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See Inside October/November 2008

MIND Reviews: October/November 2008

Reviews and recommendations from the October/November 2008 issue of Scientific American MIND

ON DATIING AND MATING

Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? Bodies, Behavior, and Brains—The Science behind Sex, Love and Attraction
by Jena Pincott. Bantam Dell, 2008 ($20)

There are two types of romantics: those who enjoy love and simply go along for the ride, and those who analyze and obsess about the whole process before it even begins. If you’re the latter, get excited: there’s fun reading in store from science writer Jena Pincott.

Geared toward female readers, Pincott’s book tackles 95 burning questions about sex, love and attraction. Among the most interesting are the hidden agendas behind men’s terrible pickup lines, the reasons men rarely give women useful gifts and why regular physical contact with semen makes women happier. Although some of Pincott’s explanations are based on neuroscience—such as functional MRI studies and chemical analyses—most come from the controversial field of evolutionary biology, which attempts to explain human behaviors based on the reasons evolution might have made them common over millions of years. For example, evolutionary biologists believe that women have orgasms because the contractions “suck up” more sperm, increasing the chance of conception.

Evolutionary biology is plagued by more theories than evidence, so take Pincott’s answers with a grain of salt—but to her credit, she points out most of the scientific uncertainties herself. Her explanations, based on studies and peppered with personal anecdotes, are never boring. Perhaps Pincott’s biggest failure is that her writing is at times corny, trite or pedantic, as if she can’t quite decide whether she wants Gentlemen to be a science book or a self-help guide. Luckily, the topic is so fascinating, you will keep turning the pages no matter how many times you’ve rolled your eyes.

GOOD DRAMA, BAD THERAPY

In Treatment
DVD available at http://store.hbo.com

Laura, an attractive and deeply disturbed young woman, tells her therapist she’s in love with him. After several sessions, they begin to explore the idea of starting a romantic relationship. Good drama? Yes. Good psychotherapy? No.

So it goes with HBO’s engrossing television series In Treatment, which follows the therapy sessions of three patients and a distressed couple with psychologist Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne. The acting is excellent, and the show succeeds in providing insights into the hidden motivations of the patients and a sense of the process of psychotherapy over time—a rarity in Hollywood.

In many instances, Weston provides good therapy. Unlike most real-life therapists, however, he often lacks empathy and confronts his patients with challenging interpretations of their behavior based on little clinical data. Research has confirmed that a confrontational style leads to patient resistance and sometimes to the worsening of symptoms, whereas a more supportive style sets the stage for positive therapeutic change. Patients need to be able to safely explore their thoughts, feelings and behaviors in order to move toward change. Weston frequently fails to provide these essentials of good therapy.

Weston wrestles with many of his own demons, including significant marital difficulties and problems with anger, depression and burnout. One night a week we see him visit his own therapist-cum-friend, but he is often as resistant to insight and change as his patients are. All too often his personal problems spill over into his therapeutic work in ways that hurt the people he is trying to help. I watched the show with two friends, Ted Reid and Diane Reid, who are experienced psychotherapists like myself—and at many points we found ourselves simultaneously groaning aloud at Weston’s mishandling of delicate situations, such as his relationship with Laura (played by Melissa George).

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