So much can go wrong with our brains that, after reading D.F. Swaab’s book, one can’t help but be amazed that anything ever goes right.
In “We Are Our Brains,’’ the Dutch neuroscientist and professor at the University of Amsterdam, illustrates some of the bizarre ways our brains can betray us.
We meet a woman with a lump in her hypothalamus, which makes her burst into frequent fits of uncontrollable, mirthless laughter. Another woman with brain damage can’t see movement: Cars in motion are invisible, but when they stop, they suddenly appear to her again.
People with Capgras syndrome, caused by some types of brain damage, believe their loved ones have been replaced by alien or robot imposters. People with Body Integrity Identity Disorder, meanwhile, believe from a young age that one of their limbs doesn’t belong to them and are desperate to have it removed. More than a quarter of them succeed in getting the offending arm or leg amputated, and Swaab tells us they are typically thrilled with the result.
Swaab’s book is a hodgepodge of morbidly curious case studies and fascinating trivia of the brain, loosely organized into a chronology of brain development from birth to death. Perhaps because it is based on a series of columns he wrote for a Dutch newspaper, the material is sometimes repetitive, recycling the author’s favorite facts and anecdotes.
The thread that ties the collection together is Swaab’s strong stance on the philosophy of neuroscience. He is a firm believer in the concrete, absolute role our brain structure and chemistry play in determining who we are. He means his title literally, arguing that environment and education have a minimal role in shaping our minds and positing that attempts to change our behavior, at least after childhood, will almost always prove futile.
This position leads him to some controversial conclusions, but he clearly relishes the part of provocateur. He argues that humans are pre-programmed by their brain development in the womb and that free will is, therefore, illusory. In chapters that seem calculated to meet with reader resistance, he makes the case that we would be better off without religion and even that physical exercise does us more harm than good: “If you’re really bent on taking up a sport,” he offers, “how about chess?”
Reducing our personalities to differences in brain structure doesn’t leave much room for humanity. And certain conclusions are harder to stomach than others. For example, Swaab points to findings that women who smoke, take drugs, or suffer from stress during pregnancy are more likely to have gay children, since nicotine, amphetamines, and the stress hormone cortisol affect the mechanism that shapes sexual orientation during fetal brain development.
He goes on to argue that pedophilia is caused by a similar mechanism and further likens transsexuality to Body Integrity Identity Disorder — in the latter, a limb feels out of place; in the former, the sex organs.
Swaab lambasts believers in “social engineering” and takes particular aim at feminists who believe that differences in occupation and interests between the sexes might be socially conditioned. He describes the women who attended his lectures in the 1970s as “demonstratively knitting and crocheting” while objecting to his conclusions that gender disparities began and ended in the brain. He claims they also protested when he dimmed the lights to show slides, “because they couldn’t see their knitting anymore.”
“From then on,” he boasts, “I turned the lights down and showed slides throughout all classes.”
If you feel your blood boiling when you read this book, take heart: It may be all in your brain.
Jennifer Latson is writing a narrative nonfiction book about a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome, which makes people socially uninhibited and indiscriminately friendly. She tweets at @JennieLatson.