A quartet of complementary brain books

Last night I taught a two hour class called ‘Navigating Neuroscience’ for the Guardian Masterclass series and I had the interesting challenge of coming up with a two hour course on some key concepts to help people make better sense of brain science, how it’s discussed, and its changing place in society.

As part of that, I recommended some books to give interested non-specialists a good critical introduction. I added a book after hearing some of the questions and I’ve included the list below.

I’ve mentioned some of them before on Mind Hacks in their own right, but I thought they’re worth mentioning as a set.

The books have been chosen to complement each other and the idea is that if you read all four, you should have a solid grounding in modern cognitive neuroscience and beyond. In no particular order:

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld

This is a great book for understanding common fallacies in conclusions drawn from cognitive neuroscience studies and what conclusions can reasonably be drawn from this evidence. It tackles several areas as examples of where these fallacies are having a significant effect: neuromarketing, neurolaw, lie detection, addiction and the brain-disease fallacy.

50 Ideas You Really Need to Know About the Human Brain
by Moheb Costandi

It’s a book of 50 small chapters each of which contains an essential idea on which the foundation of modern neuroscience rests. It’s very accessibly and accurately written and gets across some key subtleties that many academic textbooks miss. The great thing about this book is that it’s not just a ‘nuts and bolts’ guide to the brain and isn’t afraid to go into quite technical areas (‘Default Mode’, ‘Prediction Error’) while making sure they’re described in straight-forward language.

Great Myths of the Brain
by Christian Jarrett

This is especially good for listing and dispelling commonly cited but erroneous brain ‘facts’. It starts with some historical ones (‘Drilling a Hole in the Head Releases Evil Spirits’), move on to more obvious contemporary myths (‘We Only Use Ten Percent of Our Brains’) but then includes a range of common myths that may be well understood by neuroscientists but which pervade popular discourse and the media (‘Mirror Neurons Make Us Human’, ‘The Brain Receives Information from Five Senses’).

Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind
by Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rachedneuro

This is a great book for understanding how neuroscience is understood and used in society. It’s actually an academic book and Rose and Abi-Rached are sociologists but it’s technically accurate without being densely written. I genuinely think it’s one of the most important neuroscience books of the last decade. It is a brilliant analysis of how brain science and the practice of brain science have become associated with changing ideas of what it means to be human and their reciprocal relationship between politics and social influence in the world.

For argument’s sake

ebook cover
I have (self) published an ebook For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. It is the collection of two essays that were originally published on Contributoria and The Conversation. I have revised and expanded these, and added a guide to further reading on the topic. There are bespoke illustrations inspired by Goya (of owls), and I’ve added an introduction about why I think psychologists and journalists both love stories that we’re irrational creatures incapable of responding to reasoned argument. Here’s something from the book description:

Are we irrational creatures, swayed by emotion and entrenched biases? Modern psychology and neuroscience are often reported as showing that we can’t overcome our prejudices and selfish motivations. Challenging this view, cognitive scientist Tom Stafford looks at the actual evidence. Re-analysing classic experiments on persuasion, as well as summarising more recent research into how arguments change minds, he shows why persuasion by reason alone can be a powerful force.

All in, it’s close to 7000 words and available from Amazon now

Compulsory well-being: An interview with Will Davies

The UK government’s use of psychology has suddenly become controversial. They have promised to put psychologists into job centres “to provide integrated employment and mental health support to claimants with common mental health conditions” but with the potential threat of having assistance removed if people do not attend treatment.

It has been criticised as ‘treating unemployment as a mental problem’ or an attempt to ‘psychologically reprogramme the unemployed’ and has triggered an upcoming march on a London job centre.

Will Davies is a political scientist and the author of the new book The Happiness Industry that looks at the history and practice of positive psychology as government and ‘well-being’ as a way of managing people.

We caught up with him to get some background on the recent controversy.

Is this use of psychology in social policy a quick fix or part of a broader trend?

There is a long history of using psychological techniques in order to encourage work or boost productivity. In my book, I trace this right back to the 1920s, when industrial psychologists first started to study the attitudes and emotions of people in the workplace, with a view to understanding how people could be more committed to work. Some of this was born out of a fear of socialism or trade union organising, i.e. that unhappy workers might rebel against business in some way.

