic (e.g. #RHSChelsea; garden) and opened or closed the panel to reveal/conceal elements of the inner garden. In this sense, the garden’s behaviour was determined by the audience on Twitter, both on site and remotely. Also, tweets directed to the garden received a picture from the inner space.In the context of Chelsea this garden was certainly a novelty and provoked enthusiastic comments from the throngs of visitors, many of whom had seen the garden on TV and made it a specific destination. Even those professing little interest in social media were captivated by the ‘mesmerising’ movement of the panels, the planting and the concept of representing digital interaction in this way. The concept was a bit tricky to convey and required some explanation (‘no it’s not a greenhouse!’), mixing real and virtual interaction with the garden. It was a beautiful and exciting installation and won a Gold Medal.

Encouragingly, other gardens had a psychology theme: 'Digital Capabilities' backed onto the 'Mindfulness Garden', another Gold Medallist, which attracted big crowds.

Elsewhere in the show, an Exeter University psychologist was demonstrating healthy offices and the 'Get Well Soon' Artisan garden celebrated the ways that gardens and plants benefit health. Who knows what will be showing next year; maybe worth putting RHSChelsea 2014 in the diary?

Reviewed by Harriet Gross
who is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Lincoln

‘Avatar therapy’
Health Check
BBC World Service

The BBC World Service’s Health Check (http://bit.ly/Hcheck) provides a weekly round-up of topical health issues. In a recent episode (29 May), Health Check’s Lorna Stewart investigated a fascinating new technique being used in the psychological treatment of voice hearing in psychosis, ‘avatar therapy’ (see also ‘News’, p.478). This therapy, being developed by Professor Julian Leff at University College London, aims to help people develop a new relationship with their voices, and to Professor Leff’s astonishment, for three of the 16 participants in his trial, appears to have helped them lose their voices altogether.

Talking to Health Check, Professor Leff explained that avatar therapy is ‘intended to enable the patient to take control of something that otherwise is uncontrollable’. With the help of computer software,
the voice-hearer is able to create a physical likeness, an avatar, for their voice. No longer do they have to engage with an invisible, repetitive and often non-responsive entity. Furthermore, because the voice-hearer creates their own avatar, they know it can’t harm them.

The client sits in one room, while the therapist sits in another room, observing the situation and controlling the avatar via a computer interface. At the beginning of therapy, the avatar matches the person’s voice in its persecutory content; however, over the course of several sessions the therapist encourages the client to stand up to the avatar. The avatar gradually changes, accepting the misery that it has caused and becoming supportive.

In addition to those patients whose voices went away, for others the voices became quieter and less bothersome, while the patients developed strategies to deal with the voices. The study also reported a reduction in depression that occurred after the therapy stopped, as well as a reduction in suicidal thoughts and behaviour. One of the trial’s participants spoke to the programme; Claire (pseudonym) had experienced persecutory voices for 10 years, and neither medication nor three years of psychotherapy helped significantly with the voices. Following avatar therapy, in addition to a reduction in her voice hearing, Claire reported having greater self-esteem, stopping self-harming and socialising more than before.

From my perspective as a clinical psychologist, the study (http://bit.ly/avatarth) is a great example of the innovative, evidence-based and empowering approaches being developed for the treatment of psychosis. Working with people’s beliefs about their voices, helping them overcome feelings of helplessness and giving them a sense of power over their voices is a key intervention in modern CBT for psychosis. The avatar system, although it needs more study, appears to provide a powerful tool for working with voices.

More broadly, it’s fantastic to see a topic relating to psychosis being covered in a sensitive and intelligent manner in the media, as well as to see a new therapeutic technique described so clearly. I did, however, feel that the article was a little rushed and in particular, in its interview with Claire, that it failed to provide a sense of how it felt to participate in the avatar therapy. The rationale for the therapy could have been explained in more detail, but then I always feel that such topics deserve a little more space. Perhaps Claudia Hammond’s new BBC series The Truth About Mental Illness, which is airing now, will deliver that space.

Reviewed by Fergus Kane who is a newly qualified clinical psychologist working in psychosis

A challenge
Time /No Time: The Paradox of Poetry and Physics
Seán Haldane

In Time/No Time clinical neuropsychologist and poet Seán Haldane [see interview in The Psychologist, January 2011] takes the reader on a dizzying ride through the fields of cosmology, quantum physics, neurophysiology and poetry. The book is written with the ostensible purpose of encouraging poets and scientists to be more open to one another’s ideas, and the basis for this is a challenge to conventional wisdom about a subject intimately bound up with all these disciplines, namely time.

