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Book Review - Oxford Guide to the Mind
Oxford Guide to the Mind
by Geoffrey Underwood (editor)
Oxford University Press, 2001
Review by John Lee, Ph.D.
Oct 16th 2001

In 1987, the Oxford University Press produced its excellent Oxford Companion to the Mind: a massive collection of short, new articles on many foundational topics to do with the mind, the brain, mental health and in general anything related to psychology, written by a who's-who of the most notable names in the field and edited by the luminous Richard Gregory. This book, though excellent and compendious, has the disadvantages of being very large, somewhat unwieldy and rather expensive. OUP have now addressed these problems by producing the Companion's little brother -- the Oxford Guide to the Mind. This Guide is in fact essentially a selection of some of the most central articles from the Companion. But it is more than just a selection. A new editor, Geoffrey Underwood, has abandoned the original alphabetical-by-title, encyclopedia-like arrangement of the articles, and collected them into thematic groups, each provided with an editorial introduction. The resulting chapters cover the issues of: the software of the mind; the hardware of the mind; brain, mind and consciousness; when minds are damaged; disturbed minds; and minds in action. Many favorite articles from the original Companion (such as Peter Nathan's tutorial on the nervous system, and Gregory's own discussion of visual illusions) are thus seen in the slightly new light provided by the surrounding thematic context. Although the book is much shorter than its senior sibling, the same small print and two-column format allow its 230 pages to contain a great deal more material than appears possible at first sight.

Underwood's added editorial material is very well conceived, and gives the book more of an explicit "agenda" than the original. Whereas the Companion was very much an encyclopedic reference work, the Guide is developed to read as if it were a continuous text. The focus is cast on the mind-brain relationship; the way the "hardware" of the brain supports the "software" of mental functioning. The agenda is to substantiate this materialist conception (which underlies all modern scientific psychology, and even more so developments such as cognitive science) and show how it illuminates and advances our understanding of the whole range of topics relating to the mind. Although this was also Gregory's agenda, the new approach clarifies the ways it relates to (and sometimes differs from) the main contributions. Underwood exposes the main concepts and provides down-to-earth signposts through the sometimes terse and abstract articles, in a way that should be very helpful to the general reader (e.g. "minds in action" is organized in relation to the skills required respectively in driving a car and in problem solving). There is also a much more obvious focus on the damaged and disturbed mind, with the editorial thrust being to try to tease out some of the questions about how psychological disorders relate to brain damage or other, e.g. genetically predisposed, deviations from normal brain functioning.

It appears that none of the articles has been edited or rewritten for the Guide, which could therefore be seen as already slightly out of date. Since, however, most of the material is more about fundamentals than cutting-edge research, this is not generally a problem. One notes a few gaps, e.g. that cognitive science is nowhere mentioned as such. Among the steps taken to make the material more compact and readable, the reference citations and bibliographies have been removed from the articles. This seems a questionable idea in itself -- surely even the general reader may value pointers to a wider literature ó and it has not been perfectly implemented, since in the text of a few articles citations remain, though there are nowhere proper references for the works mentioned.

These are quibbles, though. The book as a whole is an incredibly informative and very useful introduction for anyone interested in the central topics of psychology. Its thematic structure, focusing in-depth treatments of core issues in mental function and dysfunction, is most welcome. The intention has evidently been to create an accessible but thorough introduction to serious psychology for the general reader (as opposed to the academic student), and this seems a goal well met.

© 2001 John Lee

John Lee has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Cognitive Science from Edinburgh. He has worked for some time in areas connected with the cognition of human communication and language, including human-computer interaction and educational technology. He has also worked in the area of supporting creative work, especially computer-aided design. He is deputy director of the Human Communication Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and also runs the MSc programme in Design and Digital Media in the university's Architecture Department.

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001