Book reviews, December 2016

A selection.

Sure to strike many debates
Neural Plasticity Across the Lifespan: How the Brain Can Change
Gianfranco Denes

Written by neurologist Gianfranco Denes, Neural Plasticity Across the Lifespan is a concise, yet detailed overview of neural plasticity from all conceivable angles. Neural plasticity is a popular theme amongst scientists ranging from cell biologists to social psychologists; Denes has managed to cater to a wide audience without omitting important, field-specific details or overcomplicating concepts.

Denes covers neural plasticity from its role in the classic nature/nurture debate through to the genetic underpinnings of human evolution. This book provides a fascinating read both for those working in neural networks and those with a general interest in how the human brain changes over time.

Although some parts are very biological in nature, and may not appeal or be clear to non-biologists, the book is broken down into several easy-to-digest chapters. Useful summary boxes and figures to provide easy visualisation of complex ideas that may be alien to some readers (e.g. neural network structure). These aspects are well thought out and particularly advantageous due to the multidisciplinary nature of neural plasticity. The addition of a glossary of terms adds a further aspect of accessibility to readers from all fields. Each chapter includes references to recent ground-breaking research as well as big names in psychology and neuroscience history, including Piaget and Hebb. Denes provides an excellent review of a vast amount of experimental results, sure to strike many debates amongst readers.

Routledge; 2016; Pb £31.99
Reviewed by Stacey A. Bedwell who is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Nottingham Trent University


Adolescence at your fingertips
Adolescence: A Very Short Introduction    
Peter K. Smith

Adolescence is a time of storm and stress, as Stanley Hall suggested in 1904, a time of developments, explorations, and changes, and it can be a challenge to summarise the main research findings, evidence and theories related to this area. A challenge that Peter K. Smith has addressed brilliantly in his succinct yet original book Adolescence: A Very Short Introduction. Smith has provided an effective, straightforward and useful account on this difficult and cumbersome time of an individual’s life. Starting with a brief historical and psychological background on the topic, he then explores the onset of adolescence (i.e. puberty) from a biological perspective, including recent evidence-based findings on brain developments and hormonal changes in boys and girls.  

An interesting chapter is then dedicated to moral development and identity search in which Smith describes the main theories behind these concepts. Erickson’s concept of identity crisis and Kohlberg’s idea of moral reasoning are very relevant to this area and could be potentially used as a frame of reference for understanding the behaviours of many teenagers. Relationships with parents, peers of same and opposite sex, siblings and other individuals are also covered in this short guide. Smith has included a compelling chapter on the massive influence of the technological progress in shaping the lifestyle and choices of today’s adolescents alongside the increasingly reported influence of information and communication technology, the pronounced overuse of social media and social networking sites, which have deeply affected the relational dimension of teenagers. Other relevant topics of interest such as risky behaviours, peer pressure and romantic relationships are further covered as part of this stressful yet crucial time in people’s lives.

Through a clear and fairly accessible language, Smith has created a concise and useful vade mecum on adolescence. As the title itself suggests, this is not meant to be a self-help book or a manual on how to survive teenage years, but it is a brief explanatory guide on the main developments and areas affected by both biological changes, environmental and social influences.

Oxford University Press; 2016; Pb £7.99
Reviewed by Sara Pisani who is an MSc student at King’s
College London


Of great use to educators
Observing Adolescents with Attachment Difficulties in Educational Settings
Kim S. Golding, Mary T. Turner, Helen Worrall, Jennifer Roberts & Ann E. Cadman

This book centres on the use and applications of a comprehensive checklist for the titular adolescents, as well as an exploration first of the various difficulties these adolescents may face and further how the educational setting can use the checklist to identify and finally meet these needs. The book provides thorough examples of how the checklist can be used for this purpose leaving the reader with a foolproof understanding of how the checklist should be administered and interpreted.

Throughout, the author takes the wise step of introducing attachment theory but consistently relates it to the educational setting, while providing more information on these theories in the appendix section for the curious reader, which helps which prevents the book from feeling too theoretical and straying too far from its focus. Everything the author discusses, quite rightly, is in the context of attachment in educational settings and the observation checklist the book disseminates.

Summarily, this book is a worthy addition to Golding and colleagues’ previous work on observing infants with attachment difficulties and would be of great use to educators and associated professionals even if they were to never use the checklist, such is the quality of the information provided.

Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2016; Pb £24.99
Reviewed by Gareth Newman who is a Developmental Psychology and SEN MA student at Liverpool Hope University


The why of the why
Mastering the Clinical Conversation: Language
As Intervention
Matthieu Villatte, Jennifer L. Villatte &
Steven C. Hayes

Relational frame theory (RFT) is a behavioural account of how language and its effects are governed by operant principles. The effects are profound: whereas non-human animals are thought to learn only by interacting with their environment, the human ability to be influenced by language leads to learning that is both extraordinarily efficient and not restricted to direct experiential contact. The benefits of this are all around us, but so are the inevitable downsides – these same verbal processes lead us to ruminate over the past, worry about the future, and raise mental barriers that separate us from our present.

