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Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are Hardcover – January 14, 2002

4.2 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 406 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (January 14, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670030287
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670030286
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #476,110 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. M. Williams on August 15, 2003
Format: Hardcover
The book is an introduction to neurology from the particular viewpoint of the synapse and associated biochemistry. The author's specific interest in the field is experimental research into fear circuits in the brain, and the book shows this interest well and it forms the bulk of the examples. It is not the first book in the field that i would recommend to someone just getting interested, it is an "advanced intro" if that is possible, just a little hard going if you have no idea of the terminology or general structures. But it is written to the educated laymen, doesn't require a college degree to understand it, and is a welcome addition to my expanding library on the philosophy of the mind.
The book is well written, flows nicely until the near end,(drags a little just after chapter 6 however, that is why a 4 not a 5 rating) i'd recommend "synaptic sickness" be moved to an appendix if it couldn't be integrated into the body of the book better. The scholarly apparatus is kept to a minimum yet the push to ratify/justify the new knowledge via experimental data and reference to other scientists work is clearly evident and makes the book a good intro to the field, as further study is facilitated. I found the use of concrete experimental examples and the prolific use of diagrams (especially figures 6.4 - 6.6) particularly good(very superior), the book was always engrossing and a stimulating read, not common in books written by scientists who are not teachers as well.
As to particularly important ideas: i would point to chapter 6= "small change" and the systematic analysis of Hebbian plasticity and how long-term potentiation supplies the synaptic justification for memory and learning the key chapter in the whole book.
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Format: Hardcover
LeDoux starts his first chapter with a quote from Bart Simpson: "Dad, what is the mind? Is it just a system of impulses or something tangible?" My kind of humor.
LeDoux's Synaptic Self is a wonderful book loaded with clear understandable explanations and insights (his wife, a "fantastic writer," assisted) on how the brain works based on the most current neuroscience (e.g., how neurons/synapses/neurotransmitters/neuro modulators work/don't work, implicit/explicit learning/memory mechanism explanations, nature/nurture considerations, the "mental trilogy" of cognition/emotion/motivation, and much more). The book's bottom-line, he writes, is "you are your synapses." With this book, "know thyself," and even fix thyself, seem more attainable. It's a book I'll reread/study for a while.
The following are quotes from the last chapter:
Life requires many brain functions, functions require systems, and systems are made of synaptically connected neurons. We all have the same brain systems, and the number of neurons in each brain system is more or less the same in each of us as well. However, the particular way those neurons are connected is distinct, and that uniqueness, in short, is what makes us who we are.
What is remarkable is that synapses in all of these systems are capable of being modified by experience... Emotion systems [as an example]... are programmed by evolution to respond to some stimuli, so-called innate or unconditioned stimuli, like predators or pain. However, many of the things that elicit emotions in us or motivate us to act in certain ways are not preprogrammed into our brains as part of our species heritage but have to be learned by each of us.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is as good as a popular science book can be, and explains in easy terms some of the most important concepts in neuroscience. For this it should be widely read. However, Ledoux wants to explain the self, and not only to write a popular book on cognitive neuroscience. Now, given that it is very difficult not to accept that the self at some level is nothing but synapses, Ledoux does seem to base the self on neurobiological mechanisms. But this is no more enlightening than sayying that vision, attention, language, or even qualia are nothing but synapses, claims that at some level must also be correct. So one would expect the bulk of the book to develop principles that tie or at least correlate the self with brain mechanisms. Do we get this in Synaptic Self? well, yes and no.

Ledoux concentrates on memory, having in his last book focused on emotion. He explains memory systems from molecules to circuits, with the classical and most recent findings, including some from his own lab. He also gives a quick overview of the emotional systems of the brain, the working memory complex of the prefrontal cortex, and motivational systems of neuromodulator and brainstem and thalamocortical systems. He calls that the mental trilogy, namely cognition, emotion and motivation. Ledoux also wrote a nice chapter on some brain diseases that seem to alter these functions selectively. And thats it. Ledoux has explained the self. Or has he? Well, memory, emotion, cognition and motivation surely contribute to the making of the self, especially memory. How much of a self is left in a retrograde and anterograde severe amnesic? But this is not saying that putting them together is all the self is about. Its like saying vision, attention and waking are what consicousness is.
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