In this column, Goldsmiths’ Department of Psychology staff and students review books that they have read, under the theme of mind and behaviour. If you would like to offer a review, or suggest a title to us, please get in touch.
23rd March, 2016
Kovas, Y., Sergey M., & Darya G., (2016) (Eds). Behavioural Genetics for Education. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Reviewed by Robert Chapman
It is now more than 12 years since the Human Genome Project announced the completion of its goal: to sequence the entire human genome. Expectations were high that disease and misfortune would easily be tackled or even eradicated with this essential new piece of knowledge about ourselves.
What has been found though is that genes are extremely complex and their interactions with each other and the environment even more so. Discoveries therefore have been much slower than anticipated; especially in the field of behavioural genetics, a branch of psychology that considers how genes and environments interact to make us who we are. The field is complex, with many advanced statistical and modelling methods used, and this book, co-edited by Goldsmiths’ Psychology Department’s Dr. Yulia Kovas does an excellent job of detangling that information in an accessible way.
Although the focus of this book is on education (e.g. the behavioural genetics of reading and maths), topics covered include parenting and peer relationships, sleep, (this chapter author is Goldsmiths’ Psychology Department’s Professor Alice Gregory), self-esteem and wellbeing. This seemingly eclectic mix represents the wide ranging approach of the editors, acknowledging that any number of complex traits are relevant to education.
This also makes the book of use to a broad readership who are interested in learning more about genetically sensitive studies in a wide variety of psychological disciplines. In particular, the opening and concluding chapters provide an accessible introduction to the topic, and the glossary is a very useful reference point. By the nature of their topics, some chapters are more complex than others, but all are readable and provide the most cutting edge research.
As we learn more about genes, environments and their interactions, the study of behavioural genetics is becoming ever more relevant to all branches of psychology and education. Another valuable addition to Goldsmiths Library.
11th March, 2016
Witt, Stephen (2015). How music got free: The end of an industry, the turn of the century, and the patient zero of piracy. New York: Viking.
Reviewed by Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen
This is not a psychology book, so feel free to stop reading now. However, the much overlooked field of psychoacoustics plays a key role in this in the brilliantly written story that journalist Stephen Witt tells across almost 300 pages. The main reason I read this book literally from front to back is that the story reflects the history of my professional life over the last 15 years. I worked in the music industry from 1999 to 2006 with my main job being in a subsidiary company of the German IFPI, the federation of recording companies and my job involved the technical distribution and marketing of music on the internet.
Stephen Witt’s story has three main characters. First there is the German audio researcher and engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, the father of the mp3 audio compression format. Then there is Doug Morris, who was the CEO of Universal Music the largest music company in the world during the period that stretched from the peak point of CD sales at the end of the 90s to the existential crisis of the entire music industry ten years laters. And then there is Dell Glover a worker in one of Universal’s CD manufacturing plants in the US who was responsible for leaking thousands of CDs, many of them way before their actual release date to the internet via encoding the music to the much more manageable mp3 format that became almost synonymous with music piracy.
The story goes something like this: Brandenburg is a scientific genius who absorbed long and boring books reporting decades of empirical research in psychoacoustics and he took very seriously what he read there (he was certainly not your average psychology student). Data and models published by Eberhard Zwicker
and colleagues had shown that loud events in an audio stream can mask other events in close temporal or spectral proximity, (i.e. you just can’t hear what is happening immediately after (or even before) a loud cymbal crash). Hence, Brandenburg concluded that there is a lot of auditory information encoded on a CD that humans simply can’t hear. These psychoacoustical findings together with a range of very clever computer engineering then gave rise to the development of the mp3 format in the late 80s and early 90s (actually, it was a lot harder than this sounds now and several geniuses worked on mp3 almost for a decade and with a budget in the millions).
The tool that was really needed to move files around, when the internet in the 1990s and file transfer across the net was still very slow, was mp3. Witt describes the birth of a scene of people back in those days who loved both music and technology and who were very excited by the possibility to gain access to almost all existing entertainment media. The members of this scene ripped CDs, shared them in their scene network and from there the music often went further into more public file sharing sites, like Napster. Dell Glover had a special position in this scene because he was able to smuggle CDs out of one of Universal’s most productive pressing plants and leaked them on the internet before they even had hit the shops. Witt describes Glover as one of the most prolific music pirates of all times. The scene did not have a business model and their members did not get rich leaking mp3s on the internet. But by making music available on the internet for free they caused huge and measurable damage to the recording industry, ending the era of buying music on storage media that began with Edison’s invention of the phonograph. All this was happening because a German engineer took psychoacoustics seriously (though this is probably not the kind of impact outside academia that HEFCE
is requesting from scientific projects these days) and because the music industry as personified by Universal CEO Doug Morris was not able to understand what mp3 and the internet meant for their business.
An additional motive that Witt ascribes to almost all his characters is personal greed: Doug Morris had a contract with Universal that made him the best earning music manager of all times and this contract did not change a single bit even after the mp3 and the file sharing revolution was in full swing and revenues of his company were nose diving. Morris simply did not have any personal incentive to engage with the new technologies or change anything, he was getting paid millions each year anyway.
