“Scientists Making A Difference” – Book Review
“Wow“. An academic, reverence-, gratitude- and newly-replenished-inspiration-filled “Wow”. This is what best describes my overall, unmediated reaction after reading “Scientists Making A Difference” – a great new book published in August by Cambridge University Press that I was lucky enough to be invited to review and thus be able to witness the early moments in the development of what I believe will become a central material in the education and professional training of future generations of psychological science professionals.
“Scientists Making A Difference” is a collection of 100 autobiographical essays authored by the most relevant figures of modern psychology. Top scholars who helped shape the behavioral and brain sciences – at both theoretical and research level – address their most important contribution and the processes that lead to the creation of their most cited works.
The simple presentation of all of these amazing discoveries that changed the way we understand human cognition, emotions, social interaction and psychopathology would’ve made for a great book subject in itself, but what differentiates “Scientists Making A Difference” from an average textbook-like material is that it allows readers to enter a never-before-seen world, the space where all the magic happened and still happens – where the environmental, historical and individual characteristics come together and generate significant puzzle pieces that help us make sense of and better adapt to the world we live in.
And because the ways in which these wonderful men and women contributed to a higher and broader understanding of human mind and its dynamic are so numerous, for the purpose of this book (both relevance and structure wise), the editors proposed that the content of each chapter would address just these five points: what do the contributors consider to be their most important contribution, why they consider it to be their most important contribution, how did they get the idea, how does it matter for the world beyond academic psychology and what they would like to see as next steps in both theoretical and research work involving their lifetime object of study.
Contributors invited to write chapters in this book have been selected based on rankings that considered “criteria such as number of major awards, total number of citations, and pages of textbooks devoted to the scholar’s work” (R. Sternberg, in Preface). The final list of contributors is a who’s who of modern psychological science and includes remarkable names such as Michael Gazzaniga, Richard Shiffrin, Walter Schneider, Richard Atkinson, Alan Baddeley, Gordon Bower, James McClelland, Daniel Schachter, Endel Tulving, Howard Gardner, Daniel Kahneman, Walter Kintsch, Albert Bandura, Nancy Eisenberg, Richard Nisbett, Teresa Amabile, Roy Baumeister, Ed Diener, Steven Pinker, Ian Gotlib, Martin Seligman, James Prochaska and Morris Moscovitch (who, I am proud to say, was born in Bucharest, Romania). You can find the complete list of contributors here.
And, to this already impressive list, add the Editors – Robert J. Sternberg, Susan T. Fiske and Donald J. Foss – they themselves A-listers in the field of psychological science.
The book is divided into eight parts, six of which can be seen as a gradual Introduction in Psychology material, covering large topics such as Biological Bases of Psychology, Cognition, Cognitive and Social/Personality Development, Motivation and Emotion, Social and Personality Processes and Clinical and Health Psychology. The other two parts are the Introduction and Conclusion, written by R. Sternberg, both with great analysis value regarding the concept of “eminence” in psychological science. The Foreword is written by Peter Salovey and the Afterword by Nancy Cantor.
In my opinion, “Scientists Making A Difference” is a great contribution to science in itself. It’s a great starting point for anyone interested in becoming a psychological scientist, a wonderful resource for active scientists in a variety of branches of behavior and brain sciences and a loyal motivation provider and supporter for anyone who may find themselves struggling on their way to professional success.
I think this book couldn’t have found its way to me at a more appropriate time, considering that when I was invited to review “Scientists Making A Difference” I found myself at a point in which I felt I had to actively (re)connect to the updated bigger picture of psychology and neuroscience. And what better way to do that than with the help of many of the figures that were familiar to me from my college years, but through a new, more personal approach, putting the experience and processes of discovery in the foreground, rather than just trying to understand and assimilate the actual result of that discovery – something that may rather characterize first years of study.
It’s a more in depth understanding of the field, and although I believe this behind-the-scenes perspective will be better appreciated by active professionals, undergraduates can find in this material a great companion for the introductory courses in psychology, just like R. Sternberg suggests in the first pages of the book.
Although the intended audience for this book is represented by undergraduate and graduate students in psychology (primary) and active behavioral and brain scientists (secondary), I believe that the book may present interest to anyone with a taste for science, functioning of the human mind and the ways in which they find their expression in our everyday lives, at both an individual and interpersonal level.
Some chapters are more technical than others, but most of them are written at undergraduate level so that the book is a great choice for a wide audience of readers.
Psychology scholars or not, I believe anyone with an active, science-oriented curiosity will find “Scientists Making A Difference” a wonderful read, for it allows all of us to connect to our true nature – as mysterious, paradoxical, unpredictable and limited as it may appear at first or even prove to be at a closer research-driven look.
