‘We are our Brains’ Book Review

Dick Swaab’s book ‘We are our Brains’ covers a wide range of topics including autism, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, maternal care, homosexuality, gene therapy and electric stimulation. He shows evidence-based research into the extent to which our brain determines everything we think, do and refrain from doing. From religion to sexuality, the brain is a decisive organ shaping our desires and personality.

Swaab takes the reader all the way from maternal care to end of life care and goes into further detail on the real causes of the common diseases which manifest themselves at each stage of life, from the womb to falling in love to old age. However, what is consistent in all of the common disease, including childhood, adolescence, adulthood and retirement, is the critical role that brain development during pregnancy has on shaping the pathogenesis of these common diseases. Research has shown that, contrary to many popular religions, homosexuality is determined before birth in the womb. Additionally, there are some things that the mother does whilst pregnant, which can change the likelihood of their child’s sexual orientation. For example, pregnant women suffering from stress are more likely to give birth to homosexual children, because their raised levels of cortisol affect the production of foetal sex hormones.

During adolescence the teenage brain is still developing into a mature adult brain, a process which doesn’t fully stop until a person is in their 20s. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), responsible for the control of our impulses, planning and organisation is still developing during adolescence. Swaab mentions how the work of other scientists has suggested that the modern secondary school system is ineffective because it relies too much on student’s organisational skills when the PFC hasn’t fully developed yet. Moreover, the sudden surge of sex hormones affects the regulation of day-night rhythms and typical male aggression and risk seeking behaviour. That would explain why its so hard to get teenagers out of bed in the morning and why the incidences of unrestrained, antisocial, aggressive and delinquent behaviour increases during puberty.

This book influenced the way that I envisage my own habits, personality, and particular traits as well as those of my family and friends because so much of what I thought we had control over is only wishful thinking – in fact, our brains have a very direct effect on our perception of reality. So, if anything knowing that we have so little control over ourselves, it urges one to take the backseat and disengage from our struggles and vices because there is little we can do to change who we really are: our brains.

By Alex Szczech.

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