The Rough Guide to Psychology
by Christian Jarrett.
Rough Guides, 2011 ($18.99)
In the U.S., the ubiquitous For Dummies book series got its start with computer manuals and has since expanded to thousands of titles on everything from composing to composting. In England, a company called Rough Guides made its name selling travel books but has now branched out with about 70 reference books with titles such as The Rough Guide to the Beatles. Its latest entry is a 376-page, paperback-size book called
The Rough Guide to Psychology, written by Christian Jarrett, a journalist who works for the British Psychological Society.
“We’re all psychologists at heart,” Jarrett writes, in the sense that we all want to understand human behavior. But real research psychologists, he says, are different from the rest of us “because they know what they don’t know.” They are skeptics, relying heavily on the
methods of the natural sciences to find truth. An educator might believe, for example, that the best way to deal with troublemakers is with punishment; a researcher would test that idea by comparing the effects of teachers who punish with those of teachers who do not.
With this idea as its foundation, Jarrett takes us on a research-driven journey through intriguing topics: how memory is organized, why people make bad decisions, how genes set limits on intelligence, what science says about love, where prejudice comes from, and
much more. Throughout, he describes experiments or surveys that support every point.
The range of topics is similar to that of an introductory textbook in college, but this volume is about a tenth the size and the writing is consistently lively. In effect, Jarrett has given us a book of psychological nuggets, often delivered in shaded blue boxes that tell us things
such as: yes, people overestimate both their driving skills and head size; no, women do not talk more than men, but they do use kisses to size up potential mates more than men do; yes, the brain lights up in distinctive ways when people are experiencing religious feelings, but a “God spot” probably does not exist.
Having taught introductory psychology classes for many years, I was prepared to nitpick this admittedly rough look at the eld, but the book holds up. It is accurate, up-to-date and easy to read. My only gripe is that it contains no references; if a passage on sleepwalking or autistic savants grabs your attention and you want to know more, you are on your own. That said, for a rough guide, this book is smooth.
The Compass of Pleasure
by David J. Linden.
Viking Press, 2011 ($26.95)
The dog masturbating, the bird scouring for berries, the porcupine hunting for hallucinogenic plants, the human slamming quarter after quarter into a slot machine. Sure enough, animals are hardwired to seek pleasure. But when taken too far, this innate inclination can become an addiction.
In his book The Compass of Pleasure, David J. Linden draws on recent scientific findings to explain how pleasure manifests in the brain. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, provides a primer on the brain’s pleasure circuit, walking the reader through examples of how highly addictive behaviors, such as gambling and doing drugs, as well as more mundane activities, such as exercising and playing video games, exploit reward pathways in the brain. In a strange twist of fate, the exact same brain circuits that allow us to enjoy life also fuel bad habits.
But addicts derive little pleasure from their vices. For them, Linden explains, it is the hunt for these experiences that becomes more pleasurable than the high itself. The intensity of the craving remodels those pleasure circuits, causing desire to outpace pleasure. The same experiences that most people seek out for happiness, addicts need to feel normal.
Overall, the book serves as a status check on the neuroscience of pleasure. Although Linden scatters anecdotes and humorous personal experiences throughout his book, at times it reads more like a textbook, delivering accurate yet overly detailed descriptions of the brain’s anatomy and biochemistry. His thoroughness has its perks, however—Linden does not shy away from pointing out the aws or limitations in the research he presents.
Although recent boosts in techniques and technology have allowed scientists to look deeply into the brain for answers, Linden explains that the brain is endlessly complex and that we still have substantial ground to cover to fully understand pleasure and addiction. Our behavior will never be explained by one brain circuit—or one book, for that matter. But Linden has provided the first stalwart steps into this new frontier.
The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry
by Jon Ronson. Riverhead Books, 2011 ($25.95)
It is easy to convince people that you are mentally ill. Claim to hear voices, threaten to hurt yourself, stop showering … basically if you just freak out enough people over time, you can probably be guaranteed a fresh new drug prescription and maybe even a few days in a
psychiatric unit. But how would you go about convincing people that you are sane? That is a much harder task.
In his new investigative adventure The Psychopath Test, journalist and filmmaker Jon Ronson does not just question the definition of insanity, he also expresses reservations about current methods used to diagnose it.
The book begins with a mystery so juicy it reads like ction. A group of academics invite Ronson to help them figure out who sent them a partially constructed manuscript riddled with cryptic clues and an anonymous letter that taunts, “Good luck!”
Inspired to discover what kind of mind would pull such a prank, Ronson sets out on a journey to understand what defines insanity. Along the way, he meets a patient in a psychiatric hospital who claims he lied his way in to avoid a prison sentence and is now stuck inside after receiving a high score on a psychopath assessment checklist. The man’s insistence that he is sane is perceived as a symptom of his madness. Is he a
victim of a psychiatric system hell-bent on “defining people by their maddest edges,” or is he indeed a psychopath weaving a twisted tale for his own amusement?
Determined to tell the difference, Ronson turns to psychology’s most in influential experts to teach him the art of diagnosing and spotting a psychopath. Armed with his new understanding, he practices on CEOs, politicians, war criminals—even himself. But instead of making things clearer, his sharpened perspective seems to have muddied the
water further. He begins to wonder whether in the quest to categorize abnormality, the field of psychiatry has lost track of the many shades of normal.
The book is a page-turner. Ronson is charming and tackles poignant issues. “Should we define people by their madness or by their sanity?” he asks. How many so-called mental illnesses are just normal behaviors by another name? How permanent are the labels we assign? The line between sanity and illness has never seemed so blurred, but Ronson walks it with style.