Reviews

Books from our October issue, including Oliver Sacks' memoir.

The Wiley Handbook of Genius
Dean Keith Simonton (Ed.)

Genius implies someone with a mystical quality who can change the world, inducing awe. Kell and Lubinsky suggest fewer than 400 could be recognised over 2800 years, while Murray in his lively run through the history of ideas points out their Eurocentrism and early input by gods. They make a tricky psychological sample. Studies are retrospective and subjective whether by biographers or the genius’ own reports (e.g. Crick & Watson on Franklin), and of course no matched controls. Any study of genius is N = 1.

Simonton’s 29 finely edited scholarly collection works around ideas of genius. Some chapters explain specific domains, such a music and literature. Belief is part of the job description. But the more one knows of these humans, the more fallible and less mystical they seem. Problem is, if you cannot convince the right people you’ve changed the world, your rose will blush unseen. With the recent communications explosion your chances appear to be improved but they are also as cynically diminished.

Much of this collection is concerned with creativity. Weinstein agrees with Einstein that ordinary creative thinking, little-c, is the basis of all big-C. For Winner the gifted child never gets to big-C, because practised expertise gets in the way, and, for sure, savants don’t either. Where Galton concluded that only white men could reach genius, evidence of interacting genetic and environmental influences is scientifically provided by Johnson and Bouchard. Intelligence, they write, has to be correlated with creative genius to acquire and use essential domain specific knowledge.

Wild emotions are popularly associated with genius, whether depressed Plath, obsessional Mondrian, psychopathic Picasso, alcoholic Dylan Thomas or buttoned-up Emily Dickinson. A touch of megalomania helps. Andreason reluctantly concludes that the jury on bipolar disorder and genius is still out. Genius is not the sum of its interacting parts, but its product.

Cognitive disinhibition and neuronal development are discussed, while Sternberg proposes that geniuses learn their skills incrementally, and themselves appear in clumps. Damian and Simonton describe hardship and diverse childhood experiences as common denominators, high in ‘latent inhibition, blind variation and selective retention’. Yet practical materials are as essential for production as the personal qualities of an efficient working memory. I presume there are limits to a genius’s early suffering.

Can anything more be said on genius after this cornucopia of psychological science and anecdote? Yes. The rising Tiger Economies and other areas of the world are scarcely mentioned. There is also relatively little concern with psychological barriers, such as gender and religion. What about the long-term effects of hot-housing? It would be helpful to have drawn guidelines on how to enable genius. Geniuses are assumed to be beneficial, whereas the brilliant rise of a dictator or a Machiavelli can similarly affect the world. Sheer luck is barely mentioned, such as Chain and Florey dusting off Fleming’s neglected paper on penicillin.

The mystery still remains why few can light up inspiration to genius while others of apparently equal potential and opportunity cannot. For example, not one of Terman’s Californian 1500 child ‘geniuses’ gained a Nobel prize or equivalent. No thousands of hours of diligent practice can turn the humdrum novelist into an untutored Dickens who makes the reader’s heart leap. As a reference on genius in the Western world, this handbook is excellent. But it may provide an epitaph to current thinking on the subject, implicit in Simonton’s end piece ‘Does scientific genius have a future?’. Popular interest in how the world can be changed is already fading from focus on magical individuals to teamwork and massive budgets. Less Einstein and more Silicon Valley.

Wiley Blackwell; 2014; Hardback £120.00
Reviewed by Professor Joan Freeman who is at Middlesex University

 

Worth remembering
How to Have a Better Brain
BBC Radio 4
In this short series on BBC Radio 4, journalist, broadcaster and psychology graduate Sian Williams considers different ways in which memory can be improved, or how to have a ‘better brain’. Each of the programmes focuses on one particular aspect of lifestyle that can affect memory: exercise, relaxation, stimulation, sleep and diet. Under each of these heading, Williams looks at the evidence for different techniques that might improve, or at least maintain, memory function. For example, in the programme on exercise, Williams attempts to memorise a list of unconnected words sitting down, and another list when walking around. Her later recall of the second list is more successful.