It is a brave venture, but the book proves more challenging than convincing for a number of reasons. For one thing, great reliance is placed upon personal anecdote, as Mr Haldane builds much of his case for ‘the non-existence of objective time’ on chains of coincidence he has observed in his own life. These may be impressive, but clearly there is room for a certain selectivity here: life has a lot of non-coincidences too.

Nor does the book convince that at the primary creative level poets and scientists can really interact in any significant way. Their enterprises are qualitatively different, and both sides will rightly be wary of a sciolistic appropriation of knowledge not truly their own. Sir Peter Medawar observes that for the scientist, science is what goes on at the rest point of the mind. And what goes on at the rest point of the poet’s mind is poetry, but I am doubtful that the poet’s chaotic shifting landscape of the personal, lit by wandering shafts of insight and analogy, has much in common with the ordered impersonal investigations of science.

As for the ‘true nature’ of time, the blithe assertion that past and future are illusions and there are only ‘endless nows’ is all very well, but that’s just not the way the temporal cookie appears to crumble, and whatever quantum physics may have to say on the matter poets have for centuries been united in a common perception of time: it exists and it’s a bastard. In the words of Philip Larkin, ‘Truly, though our element is time,/We are not suited to the long perspectives/Open at each instant of our lives./They link us to our losses’. Or as W.B. Yeats still more succinctly puts it, ‘Man is in love, and loves what vanishes./What more is there to say?’ From the point view of understanding time, quite a lot, if this book is to be believed; from the point of view of experiencing it, rather less.

Parmenides Books; 2013; Pb £11.99
Reviewed by David Sutton who is a poet (and the editor's Dad!)

Rediscovering ‘forgotten’ research
A History of Psycholinguistics: The pre-Chomskyan Era
William J.M. Levelt

The traditional view of the history of psychology is one that started with structuralism and functionalism, followed by the counter movements of Gestalt psychology and behaviourism. It is now becoming clear, however, that this view is wrong and grew out of the American introductory books of psychology (e.g. Brysbaert & Rastle, 2013). The origins of psychology are much older than 1879 (when Wundt started his laboratory of experimental psychology) and the first studies in psychology were much less based on introspection than is generally assumed.

Levelt’s book is a beautiful illustration of just how rich research
in scientific psychology was in the second half of the 19th century and how much has been forgotten. The book starts with the observation that in current writings ‘[i]t is a widely shared opinion that the new discipline of psycholinguistics emerged during the 1950s [when Chomsky published his scathing criticism of Skinner’s behaviourist book Verbal Behavior and presented his own alternative]’. The remainder of Levelt’s book is a detailed refutation of this shared opinion.

In 600 pages Levelt shows how the psychology of language has a history going back into the 18th century, based on four pillars: (1) Historical research into the genealogy of languages, (2) Medical research into the consequences of brain damage, (3) Educational research on the development of language in young children, and (4) Experimental research on word processing in adults. These four lines of research were reviewed and integrated in a much underestimated book of Wilhelm Wundt Die Sprache (‘Language’) (1900) but became lost as a result of two world wars in Europe, which completely annihilated language research, and the lack of access to (and interest in) the publications in American experimental psychology.

As a result, when cognitive language research started to take off in the 1950s, it looked as if it was brand new, whereas in reality quite some insights were a recapitulation of previously well-known theories. Along the lines Levelt unearths the true, 19th-century, origins of word association studies, the cohort model of spoken word processing, the evidence that sign language is a fully developed language on par with spoken language, the serial model of word reading, the importance of the first letter in visual word recognition, the characteristics of speech errors, the first theories sentence parsing and phonemes, and the motor theory of speech perception.

Levelt’s book is too informative and detailed for undergraduate studies, but it should be on the shelves of all their lecturers, as an example of just how much has been forgotten and rediscovered in the history of psychology. It should also be read by everyone interested in language research. They will not only discover the true origins of their pet theories, but will also have several evenings of pure delight while reading the book.

Brysbaert, M. & Rastle, K. (2013). Historical and conceptual issues in psychology (2nd edn). Harlow: Pearson Education.
Oxford University Press; 2013;
Hb £60.00
Reviewed by Marc Brysbaert who
is Professor of Psychology at Ghent University (Belgium) and Swansea University

 

Tasty TED talks
Love, no matter what
Andrew Solomon


We all lead busy lives, in this era of information overload. Our days can feel like one doomed attempt after another to tackle what’s on our plate, to juggle all our staple roles, let alone finding the time to try new flavours. One of the most frustrating things about that, in my view, is that even when people kindly break things down into nice bite-sized chunks for your consumption, it’s still hard to squeeze it in.

