Category Archives: psychology (non-fiction)

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body- Sara Pascoe


Synopsis

Animal is Sara Pascoe’s autobiography where she talks about her experiences as a woman, and about evolutionary psychology.

Review

I read this book for my book group intending to join in online (then forgot on the actual day, opps!), it probably wouldn’t have been something I would have picked up without it being a bookclub book just because I don’t really know much about Sara Pascoe, at least not beyond her being a comedian (or ‘funny woman’), but I knew it was quite a popular book so I was happy enough to read it.

At first I must admit I found Pascoe a little annoying. She seemed to labour over a lot of points, and kept repeating herself. The other half said whenever he looked over my shoulder she seemed to be SHOUTING- and she did seem to quite frequently. She also had these little script-type sections with a teacher and pupil and I didn’t really like those parts, they just seemed like a long way to get to a point which would have been understandable without the play (and often she explained them without the play too which was just a little frustrating).

However once I could see past the waffle I did find some of the things she talked about rather interesting- especially when she talked about evolutionary psychology- and the way she talked about more serious or intellectual subjects did make it more entertaining and easily acceptable.

I also thought she was brave when she talked about some of the things which had happened to her or she had done. Some of them can’t have been easy to talk about, and some things which could have made others judge her.

I do think it would make quite a good sex ed book too, especially for girls, because it’s truthful and it does go into more sticky subjects which tend to be missed in school sex ed. It would be nice if it was recommended reading in schools for that reason, but the way some people are about talking about sex there would probably be someone who stopped that when they saw how frank Pascoe is.

It probably is worth battling through the waffle, as you get through things are a bit more coherent, and less annoying. I’m not sure I’d say I finished it liking Pascoe, but I certainly respected what she was trying to do.

4/5

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Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole- Allan Ropper and David Brian Burrell


Synopsis (from amazon)

What is it like to try to heal the body when the mind is under attack? In this gripping and illuminating book, Dr Allan Ropper reveals the extraordinary stories behind some of the life-altering afflictions that he and his staff are confronted with at the Neurology Unit of Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Like Alice in Wonderland, Dr Ropper inhabits a place where absurdities abound: a sportsman who starts spouting gibberish; an undergraduate who suddenly becomes psychotic; a mother who has to decide whether a life locked inside her own head is worth living. How does one begin to treat such cases, to counsel people whose lives may be changed forever? Dr Ropper answers these questions by taking the reader into a world where lives and minds hang in the balance.

Review

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole was one of my five star reads last year, but my lack of blogging means I haven’t actually reviewed it yet.

In fact I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction drive over the last year. In so far as I’ve been reading this year proportionally I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction.

It’s a little bit like ‘The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly’ combined with ‘House’. Lots of real life medical symptoms which seem to have obscure reasons behind them. That tends to be a lot of physical symptoms which have neurological causes, or neurological or psychological symptoms which actually have a physical cause. It’s part of what I always found interesting about House, so it’s even more interesting to see it in real life.

In other ways it’s a lot like some of Oliver Saks work. However I found it easier to read than the things that Saks had written (and I’ve read).

I also liked that you got to see a bit of the hospital itself and also the authors own learning curve. It added a little something. I guess you could say it’s a human element which you don’t get from standard case studies.

5/5

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Delusions of Gender- Cordelia Fine


Synopsis (from amazon)

This is a vehement attack on the latest pseudo-scientific claims about the differences between the sexes – with the scientific evidence to back it up. Sex discrimination is supposedly a distant memory. Yet popular books, magazines and even scientific articles increasingly defend inequalities by citing immutable biological differences between the male and female brain. Why are there so few women in science and engineering, so few men in the laundry room? Well, they say, it’s our brains. Drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and social psychology, “Delusions of Gender” rebuts these claims, showing how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, help perpetuate the status quo. Cordelia Fine reveals the mind’s remarkable plasticity, shows the substantial influence of culture on identity, and, ultimately, exposes just how much of what we consider ‘hardwired’ is actually malleable. This startling, original and witty book shows the surprising extent to which boys and girls, men and women are made – and not born.