In contrast, Dell Glover did not make any money from leaking and sharing music on the internet but his very privileged status in the file sharing scene enabled him to setup a side business of producing and selling movie DVDs that he had downloaded from the internet. With the flowing revenues of this side business Glover was able to satisfy his personal greed in the form of oversized cars and other status indicators.
And Brandenburg? Well, despite publicly condemning internet piracy he is portrayed as the real beneficiary of all of this. The music industry was making huge losses trying to sell music while it was freely available as mp3s on the internet at the same time. But Brandenburg and Fraunhofer, the German research institution Brandenburg has been working for, made a fortune in licensing the mp3 format to companies producing mp3 software or portable mp3 players. This could only work because people had vast amounts of music already encoded in mp3 on their computers and a large proportion of these vast amounts had not been paid for.
My personal take on the whole story? It was probably a wise decision to leave the music industry in 2006 and turn my interests more to psychoacoustics.
7th March, 2016
Burnett, D. (2016). The Idiot Brain: A neuroscientist explains what your head is really up to. London: Faber and Faber.
Reviewed by Dr. Siân Jones
“Different areas of the brain synchronize …activity, resulting in …’brainwaves. If other people’s brains start synchronizing too, this is called a ‘Mexican brainwave’. p. 21
‘This book is dedicated to every human with a brain’. So begins Dean Burnett’s first (but hopefully not last) tome. His aim was to explain in as simple language as possible, what neuroscientists about the workings of the human brain. Through everyday examples of brains on life, research findings, and light humour to check that the reader is still paying attention (Mexican brainwaves don’t exist quite yet), this objective is realized.
Chapters cover the usual suspects in neuroscience; brain-body regulation (‘mind controls’), memory (‘the gift of memory: keep the receipt’) fear (‘nothing to be scared of’), intelligence (‘think you’re clever do you?’), perception (‘did you see this chapter coming?’), personality (‘a testing subject’) social neuroscience (‘group hug’) and mental health (‘when the brain breaks down’). Something quite extraordinary has been achieved, throughout the text, (and not just towards the end, as Burnett notes, research would have us expect, with deadlines approaching): humour and clarity resound. This book is both entertaining and informative. For those not quite sure how modern research and technology could help explore the apparent mysteries of the mind, this has the answer. The neuroscience is explained, along with the reasons why studying it is crucial.
Would I recommend that you read it? Yes, with an academic health warning. It is a brilliant and witty exposition of the workings of the human brain, so far as neuroscience is able to help us understand them. If you are struggling to get to grips with any of the concepts it covers, I’d certainly urge you to pick it up. I’d also recommend it for those not studying neuroscience ( and / or those who have relatives and friends that do) for its accessibility and for sheer entertainment value. However, standing alone, it is unlikely to be the stuff of essay material. Dean Burnett has carefully referenced all of the claims made about the human brain. But – this research will date quickly. So one could use this text, and then its reference list to get at the most up-to-date research findings, and at a broader perspective on the human brain. A broader perspective? It is worth noting that Dean Burnett, by his own admission, (and indeed the book’s title) does not go beyond neuroscientific explanations for what our brains are up to. The interplay with our social milieu (for example, an exploration of the societal factors involved in behaviour) are missing. And, although he makes extensive reference to the ontology of the human brain, its evolution, there is very little consideration, of how, in the modern world, our brain develops through our lifespan. As a developmentalist, I would have love to have seen more of this.
So – this book is part of the story of our human brain. It asks interesting questions, and provides clear and scholarly answers in an accessible way, whilst acknowledging the niche level of explanation. It also highlights the frontiers of neuroscience; the questions we can’t answer, and those it would be good to explore next. I look forward to the sequel.
26th February, 2016
Beaujean, A.A. (2014). Latent Variable Modeling Using R. Hove: Routledge.
Reviewed by Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen
Goldsmiths Library Reference: 519.5 BEA
This is one of the many stats books I’ve been ordering for the Goldsmiths Library lately (and, boy, I really love ordering new stats books for the library!). Just beware, there are more review of advanced stats books to come over future weeks….
What is Latent Variable Modelling? What is R?
This one is an introduction to latent variable modelling and makes use of the R package lavaan which stands for LAtent VAriable ANalysis. In case you haven’t heard of it yet, R is a software environment / language / program that is free and open source and offers thousands of packages for all the different types of statistical analysis that anyone could ever think of. The only downside of R over other software programs that psychologists commonly use, is that you can’t get your analysis done by clicking and pointing on a graphical user interface like you would do with SPSS for example. Instead, in R you need to type commands to get anything done, and of course it takes a little while to learn those commands and understand what they are doing. But once you get over this initial hurdle the reward is that the complete world of contemporary statistical analysis procedures is open and free to you and you’ll never have to face that shock again when your software license runs out at the end of July and you haven’t finished your project yet.
Anyway, in R there are several packages for latent variable analysis (or structural equation modelling which is another name for it), but lavaan seems to be the most popular one at the moment. This is probably because it is quite flexible in terms of what kind of data you can analyse with it but much less complicated to use than an alternative package, openMX which is ultra-flexible regarding analysis options and favoured by, for example, the behavioural genetics community but also has a very steep learning curve, even after you think you’ve mastered R.