I’ve experienced that in my role with The Psychologist itself, and our Research Digest. If I had a pound for every time somebody said they just don’t get round to reading them… and I can sympathise, because I find myself in the same position with resources as excellent as the online TED talks (see www.ted.com).

TED is a non-profit organisation devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader, and its short online talks are an important part of that (with more than a billion views). Every day they pop up in my e-mail inbox or on my phone app, and every day I think ‘when I’m retired I’ll watch one of those every morning’.

Today I made the time, and spent half an hour watching Andrew Solomon – a writer on politics, culture and psychology – talk about the line between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance (see tinyurl.com/kulld2l). What is it like to raise a child who's different from you in some fundamental way (like a prodigy, or a differently abled kid, or a criminal)? Solomon shares what he learned from talking to dozens of parents, including those of Dylan Klebold, one of the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre. I was struck by Solomon’s realisation that ‘all of us who have children love the children we have, with their flaws. If some glorious angel suddenly descended through my living room ceiling and offered to take away the children I have and give me other, better children – more polite, funnier, nicer, smarter – I would cling to the children I have and pray away that atrocious spectacle.’

TED talks are fairly consistent, in that it’s rare to watch one and think ‘that idea wasn’t worth spreading’. Our own discipline is well represented, with speakers including Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Dan Gilbert, Alison Gopnik and Martin Seligman. Whether or not TED genuinely disseminates science to new and diverse audiences is a matter for debate: a recent paper (see tinyurl.com/pft76nn) commented that ‘it is altogether possible that those who watched and “liked” these videos were often themselves academics’. The researchers also found that giving a TED presentation appeared to have no impact on the number of citations subsequently received by an academic.

But no matter. As the TED website says, most regular TED Talk listeners ‘would tell you the experience has impacted how they think and what they do’, so that’s the real outcome. ‘Ideas reshape minds and change the way people act’, and ‘more than 10,000 people in more than 100 countries are spending a substantial number of hours ensuring that TED is not just talk, but has on-the-ground impact.’ We should cherish a ‘global community welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world’, and ensure we find the odd half hour for its tasty treats.

- Reviewed by Jon Sutton who is Managing Editor of The Psychologist

Secular Sunday service
The Sunday Assembly
York Hall, Bethnall Green

This month I went to the Sunday Assembly. Describing itself as
a ‘godless congregation’, this is essentially a church service for atheists. The hour and half comprised singing (pop songs, mostly to do with love), a guest speaker, a reading, some time of quiet reflection (in lieu of prayer) a description of some charity work and a couple of comedic yet heartfelt addresses by the organisers Sanderson Jones
and Pippa Evans (who are also comedians).

The theme of this Sunday’s assembly was happiness, and Richard Layard – programme director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and the architect of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies initiative – was a great choice of speaker, given his influence on governmental policies on psychological well-being. Unfortunately the sound balance needed work so it was hard to hear the first half of what Layard had to say, but what I did hear spoke to known psychological benefits of being kind to others, and of attending church, which fits with the Sunday Assembly’s ethos. He explained some of the research into these benefits in a clear and accessible way, and was received well.

Overall there are still a few things for the Assembly to iron out: mainly getting the speaker easily seen and heard: this difficulty might have been a consequence of a recent review in Time Out, resulting in a doubling of their numbers this month (there were apparently about 600 people in the audience). There was a touch too much singing from my point of view too, with the same unfortunate tendency that church services have of pitching the songs in a key which is both too low and too high. But choral singing has been linked to happiness too, so maybe this was more than an aping of a church service and in fact another tactical happiness-boosting technique.

Overall the Assembly is an interesting idea, with charismatic leaders and the potential to be a really stimulating event. It reminded me a bit of the principles of Alain De Botton’s ‘School of Life’ (see my interview with him in the May issue), in that it targets people who like to think about how they live their lives without necessarily doing this through the lens of a religion. Unlike talks at other places, this is free to attend (though you can give a donation  if you like). It had the flavour of a community rather than a commercial venture. I’ll definitely be back in a couple of months to see how it’s evolving.The Sunday Assembly is on the first Sunday of every month. Check out their website here: http://sundayassembly.com

Reviewed by Lucy Maddox
who is Associate Editor for Reviews and a clinical psychologist in the NHS.
Her blog is at http://psychologymagpie.wordpress.com

 

Rigorous academic discussion
Psychology and Crime (2nd edn)
Clive R. Hollin

This is Clive Hollins’s update of his review of research in criminological psychology, incorporating developments in the field since the first edition in 1989. This version contains 12 chapters, which divide into three general parts. The first part covers some relevant basic concepts from law, criminology and psychology. The second part looks at some specific criminal acts (arson, violent and sexual crime) and the relationship between mental disorder and crime. The third part discusses the investigation, punishment and prevention of crime from a number of perspectives.