The authors have written a book that has made RFT accessible like never before and that patiently shows how verbal language can be used to produce therapeutic change. Although closely associated with acceptance and commitment therapy, this is distinctly not an ACT book, and indeed some of each chapter shows how many different talking therapy models and traditions make similar assumptions about the processes of change.

Each chapter includes annotated excerpts from therapy sessions, explaining in RFT terms why particular exchanges might be expected to lead to therapeutic gains. Although the authors take pains to distinguish this from an ACT text, inevitably if you formulate problems in a particular way, you will reach consistent conclusions about the kind of interventions that would be appropriate, and as someone who needs no persuasion about the utility of ACT/RFT I found myself wondering what therapists from other traditions would make of it.

All therapy books will describe how to do something, and all will tell you why. Mastering… will appeal to those clinicians who want to go to the why of the why; to the elemental level where words become verbal operants, with infinite power for positive change.
Guilford; 2016; Hb £30.99
Reviewed by Dr Mark Oliver,
a clinical psychologist with the Community Team for People with Learning Disabilities, Northumberland, Tyne & Wear NHS Foundation Trust


Explaining online behaviour
Psychology of the Digital Age
John Suler

The internet is becoming increasingly integrated into our daily lives – we can communicate with loved ones, order groceries, turn on our home heating and even monitor our pets online. The rise of the internet has seen the emergence of supportive online communities and the democratisation of media, but also cyberbullying, widespread online misogyny and cybercrime. What causes people to act the way they do online, and why is it often so different to how they would act in person? How can we understand our relationships with technology and with each other online?

These are some of the questions tackled in John Suler’s sequel to his ground-breaking online book The Psychology of Cyberspace. Psychology of the Digital Age presents Suler’s transdisciplinary theory of cyberspace architecture, a unifying framework that he applies to online identity, online disinhibition, intimacy in online relationships, the boundary between normal and abnormal online behaviour, and a host of other topics.

Psychology of the Digital Age is a pleasure to read, written in an accessible style without being oversimplified. Each chapter begins with a thoughtfully chosen anecdote. Suler’s examples of being banned from online communities and getting drawn into email conversations with conspiracy theorists are humorous and self-deprecating, normalising the pitfalls and ambiguities inherent in online communication.

Although the text draws on a range of psychological theories to explain online behaviour, Suler approaches the subject primarily from humanistic and psychodynamic perspectives, using concepts such as transference, regression and the human need to self-actualise. The emphasis on unconscious processes may alienate readers of a more cognitive-behavioural bent, or readers who favour quantitative over qualitative research methodologies.  

Psychology of the Digital Age is a profound and thought-provoking book which will be of interest to anyone wishing to understand our rapidly evolving interactions with technology, and what it means to be human in the digital age.

Cambridge University Press; 2016; Pb £24.99
Reviewed by Chris O’Mahony who is a  cyberpsychology enthusiast and trainee clinical psychologist at the University of East London


Challenging myths
Surviving Brain Damage After Assault: From Vegetative State to Meaningful Life
Barbara A. Wilson, Samira Kashinath Dhamapurkar & Anita Rose

Vegetative states are not commonly associated with recovery. This book challenges those preconceptions by telling the story of Gary, who was assaulted by a gang at the age of 28. He was left with multiple skull fractures and severe brain damage, and remained in a vegetative state for 15 months. Gary’s remarkable recovery is documented through the detailed and thought-provoking accounts from a range of professionals, as well as Gary and his family.

It was interesting to read about anthroposophic medicine, which the authors explain is a method of rehabilitation that complements and is integrated in mainstream medicine. This meant Gary received less traditional types of therapy, including massage, exercise, art therapy and music therapy, alongside more traditional interventions. One particular therapy, entitled neuro-functional reorganisation (NFR), involved the therapist singing to Gary whilst they engaged him in exercises, such as rolling. It was fascinating that Gary remembered these song lyrics when he gained more awareness, despite only hearing them for the first time whilst in a vegetative state.

A touching feature of the care provided was the integral role that the family played in Gary’s recovery. His mother monitored his behaviour and intervened when Gary became aggressive, and his father’s voice was recorded and used as a communication aid. These responsibilities could serve an important function in empowering families and reducing feelings of helplessness.

The authors lead us to wonder how many other people would have recovered more fully if they were fortunate enough to have received the same intensive rehabilitation. An important debate is raised: is it ethical to send someone in a vegetative state to a nursing home, knowing that there is still a chance of a late recovery if they are given appropriate treatment?

Routledge; 2016; Pb £19.99
Reviewed by Natalie Jones who is an Assistant Psychologist, St Andrew’s Healthcare

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