To be honest, Beaujean’s book isn’t a psychology book per se but latent variable models are of truly high importance to psychologists. Why is this? Because almost by definition, most questions that psychologists are interested in, involve things we can’t really observe directly with our senses. I’m referring to thinks like intelligence (see below) autism, personality traits, musicality, cognitive deficits, happiness ….. But, even though you can’t observe intelligence or autism directly you might be able to infer from their behaviour whether someone is autistic or not or whether they’re high or low on intelligence. If you are really clever, and dedicated to the question, you might even develop a test or a diagnostic battery which helps you gather observations and data to make inference about the latent construct (intelligence, autism ….) that you are actually interested in. And these are the latent variables that latent variable analysis is all about. So, if we were honest we would have to acknowledge that most models in psychology are actually latent variable models.
Broadly speaking, Beaujean’s book serves two purposes: First of all, it introduces the main concepts and variants of latent variable analysis (including path analysis, factor analysis, structural equation modelling, latent growth curves, item response models, hierarchical latent models) that you are most likely want to use at some point if you are a working in psychology or educational research. But secondly, after introducing each type of model in very concise terms, Beaujean also shows you how to perform the corresponding statistical analysis using the commands from the lavaan package.
The amazing thing about the book is how clearly it is written both in terms of explaining advanced statistics and in terms of teaching you how to run those analyses yourself. This clarity in writing and its educational mission to really empower the reader to construct their own latent variable models, distinguishes the book from other excellent textbooks on structural equation or latent variable models that either use a lot of maths or don’t cover the breadth of latent variable models that Beaujean is able to present within the 150 pages of this book. Actually, 150 pages is not quite true because the book also contains an extremely useful appendix of about 50 pages that discusses all the corey issues of things like different model fit indices and a glossary that would have cluttered the main text. The appendix also has the answers to the thought-through exercises that Beaujean gives at the end of each chapter. If you’ve got the time to run through at least some of these then you can learn quite a lot about latent variable modelling – try it out!
19th February, 2016
Ritchie,S. (2015). Intelligence: All that matters. London: John Murray Learning.
Reviewed by Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen
Goldsmiths Library Catalogue: 153 RIT
Surely, being a full-time academic in a psychology department I shouldn’t be reading a teeny-tiny book on intelligence like this 115-page introduction. Instead you would think that I was equipped to take on one of the many massive and excellent textbooks that are out there on the topic. But I’ve discovered that reading short books can generate a different kind of satisfaction (you can pat yourself on the back if you finish it within a week!) that thick books can hardly provide, especially if the short one is as well-written and entertaining as this little book by Stuart Ritchie.
What I was hoping to get out of it when I ordered the book for Goldsmiths Library was a quick overview of the current state of the debate on some of the thorny issues that surround the psychological construct of intelligence and questions of how to test for it. For example, how strong is the evidence for the general intelligence factor (‘very strong’), how heritable is intelligence (‘about 50% heritability’), what does the genetic basis of intelligence look like (‘it is polygenic, i.e. at least several hundreds of genes can contribute it’), what are the brain correlates of intelligence (‘strong connections between frontal and parietal parts of the brain’), is there any effective training to increase your intelligence (‘for a while it looked like working memory training with n-back tasks would make you generally smarter but the initial findings don’t seem to replicate well’) or how many different tests does a comprehensive test battery need to include (not really answered). Of course you could get these answers from individual research or review papers or indeed form the big textbooks but you would have to wade through a lot of pages to find these answers. Naturally, there is a danger that a very short book leaves out a lot of the complexity and controversy of the actual scientific discourse and over-simplifies matters, just to make a neat story fit into 115 pages.
But Stuart Ritchie does not make this mistake. I think this is one of the greatest strengths of this short book: that it provides answers to all those interesting questions around intelligence based on the scientific evidence currently available, but at the same time he also tells the reader how certain or shaky the current evidence is – whether we are talking about results that have been replicated dozens of times (e.g. brain volume correlates with intelligence positively but the correlation is very small) or whether evidence is only building up currently or could be confounded by other factors (e.g. potential positive link between breast-feeding and intelligence).
Obviously, given the size of the book, Ritchie had to compromise somehow and he does so by not even attempting to give exhaustive views on any of the questions. Instead he uses the results of only one or two studies to demonstrate research findings in an exemplary way. Therefore, many of the chapters read like cliff-hangers where you really want to know the full story now. But that is good and probably the best effect that Ritchie could have hoped to achieve.
In this respect the final section of the book ‘100 idea to help you explore intelligence more’ is truly effective. The section doesn’t just contain lists of important papers, textbooks and living as well as dead intelligence researchers, but also gives links to a list of very active research websites as well as for example fictional characters known for high v. low intelligence (e.g. ‘Marvin the robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy v. ‘Homer Simpson’). Finally, the list that took me completely, was the ’surprising things that correlate with higher intelligence’ which lists facebook-liking of the 70s gangster drama The Godfather, where I felt very much vindicated for all these long hours in front of the screen. Now, who said intelligence research didn’t matter?