Review

This book has been on my kindle since 2014 (according amazon anyway), which makes me wonder how long some of my ‘real’ books have been on the shelves unread.

I kind of wish I had read it sooner, but I’ve been on a bit of a roll when it comes to non-fiction recently, so maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind before.

It was a while ago so more exact details are lost to me, but there are certain things which still stand out, and in a way doesn’t that make for a better review? I was helped a little to remember by reading Ruth’s review (which I recommend).

Delusions of Gender did take a little getting into, in terms of a ‘sciencey’ book it was easy to read, and it was interesting, but not necessarily immediately engaging.

I did find some of the arguments a bit repetitive, which makes sense when you’re talking about different but similar studies, but not so much when you are talking about the same one. It is difficult though if you are referring to something said earlier to know how much to say to make sure the person you are writing to knows what you are referring to.

The main thing I got out of it really is about how much difference small things might be able to make, especially when a child is still trying to work out their identity. Would not gendering a child change this? I’m not so sure, at some point the child themselves would want to know what they are, and I’m sure they could work it out.

In a way those little things seem hopeless, because they’re the type of things that you don’t even think about, so how can you hope to have a gender neutral environment.

4/5

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Hallucinations- Oliver Sacks


Synopsis (from amazon)

Have you ever seen something that wasn’t really there? Heard someone call your name in an empty house? Sensed someone following you and turned around to find nothing?

Hallucinations don’t belong wholly to the insane. Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness, or injury. In some conditions, hallucinations can lead to religious epiphanies or even the feeling of leaving one’s own body. Humans have always sought such life-changing visions, and for thousands of years have used hallucinogenic compounds to achieve them.

In this book, with his usual elegance, curiosity, and compassion, Dr Sacks weaves together stories of his patients and of his own mind-altering experiences to illuminate what hallucinations tell us about the organisation and structure of our brains, how they have influenced every culture’s folklore and art, and why the potential for hallucination is present in us all, a vital part of the human condition.

Review

Oliver Sacks is probably generally seen as one of the most accessible neuroscientists of modern times.  Considering that, and my interest in psychology it’s quite surprising that I haven’t read anything by him before now. I can see why he is seen as accessible from his writing style, however I did find Hallucinations a little hard-going, more because of repetitiveness than anything else.

The book was split into sections based on causes of hallucinations (e.g. particular illnesses, sensory reasons, drugs), which made sense in some ways, however it also meant that when more than one cause for a particular type of hallucination could be found a description of that type of hallucination would be given in each chapter about each cause. There were different first-person accounts, which was interesting in it’s own way because different people hallucinate different things, even within a set type of hallucination. Even that did have some repetitive air to it though.

Having said that it was very interesting. I think Sack’s main aim was to make hallucinations more acceptable. They are generally seen as a sign of madness, and they can be that, but usually they aren’t, there are many more things that can cause them, and lots of different presentations of hallucinations which many people wouldn’t consider.

In fact he described what one would call a migraine aura usually as a type of hallucination which is interesting. I suppose calling it an aura makes it seem less serious or scary- but is that just because of a sort of stigma put on the idea of hallucinating. I do sometimes find migraine auras distressing- would they be more distressing if I called them hallucinations? Anyway it just shows that hallucinations aren’t all what one’s first thoughts of hallucinations would be. They aren’t always ‘real’ things. They aren’t always pictures even.

I did find it very interesting, and it probably changed my view of hallucinations a bit. It could have done with a bit of editing though. I’ll certainly read more by Sacks, and I already have Musicophilia and Migraine on my wishlist.

Oliver Sacks sadly died this weekend, which is what prompted me to write this review over the others that are waiting to be written.

