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Review of "Thinking about Thinking"

By Philip E. McDowell
Routledge, 2015
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D. on Oct 20th 2015
Thinking about Thinking

Nowadays, the very foundations of the practice of mental health are being challenged.  Clinical scientists and consumers (i.e., clients and patients) alike demand reliable and valid evidence of effectiveness and utility.  Demands encompass a broad range of assessment tools and intervention practices, from well-established to less-known and novel.  Mental health professionals have responded to challenges with an array of diverse reactions, including approval, acquiescence, annoyance, and even outright dismissal.  The latter reactions tend to result from longstanding beliefs in the superior value of professional experience and in the alleged inability of the scientific method to capture the elusive essence of psychotherapy.  As a result, in the 21st century, a gap still exists between clinical practice and clinical science, two worlds of professionals who may share a common interest (i.e., understanding psychological disturbances to alleviate the pain of those affected), but who cannot easily communicate with each other. 

How can a compromise be found and the gap between clinical practice and clinical science be bridged?  Unique narratives that plainly illustrate the utility of scientific findings regarding the functioning of the human mind/brain to practitioners can be the beginning of a solution.  Of course, mental health professionals with active clinical practices may be the most suitable candidates for conveying the utility of such findings to other practitioners.  Thinking about thinking: Cognition, science, and psychotherapy, a book written by Philip E. McDowell, is one of these unique narratives.  In this text, the author, who is a practicing psychotherapist, gently leads readers to undertake a guided tour into the foundational knowledge of psychotherapeutic interventions (i.e., how does the human mind/brain work?).  At the start of the expedition, he recognizes that the existing gap between clinical practice and findings of behavioral and neurological research is counterproductive, and then artfully demonstrates that knowledge from psychological science (including clinical science) can be useful to mental health practice. 

Although McDowell admits that this gap is the motivation behind his book, his narrative is much more than an array of informative and rational reflections on the functioning of the human mind.  The book  is organized into seven chapters, each including the author's observations and interpretations of topics pertaining to human nature, from broad in scope (i.e., psychological knowledge and inquiry), to specific (i.e., the human brain, emotional experiences, thoughts, consciousness, and psychotherapy).  Each chapter offers an introduction to the basic concepts, theories, and phenomena of the selected topic, along with scientific evidence, experts' comments, and anecdotal references.  The latter are intended to provide exemplifications of constructs and phenomena discussed in the text.  The author's writing skills make it a surprisingly entertaining concoction, thereby creating the fabric that unifies ostensibly distinct phenomena and concepts. 

Undoubtedly, the text can be of interest to novices who seek an engaging introduction to psychology and its most notable application (i.e., psychotherapy), and to a more specialized readership who may be attracted by the opportunity of a quick knowledge update.  Of course, the key question is whether both types of readership can be entirely satisfied with the information that the book offers.  Indeed, although it is reasonable to expect novices to appreciate the author's clear and organized coverage of basic concepts and findings, the expert reader may not only be familiar with most materials, but also already possess his/her own framework through which to make sense of them.  Thus, for the latter readership, satisfaction depends on whether the author's perspective of scientific knowledge of the human mind/brain conveyed by theoretical models and research findings is sufficiently original to induce curiosity.  

Notwithstanding originality of content, important to note is that the author's writing mimics the popular magazine Scientific American mind in both form and content.  Yet, because of its length and wide coverage of topics, Thinking about thinking: Cognition, science, and psychotherapy resembles more a memoir of a practitioner who is recalling information collected from diverse scholarly sources and professional experiences, and then trying to make sense of it.  As such, the author's narrative offers to current mental health practitioners a useful template for integrating practical knowledge acquired from one's clinical practice and scientific knowledge learned from  scholarly literature, thereby making the latter meaningful in the context of the former.  The text may also offer a peaceful resolution to practitioners who may find the current emphasis of the mental health field on evidence-based practices as unfairly favoring clinical science over extended professional experience.  Of course, the interested reader must turn to more specialized publications if a thorough exploration of a specific topic, issue, or phenomenon is desired.  Yet, McDowell's writing is sure to take the reader on a voyage difficult to terminate once started! 


© 2015 Maura Pilotti


Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University