1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 May 2015
Swaab, Dick. We Are Our Brains
This is not a difficult book, but it’s a long and deep one. Swaab’s heavily Darwinian take on the brain’s function will not appeal to advocates of Intelligent Design, Pro Lifers or those who expect another existence elsewhere. In other words, his method is strictly scientific and practical. It is a well-structured book, each aspect of the workings of the brain in our everyday lives is clearly laid out with abundant images of the inner world we depend on but never see. Many common afflictions are explained and illustrated in just sufficient detail for the so-called intelligent layman to grasp. Sometimes I confess to being baffled by the jargon, by the battery of unfamiliar terms such as his expananation of the remarkable 23 year old woman who depite being in a vegetative state for five months her brain was remarkably undamaged: ‘When asked to “visit” all the rooms in her house in her mind, activity was seen in the parts of the brain that control spatial orientation and locomotion: the para hippocampal gyrus (fig.26), the parietal cortex (fig.1) and the lateral premotor cortex (fig 22).’ If you are a really serious reader you’ll need to keep your thumb in several places at once.
That said, I found the book a revelation. The information is given in small bursts, always with apposite warnings, often with humour or reference to known public figures or the common stock of literature. Churchill’s ‘black dogs’ or Lewis Caroll’s fantasies, for example, all have ther roots in the brain, and, most importantly for Swaab, in the development of the pre-born child, the relationship in the womb of mother and child.
Thus, in effect, the book is strongly biological rather than environmental in emphasis. Our character and personality are, according to Swaab, determined long before birth, long before conception even, the genetic content of sperm and ovum has already laid down the goal posts of character; any environmental modifications are trivial in comparison. I found this something of a shock, but was gradually persuaded to accept it as fact. ‘What about Free Choice?’ ‘What about education?’ I wanted to ask. Apparently, when Swaab and Hofman published their findings on homosexual and heterosexual men it unleashed a storm of protest. One group of homosexual men insisted that ‘coming out’ was a political choice. Swaab responded that the choice was made for you in the womb and in the book makes it plain that any sort of ‘tampering’ for political or other purposes is futile and likely to cause untold harm. The debate - or rather, the spat - continues.
The book is packed with fascinating case studies, shining a torch into the brain’s place in drug addiction, aggression, and socio-politially, crime and punishment and ultimately prison. Swaab discusses euthanasia, morality, religion, so-called ‘free choice’ and takes a cynical look at sports and the keep-fit addicts, some of whom torture themselves into coma; he has absolutely zero toleration for violent sports, like boxing, slyly recommending chess in its place! Swaab is altogether a lively, penetrating and on the whole convincing researcher and observer of the human scene.
33 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on 17 January 2014
DF Swaab's book on the brain is a revelation. He uses this lifelong passion for neurology to strip away the falsehoods. The details of the state of our knowledge is up to the minute, right from the front lines of research. It's a breeze to read, but it's still a tough slog. It's not filled with overwhelming five dollar words, but there is so much to absorb in every paragraph, I found myself constantly going back to make sure I got it all and got it right. Its importance to everyday understanding of ourselves is towering.
The book is structured along the lines of life, from conception to death and all the different ways the brain performs at the various stages. And it is demonstrably different at every age. The description of the unborn's connection to the mother's brain is alone worth the price of admission.
I particularly appreciated Swaab's debunking of "pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo" such as homosexuality being a chosen, learned, environmental condition (including overbearing, dominant mothers), or any number of other diseases and conditions that are also entirely programmed before birth and develop later.Environment can make absolutely no difference, he says.
The brain is not fully formed at birth and doesn't reach its full size, shape and structure until our mid 20s. It does continue to grow, it can repair itself and it does compensate for damage, despite our being taught that we peak at age 16 and brain cells just die off from that point and are never replaced.
Another "fact" we have backwards is that difficult births cause brain development problems. Swaab shows it is precisely the other way around: difficult labor/births are consequences of brain development problems. This frank, direct information is sadly lacking in general circulation.Some other tidbits along the way:
-It was not until 1940s that scientists discovered the brain produced hormones, and doctors castigated and vilified Ernst and Berta Scharrer for making such an absurd claim.
-Eye contact between two women leads to more creative outcomes. Eye contact by men prevents them coming to terms.
-Given dolls and toy cars, baby monkeys always choose according to gender - dolls for females, cars for males.
-The brains of rabbits raised in hutches are 15-30% smaller than in wild rabbits that develop their wits and skills - Charles Darwin, 1871
-Segregating children in belief-based schools is "pernicious". It not only prevents them from learning how to think critically, but it also fosters an intolerant attitude towards other beliefs.
-Boxing is "neuropornography". Watching it is like taking an entire course in neurology. You see impaired speech, unsteady gait, wandering eyes, epileptic fits, semi-consciousness, unconsciousness, and occasionally, brain death. Right on TV, for the whole family. 400 boxers have been killed in the past 70 years. "Civilized" nations have banned it.
After describing the incredibly destructive effects of Ecstasy and the new, extraordinarily potent cannabis, he lists a string of US presidents (among others) and asks why we don't subject these world leaders to the same substance abuse standards we have for ordinary say, drivers? When Kennedy (cocaine), Nixon (alcohol), Clinton (cannabis), and Bush (cocaine, alcohol) all abused to offensive extents, you have to wonder if the world could have been a better place.
Swaab says 90% of Dutch prisoners have mental disorders and that criminal law should only be applied to people with healthy brains. The justice system should be evidence-based. While we do try new approaches, it's never done scientifically (with a control group), so the results will always be suspect.Lawyers, not researchers, get to experiment. Most criminals need treatment. Imprisonment, probation, halfway houses and community service do nothing to treat them, cure them or prevent them from acting out again.
There is an unexpected section on the mental illnesses of religious figures, who all (self) describe the classic symptoms of frontal lobe epilepsy. The 18 symptoms include voices, hallucinations, temporary blindness, and more. The figures include Paul, Mohammed, Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky and Joan of Arc, who extensively documented their (almost identical) experiences for the ages. They received their directions directly from Jesus and/or God, and became deeply religious. Non-Christian epileptics do not have the same communication sources.
He also debunks various paranormal and spiritual explanations for things like out-of-body experiences, by showing exactly where in the brain that pressure or stimulation will cause these phenomena.
Having read Swaab's sobering analysis of dementia and Alzheimer's, I became concerned when he began repeating himself: the same stories about the same patients. But late in the book he reveals that this all came from a series of columns a newspaper asked him to write, which neatly provides a non-demented alibi. Still, a little more editing would help.
I would have liked more detail in two areas: how character forms, develops and maintains or changes, and the effects of pollutants in air, water, and food. Swaab totally ignores the up and coming field of environmental medicine, which posits that the dose is not what makes the poison, another "fact" we have wrong. Chemical compounds our bodies can never encounter in nature latch on to receptors meant for messengers from our brains. They wreak havoc, as the body not only doesn't know what to do with them, but must accept them. And they block the intended messengers. The result is a large number of "new" chronic diseases that are changing the face of medicine - and life.
We Are Our Brains is technically, pure dry medical science. But it elicits feelings and emotions far stronger than works of fiction. The drama of people entering eras of illness they take years to even understand, let alone cope with and work around, is moving, disconcerting and frightening. The things that can go wrong and the atomic level sources of them is intimidating. The immense body of knowledge we have amassed just in the last hundred years is so insignificant it is awesome.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A blockbuster of a book, the best general introduction to brain science I have seen, and written by an expert in the field, too. I was gripped from cover to cover.
Some of the implications make for uncomfortable reading, particularly for politicians and law enforcers, and religions too, but what Swaab says needs to be said, and needs a larger audience.
Advanced proof supplied by NetGalley.