3.5/5

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Sick- Jen Smith


Image from Amazon

Disclaimer: I was sent this book free of charge in exchange for an honest review

Synopsis (from Amazon)

Small time drug deals and a passion for growing pot filled my world before I met Greg. But the first time I got off a flight, strolled over to the baggage claim in my carefully chosen new outfit and picked up two brand new flowered suitcases filled with eighty pounds of Mexican swag pot, I felt like I had found my true calling in life. The adrenaline rush of getting away with something big along with the money I would make was a new kind of high I’d never before experienced. I was instantly addicted. Making money organizing drug runs around the country was intense. Greg and I were a money making duo like none other. Life with Greg was exciting for a while but it wasn’t long before it became a cat and mouse game – then a complete nightmare.

Words like belittling and narcissistic were not in my vocabulary. Later, learning these words helped me disconnect from the mental torture. The tension would build as I protected him while he isolated me from friends and family. Then there would be an incident of abuse which confused me. At first it was lying, hurtful words and actions but quickly escalated to guns at my head, knives, and using my son to manipulate and control me. The honeymoon phase would be another fabulous trip to Hawaii or resort hopping around the world. I didn’t see the cycle or even understand abuse. The drugs and alcohol allowed me to tolerate and numb the pain until my spirit dwindled down to a shadow of nothingness. How could I escape the far reaching sabotage of any attempt at my freedom? Could there be a way out? Could I find a way to spare my son from this drug infested violent existence that would surely crush his soul?

Review

Oh this book made me so angry. I know it’s real but I can’t believe someone could behave the way Greg did, especially where his son was concerned. Sometimes I must admit I was annoyed with Jen too. Not because she didn’t see what was happening or didn’t try to get out of it, because she did try to get out of it once she realised what was happening. More I was annoyed at her for going back to the drugs after she gave birth. I had hoped she would realise then that the drugs weren’t helping her situation. However I can understand why she couldn’t give them up, I blame the drugs, not her. In fact in some ways I felt that Jen still blames herself for not getting out. I thought however she was very brave to try so many times, and I could understand why it didn’t work out, she needed to realise she could do better with help.

4/5

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The Psychology of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo- Robin S. Rosenberg et al.


Image from Amazon

Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge in exchange for an honest review

Synopsis (from Amazon)

Lisbeth Salander, heroine of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, is one of the most compelling, complex characters of our time. Is she an avenging angel? A dangerous outlaw? What makes Salander tick, and why is our response to her—and to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy—so strong?

In The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 19 psychologists and psychiatrists attempt to do what even expert investigator Mikael Blomkvist could not: understand Lisbeth Salander.

• What does Lisbeth’s infamous dragon tattoo really say about her?
• Why is Lisbeth so drawn to Mikael, and what would they both need to do to make a relationship work?
• How do we explain men like Martin Vanger, Nils Bjurman, and Alexander Zalachenko? Is Lisbeth just as sexist and as psychopathic as they are?
• What is it about Lisbeth that allows her to survive, even thrive, under extraordinary conditions?
• How is Lisbeth like a Goth-punk Rorschach test? And what do we learn about ourselves from what we see in her?

Review

There are quite a lot of books like this around but I’ve never read one before, mainly because I thought they might be a bit to simplistic. The whole idea behind these types of books I did always like. For someone who has little knowledge of psychology it can be a good way of getting across information in a way that’s fun to read and easy to understand. Because psychological concepts and ideas can be related to characters whom the reader is already familiar with it makes it easy to put these ideas into a context.

Sometimes I found this was actually carried off really well. The writing was generally at a level which was easy to read and understand and quite a broad array of topics were covered. I found that the social psychology sections were particularaly well written, especially the sections on goths and nerds.

It seemed however that the further I got into the book the less it seemed to interest me. Possibly it was just a bit too long, but I did find later articles repeated on what some of the earlier articles had said. I also found that a few of the chapters didn’t really link that well to Lisabeth, I mean can we really call her a superhero? The further I got through the book as well the more chapters I found that read closer to articles you would expect to find psychological journals, it was almost as if articles already written had been adapted for the book. I could still understand them but found them rather dry to read.

