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The Dao of NeuroscienceReview - The Dao of Neuroscience
Combining Eastern and Western Principles for Optimal Therapeutic Change
by C. Alexander Simpkins and Annellen M. Simpkins
W. W. Norton, 2009
Review by Anthony R. Dickinson, Ph.D.
Sep 7th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 36)

In an attempt to bridge (if not combine) the relative traditions of Eastern and Western philosophical thinking in order to forge a fuller understanding of, and prepare a better focus for, practitioners of psychotherapy, this volume offers one of the best of its kind. Perhaps doing for psychotherapy and applied neuroscience, what Zukov's (1979) The Dancing Wu Li Master's or Kapra's (1975) The Tao of physics did for the physical sciences, Simpkins and Simpkins also live up to their own claim for their book in providing a useful understanding of the neurological basis of many clinical and pre-clinical presentations of common psychopathology. Presented in two parts, the first outlines several paradigms of modern neuroscience (especially well in their introducing relevant examples of brain damaged patients, the biological 'nuts and bolts' of the brain and functioning nervous system, and issues concerned with neural plasticity. Part two is more concerned with the use of such knowledge in informing practical psychotherapeutic transformation, and the practical enhancement/enrichment of individual presenting clients' mental health, social skills and critical thinking.

Across its 13 chapters, the reader is lead from the philosophical to the biological, and towards practical understandings/resolutions of a variety of clinical out-patient conditions for which psychodynamic therapy and counseling might be sought, some chapters including a series of simple, practical, but effective, psychotherapeutic exercises. As with my criticism(s) of Penrose' The Emperor's New Mind, the current reviewer remains to be convinced concerning the authors' broader claim to have produced 'new ways of thinking [in order] to resolve important questions about brain and mind, and how best to facilitate their unity'. Such a quest requires many assumptions with regards the very problem at heart here, and when we read quite early on in their text that, for example, "... absolutely empty of all thought, we will perceive directly..", or shortly afterwards, that "nothing exists outside the mind", such conclusions beg the very philosophical questions one is perhaps seeking to answer, whilst also inviting the reader to imagine what are essentially tautological, if not oversimplified or linguistically contorted vistas with which to embark upon our adventures with these authors in their introductory chapter.

In exploring the mind-brain relationship and 'Brain-Mind Systems' in the five chapters of Part 1, the Simpkins' deal with dualism, eliminative materialism, and functionalism very well, but all the time require the reader to necessarily assume the dualistic nature of the mind-brain hypothesis when outlining the need for their book to explain how '... it is essential to know how each affects the other', the very question otherwise remaining intractable for investigation. Again, although linguistic anthropomorphisms may confuse rather than enlighten at times (e.g., neurotransmitters do not really 'carry electrical impulses across synapses', nor are negatively charged voltage polarities 'negative responses' as such, relative to common parlance), but the primers concerned with the significance of modern neuroimaging technologies such as PET, fMRI, MEG and TMS are really rather well presented. But perhaps the authors' best link to psychotherapeutics comes in the section concerned with evolving stochastic systems, wherein they state that 'History [by which this reviewer intends them to be referring to the ontological history of the individual patient, as with his/her individual propensity for continuous neural plasticity], is not a determiner of where you are going, only of where you are now. Where you go from here, your future, is an open field of choice.'

The eight chapters of Part 2 comprising the core sections concerned with treatment and therapeutic application of the Dao of Neuroscience, are written from the perspective of developing a better understanding of the etiology (rather than symptomology) of clinically psychological disorder presentations. This is a laudable approach to the current reviewer's mind, and presented with respect to the detection of [certain ?] 'brain-mind patterns of body, behavior and situation'. In general, the authors view psychological disorders as homeostatic irregularities, but it may be unclear to the neuroscience cognicenti what exactly is to be meant by the oft repeated phrase suggesting that 'different brain areas become activated and/or deactivated' as a result/cause of such imbalances in homeostasis with respect to each/any of the particular symptomolgies discussed in the various chapters. It is certainly difficult (and not a failing of the current authors by any means), to use therapeutic language level to make any clear mapping onto the synaptic levels of understanding brain function as previously discussed in the earlier chapters concerned with neuroanatomy and physiology. For example, an opportunity is certainly missed here for the authors' to describe the neural basis of 'bad habits' (a non-optimal pattern of activity, p.246), the reviewer keen to learn from them how such a pattern of activity thereafter benefit from its specific rewiring of either its related short/long pathways, via plasticity, in order to change such 'habits'. However, useful and accurate appraisals are offered in the chapter concerned with providing a clearer rationale for a variety of standard cognitive behavior therapies (including the use of hypnosis and meditation, in 'balancing' either the shortcomings of the affective responses caused by an over-reliance upon the use of reflexive, rather than (executive) frontal lobe neural pathways (or the converse !), in maintaining a deliberate locus of personal control over one's situational disposition(s).

Whether one is interested in helping those with problems concerned more with stress, anxiety, assertiveness, phobias, memory, biological, social or psychosexual disorders, the Simpkins' recipes as provided in their various chapters' concluding exercises sections are well presented. Little novelty is to be found here for the reader familiar with the wider field of psychodynamics, but core staples and a variety of energy-raising (or lowering), body awareness exercises are outlined in simple, ready-to-use forms, together with useful variations and criteria for consideration of the individual therapist to use in their therapy session designs and application, with particular client presentations offered as example cases. Most of the key references to the original literature cited are provided in full for the readers indulgence and further exploration of detail at their leisure, with a clear index of terms and conditions for those wishing to use the book as a reference guide alone. Whether really addressing the core philosophical issues of mind-brain, it will be for each reader to determine,... but this is definitely a must-have volume for any psychotherapist's bookshelf, especially for those requiring a quick and accurate reference to the neurobiological basis of common psychological disorders relevant to providing a clearer rationale for psychotherapeutic practice.


© 2010 Tony Dickinson


Dr. Tony Dickinson.  Visiting Professor, Laboratory of Visual Perception Mechanisms, Institute of Neuroscience (Chinese Academy of Sciences), Shanghai.


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