But I also think something shifted fundamentally in the 1990s, as economists started to look at psychological survey data, and the field of ‘happiness economics’ took off. Economists were struggling to understand why unemployment sometimes remained high, even during times of economic growth. And one thing they began to realise was that unemployment causes types of psychological harm (namely depression) that can leave people unable to work, or unable to seek work. From an economist’s perspective, it stands to reason that the efficient course of action would therefore be to design a policy instrument that could alleviate this psychological problem. This is exactly what Richard Layard believed he had found, when he met the psychologist David Clark, who preached the virtues of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to him.

Layard studied the evidence on CBT in the mid-2000s, and quickly put together a ‘business case’ (of the sort the Treasury needs to see, if it is to endorse any new public spending) for why it was an efficient use of public money, given its apparent success in getting people off benefits of various kinds. Of course, this strongly economistic approach to psychology also has various risks attached to it, one of which is that everything becomes viewed in a highly instrumentalised way, which is precisely what there is now a backlash against.

A lot of the protests have centred on the idea that unemployed people might be coerced into psychological treatment with threats of having their benefits removed if they don’t attend but all over the world companies and individuals are voluntarily signing up to ‘happiness technologies’ that claim to be able to monitor and improve people’s contentment. Taking the coercive aspect away, isn’t this is a positive development in terms of also valuing people as emotional beings – rather than simply cogs in an economic system?

The problem here is that ‘happiness’ is becoming conceived in a heavily reductionist way. There tend to be two main types of reduction at play here.

Firstly, ‘happiness’ is viewed in roughly the way that neo-classical economists have viewed it, as the driver of consumer choices. Happiness economists may well be interested in broader notions of flourishing or life satisfaction than this, but the market research world has become fixated on positive emotions purely in the hope that they can be targeted by advertising or branding campaigns. Since the late 1990s, with the influence of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, ’emotions’ have been the hottest research topic in the world of market research.

Secondly, ‘happiness’ is viewed in some biological, most often neurological, sense, as a physical occurence in the body. The claim that it’s now possible to see emotions via fMRI or physical symptoms (such as muscular reflexes or pulse rate) is no doubt grounded in credible scientific research, but before long, you reach the point where experts are speaking about emotions in ways that entirely bi-passes the voice of the person who is experiencing them. Philosophically, this is nonsense, for the simple reason that words like ‘happiness’ or ‘sadness’ can only make sense, to the extent that we can both witness them in others and describe them in ourselves. Behaviorist approaches to emotion ignore this.

Put these two agendas together, and you have an emerging industry of psychological surveillance, which purports to collect objective data about our feelings, and then commercialises it. The way in which digital health companies and technologies (such as wearables) are also offering consumer research or HR services is indicative of this new fusion between economic and physiological methods. All the while, our everyday articulations of ‘happiness’, ‘anger’, ‘joy’ or ‘despair’ are being ignored as ‘unscientific’. Businesses and policy-makers are so obsessed with tracking and measuring emotion, that they’re losing the capacity to listen to and understand it.

Of course, a lot of wellbeing data is collected in less clandestine, more analogue ways than this. Surveys are still the main basis for the field of happiness economics and ‘national wellbeing’ indicators. But this could change over time. One of the slightly perturbing trends amidst all of this is that a lot of this data collection is happening ostensibly for our own benefit, and yet it still happens without us necessarily granting permission. It’s not typically malicious or punitive surveillance (in an Orwellian sense), yet there’s still something creepy about it. Several of the companies above (including Affectiva) were founded to serve medical needs, but then subtly shifted towards more business-oriented applications, once they received venture capital. They start with the goal of increasing wellbeing… but gradually shift to the goal of maximising profit. This is a trend worth keeping an eye on.

An “emerging industry of psychological surveillance” sounds ominous. Can you give some examples?

Firstly there are those which focus on our physical bodies in various way. Companies such as Affectiva and Realeyes seek to monitor emotions through facial scanning, and offer services to market research companies amongst others. It is rare (though not unheard of) for these technologies to be used without the consent of those being monitored, and consumer groups are mobilising against intrusive uses of such technologies. Wearable technologies, such as Fitbit and Apple Watch, are marketed as devices which benefit the wearer, through greater self-knowledge.