There was also one particular article which went overboard with making itself simple in that it seemed to forget certain principles. It used wikipedia as a genuine research tool, something I wouldn’t have even been allowed to do when studying for my a-levels, it’s really not a reliable enough source. Also the writer wasn’t critical of the research they used in the article which had at least one rather obvious hole.

For someone with little or no understanding of psychology this may be a good place to start but I would recommend reading it broken up with another book, oh and wait until you have read all the books!

2.5/5

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Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism- Natasha Walter


Synopsis (from Amazon)

Empowerment, liberation, choice. Once the watchwords of feminism, these terms have now been co-opted by a society that sells women an airbrushed, highly sexualised and increasingly narrow vision of femininity. While the opportunities available to women may have expanded, the ambitions of many young girls are in reality limited by a culture that sees women’s sexual allure as their only passport to success. At the same time we are encouraged to believe that the inequality we observe all around us is born of innate biological differences rather than social factors. Drawing on a wealth of research and personal interviews, Natasha Walter, author of the groundbreaking THE NEW FEMINISM and one of Britain’s most incisive cultural commentators, gives us a straight-talking, passionate and important book that makes us look afresh at women and girls, at sexism and femininity, today.

Review

I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, that’s not to say I don’t want rights for women (I mean which woman wouldn’t?), or that I wouldn’t fight if my own rights were threatened, but I probably wouldn’t got out of my way to fight for women’s rights in general, this book did get me thinking though. I would never say that women get equal rights to men, I don’t think you can when you live in a country where a woman can’t be heir to the throne unless she has no brothers. In fact I’m surprised that that fact wasn’t mentioned in Living Dolls as it did talk about women getting equal rights in work, if one of the most well known positions cannot easily be held by a woman then what hope is there for the rest of us.

In a way the book is a little depressing because it points out how far we still have to go, and even suggests that we have gone back on what we had previously achieved. I found it very emotive, especially when reading about how young girls are trained to be the stereotypical homemaker woman, and to expect to be that before they are even old enough to think that isn’t right. I enjoyed reading the parts about science and statistics that showed how the popular view is not necessarily the right one, or even the one with the most evidence behind it. I did find that Walter stayed on this point a little too long and it began to feel a little over top, and very one sided.

There were a few other bits I was unsure of as well. Walter seemed to me to suggest in some points that women who didn’t choose to exercise their freedoms (e.g. by choosing to stay at home, or choosing to settle down with one man)  were somehow worth less as feminists, she did put a few times that she wasn’t saying that but it still felt to me a little like she was, just that she didn’t want to offend anybody. I also disliked the cover, it made me feel embarrassed to read out and about (and that’s when I do most of my reading) although I can certainly say that it is attention grabbing.

Overall though it really made me think, and I do think that every woman should read it, whether you count yourself as a feminist or not

4.5/5

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Proust and the Squid- Mary Ann Wolf


Proust and The Squid

Image by psd via Flickr

This review was written 29/06/09


Synopsis
(from Shelfari)

“Human beings were never born to read,” writes Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and child development expert Maryanne Wolf. Reading is a human invention that reflects how the brain rearranges itself to learn something new. In this ambitious, provocative book, Wolf chronicles the remarkable journey of the reading brain not only over the past five thousand years, since writing began, but also over the course of a single child’s life, showing in the process why children with dyslexia have reading difficulties and singular gifts.
Lively, erudite, and rich with examples, Proust and the Squid asserts that the brain that examined the tiny clay tablets of the Sumerians was a very different brain from the one that is immersed in today’s technology-driven literacy. The potential transformations in this changed reading brain, Wolf argues, have profound implications for every child and for the intellectual development of our species.

Review

I don’t tend to write non-fiction reviews so I apologise if it’s awful!
As a psychology graduate I did find that there was a fair bit in this book that I already knew (more than I thought I would). However there was still enough new information to keep me interested. Especially when it came to talking about the evolution of written language and the disadvantages of reading.

