Archive of 2011 PsycCRITIQUES® Sample Searches Podcasts

September 2011

Remembering Phineas Gage

This month we pay tribute to Phineas Gage and his contributions to the development of neuroscience.

In September 1848, Gage had an iron rod driven through his brain during a railroad explosion. He survived but experienced dramatic changes in personality that his doctor faithfully recorded. That research helped launch scientific investigation into the connection between brain injury and personality change as well as research in brain mapping, or the theory that different areas of the brain control different functions. Gage's case became a fixture in neurological and psychological curricula.

The information directly about Gage is interesting. It includes the nearly 600 page work, An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage (Macmillan, 2003), reviewed by Paul Ewing. If Macmillan is not the world's expert on Gage, it's hard to envision who might exceed him. He provided reams of material on Gage's life, including appendixes of his doctors' original articles and letters. He discussed the case from all angles, showing ultimately how scientists (and others) used a case to support their own theories.

Using Phineas Gage as a key concept nets you about 25 results, including journals, book chapters, and book reviews. However, looking at research relevant to Gage is where the exercise becomes most instructive. The index terms used in the results branch off across the discipline of neurology, to brain, creativity, memory, reasoning, violence, and traumatic brain injury, just for starters. Gage's case was a pebble thrown in a pool of research that has started waves of reaction that continue to expand to this day. Among the related works you can find reviewed in PsycCRITIQUES are the following:

  • "I Think, Therefore I Am: The Self as a Biological Machine," a review of The Human Illnesses: Neuropsychiatric Disorders and the Nature of the Human Brain (Williamson & Allman, 2011)
  • "Neuropsychology and Cerebral Lateralization: A Long History and a Renewed Vigor," a review of The Two Halves of the Brain: Information Processing in the Cerebral Hemispheres (Hugdahl & Westerhausen, 2010)
  • "A Foundation for Theory Building in Neuroscience and Communication," a review of The Cognitive Neuroscience of Human Communication (Mildner, 2008)
  • "One Part Pitch, One Part Rhythm, Add Neurons and Shake," a review of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Levitin, 2006)
  • "A 21st-Century Compendium of Ideas in Educational Psychology," a review of Handbook of Educational Psychology (Alexander & Winne, 2006)
  • "Psy (Ψ) Phi (Φ)," a review of A System Architecture Approach to the Brain: From Neurons to Consciousness (Coward, 2005)

We owe thanks to many other individuals, people such as Alexis St. Martin, whose stomach wound aided the early study of digestion, and Henrietta Lacks, whose "immortal cell line" has contributed to scientific knowledge. From their tragedies, science and humanity have profited.

August 2011

The College of Hard Knocks

"Education was once regarded as the landscape for the American dream, the wildly optimistic and idealistic view that if only one tries hard enough, one can do and achieve anything." That quote is from a review by Luanna Meyer (2009), "Waking Up From the American Dream: Beyond Metaphors." How true is that thought now?

The class of 2015 is poised to stream into colleges and universities over the next few weeks. One certainty for this group in an uncertain world is that their college experience is going to cost them. It's going to cost them time and effort, and it is most certainly going to cost them in cold hard cash. CNN reports the average graduate's student loan debt in 2010 as $24,000 (and for some, of course, it's vastly higher). They also start their academic careers as the stock market careens crazily, in recent weeks frequently oscillating by several percentage points in a single day. And employment prospects for new graduates are among the worst they've been in years. In short, they are faced with near-certain uncertainty and for some the nagging question: is college even worth it?

A professor who wanted to put together course work on higher education, stress, and values could turn to PsycCRITIQUES to help create a syllabus of appropriate psychological literature. What are some of the sources he or she might find?

Mental Health Care in the College Community (Kay & Schwartz, 2010) is reviewed in Mental Health or Student Development: How to Balance the Two Needs? The authors document the increasing numbers of college students arriving on campus with symptoms of depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and suicidal behavior and examines the mental health issues that students face and how the campus community can respond. The book is written primarily from a medical and therapy view, and gives those perspectives very well, while also addressing to a lesser extent the services and experiences that could promote students' psychological well-being.

Some works focus on the needs of specific groups, among them women and minorities. One example, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (Wildavsky, 2010), was focused on the international student. Governments, corporations, and academics have partnered in higher education to create many of the innovations in the past century. Coming on the heels of the rise in distance learning and for-profit universities, globalization — or internationalization — is the new normal on campuses, both here and abroad, and this work is aimed at exploring that trend and the needs of those students.

Other works explore the purpose of an education in its own right rather than simply as a means to future (uncertain) employment. For example, The Institution of Intellectual Values: Realism and Idealism in Higher Education (Graham, 2006) addressed the purpose of the university in a series of lectures. Putting Students First: How Colleges Develop Students Purposefully (Braskamp, Trautvetter, & Ward, 2006) examined how to create a purposeful life for students both during and after college.

College needn't be for everyone, but when young people decide against higher education because the cost is too high or the dream of the better life it offers has dimmed, America pays the price.

