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We Are Our Brains:
From the Womb to Alzheimer's
The more elder brothers a boy has, the more likely it is that he will be gay. Annoying behaviour in teenagers may be evolution's way of preventing incest. Fatter models will not change anorexia rates, which are probably falling anyway. Ginseng can cause insomnia, vaginal bleeding and mania. Exercise does not lengthen your life. Huge dogs with narcolepsy can be made to fall asleep with joy at the sight of their favourite food.
That last example, complete with pictures of a collapsing doberman (a research dog at Stanford University), made me laugh out loud; the others simply amazed me. This, you will gather, is a book that covers a lot of territory, and is an attempt to summarise everything that has recently been discovered about the workings of the human brain.
Dick Swaab is a distinguished Dutch brain scientist. He is 69, which is of some significance as the book feels like a summary of a life's work. It has been a big bestseller in Holland and may well be one here. One sees why; neuroscience is the popular science of the moment, having succeeded genetics and big physics. To be popular a science needs to be weird, thrilling and a bit scary. Neuroscience is all of these, but it also has the queasy appeal of a really intimate horoscope - our fate is written in our star-shaped neurons.
The book is in chronological order from conception to death, and the title gives Swaab freedom to wander at will. If we are our brains, then every human thing is his subject matter. There is, however, one unifying theme. At the heart of the book is Swaab's insistence that neuroscience has settled the nature-nurture argument in favour of nature. As he rightly says, the orthodoxy a few decades ago was that at birth we are blank slates, destined to be scribbled on by our families and societies. The left, in particular, was obsessed with this idea, convinced it meant we could be altered by social and political change. Swaab reports bitter confrontations with nurturist gays and feminists as he tried to refute the idea of the blank slate.
In fact, he and his pro-nature colleagues won this battle some time ago and neuroscience has sealed the victory. It is plain that, at birth, we have a whole range of innate tendencies, most of which will be only marginally affected by our experiences. This brings me to the most fascinating part of the book.
Being born, says Swaab, is a process involving close interaction between the brains of the baby and the mother. The mother's biological clock imposes a day-night rhythm on the process and both brains emit the hormone oxytocin to speed the process. The brain of the baby tells that of the mother when labour is to start by signalling that she is no longer providing enough nutrition. The two brains seem to be dancing together.
The downside of the dance is that it is a delicate process and can go wrong. Schizophrenia, autism and anorexia all appear to have some association with difficult birth, because the dance stops as signalling between the brains breaks down. This may not mean, though, that a difficult birth is the cause of these conditions. It may be that these conditions cause a difficult birth because of failures in communication between the brains in the womb.
Sexual identity, one of the most sensitive areas for the nurturists of the left, is established in the womb or soon after birth. This has repeatedly been proved by the failure of attempts to 'cure' homosexuality. The hormonal interplay in the womb determines sexuality; nothing that comes later seems to have the slightest effect. Swaab devotes a few pages to paedophilia, an identity that, unlike the others, needs intervention, and concludes that the use of networks of helpers looks like the only effective way to prevent reoffending. Again, there appears to be a strong prenatal component in the making of paedophilia.
While I am on sexuality - boys with a greater number of older brothers are more likely to be gay probably because of a biological reaction in the mother, whose immune system defends her against male substances; this response grows stronger with each male birth. This influences the child's development.
Curing anorexia also seems to be an illusion. Swaab insists that this, too, is a condition formed in the womb. Anorexics can, therefore, be helped, but they will remain anorexics all their lives.
I could go on. The book is a long list of such information, all written in a genial and accessible manner. Any one page will get you through a conversation-starved party. Did you know that strippers' tips leap when they are ovulating? Men just know.
But then it all goes bafflingly wrong. Swaab suddenly introduces a chapter on religion that contains almost nothing of interest about the brain. It is simply an anti-religious polemic larded with glib quotes from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He then compounds the error with another chapter attacking near-death experiences, herbal medicine and so on. Then there's yet another chapter in which he takes on the issue of free will that is, frankly, laughable. I am not complaining about his opinions, which are unremarkable, just their relevance. You can skip all 65 of these pages and miss nothing.
On top of that there is a problem with the idea expressed in the title. The statement 'we are our brains' may give Swaab the freedom to roam but it is obviously false, the kind of glib reductionism into which popular science so often descends. If I met your brain on the street I wouldn't know you and you wouldn't know me. We are our arms, legs, eyes, heart; we are our friends, and the cities and fields in which we walk. To say these are all mediated by the brain is a reprise of the geneticists' claim that we are our genes or the physicists' that we are all stardust. In short, it is to say nothing.
The informative chapters, however, are a fun, wild ride through contemporary brain science. They should, though, be read sceptically. I would guess a high percentage of these ideas will prove dead ends (much of what Swaab reports is hypothesis rather than fact) but that's science as usual. Furthermore, his polemical manner all too often intrudes. For example, he crustily dismisses exercise as a life extender — he says metabolism (the slower the better) and brain size (the bigger the better) are the key determinants — and leaves it at that. But exercise is a huge life improver and, anyway, every cardiologist in the world would dispute his claim. One feels at such moments he likes the opinion more than the science.
This book is 70% fascinating and 30% infuriating. At times, the reader may feel battered and depressed by the long lists of accidents and absurdities that make our lives. But, occasionally, there are strange and startling consolations amid the mountain of detail. In the final stages of Alzheimer's, for example, patients curl up into the foetal position and if you place a finger in their mouth they suck like a baby. We return whence we came. There is a kind of justice and even satisfaction in this.
As a read and a guide to the big science of the moment, this book is fun and informative. As an insight into the prejudices and blind spots of one particular brain - Swaab's - it is equally informative. As an ice-breaker at parties, it is unmatched. As comedy it is not so great, except for that laugh-out-loud moment when, at the sight of food, the doberman's brain goes into narcoleptic lockdown. Brains do slapstick as often as they do symphonies.
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