In each episode, Williams visits neuropsychologist Dr Catherine Loveday [University of Westminster and Chair of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee] and her mother Scilla [pictured above], a former consultant psychiatrist, who has accelerated memory loss. These discussions are especially illuminating, and touching. Loveday applies her knowledge to create a lifestyle for Scilla that will help support and maintain her memory. For example one of the most successful techniques is Scilla’s nightly habit of writing down the day’s activities, and re-reading the previous day’s entry, as a way of consolidating her memory.

At only 15 minutes long, each programme can only be a whistle-stop tour of the latest research in that area. But as a resource for anyone who is looking for some practical advice to give a friend or relative who is worried about their memory – or if you are worried about your own – this is a great listen.

All five episodes of How to Have a Better Brain are available on demand at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b067gcj6
Reviewed by Kate Johnstone who is Associate Editor (Reviews)

 

An extraordinary life
On the Move – A Life
Oliver Sacks

On the Move, published a few months before his death in August, describes Oliver Sacks’s life in a beautifully engaging, lively and sincere style enabling the reader to understand the real author behind celebrated works such as Hallucinations, Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Although this might not be considered a psychology-related book, it is a revealing work that expresses Sacks’s curiosity for understanding the fragile and enigmatic human mind, the passion for his job and the numerous challenges he has faced throughout his private life and career.

Within this collection of memories together with illustrative photos, Oliver Sacks can be perceived as a multidimensional and evolving character: He is not simply a neurologist who wrote books but a trustworthy doctor who not only does his best to treat his patients but also creates an emotional attachment with them. Through a clear, touching and uplifting style, the reader can empathise with him, with his feelings, dreams and ambitions. His hobbies and passions, such as the love for motorcycles, snorkelling and travelling, are revealed alongside episodes from his private life, including family issues, friendships and relationships.

The puzzling ways in which the human mind operates are also a recurring theme. Letters from patients, students and colleagues, meetings and conferences, the making of documentaries and movies are included in these pages and a feeling of hugeness pervades the readers when they realise how much Sacks’s contribution in the field of neurology and also neuropsychology has helped in the improvement of diagnoses of several relatively unknown disorders and conditions that would become the main thread of his work.  

This is a remarkable autobiography about one extraordinary life.

Picador; 2015; Hb £20.00
Reviewed by Sara Pisani who is an undergraduate at City University

For our September 2013 interview, plus links to Oliver Sacks’s work and other tributes, see http://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/ten-best-oliver-sacks-1933-2015

 

Challenging current ideas
Tales from the Madhouse: An Insider Critique of Psychiatric Services
Gary Sidley

This book gives an informative insight into psychiatric services, providing a brief overview and critique of the history of psychiatric practices, helpfully supported by more recent clinical vignettes and anecdotes from the author to illustrate some of the pitfalls in how mental illness was, and is still, viewed. It raises some interesting points regarding the treatment of psychiatric patients by staff and how this may be interpreted as discrimination, feeding into the ‘them and us’ stereotype and increasing stigma in mental health. The author incorporates up-to-date evidence and research to back up points made, and opens up the debate between nature and nurture in looking at biogenetic vs. psychosocial explanations for the development of mental disorders.

This thought-provoking book also highlights issues surrounding the use of medication as a way to manage mental illness, and the implications this has for service users, particularly in terms of the recovery model and enabling people to feel empowered and motivated to make changes. It outlines the benefits of allowing people to feel in control of their recovery rather than adopting an expert/patient approach – an area that is starting to change in current practice but still has a way to go.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone working in mental health as a way to challenge some of the current ideas and assumptions in working with those experiencing emotional distress, and to work towards an alternative approach that moves away from biological psychiatry and towards a more compassionate response in order to instil hope and motivation with the aim of promoting recovery.

PCCS Books; 2015; Pb £18.00
Reviewed by Helen Crocker who is a psychological wellbeing practitioner

An ideal resource

Psychology of Physical Activity: Determinants,
Well-being and Interventions (3rd edn)
Stuart Biddle, Nanette Mutrie & Trish Gorely

Given the high level of author expertise in this textbook, I was very eager to get stuck in. The breadth and depth of topics covered is comprehensive and of note from the outset. With insights drawn from epidemiology, health psychology, public health, medicine and exercise science, much more than a purely psychological perspective can be gained from reading. As well as discussion of key theoretical models, this book also integrates practical resources and guidance on physical activity assessment tools. The range of international intervention examples across school, workplace, primary healthcare and beyond ensure there are ideas of relevance to a wide readership.