April 2011

Brave New World

Though it's a truism, it is nonetheless true that there's a divide between those of us who came of age before the Internet was ubiquitous (so-called digital immigrants) and those of us who have never known a world without it (digital natives). Much of the research that has been done on the new breed of natives has focused on the negatives of this brave new world. [Be kind. It's a revolution, and few people can be objective about innovations that turn the known world upside down. Wait and see; you in the curl of today's technology wave will one day yourselves be strangers in a strange land of new technology. We can almost guarantee it.] As time passes, however, researchers are taking a closer look at how the wired world actually affects its denizens, and it turns out that there's much to like in the Internet-connected world.

A quick search in PsycCRITIQUES for reviews of literature on the topic using adolescent development and Internet leads to a number of interesting reads. Among them are two recent reviews that have examined the developmental role of the new media.

In "Understanding the Online Teen Media Scene," Jeanne Brockmyer reviewed Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development (Subrahmanyam & Šmahel, 2011). The authors noted the ongoing challenge of writing about a popular culture that changes so rapidly that a reference is already dated by the time it appears in print. But in contrast to much of the research that has preceded theirs, while not dismissing the potential hazards, they found many positive aspects of youth online media experience. Their book focused on three key developmental tasks of adolescence—sexuality, identity, and establishing intimate relationships—and used them to provide an organizing framework for the work.

In particular, the authors noted that by their very nature, digital environments are interactive and invite and even require users to play an integral role of adaptation and change. Because of this, rather than being socially isolating, the Internet can actually provide a way of enhancing communications and socialization. The review author summarized, "Given its potential for facilitating the completion of various developmental tasks, as well as providing opportunities for community and political awareness and engagement, the authors seem positive about the eventual outcome of online media experiences for most young people."

In the second review, "Born to Surf: The Online Social World of Today's Adolescents," authors Mesch and Talmud (2010) reviewed Wired Youth: The Social World of Adolescence in the Information Age. The statistics on Internet use are eye opening. More than 75% of the U.S. population were active Internet users in 2010, a number likely to go only up. The social networking site Facebook is now the fourth most popular website in this country, with visitors spending on average more than 6 hours each month. Clearly, this will have some impact on today's adolescents.

The authors summarized the known risks of Internet social networking, such as privacy concerns and cyberbullying. In particular, they look at the displacement hypothesis, which suggests that time spent on the Internet is at the cost of or instead of time spent with family and peers and in other activities, such as reading or sports. They found that research suggests that most of the risks have been overblown. They found more specifically that many activities, such as reading, have merely moved from print books and magazines to the Internet. And findings suggest that online relationships supplement rather than replace face-to-face interactions.

So who knows what marvelous creatures will appear in the next generation!

March 2011

Spring Forward

American anthropologist Loren Eiseley once wrote that "tomorrow lurks in us, the latency to be all that was not achieved before" and went on to note "I am not nearly so interested in what monkey man was derived from as I am in what kind of monkey he is to become." Whatever our past, our future is inextricably bound up with our continuing ability to shape-shift, to weave, to adapt, to innovate.

Creativity is a crucial variable to be considered by educators and other practitioners of applied psychology. Yet in this country, for the first time, children's creativity scores have begun falling (though note that the European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, holding conferences on the neuroscience of creativity, financing teacher training, and instituting problem-based learning programs).

Noted psychologist (and past APA president) Robert Sternberg is one of the better known voices on creativity research and its practical application in schools. Searching PsycCRITIQUES gives us the opportunity to not only find reviews of Sternberg's own work but also benefit from his own reviews of other scholars' work on creativity. Sternberg has authored almost 30 reviews in PsycCRITIQUES.

Focusing on the past few years and on creativity and intelligence, those reviews include the following:

  • In "Does It Take a Genius to Know a Genius?," Sternberg (2009) reviewed a text book, Genius 101, by Dean Keith Simonton (2009). Simonton used historical records to understand human thought and behavior and to predict future behavior, also using the method to understand creativity and even genius in its historical contexts, and to describe the circumstances that are more or less likely to produce future geniuses.
  • "Whatever Goes Up Must Go Down​—​Except Intelligence" (2008), a review of Beyond the Flynn Effect by James Flynn, is a nuanced analysis of a book that Sternberg described as "one of the best books I've read on intelligence—ever." Sternberg directed the readers' attention to the way the author resolves IQ paradoxes and the author's sense of humility and appreciation of wisdom as adjunct to intelligence and calls it "must reading" for anyone in the field. However, he also carefully detailed the omissions and outright failures of scholarship that are flaws.
  • In "Five Minds for the Future, or Maybe Six, or Four…Oh, Never Mind!" (2007), Sternberg reviewed Five Minds for the Future (Gardner), a book that describes five kinds of minds that Gardner believes people will need to cope with the world as it soon will be: Disciplinary, synthesizing, creating, respectful, and ethical. The creating mind is able to ask new questions, find new approaches to answering existing questions, and see new ways of solving the problems that these questions pose. Though finding much to like in the author's synthesis and style, the review suggests a number of problems with the book, including lack of empirical evidence that Sternberg believes should be weighed carefully.