The main strength of the book is its comprehensive coverage of relevant literature, mainly from forensic/criminological psychology but also from other domains. Its scope is quite impressive: one chapter, for example, draws from developmental psychology to consider the development of criminal behaviour across the lifespan, while another deals with workforce issues in law enforcement such as officer selection, training, and stress management. As well as reviewing relevant theories and findings across the topics covered, Hollin highlights methodological issues such as the evaluation of crime reduction interventions. For a bit of light(ish) relief, some chapters also list media references to the subject matter, such as TV shows. In case you were wondering, yes, these do include Cracker.

However, despite (or maybe because of) the book’s depth and scope, I did find some of the chapters difficult to follow as the arrangement of topic headings within them was not very intuitive. The first three chapters in particular seemed to include some repetition of topics and to go back-and-forth between them, so the reader can afford to be selective in how much of these chapters he or she reads. Incidentally, there will be a companion website with supplementary material that may be helpful to those studying the book.

My overall impression is that Psychology and Crime would serve well as a general textbook in criminological psychology. It contains a wealth of information and will be of value to anyone seeking a rigorous academic discussion of the psychological issues associated with crime.

Routledge; 2012; Pb £34.99
Denham Phipps who is a Research Fellow, University of Manchester

 

Act of bravery
Deadweight: A Case Study Concerning Mental Illness
Nicholas Boyd Crutchley

Following a self-described breakdown, Crutchley’s life was suddenly and somewhat permanently contracted by the force of serious mental illness (a schizophrenic diagnosis and its common concomitants, mood disorder, suicidality, hallucinations, etc.).

The author promotes the book as a ‘novelised case study’ of mental illness. Another way to view it is a novelised memoir of mental illness; Sybil meets C.S. Lewis’s less widely known Space Trilogy series. It is a difficult read. This is not because the story is uninteresting or poorly written. Instead, Crutchley preserves the authentic dialogue of mental illness, which in its organic state looks and reads a bit like poor science fiction (and which the cover illustration does little to challenge), a taxing narrative for the ‘normal’ mind.

To the rational mind, the recounting of a protracted episode of paranoid delusion can be so absurd as to seem fictional, and to that end the story works as a novel but without the present-time voice of the narrator, it is hard to hold on to the intention of the book, which is to humanise the severely mentally ill to professionals, caregivers and the general public. Still, Crutchley is to be commended for his act of bravery, the book is a raw accounting of serious mental illness, without the pretension of academia or the heavy editing of pop-science.

Self-published; 2013; eBook £2.49
Reviewed by Stephanie Dinnen-Reini
who is at Yale School of Medicine, West Haven, CT

 

Superman – heroic morality
Man of Steel
Zack Snyder (Director
)

As a reinvention of Superman for movie-watchers who loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Man of Steel is likely to be a success. Tonally and visually dark, it presents a young and inexperienced Superman forced to confront his genetic legacy: renegade Kryptonians who see Kal-El as a way to revive their lost people. Henry Cavill and Amy Adams do fine jobs in the roles of Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane, but the standouts are Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Michael Shannon as General Zod, who steal every scene in which they appear.

Many of the standard superhero themes are present, such as the relationship between power and responsibility, as well as the public’s fear of the powerful(a hot topic in today’s comics as well). Relations between father and son play a significant role, especially between Clark and Jonathan Kent, which climax in a pivotal scene in the middle of the film. The tension between Superman’s Kryptonian and human loyalties are mentioned, but because most of the movie takes place before Clark moves to Metropolis, we don’t see much of the issues
of dual identities and ‘Who am I, Clark or Superman?’

In my opinion, the most interesting issues with the film rest with the moral choices Superman makes. Despite his powers, Superman faces moral conflicts and tragic dilemmas like the rest of us, and the way he resolves them is yet another way he expresses his heroism – and one of the ways we can emulate Superman. But some of the choices he makes in the movie are controversial, and may question some viewers’ ideas of what heroism entails and demands.

That said, examples of traditional heroism are not hard to find in Man of Steel, and are not limited to Superman himself. Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, and Perry White all pitched in as they could, showing that you don’t need super-strength or heat-vision to put your own well-being aside to help others. Ultimately, this is the most important point any superhero movie can make. While Man of Steel may not satisfy everyone’s idea of heroic morality, it is sure to prompt discussion about such issues while providing an exciting and emotional thrill-ride at the cinema.

