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Book Review of: Anxious

Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety

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Review of Anxious, by Joseph LeDoux (Hardcover, 2015)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


From the presale description, this book sounded like it was aimed at the educated lay person or, at most level of detail/difficulty, the clinician treating the lay person for anxiety. That is not at all the case.

And it's incorrectly described as "accessible." I read most books rather easily, regardless of the topic or how technical the book is. This book had me feeling lost and wondering what its point was. It was difficult to make it through page after page of dense, seemingly irrelevant text. It is one thing to explain a point, quite another to belabor it to death. LeDoux does not appear to understand the difference, going for the latter approach time and again.

In the Preface, LeDoux said he wanted to write a textbook but found that approach was too restrictive. He said he was taking another approach. My question is, "What happened to the book you were going to write using this other approach?" I have read hundreds of undergraduate and graduate textbooks on topics including biology, petrochemical engineering, accounting, electrical engineering, and law. So I know a textbook when I see one, and I also am no stranger to difficult subjects.

What LeDoux produced is clearly a textbook. It's not the "lay person" book he indicated in the Preface. And it's not even very good as a textbook. It's incredibly dense with detail, most of which is distracting, boring, and seemingly irrelevant. He didn't write with the goal of communicating the topic, but it does seem he wrote with the goal of documenting his research.

Among my readings have been several authoritative books on psychology (I am not talking about pop psychology) and a few on psychotherapy. Those were difficult for me to get through, as most of them were aimed at clinicians and I don't have the background to readily absorb that material. However, I think this book goes over the head of the typical clinician or therapist. I think it's aimed squarely at the researcher. I don't even see the value for the clinician or therapist, unless that person likes to take an occasional dip in the pool of research as a sideline hobby..

I'd like to say, "Hey, if you're a researcher you need to get this book!" But since I am not a psychology researcher and I don't attend conferences where researchers present their papers and I don't subscribe to the "PhD only" journals that these people probably read, I can't evaluate this book against comparable literature.

I'm also not sure this book hit on much of anything useful about treating anxiety. On that topic, I do have considerable background. My father had multiple anxious disorders, so early on in life I developed ways to cure my learned anxieties and not gain new ones. As I explained to a friend recently, when I say I feel anxiety about something, what I mean is there's a ripple in my pool of calm. It is, for me, anxiety. An analogy will make this point more clear. You can find a video of Ronnie Coleman doing deadlifts with 800 lbs. When Ronnie Coleman says he sometimes trains with light weights, he's still using weight that I could not lift even if I had help from a very strong friend. It's all relative.

My point is I know a thing or two about anxiety and am walking proof of that. The only technique of mine that I found in this book is controlled breathing, something I learned as an athlete (and it was really emphasized when I began my studies in the martial arts and I emphasized this to my students also). And LeDoux mentioned this only after the reader survived wading through nearly three hundred mind-numbing pages to get to that spot in the text.

So this book wasn't, "This is anxiety and here's what to do about it." If not for my ability to control anxiety, I would have been anxious to finish reading it just to be done going through that experience.

All of this is not to say LeDoux spewed forth some garbage book off the top of his head or from lab notes without any real effort. He obviously put a great deal of work into it, as evidenced by 40 pages of back notes and a bibliography that runs an astounding 91 pages. But then, this level of research also reinforces my point about how "beyond academic" this book is.

The 317 pages of main body text could have been reduced to about half that length by omitting so much mind-numbing detail and over-explanation. Mark Twain famously quipped, "Forgive me for the long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one." If LeDoux had followed Twain's principle here, he'd have had a much better book. Instead, he filled the pages with stuff nobody but research PhDs would care about. I felt like he was writing at me instead of to me.


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