It was a pretty easy read for a science book, and generally I think people without a background in psychology would cope with it (as is intended), although I felt some of the more neurological sections were not explained enough.
I did really enjoy it, but I’m ready for some fiction now!

4/5

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A Million Little Pieces- James Frey


Synopsis (from Amazon)

When he entered a residential treatment centre at the age of twenty-three, James Frey had destroyed his body and his mind almost beyond repair. He faced a stark choice: accept that he wasn’t going to see twenty-four or step into the fallout of his smoking wreck of a life and take drastic action. Surrounded by patients as troubled as he, Frey had to fight to find his own way to confront the consequences of the life he had lived so far, and to determine what future, if any, he has. A Million Little Pieces is an uncommon account of a life destroyed and a life reconstructed.

Review.

This is another book which has been on my TBR pile for a long time. Part of what put me off it the controversy over whether it was fiction or not. Certainly it was written as if it was an autobiography, but in parts it just seemed too, perfect I suppose. Some of the more unbelieveable things I could believe, because although they were hard to believe they fell into the category where you could imagine them happening in certain ways. Ultimately it was Lilly that made me not believe, but I will say no more than that because of spoilers. In terms of writing style it was pretty easy to read, although in parts it felt almost as if you were reading a list, a sort of ‘I did this, then this happened so I did this’. The conversation was hard to follow in parts because it was so infrequently told who was actually speaking. It carried you through quite easily though and the topic was interesting enough that you didn’t get bored with the writing style. At some points Frey would talk for too long about something which really wasn’t interesting, like documenting a fight which was on TV, I really didn’t care, and at these points I did notice how boring the writing style was. As far as topic went at times it was hard or uncomfortable to read, and it parts quite graphic. There was lots of swearing, which was generally unnecessary and might put some people off but I suppose it made things more realistic. As far as the more graphic sections went it was unflinching and almost matter of fact about what was going on which did for me seem the way that someone who had gone through those things would talk about them.

Overall, not the best written book, and at time it drags. But when I was interested I was really interested, and I do wish I had read it sooner.

3.5/5

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Head Trip- Jeff Warren


Synopsis (from Amazon)

This book will change the way you think, sleep, and dream for good. It is a book of psychology and neuroscience, and also of adventure wherein the author explores the extremes to which consciousness can be stretched, from the lucid dream to the quasi-mystical substratum of awareness known as the Pure Conscious Event. Replete with stylish graphics and brightened by comic panels conceived and drawn by the author, “Head Trip” is an instant classic, a brilliant and original description of the shifting experience of consciousness that’s also a practical guide to enhancing creativity and mental health. This book does not just inform and entertain – it shows how every one of us can expand upon the ways we experience being alive.

Review

I must admit that although I found the topic of this book interesting I was glad when it was over. It was interesting enough, and pretty well written, in some parts it almost read like a novel, but I found Warren tended to dwell a bit much on one point and so it came across a bit waffley. Part of the problem for me though was it was a little over simplified- I had been expecting a bit more technical information, but I think for people with less knowledge of psychology or neurology it would make a good (if long!) introduction

2.5/5

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The Lucifer Effect- Phillip Zimbardo


100s - September 2008

Image by Pesky Library via Flickr

Synopsis (from Amazon)

In The Lucifer Effect, the award-winning and internationally respected psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, examines how the human mind has the capacity to be infinitely caring or selfish, kind or cruel, creative or destructive. He challenges our conceptions of who we think we are, what we believe we will never do – and how and why almost any of us could be initiated into the ranks of evil doers. At the same time he describes the safeguards we can put in place to prevent ourselves from corrupting – or being corrupted by – others, and what sets some people apart as heroes and heroines, able to resist powerful pressures to go along with the group, and to refuse to be team players when personal integrity is at stake. Using the first in-depth analysis of his classic Stanford Prison Experiment, and his personal experiences as an expert witness for one of the Abu Ghraib prison guards, Zimbardo’s stimulating and provocative book raises fundamental questions about the nature of good and evil, and how each one of us needs to be vigilant to prevent becoming trapped in the ‘Lucifer Effect’, no matter what kind of character or morality we believe ourselves to have. The Lucifer Effect won the William James Book Award in 2008.

