Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are by Joseph LeDoux

I am extremely interested in how the brain works.  After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and before starting my master’s (in fields unrelated to brain function), I worked for a professor examining fMRI scans, which piqued an already healthy interest in the brain and mind.  Almost everything written on the topic for a lay audience will eventually end up in my hands.  Synaptic Self seemed especially interesting to me — who doesn’t want to know how the brain creates the self?  It’s one of the fundamental questions of life.  Unfortunately, I got to this book about seven years too late.

The science in Synaptic Self is engrossing and amazingly complete.  Joseph LeDoux walks the reader through the physical set-up of neurons, how they communicate with one another (both individually and en masse), and how genes and behavior alter the pathways our brain cells make.

LeDoux doesn’t dumb down the science, which is awesome.  It also could easily become confusing.  For example, many of the diagrams in the book include abbreviations that don’t really make sense.  In one case, when explaining the roles the amygdala and the hippocampus play in stress, the caption text calls cortisol “CORT”.  Not a huge deal, but, first of all, why did the word need abbreviation, and second of all, why would you bother if the actual diagram uses “cortisol” in every instance of its use?  There were many occasions where I had to go back and reread a part to make sure I got what he was saying.

I don’t really feel like the book got to a point where I could relate to what LeDoux was expressing until he got to the section on people with mental disorders — schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders.  I’ve had experience with those, I’ve done research on them, and learning about how scientists used the information he tells us about in the previous chapters to develop understanding and, from that, treatments, was fantastic.  I didn’t mind the rehash because he told the story well.

I’m also not convinced he makes his point in the best way.  I got his main idea, but felt let down, to a certain extent.  Our selves are made of the connections our brain cells make between each other.  They use genes to know where to go, vaguely, and then use input from the environment to learn where to go, specifically.  Varied tasks, interwoven, make us react in certain ways.  A lot of what we do is hidden from conscious experience.  And … that’s us.

This is the crux of my dissatisfaction:  I’ve heard most of this before.  I went through psychology courses in the early to mid 2000’s, and, yeah, I learned that aspects of personality are not all genes and not all environment.  I get that genes set you up with tendencies, and that your experiences influence how your individual brain ends up working.  All the content of this book is stuff most people who are interested in the topic will have already heard from other sources a long time ago.

This isn’t really LeDoux’s fault.  He wrote the book in 2002, when research in this field was relatively new.  And, for a book that was near the ground-level of a new point of understanding the brain and the self, it’s pretty good.  I just wish it had been a little more approachable and that I had reached it earlier.

Rating: 3/5.

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Filed under 3/5, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

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