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”.

A peek inside The Skeleton Cupboard

You’ll get more out of The Skeleton Cupboard, Tanyan Byron’s account of her training as a clinical psychologist, if you read the epilogue first.

It tells you that the patients described in the book are fictional, to preserve confidentiality, but indicates that the stories were representative of real situations.

This is a common device in clinical memoires, from Irvin Yalom’s existential tales of psychotherapy to Philippa Perry’s couch fiction, but I’m never quite sure what to make of these clinical quasi-biographies.

They are usually realistic, insightful and wonderful to read, Byron’s book is no exception, but the smudged line between truth and necessary fiction is sometimes hard to navigate.

In Byron’s case, her book is perhaps the most deliberately autobiographical in the genre, where she intends to reflect the role of the psychologist’s own psychology in working with distressed, impaired, and sometimes difficult individuals.

This is part of what clinical psychologists aim to do – understand how your own reactions are colouring your approach to the patient – but when the patients are literary collages of real people, it is perhaps the process rather than the content of those reflections that are the most informative.

From this perspective, The Skeleton Cupboard is best understood as an illustrated history of ‘how my thinking evolved as a clinician’ rather than a journal of patients past, although we assume the non-clinical parts are factual: the hard-boiled supervisor, the misjudged snogging of a psychiatrist, the friends through good times and bad.

Byron is Britain’s best ambassador for clinical psychology and a very good writer to boot and I’m sure The Skeleton Cupboard will prompt many to take up the profession or inspire them during their training. It’s also a good account of how thinking and practice evolves through first contact with patients.

It has some artistic license, maybe even melodrama in places, but it has some points of emotional truth that are hard to deny.
 

Link to more details of The Skeleton Cupboard.

Circumstances of the life and brain

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh has written a philosophical, incisive and exasperated book about brain surgery called Do No Harm.

It’s a hugely entertaining read as Marsh takes us through the practical and emotional process of operating, or not operating, on patients with neurological disorders.

He does a lot of moaning – about hospital management, computerisation, administration – sometimes quite enjoyably it must be said, but in some ways he does reflect the stereotype of the bellowing “I’ve got lives to save!” surgeon that stalks hospital corridors.

Most strikingly though, Marsh is clearly aware of his faults and he is a tough critic of himself and his decisions, often to the point of guilt. But it is through the many battles won and lost where you can see the wisdom shine through.

It is a brilliant insight, more than anything, into the decision-making involved in neurosurgery and the emotional impact these professional choices have on patients and professionals alike.

It’s interesting to compare in tone to Katrina Firlik’s neurosurgical biography Another Day in the Frontal Lobe which is equally candid about the fog of surgery but relentlessly optimistic in conclusion.

In contrast, Marsh is a man trying his best in difficult circumstances. Some of those circumstances just happen to be several centimetres deep in the brain.

The book is also wonderfully written by the way. One not to miss.
 

Link to details of book Do No Harm.

A detangler for the net

I’ve just finished reading the new book Untangling the Web by social psychologist Aleks Krotoski. It turns out to be one of the best discussions I’ve yet read on how the fabric of society is meshing with the internet.

Regular readers know I’ve been a massive fan of the Digital Human, the BBC Radio 4 series that Krotoski writes and presents, that covers similar territory.

Untangling the Web takes a slightly more analytical angle, focusing more on scientific studies of online social interaction and theories of online psychology, but it is all the richer for it.

It covers almost the entire range psychological debates: friendships, how kids are using the net, debates over whether the net can ‘damage the brain’, online remembrance and mourning, propaganda and persuasion, sex, dating and politics. You get the idea. It’s impressively comprehensive.

It’s not an academic book but, unsurprisingly, given Krotoski’s background as both a social psychologist and a tech journalist, is very well informed.

I picked up a couple of minor errors. It suggests internet addiction was recognised as a diagnosis in the DSM-IV, when the nearest things to an internet addiction diagnosis was only discussed (and eventually relegated to the Appendix), in the DSM-5.

It also mentions me briefly, in the discussion of public anxieties that the internet could ‘rewire the brain,’ but suggests I’m based at University College London (apparently a college to the north of the River Thames) when really I’m from King’s College London.

But that was about the best I could do when trying to find fault with the book. It’s a hugely enjoyable, balanced treatment of an often inflammatory subject, that may well be one of the best guides to how we relate over the net that you’re likely to read for a long time.
 

Link to more details about Untangling the Web.