But there are emerging cases of employers making it mandatory to wear them, or health insurers offering lower premiums to those that wear them, because of the data they can gather about behaviour, stress and wellbeing. Humanyze is a company that seeks to track employee activity (including emotions) using wearable technology, while Virgin Pulse is an HR service that includes various tools (including wearable technologies) to keep track of an employee’s state of mind and health.

Secondly, there are ways of calculating emotional variations through our use of language. The field of ‘sentiment analysis’ involves teaching computers to recognise the emotions conveyed in a sentence, and can be put to use to monitor the general happiness level of twitter users, for example, or the spread of emotions amongst facebook users. It is also integral to social media-based market research, or the ‘people analytics’ used by employers to look at employee performance via analysis of email traffic. One company, Beyond Verbal, offers indications of emotion based on tone of voice when on the phone. This has various commercial applications.

The sociologist Nikolas Rose has charted how governments increasingly see individual psychology as part of their governmental responsibility. What role do the psychologists, mental health workers and the like, have in affecting this trend?

We have to be wary of exaggerating the powers of governments and businesses in this area. A lot of my book – like the work of Nikolas Rose on this topic– implicitly looks at the goals, measurement tools and strategies that policy-makers and managers have at their disposal. However, these can seem more effective (and potentially more sinister) than how things work in practice. One thing that sociologists such as Rose have stressed is that the process of ‘translation’ between a public policy (such as tackling depression in job centres) and the actual front-line intervention is long and tortuous, and there are various individuals and institutions along the way that can divert and subvert it, for better or worse.

Professionals working in psychiatry, clinical psychology and psychotherapy retain some power to influence how things play out. Since the 1970s, more quantitative, positivist traditions have come to the fore, which grant less autonomy to professional judgement, and rely more on things like questionnaires and standardised metrics. Naturally, that means that expertise potentially becomes more amenable to governmental co-option. And yet, especially in an area like mental health, the success or failure of a policy is ultimately in the hands of someone providing the care or the listening. It’s not clear that something like IAPT can succeed, even by its own yardstick, if it becomes ever-more integrated into the pursuit of ‘efficiency’ and benefit cuts.

Speaking as an outsider, it seems to me that there is still further scope for the ‘psy’ disciplines to offer coordinated alternatives, which aren’t merely resistant, but offer new policies across society. At present, government policy is driven by an economic rationality, combined with a reductionist, behaviorist notion of mental health. This approach is guilty of both over-medicalising social problems and over-economising policy solutions. A critical bio-psycho-social alternative should have things to say, not only about mental health services or welfare, but about the damage wrought elsewhere in society.

Look at our schools, for example: there is a crisis of stress and anxiety amongst teachers while pupils are suffering the mental strains of constant examination, no doubt justified on the back of some nonsense about Britain being in a ‘global race’. If politicians are serious about the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing, and don’t want those phenomena to be simply manufactured in a mechanised fashion, then the psy disciplines and professions might want to develop some blueprints for how labour markets or companies should be governed on that basis. I remain sceptical as to whether policy-makers do conceive of psychology as anything other than an economistic route to ‘behavior change’, but lets find out.


You can follow Will Davies on Twitter as @davies_will. There are more details of his book The Happiness Industry here.

Long corridors of the mind

I’ve just read Barbara Taylor‘s brilliant book The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times which blends her own experiences as a patient in one of the last remaining asylums with an incisive look at the changing face of mental health care since the Victorian era.

Taylor is a renowned historian but the book is not what you’d expect. It’s scandalous, searingly honest and often a exquisitely observed look at herself and others as they made shaky orbits around the mental health system.

Through severe mental unwellness, the state mental health system, and a searching course of psychoanalysis, Taylor is an exceptional guide and she is provides a lot of cold hard truths, as well as a lot of warm, overlooked ones.

You might think that this is a book in the same vein as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind or The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Sacks – accounts by brilliant women who recount the challenges of developing their careers while walking on the shifting sands of the mind.

But Taylor’s book is quite different. She has become a renowned history professor but the book ends well before, when she gets her first steady job after a long period of disability. Actually, most of the book describes her dysfunction in the face of wanting to fulfil her ambitions.

In this sense, the book is more like an explorer’s journal than the post-voyage story of success. It carefully captures the day-to-day atmosphere and characters of a world she never thought she’d be in.

