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.