An important addition to this edition is a section devoted to sedentary behaviour: the ‘new kid on the block’ of activity research. Addressed at the end of the book with accompanying epidemiological and intervention evidence, this sets the scene for future research trends in the field. Another important change in this edition is the discussion of physical activity interventions. This is now framed around behaviour change models and techniques, clearly reflecting a shift in theoretical models over recent years. Discussion of interventions also gives a useful focus on process evaluations: promoting assessment of why not simply whether a physical activity intervention works or not.

A new companion website with question bank, PowerPoint slides and additional learning activities make this an ideal resource for physical activity teaching. I have no doubt that as with previous editions, this version will be a widely recommended text for students, researchers and health professionals interested in physical activity promotion. Even if you just have an interest in the activity choices of yourself, friends or family, this is a great book to get you well informed.

Routledge; 2015; Pb £45.00
Reviewed by Emma Norris who is a PhD student at University College London

 

Clarifying diagnostic obfuscations
Disruptive Mood: Irritability in Children and Adolescents
Argyris Stringaris & Eric Taylor

While irritability and tantrums are a hallmark of early childhood, they are of concern when they assume chronic or intense proportions. Disruptive Mood situates irritability within the context of child psychopathology. The book is a useful guide for clinicians who have to make black-or-white diagnostic decisions based on symptoms that range anywhere on a spectrum of greys. 

Further, diagnoses is also complicated by the fact that irritability can be a diagnosis in and of itself as in disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, or it can be one of several symptoms of a disorder like the manic phase in bipolar disorder or depression.  Other conditions, like ADHD, which do not include irritability in their diagnostic criteria, may be accompanied by irritability.  Finally, certain organic conditions, like epilepsy, may result in irritability. The authors have done a fine job of clarifying these diagnostic obfuscations.

In addition to exploring neuroscientific models of anger and irritability, the book also offers practical guidelines on how to manage these negative emotions in various psychological conditions. The strategies covered include pharmacological interventions to CBT to parent training programmes. While the book is a good resource for those who work in the field of paediatric mental health, the reader should be forewarned that it takes the DSM-5 as the gold standard of psychiatric diagnoses. For those who are sceptical of some of the classifications of DSM-5, this book does not offer a critique or alternative to current psychiatric models.  

Oxford; 2015; Pb £24.99
Reviewed by Aruna Sankaranarayanan who is Director of PRAYATNA, a centre for children with learning difficulties in India
 

An ideal resource
Psychology of Physical Activity: Determinants,
Well-being and Interventions (3rd edn)
Stuart Biddle, Nanette Mutrie & Trish Gorely

Given the high level of author expertise in this textbook, I was very eager to get stuck in. The breadth and depth of topics covered is comprehensive and of note from the outset. With insights drawn from epidemiology, health psychology, public health, medicine and exercise science, much more than a purely psychological perspective can be gained from reading. As well as discussion of key theoretical models, this book also integrates practical resources and guidance on physical activity assessment tools. The range of international intervention examples across school, workplace, primary healthcare and beyond ensure there are ideas of relevance to a wide readership.

An important addition to this edition is a section devoted to sedentary behaviour: the ‘new kid on the block’ of activity research. Addressed at the end of the book with accompanying epidemiological and intervention evidence, this sets the scene for future research trends in the field. Another important change in this edition is the discussion of physical activity interventions. This is now framed around behaviour change models and techniques, clearly reflecting a shift in theoretical models over recent years. Discussion of interventions also gives a useful focus on process evaluations: promoting assessment of why not simply whether a physical activity intervention works or not.

A new companion website with question bank, PowerPoint slides and additional learning activities make this an ideal resource for physical activity teaching. I have no doubt that as with previous editions, this version will be a widely recommended text for students, researchers and health professionals interested in physical activity promotion. Even if you just have an interest in the activity choices of yourself, friends or family, this is a great book to get you well informed.

Routledge; 2015; Pb £45.00
Reviewed by Emma Norris who is a PhD student at University College London

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