The Synaptic Self: How Our Brain Becomes Who We Are

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9780333781883: The Synaptic Self: How Our Brain Becomes Who We Are

Ranging widely through philosophy, literature, and the history of science, LeDoux examines how we have conceptualized the relationship between brain and self through the centuries. His own contribution, based on two decades of research, begins with the startlingly simple premise that the self-the essence of who a person is-intricately reflects patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in the brain. Synapses, the spaces between neurons, are not only the channels through which we think, act, imagine, feel, and remember, but also the means by which we encode our most fundamental traits, preferences, and beliefs, allowing us to function as a single, integrated individual-a synaptic self.

As LeDoux brilliantly argues, a synaptic self does not exclude other ways of understanding existence-spiritual, aesthetic, moral-but rather it enriches and broadens these avenues by providing a neurological/psychological construct grounded in the latest research in biology. Rather than join the age-old debate on whether nature or nurture is more determinative, LeDoux posits that both genes and experience contribute to synaptic connectivity. Mind expanding in every sense of the word, Synaptic Self represents an important breakthrough in one of the last frontiers of medical research.

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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

About the Author:

Joseph LeDoux is Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at New York University's Center for Neural Sciences. He is the author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life and coauthor (with Michael Gazzaniga) of The Integrated Mind.

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