Book reviews March 2016

Including 'Anxious' by Joseph LeDoux.

In-depth analysis
Anxious: The Modern Mind in the Age of Anxiety
Joseph LeDoux

Having been fooled by the bright cover and expecting a light ‘popular psychology’ read, I was surprised to discover that Anxious is in fact a detailed, rigorous scientific examination of approaches to studying fear and anxiety. That being said, I quickly found that LeDoux’s skilful writing style effortlessly integrated this high level of scientific detail into a clear, well-written narrative.

LeDoux starts by charting the evolution of his own views on attempts to understand the emotional brain, guiding the reader to his current stance that we need to address what different researchers and approaches actually mean by the word ‘fear’. He distinguishes between unconscious survival mechanisms and the conscious experience of fear and anxiety, which both play important but distinct roles.

Unlike many other researchers in the field, LeDoux argues that what we have inherited from animals is not the conscious feeling of fear, but rather the mechanisms for detecting and responding to threats. In animals capable of consciousness (such as humans), feelings of fear and anxiety are, he argues, constructed based on how we interpret signals from these threat-processing mechanisms.

The book finishes by considering how a fresh understanding of fear and anxiety and their underlying brain mechanisms can inform therapies.

Those hoping for a light read should look elsewhere, but LeDoux’s book is essential reading for researchers and practitioners seeking an in-depth scientific analysis of approaches to understanding fear and anxiety.

Oneworld; 2015; Pb £14.99
Reviewed by Holly Scott who is an MSc student (Research Methods of Psychological Science) at the University of Glasgow

 

A time-saver
The Student’s Guide to Studying Psychology (4th edn)
Thomas M. Heffernan

This has become my go-to guide when quick and clear answers are required. Heffernan offers useful advice to those considering a psychology degree, to people like me, who are halfway through their study, and to those wondering ‘where to next?’ upon completion of their degree.

The guide begins with an overview of psychology and its approaches, before focusing on the practical skills required by students during their degree, such as study, writing, research methods, reports, ethics, exam preparation, and postgraduate opportunities. In the writing skills, samples of potential answers for essay questions and empirical reports are provided, with checklists and further reading recommendations interspersed throughout. He ends with advice as to the options available after undergraduate study, looking at some of the major specialisms in this discipline.

In an effort to refresh some skills, I referred to two sections during recent assignments: APA referencing, and empirical research report writing. These sections were clear and concise, and as a result, a time-saver. Whilst I wish I had invested in this guide when I commenced study, it will now remain close to hand until I am considering ‘where to next?’.  

Psychology Press; 2015;
Pb £19.99
Reviewed by Michèle Mulqueen who is a second-year undergraduate psychology student, University of Derby Online Learning

 

A guide to the unteachable things
The Therapist in the Real World: What You Never Learn in Graduate School (but Really Need to Know)
Jeffrey A. Kottler

Kottler is a prolific author on the process of therapy and the internal world of the therapist with a chatty, readable style. He approaches this topic both as a long-qualified therapist, with plenty of experience to fill in whatever was missing from his graduate education, and as a faculty member trying to ensure that his psychotherapy students have as few gaps in their knowledge as possible.Kottler identifies a number of reasons why, despite extensive training, newly qualified therapists have much to learn. Sometimes this is due to serious omissions on the part of the training courses themselves: for example, he discusses how the experience of deep, complex communication in therapeutic relationships can change the new therapist’s expectations of their personal relationships. Few trainee therapists are warned of how their training may affect their entire lives.

However, most of the issues identified here are not inadequacies of courses but intrinsically unteachable things; I appreciated the author’s attempts to put into words the moments of intense connection in therapy that are impossible to communicate to anyone who has not experienced them. He makes an interesting point that qualified therapists rarely see each other work, so most of what he has learned has come directly from clients. He also observes that in training, we can underestimate the value of our knowledge because it is shared by everyone around us. It is only in clinical practice that we come to discover that providing what seems to us to be very basic information can be our most useful service to clients.

Another intrinsic problem in training therapists is what Kottler calls ‘the fickle nature of knowledge in our field’ – or his rather depressing claim that half of everything learnt will be useless within 10 years. The challenge for courses is to find a way to teach the very latest theories, while simultaneously urging students to continue learning throughout their career, as the concepts they are currently mastering will soon be obsolete. His approach to this dilemma is to emphasise basic therapeutic skills and common features across theoretical approaches; this is an old idea, but his discussion is still an interesting one.

As well as tips for improving therapy skills, the book has some practical suggestions about office politics, presentation and teaching skills, and writing for publication. US/UK differences do not get in the way of the author’s ideas, and in fact the section on the influence of insurance company policies translates extremely well to an increasingly cost-driven NHS. The personal anecdotes, often self-deprecating, enliven the book and endear the author to the reader.

I found the book both useful and thought-provoking, and will be seeking out a few of Kottler’s many others.

Norton; 2015; Pb £18.99
Reviewed by Dr Emma Taylor who is a clinical psychologist with North Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

 

Death – it’s a cultural thing
Death and Bereavement Across Cultures (2nd edn)
Colin Murray Parkes, Pittu Laungani & Bill Young (Eds.)

Death is not an easy subject. Discussions around it can be morbid, deep, disturbing, enlightening. Despite death being an inevitability for us all, we are, in general, still reluctant to openly discuss what death and dying means for us. As a result, we are often ignorant of how those different from ourselves react to death. This book sets out to bridge this gap in our knowledge and help the reader to better understand how those from other cultures deal with death and bereavement.

The different styles of the chapters can make the book seem disjointed at times. Additionally, the Introduction felt like a bit of a slog to get through to reach the main sections addressing death in other cultures. Nonetheless, do not allow these criticisms to deter you from reading this very well-informed handbook. The authors do a great job of covering the practices and beliefs of the major religions as well as diving a little deeper into some of the smaller subsections of these religions. All of this with the purpose of informing anyone who may find themselves face-to-face with someone from one of these cultures who has experienced a bereavement about how to more effectively help that person to cope with their loss.

An entire section addressing how professionals can make use of this information to improve their services further highlights that not only must we do more to tailor our approach to the needs of others, but also that this can be done. Much like any encounter with death, this book is a tough but meaningful, thought-provoking read.

Routledge; 2015; Pb £24.99
Reviewed by Richard Potter who is an MSc Social Psychology postgraduate and mental health volunteer

 

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