Review

Oh how long have I been reading this book? Seems like I have been reading it for months! It has taken a long time but not because it’s uninteresting or badly written. In fact of the psychology books I’ve read aimed at none psychologists this is probably the best written. It doesn’t use too much specialised language and, unlike the others I’ve read, when it does it seems to be explained well. I’m probably not the best person to say that as I have a psychology degree but I was trying to think of how people who know little about psychology would view it. Despite a good writing style I can’t really say that it was easy to read. The subject matter was quite disturbing, in parts things which happened during the Stanford Prison Experiment and at Abu Ghraib  were described in such detail that it actually made me feel a bit ill, there were pictures from Abu Ghraib that I’ve never seen before, and were nasty. The thought that anybody, any normal person, could do those sort of things is disturbing because it’s one of those things you never imagine you could do, but maybe that’s wrong. I’m glad to be aware of it though, it’s like a guard against it.

Certainly not an easy book to read, but an important one I think, and very interesting, I definitely recommend it.

4/5

Edit: I forgot to say something which I disliked about the book was that sometimes Zimbardo seemed to be pushing his own political views, or even agenda, when it came to discussing Abu Ghraib, and it did mean that there was some content which wasn’t really needed (at least to the extent he discussed it) when thinking about the situation surrounding the events at the prison.

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This is Your Brain on Music- Daniel Levitin


Beachy reading

Image by NailaJ via Flickr

Synopsis (from Amazon)

This is the first book to offer a comprehensive explanation of how humans experience music and to unravel the mystery of our perennial love affair with it. Using musical examples from Bach to the Beatles, Levitin reveals the role of music in human evolution, shows how our musical preferences begin to form even before we are born and explains why music can offer such an emotional experience.Music is an obsession at the heart of human nature, even more fundamental to our species than language. In “This Is Your Brain On Music” Levitin offers nothing less than a new way to understand it, and its role in human life.

Review

When I bought this book what I really wanted was Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia but it wasn’t avaliable. I spotted this one and thought it might have some similarities and anyway regardless of whether it was similar or not it sounded interesting. I read a little of the introduction really to check it was worth buying and wanted to keep reading so decided to buy it.

Unfortunately I didn’t think the rest of the book really matched up to the introduction. The topic was interesting enough to stop me from giving up, however, and the brief narrative sections were well enough written to bare the less well written scientific sections. Maybe because I have studied psychology I found that Levitin was rather repetative- I suppose for someone who only had a basic knowledge of psychology (the group that the book was aimed at) may find this made things easier to follow however I am unsure how well the bits were written, only when I was fully familiar with ideas (as with nature verses nurture tests in twins, for example) did I find them easy to grasp. While I understood the other ideas I did find them hard to read- and when a topic is complicated you really don’t want to have to struggle with writing style too.

In other parts I got the impression he was trying to impress us with the psychologists, musicians and scientists he had met in his career and with all the studies he had done. While talking about experience within the field gives a certain authority I found this a bit much.

When it came down to it the only chapter I really enjoyed was the last one which talked about the evolutionary advantages of music. I think maybe because neurology is difficult to understand it’s also difficult to explain, and I think Levitin may have been in above his depth whereas this was easier to explain. While Levitin may be able to explain things to his students for those with no experience in psychology I don’t think I would really recommend this book.

The topic was promising but I don’t really think Levitin was the right person to write about it, at least not alone.

Oh and another thing I found this book a bit too American, it would refer to traditional songs in America that I didn’t really know. Also it referred to lots of ‘older’ pop music which I’m not familiar with or only vaguely familiar with.

2.5/5

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