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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Jospeh LeDoux's Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are is an excellent introduction to one of the most important components of the brain and identity, but the book, published in 2002, could have greatly benefited from the past decades' research on synaptic interactions. As a result, the book paves the way for comprehension and appreciation of synapses by laymen but doesn't fully convey the current body of research. Clearly aimed at a general audience, simple explanatory diagrams abound, and an overview of the brain is included with synapses as the focal point.
"The Big One"/ "Seeking the Self"/ "The Most Unaccountable Machinary"
Often when speaking of the self, an author will ruminate ad nauseum about the mystery of identity, the ineffable essence of being, and the failures of science to capture the soul. LeDoux sidesteps these tedious mores in favor of a direct approach. Off the bat (page 2), he states his view of identity, and the rest of the book is laying the ground work of understanding, amassing support, and exploring the implications. "My notion of personality is pretty simple: it's that your 'self,' the essence of who you are, reflects patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in your brain." The relief from meaningless nattering gives way to full blown enjoyment upon LeDoux's healthy use of supporting research.
Based on the premise that the mind is operates on the basis of natural forces and can therefore be explained, an examiner might be puzzled by how the experience of the mind can be encapsulated in the branching cells and electrical impulses. LeDoux identifies the synapses as the dynamic element of the nervous system--as we gain sensory stimuli, experiences, knowledge, and memories, the changes that allow this acquisition is the malleable connections between neurons. "Given the importance of synaptic transmission in brain function, it should be practically a truism to say that the self is synaptic. What else could it be?"
"Building the Brain"
The staging ground for this argument is neural development in infants. There is a synaptic explosion as a newborn is interfacing with the world and learning by experimentation; this occurs after the brain has been pre-equipped with certain pathways. Correlated with this is the act of learning, discoveries, and the rising awareness of the world and how it works. This expansive increase undergoes a pruning process as the child grows, presumably to maintain pertinent information without the costly burden of useless data.
"Adventures in Time"/ "Small Change"/ "The Mental Trilogy"
Memory, LeDoux posits, is the result of synaptic encoding. The hippocampus is the arbiter of explicit or declarative memory. As is obligatory in any neuroscientific discussion of memory, HM is invoked to illustrate the importance of the temporal lobe. The hippocampus mediates more recent memories, but it's role in recall reduces for more distant memories. Long-term potentiation and other "small changes" are linked to learning, as research from his own lab and that of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel corroborate.
"The Emotional Brain Revisited"/ "Synaptic Sickness"
My favorite section was by far "Synaptic Sickness," which elaborates on specific neurological disorders. Psychosis, pharmaceutical drugs, stress, and anxiety--LeDoux uses his framework of a synapses-centric brain to delve into these topics. The molecular basis of this type of sickness is fascinating, and he does it justice with detailed dissections and the history of their diagnosis. An interesting point is that drugs may not have as the direct effects as they superficially appear. The proscription of an anti-depressant drug can improve mood, and look, there's more of neurotransmitter X in the synaptic clefts. Clearly, X is the agent in the improvement. Such logic can be hugely oversimplifying, since changes in sensitivity and other aspects of plasticity could well be involved.
"Who Are You?"
Such a chapter title might lead you to believe that LeDoux lapses into the afore-condemned ruminations, but that is not the case. Instead, after appropriately quoting The Who, he explores the sources of individuality and the previously-elusive self. Though the overarching structure of the brain is relatively uniform between individuals, synapses are the key to our diversity of personalities and quirks. LeDoux concludes where he began, "You are your synapses. They are who you are."
LeDoux excels in providing scientific research to establish and develop his claims. The notes and works cited enable the reader to see the exact research being referenced and provide a good start for more details. He thoroughly explores not only concurrent findings but addresses opposing material as well. This leads to a piece of writing that is convincing and based in the essence of the subject. He does not shy away from the details of studies, which serves to substantiate his discussion.
One stylistic element of LeDoux's writing that I found mildly grating was the excessive use of simple diagrams. Yes, I am reading the paragraph above the chart connecting two concepts with an arrow--I think I could have managed the association based on your written explanation. This complaint may just be the result of my own reading preferences. The book is intended for wide readership, and perhaps others find the connect-the-dots on every other page to be helpful.
I love LeDoux's use of artists quotes as introductions for each chapter. The interface of science and art is something I very much enjoy (such as that in Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer), and LeDoux does mix in a touch of the humanities to accent his points. Still, it is evident that he is a well-versed scientist, knowledgeable and discerning, which makes his allusions all the more insightful and germane.
Joseph LeDoux is a talented writer who backs his claims in hard fact (and extraneous diagrams). This is an excellent book to improve understanding of the interactions of neurons and the importance of synapses, and the learning curve is not difficult. LeDoux presents all his ideas with well-written, accessible prose and the science to ground it. That said, this aging book obviously lacks in current research; it will familiarize readers with the field, but up-to-date information must be found elsewhere.
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