Wrapped around this are Taylor’s descriptions of how her experiences, and the experiences of many others like her, were situated in the mental health system of the late 20th Century. It captures the course not only of her madness, but madness as a part of a changing society.

By the way, the ‘last asylum’ in the title is the sprawling Friern Hospital née Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, which we’ve discussed previously on Mind Hacks as one of the many Victorian asylums which have become don’t-mention-the-past luxury flats.
 

Link to more info on The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor.

Mind Hacks excerpts x 2

This month, Business Insider have republished a couple of chapters from Mind Hacks the book (in case you missed it, back before the blog, Mind Hacks was a book, 101 do-it-at-home psychology experiences). The excerpts are:

1. Why one of these puzzles is easy and the other is hard – which is about the Wason Selection Task, a famous example of how our ability to reason logically can be confounded (and unconfounded if you find the right format to present a problem in).

2. Why this sentence is hard to understand – which shows you how to improve your writing with a bit of elementary psychology (hint: it is about reducing working memory load). Steven Pinker covers the same advice in his new book The Sense of Style (2014).

Both excerpts show off some of the neat illustrations done for the book, as well as being a personal nostalgia trip for yours truly (it’s been ten years!)

Links: Why this sentence is hard to understand + Why one of these puzzles is easy and the other is hard

In the 21st Century, project management for parents

I’ve just read an excellent book on the surprising anomaly of modern parenting called All Joy and No Fun.

It’s by the writer Jennifer Senior who we’ve featured a few times on Mind Hacks for her insightful pieces on the social mind.

In All Joy and No Fun she looks at how the modern model of childhood born after the Second World War – “long and sheltered, devoted almost entirely to education and emotional growth” – has begun to mutate in some quarters into an all consuming occupation of over-parenting that has meant childcare has been consistently rated as one of the least enjoyable family activities in a wide range of studies.

The book combines field trips with parenting in middle American (YMMV) and a look at the surprising data about how parenting has become almost a competitive sport which requires forever more money, time, restrictions and plans, lest you be accused be being a ‘bad parent’.

New parents in the United States, Mead observes, are willing to try almost any new fad or craze for their baby’s sake. “We find new schools of education, new schools of diet, new schools of human relations… And we find serious, educated people following their dictates.” Which is why attachment parenting is consdiered de rigeur one year and overbearing three years later. And why cry-it-out is all the rage one moment and then, after a couple of seasons, considered cruel. And why organic home-milled purees suddenly supplant jars of Gerber’s, though an entire generation has done just fine on Gerber’s and even gone on to write books, run companies and do Nobel-winning science. Uncertainty is why parents buy Baby Einstein products, though there’s no evidence that they do anything to alter the cognitive trajectory of a child’s life, and explains why a friend – an extremely bright and reasonable man – asked me, with the straightest of faces and finest of intentions, why I wasn’t teaching my son sign language when he was small.

Because he was writing in the 1950s, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott talked about the ‘good enough mother’, but taking its more modern version, we could say that ‘good enough parenting’ is all that parents need to aspire to.

All Joy and No Fun is a thought-provoking exploration of how childrearing become so unenjoyable in the 21st Century, and how fads, fashions and commerce, seek to undermine ‘good enough parenting’.
 

Link to more details on All Joy and No Fun.

A review of Susan Greenfield’s “Mind Change”

I was asked to write a review of Susan Greenfield’s new book “Mind Change” for the October edition of Literary Review magazine which has just been published.

You can read the review in the print edition and I did have the full text posted here but the good folks at the magazine have also put it online to read in full, so do check it out at the link below.

Mind Change marshals many published sources to address these claims. However, this provides little scientific insight owing to Greenfield’s difficulty with synthesising the evidence in any meaningful sense, while she also makes some glaring mistakes in her interpretation of it. Although she makes much of her use of peer-reviewed evidence, surveys done by companies for marketing campaigns are often given the same weight as scientific studies and opinions from self-appointed pundits as those of specialists.

As an end-note, what’s most interesting is that Greenfield is essentially making an argument about public health but doesn’t really have the conceptual tools to do so and consequently doesn’t seem to understand how, and how strongly, to draw real world inferences from different types of evidence.

However, in terms of Greenfield’s evolution, she is at least tackling some of the relevant evidence, but this really isn’t up to a standard that merits any of the media attention it gets.
 

Link to review of “Mind Change”.