Many of us are looking for answers about this nature of ours, and while only some may have the inspiration to ask the right questions and therefore create the context in which they are guided toward an answer, the others can help the overall development of humanity through spreading the information, using it, or even through a little an action such as being open to learn and be educated and have the courage to step in the direction suggested by these new findings.
If Aristotle and Gestaltists are right, and “the whole is other/greater than the sum of its parts”, “Scientists Making A Difference” should prove itself to be more than an informational book. I believe it will prove itself to be a transformational book – for both the young scientists reading it and the average reader in search for meaning and answers.
“Scientists Making A Difference” appeals to more than cognition, it appeals to cognition, emotion and the social brain. You learn about the human mind and also get to live 100 scientifically-driven lives while reading the chapters of this book. You learn about the importance of curiosity, collaboration, fair-play and sense of community in the scientific world. You also get to learn about personal and professional obstacles and the courageous and creative ways in which these eminent scientists overcame them. I remember my heart pounding while reading about many of the scientific breakthroughs presented in this book, like I was reading an action novel or watching a movie. I also remember the emotions triggered by the chapter written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and how I thought to myself that compared to his life story, I know nothing (or in fact, little) about professional and personal obstacles, no matter how serious I may have considered them at specific moments in time. It’s stories about the deepest lows and highest peaks that have the power to shape other lives and transform personal and professional journeys. And when personal effort, dedication and motivation can be identified as making the difference and secure the belief that one’s determination and actions significantly change one’s complex life story, it’s time to globally reconsider the level and type of engagement one has in one’s own life and how this engagement helps (or not) create the kind of life story that we desire for ourselves.
This is why I think “Scientists Making A Difference” and similar books have an increased transfomational potential. Now it depends on readers to be open to this kind of lessons. Like any other personal development tool, this book will be to you what you want and let it to be. But I think the potential is there.
Maybe this is why I enjoyed so much reading this book. It’s multi-leveled, multi-dimensional and multi-purpose. It also hides multiple little gems in the form of personal growth techniques that can be applied by interested readers – like R. Nisbett’s technique of making your unconscious mind work for you and your specific goals.
Because “Scientists Making A Difference” is a gift that keeps on giving, I don’t recommend reading it like I did, from start to end as main reading interest, with no significant pauses to let information settle and maybe insert new readings suggested by the chapters in the book. Unless you want a quick overall image on modern psychology (that was one of my purposes and I also had to read it entirely to be able to write this review), I recommend you read it like R. Sternberg suggested (i.e. while studying introductory materials in psychology and brain sciences) and maybe add the information to the specific segments of knowledge, branch it out with extra readings mentioned or suggested by these main books or courses and leave time to make your own notes, write down your own questions and ideas and maybe do your own investigations and research work.
The book is thick and the material is dense. Pace yourself in order to enjoy it fully.
If you’re a heavy reader and/or researcher, ignore what I just said.
One thing that may influence the smoothness of the reading time is the fact that although most chapters use a fully personal tone and make the book seem like “spending an afternoon chatting with some of psychology’s most prominent scholars” (Diane Halpern – Advance Praise Section), there are a few that maintain a rather technical formulation and resemble the scientific papers themselves than an account about them. Although I do understand the style difference between the writers – highly expected, especially with 100 contributors – I think those chapters could’ve been edited to fit the overall feel of the book. Interesting, but disrupting. I’d rather read the scientific papers.
I am also not a fan of the book cover. I know, trivial criterion, but it seems too “pop” for my taste in scientifically relevant books. A bias of mine? Yes. I fancy it may be shared by others though, resulting in not that many people looking twice at the title or fully understand its significance, especially if they are not familiar with the names of the Editors, who appear on the front cover. I’ve read an electronic copy, so I cannot say how the actual paperback or hardcover versions present themselves to potential readers, but the first cover is what most online shoppers get to see first. I just hope there will be a different edition of the book with a different cover at some point. Sure, the title, subtitle and publisher provide more information that can lead people to checking out the content, but I am not sure how many will get to this step without a recommendation regarding the book.
So here I am, recommending the book to you now. Read “Scientists Making A Difference” for I think it has the power to help you better understand the human nature and its expression in yourself and others. I think it can also help you become a better scientist.
“Scientists Making A Difference” provides Information, Guidance and Motivation, all rolled into 500 pages written by 100 eminent psychological scientists that helped found modern psychology, which is now our scientific home. (Imagine “You Are Here” Sign on a psychology historical timeline. Thanks.)
Watch the “Scientists Making a Difference” Book Trailer below.
Photo Source: Copyright (C) Cambridge University Press. Used with permission.