A great attribute of Sternberg's reviews is, well, Sternberg. He knows his field as few do and writes passionately about what he believes. You are likely to leave one of his reviews with a great deal to think about.

February 2011

The Evil That Men Do

How many of these names do you recognize? Charles Whitman, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho, Malik Nadal Hasan. These are a few of the young men who have entered the lists of history by shooting a group of people for the high crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To their number we now add Jared Loughner. In January 2011 he shot Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 of her constituents, killing 6, in a Safeway parking lot. To that point in his life, the 22-year-old Jared seems to have been a 21st century nonentity: a high school dropout, a stoner, dumped by his girlfriend, fired from his job, even let go from volunteer dog-walking.

Like most of the others we know of who have been accused of this kind of crime, he didn't seem like an evil person so much as a lost one. One of the topics researchers return to again and again, is how do we explain the behavior of seemingly normal people when they do the incomprehensible? PsycCRITIQUES helps provide if not answers, at least some attempts at explanations of violence of this magnitude.

Searching the PsycCRITIQUES review database with keywords "homicide" or "violent crime" and "motivations", we find a number of resources, among them the following:

  • In "The Journey to Hell," Marilyn Metzl reviewed Dire Emotions and Lethal Behaviours: Eclipse of the Life Instinct (Stewart, 2008). The book examined the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which Harris and Klebold entered their school and shot and killed 13 people, wounded 23 others, and then shot and killed themselves. According to the author, given certain circumstances, lethal behaviors can happen any time and anywhere. Placing the blame primarily on social isolation, dissociation of the personality, and unbearable emotions, he also suggested that much of the tragedy is caused by people who are not able to access the positive aspects of the life instinct and suggested how treatment and education can help avert such outcomes.
  • "Fear No Evil: Cataloging Multiple Murder" (Canter) is a review of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder (Fox & Levin, 2005). These authors have constructed a five-fold motivational model: power, revenge, loyalty, profit, and terror. Perhaps the most useful component of the book, in the reviewer's opinion, is that the book provides an entrée for fruitful discussion of how people develop a personal narrative for themselves that allows them to act totally outside of societal norms.
  • In "Homicide: The Meaning of Violent Death," Pestello reviewed two works, To Kill Again: The Motivation and Development of Serial Murder (Sears, 1991) and Homicide: Causative Factors and Roots (Yarvis, 1991) that arose in part from the country's horror over the Jeffrey Dahmer murders. Each book tried to develop its own theory of what drives a person to commit a murder with no definable motive, with Sears developing a profile and theoretical explanation based on the theory of catathymic crisis and Yarvis developing a general theory of homicide by identifying causal factors. Both suggest, as a starting point, taking better care of our children.

Jared Loughner is no Lucifer. He is a sad and inconspicuous young man who got hold of a gun.

January 2011

I Can't Take This

In the Washington, DC metro area, where APA is located, there's a television commercial that has repeated every January for the past several years. A parrot in an empty room is talking to itself: "I can't take this. I can't take this. Not another day." Sure enough, the outer door opens and a man walks through, posture defeated, saying those same words, obviously a litany of sorts for him.

In the commercial, it's a prelude to announcing the biggest jobs issue of the year in our local newspaper. It's also, unfortunately, a funny but apt representation of how many Americans feel about their jobs. One part of the problem is stress.

APA conducted a 2007 national opinion poll on stress levels at work in which two-thirds of both men and women said work has a significant impact on their stress level. Compounding matters, we are in a recession, and no matter how stressed they are and how much they'd like to make a move, many people feel trapped in their job.

How do you feel about your workplace? As individuals, subscribers to PsycCRITIQUES fall into all sorts of categories. They include students, faculty, practitioners, librarians, and early career professionals. Although uses of the database are as myriad as the users, all users can take advantage of the practical resources it provides to explore problems that directly affect our own lives.

For example, just to look at one category of users, if you are a manager—as most of us probably are at some point in our working lives—there are literally dozens of resources that can help you function more successfully in your job. Look for reviews of books that can help you engage your employees.

A few recent examples have included the following:

  • The Undreaded Job: Learning to Thrive in a Less-Than-Perfect Workplace (Brislin, 2010), reviewed by Karl Kelley. The book drew from experts in the field of positive psychology and provides both general theory and specific examples for managers and organizational leaders showing how they can help in creating a healthy and productive work environment, even in a workplace struggling with uncertainty and organizational change.
  • From Teams to Knots: Activity-Theoretical Studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work (Engeström, 2009) is another useful work. Reviewed by Mike Bonner, the book summarizes research conducted over 10 years in Finland and the United States on how teams organize, collaborate, and contribute to workplace learning.
  • Leadership at a Distance: Research in Technologically Supported Work (Weisband, 2008) is a resource for the distance manager. Changing times bring changing problems and opportunities, and among the relatively new conditions many workers and managers today face is that they often don't share the same geographical space. Most research and programs for managers, however, still assumes face-to-face interaction. Weisband has brought together contributors from psychology, organizational behavior, information systems, cognitive science, and management to address the unique challenges of a distance environment.