 Reviewed by Mark D. White who is chair of the Department of Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy at the College of Staten Island in New York City and editor of Superman and Philosophy (Wiley, 2013)

 

Dipping into death matters
Death Matters: Transforming Our Fear of Death
Sally Petch

Sally Petch writes in Death Matters that she wishes to ‘help us to accept and feel more comfortable with our own journey towards death’. Aiming for accessibility, she adopts a conversational style reminiscent of a cookery writer and a format to encourage ‘dipping-in’. She covers losses from redundancy to a child dying, and ranges from asking readers to question why they dye their hair to suggesting that a cardboard coffin is lovely for a child.

Perhaps because of the breadth of subjects, the approach jarred me. While losses have different meanings for people, at best the book skims the surface of the complexity of emotions surrounding death and at worst seems glib.

As a bereavement volunteer, I seek out materials that empower people to talk about dying and death openly such as the website www.dyingmatters.org. This slight book would not, I feel, help most people in that process.

Matador; 2013; Pb £8.99
Reviewed by Lucy Fiddick who is an assistant psychology practitioner in LIFT (the IAPT service in Bristol) and Bereavement volunteer for CRUSE

 

Reader recommends: The Buddha and the Borderline
Kiera Van Gelder
‘The difference between being told “There’s no reason to feel that way” and “I can understand how you feel that way” is the difference between taunting a rabid squirrel and giving it a tranquilizer’
    Kiera Van Gelder

Kiera’s account of her journey is forthright, honest, insightful and with more than a hint of humour. She comes across as very knowledgeable about her diagnosis as well as being well read in terms of therapies and psychological perspectives. Kiera details her passage through services, therapies, relationships, life transitions and finally Buddhism where the mindfulness teachings of DBT are underpinned. Kiera discusses the controversy and stigma surrounding her diagnosis and her perception of the professionals and treatments made available. She also portrays her experience of intimacy with others with candour and wisdom.

This book developed my understanding as a DBT therapist of how patients might experience the therapy that my service delivers; a valuable appreciation of their multifaceted internal world as a result of Kiera’s expert perspective. Far from solely being a fascinating personal account of borderline personality disorder (recommended to friends and family of sufferers), this is an exceptional reference text for clinicians working in the area. For me, this book engendered empathy for the raw pain and confusion endured by my patients as well as the strength and bravery that they show in tackling life’s obstacles like no other text.

Recommended by Keren Smith who is a clinical psychologist at Maudsley Hospital.

Do you have a favourite book, film or album that has you have found of value in your personal or professional life? Contact Lucy Maddox on [email protected]

Left me cold
The Human Swarm
Channel 4

Jimmy ‘Jamie Oliver’s mate’ Doherty is off the farm and following every other Tom, Robert and Michael into fronting popular science documentaries. He’s an engaging enough presence but unfortunately this was a title and a presenter in search of a programme.

‘We humans think and move like members of the herd in more ways than we realise,’ Doherty began. For the remainder he said ‘like a human swarm’ every now and then, but that didn’t make it true. The premise was that changes in the weather, and specifically temperature, can makes us act ‘not as individuals but as a collective mass, a human swarm’. For example, we buy more porridge when it’s cold. Dr Mark Hetherington, described as an environmental psychologist, was on hand to explain the role of the hypothalamus in making us want to take on more food when the temperature drops. Interestingly, although we crave hot food, even a salad would do. And these days we only get cold for short periods, and then we take on lots of extra calories and go and sit in a warm office.

A host of other effects were covered. There are 200 extra heart attacks for every one degree drop in temperature, as blood gets more viscous and is pushed into the body. Use of online dating sites goes up. There was also some underplayed stuff about the 2.5 billion GB of data we produce a day, leaving a trail of information that can be used by companies and governments. For example, a ‘sick weather’ website collects information from social networking sites on the use of flu-related words, and one day the NHS could make use of this live flow of data to predict the spread of illnesses – a virus forecast.

But generally the programme got a bit ‘aren’t supermarkets brilliant?’, with lots of assertions that ‘because we respond together, just like a swarm, the supermarkets can predict with certainty that there will be a sharp rise in demand for warming winter food’. I was left none the wiser as to whether that behaviour is in any way like a human swarm… perhaps we’re more like shambolic zombies, directed by Starbucks and Sainsbury’s, than the collective hive mind of the bee.

Reviewed by Jon Sutton who is Managing Editor o

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber