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on 1 June 2016
An interesting and insightful look at our brains, what they're used for, how we use them and what happens when they go wrong, an easy and enjoyable read, very entertaining and full of facts, a very interesting chapter on the brains evolution ( a subject I find fascinating).The only unfortunate thing about this book is that it won't be read by the people who need this type of education.
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on 21 June 2015
Very interesting but with absolutely no referencing or links to any of the studies he mentions, you can't check the original source material and feel like you're just reading someone else's opinion. Some of his claims are a little questionable, but definitely food for thought. He doesn't seem to take into account any social or environmental factors and doesn't consider an individual's ability to question, manipulate or change one's own behaviour patterns. He also doesn't mention anything about the brains plasticity and ability to alter it's structure over time (for example London Cab Drivers having an enlarged area of the brain relating to memory). Do parts of the brain change over time because of social conditioning for example, which may account for some differences between male and female? I'm left slightly unsatisfied but this book will certainly prompt me to read other slightly different approaches to the brain, particularly in relation to gender.
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on 4 May 2015
I like
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.
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It’s all in our heads. Where else can it be, other than the brain? The most complex known object in the universe comes under the microscope in an acerbic, opinionated tour by Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab. A provocative survey that will irritate left and right alike. There is not much talk here of neuroplasticity or brain malleability. Indeed, Swaab is not all that sure that there is a such a thing as free will. Much of our personality and prospects are formed as the brain develops in the womb. That includes propensity for aggression, your sexual orientation and your prospects generally in life. You are most definitely not born a blank slate and, doubtless leaving himself open to charges of ‘neurosexism’ from the left, he claims that sexual differences are to be found above the neck as well as below it.

If you blanch at this then you should bear in mind that to argue for a strong degree of innateness in human behaviour is not ipso facto reactionary. Social constructivism and a blank slate approach can justify reactionary, illiberal practices: such premises inform Christian 'therapies' seeking to 'cure' homosexuality, therapies that invariably fail. Also, social injustice and oppression affect brain development and hence life chances. If we are talking about fairness, equality of opportunity and the like, then we cannot be indifferent to circumstances which give some brains an unfair head start over others. Innateness does not mean we have to shrug our shoulders and accept unjust social and economic systems.

On top of that, the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade will not like this book all that much. He argues that the age of criminal responsibility really should be raised to one’s mid-20s, as that is the time when the prefrontal cortex, the frontal lobes essential for self-control and curbing impulses. Paedophilia is another form of sexual orientation but many paedophiles do not act out; they should be encouraged to come forward so we can do the necessary research to understand the biological basis of their impulses. But the stigma against feelings, as well as conduct (which we should rightly police) makes this impossible. As for religion, it is a form of hallucination. Moses and Mohammed had their revelations on mountains, probably not a coincidence. Mountaineers have been known to have religious hallucinations.

The book lacks references and a bibliography so one cannot check anything; and I am sure that not all of the numerous assertions made in this book should be taken as the gospel truth. So, as a layman, how plausible is it? I think quite plausible, because those who would have us believe that we are merely the sum of socialisation would have to argue that human brains, unlike any other of the millions and millions of other ' brains that do exist or have existed - cannot be explained without reference to its biology. That would be nothing less than extraordinary. We are in some sense our brains. What else can we be?
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on 7 May 2014
Disappointed. If he had dealt with fewer topics in a clearer, better illustrated, more comprehensive way I think it would have made more sense and been more worthwhile. Lost the will to continue when first of all Swaab dismissed holding criminals accountable as misguided and the last straw was when he opinionated about sports as a whole being ill-advised on the basis of injuries boxers inflict on each other! So is the book about the brain or a rant against criminal justice and sports? It certainly wasn't clear to me.
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on 11 May 2017
An engaging book that appears to have only Mr Swaab's evidence or belief in supporting it. If his theories chime with your belief about things you will enjoy it, if it doesn't and you want to believe everyone is capable of change and that homosexuality and the likes are a choice then you will not enjoy it.
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on 1 April 2014
The brain is probably the most complicated and sophisticated object we are ever likely to encounter. Many aspects have remained a mystery (and many others still do) but this book opens the lid on many of them. Because the subject is so entwined with every aspect of our lives, it has taken a remarkable book to try to bring it all together and answer many of the questions we may ask and also many that we have not thought to ask.
The medical facts and the author's personal opinions are well thought out and presented. This is a subject I am trained in and I have produced both books and documentaries on related aspects of this subject and it has helped to answer some of the questions I have posed to myself.
If you want to try to better understand yourself and the people around you, then you can do no better than this book as a start into perhaps the most fascinating subject you can think of.

John Pullen
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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.

David Wineberg
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on 11 December 2014
Extraordinary book that takes the reader through all aspects of the brain and its functions. Simple and easy to read, with little to no jargon, but scientific enough to leave the reader feeling that they have a basic grounding in today's neuroscience.
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on 9 February 2017
In the acknowledgements to this book, the author writes, "This book came about after the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad asked me, in 2008, to write a column in which I answered readers' questions." So from the outset any reader should understand that this is neither a textbook nor indeed a carefully planned popular science book; rather it is a collection of interesting thoughts by the author drawing upon his own as a neuroscience researcher on sex differences in the brain, Alzheimer's disease and depression. Having served for 27 years as director of the Netherlands Institute for Brain Research and also receiving the Academy medal for his "significant role in neuroscience", one can be fairly confident about the author's knowledge about his field. That said, some reviewers have picked up on the author's tendency to drift into commentary about social, economic and political affairs, which clearly are not his area of expertise. However, given the genesis of this book, it should hardly come as a surprise that the author would proffer his opinions on a wider sphere than his specialisation; it is fairly clear in the book where this takes place and a reader is at liberty to agree or disagree with those opinions.

Where the book scores in my opinion is that is flows easily over a range of topics which illustrate the central thesis that each of us is a product of our brains and that this process starts very early in our development within the womb. However, before anyone takes this to mean that we are caught in the old chestnut of nature vs. nurture, the author is not arguing simply for the former, but rather he highlights how the two interact in our development.

The book or really what reads on occasions like a collection of essays (for the reasons outlined above and hence some cases of understandable repetition) covers a wide range of topics, each of which gets on average 5 to 6 sections. The topics listed in the Contents pages provide some structure to the presentation of ideas and allow the reader to dip into specific topics which can be read in isolation or alternatively, the reader can simply work their way through from beginning to end of the book.

Having read and studied a reasonable amount of biology and psychology over the years, I agree that there is much in this book that can be found elsewhere and indeed there are topics that might have easily been included in a book of this title. However, this book is not written for the academic, although it can provide an interesting read for the student of these subjects earlier in their reading. Rather, it is a book aimed at a general audience, many of whom may not have come across all or some of the issues raised in this book, or if they have, they might have been presented them through a different lens; hence this book is a an enjoyable romp through an important range of topics with suggestions as to some of the wider social issues they raise in some cases. It also includes a number of anecdotal stories which might annoy some, but personally, I found helped to illuminate the topic under discussion.

If you are interested in 'getting a feel' for some of the insights which research in neuroscience, medicine, psychology and biology have developed in recent decades on the nature of our brains then I should recommend this book. As said by other reviewers, the book does not provide any bibliography, but anyone seriously interested in pursuing one or more topics presented in this book would have little difficulty in the age of the internet.
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