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Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are Paperback – January 28, 2003
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A middle-aged neuroscientist walking down Bourbon Street spots a T-shirt that reads, "I don't know, so maybe I'm not." This stimulus zooms from eyes to brain, neuron by neuron, via tiny junctions called synapses. The results? An immediate chuckle and (sometime later) a groundbreaking book titled The Synaptic Self. To Joseph LeDoux, the simple question, "What makes us who we are?" represents the driving force behind his 20-plus years of research into the cognitive, emotional, and motivational functions of the brain.
LeDoux believes the answer rests in the synapses, key players in the brain's intricately designed communication system. In other words, the pathways by which a person's "hardwired" responses (nature) mesh with his or her unique life experiences (nurture) determine that person's individuality. Here, LeDoux nimbly compresses centuries of philosophy, psychology, and biology into an amazingly clear picture of humanity's journey toward understanding the self.
Equally readable is his comprehensive science lesson, where detailed circuit speak reads like an absorbing--yet often humorous--mystery novel. Skillfully presenting research studies and findings alongside their various implications, LeDoux makes a solid case for accepting a synaptic explanation of existence and provides to the reader generous helpings of knowledge, amusement, and awe along the way. --Liane Thomas --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Despite ongoing debate about the root cause of psychological disorders, most agree that the development of the self is central to the distinction between normality and psychopathology. Yet neuroscientists have been slow to probe the biological basis for our sense of self, focusing instead on states of consciousness. LeDoux (The Emotional Brain), professor at New York University's Center for Neural Sciences, has come up with a theory: it's the neural pathways the synaptic relationships in our brains that make us who we are. Starting with a description of basic neural anatomy (including how neurons communicate, the brain's embryological development and some of the key neural pathways), LeDoux reviews experiments and research, arguing that the brain's synaptic connections provide the biological base for memory, which makes possible the sense of continuity and permanence fundamental to a "normal" conception of self. Writing for a general audience, he succeeds in making his subject accessible to the dedicated nonspecialist. He offers absorbing descriptions of some of the most fascinating case studies in his field, provides insight into the shortcomings of psychopharmacology and suggests new directions for research on the biology of mental illness. While some may disagree with LeDoux's conclusion that "the brain makes the self" through its synapses, he makes an important contribution to the literature on the relationship between these two entities. Agents, Katinka Matson and John Brockman. (On-sale: Jan. 14)
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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My favorite chapter is one called "The Lost World," where the chapter begins with a flashback to the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park in 1996. LeDoux then goes to further explain the brains responses to stimuli in terms of fear, reward, and motivation. Specifically I find it interesting how the amygdala is no longer used after an initial experience of fear because the brain knows how to successfully avoid a specific danger. Furthermore, I find the explanations of the research of neuroscientists and Ledoux, himself, intriguing, giving special insight to the brilliant minds who can explain some of the awesome complexity of the nervous system.
This book is well written, Ledoux's language elevated and style, at times, artful. However, the content, as it relates to the complexity of the nervous system, certainly requires some preliminary knowledge on this subject, particularly the components of the nervous system as well as the anatomy of the brain. "Synaptic Self" is definitely a valuable book to read for anyone studying neuroscience and interested in how it correlates to several aspects of life and personhood.
How patterns of neuronal synapses give rise to the self is the subject of the last subject of the chapter, and as expected, this chapter reveals a lot about the author's confidence in what he is presenting to the reader. He understands and admits (very early on in the book) that much remains to be known before a full answer is obtained. Before getting to this finale he takes the reader through a very interesting overview of many different topics in neuroscience, such as the ubiquitous `neuronal plasticity' and touches on the origin of consciousness, the latter topic of which is only just beginning to be classified as `real science.' All of these discussions are fascinating, particularly to those like this reviewer who are not experts in neuroscience but who desire to understand the current status of research in brain science as applied to questions not traditionally tackled by neuroscientists.
Readers with a background or interest in artificial intelligence will also find many topics of interest in this book, such as the role of domain-specific systems in the brain, how the brain constructs an interpretive framework, how it integrates different features of visual stimuli, and how decision-making occurs (the role of the executive functions). The ability of non-human machines to engage in `domain-general' and not just `domain-specific' reasoning is of great interest in the field of artificial intelligence and this book gives some insight into how human and animal brains are able to do this. It is interesting in this regard to learn that the author believes that such a domain-general or general-purpose system in the human brain depends greatly on long-term memory. This is really not surprising to hear of course, since domain-general reasoning requires the ability to integrate information from disparate sources and make comparisons to what is known. It would have been very interesting if the author had carried through this discussion to one that elaborated on the origin of curiosity in the human brain. Not much is known about this, and is again a topic of great interest to those researchers who are attempting to create non-human machines that exhibit curiosity.
As in most studies to date, information on how the brain works is derived from brains that are malfunctioning in some way, due to lesions or accidents, or from genetic factors. The author gives detailed discussion on the research that has been done in understanding the neuronal processes behind anxiety and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. Genetic factors due play a role he believes, but this role is more of a "bias" than a full-fledged determinism. Pharmacological intervention is discussed in this context also, with one interesting example being that of the ability of antidepressant medication to enhance synaptic plasticity.
To reiterate, there is much to be learned before one can say definitively that "we are our synapses", to paraphrase the author. But his book gives an excellent introduction to what kind of research is being done to substantiate this claim. With so much being done in neuroscience today, and with its impact being felt in new areas of research called `neuroethics' and `neuroeconomics', one can expect an exciting road ahead, and eagerly anticipate the author's next book.
Most recent customer reviews
The author lost me at page 4 when he goes on to say that the brain is different at birth based on genetics.Read more