Does our brain define who we are?

It is an uneasy thought that who we are and what we think about is all hardwired into a three pound mass contained within our skull. Does our brain shape our entire persona or does our environment have some impact on the chemistry of our brain as well? This is a long, well argued debate and despite evidence supporting both sides, nothing can be said for sure. Before starting my degree at university, I hadn’t given it much thought, however upon increasing exposure to neurological and pharmacological topics in lectures, it became a great interest of mine. Last year I picked up a book titled “We Are Our Brains: From the Womb to Alzheimer’s” by Dick Swaab, a fascinating compilation of facts and evidence that will reshape the way you think of our brain and our society. The book originates from a collection of Dutch newspaper columns from the NRC Handelsblad. A brief look at the blurb later, I had already begun reading the first few pages.

Swaab’s book explores all the different functions controlled by our brain, how the smallest imperfection can have a drastic effect on that person’s life, and as said by Latson’s review of the book in the Boston Globe, “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” [1]. He describes the biochemical reasoning behind how religion and sexuality are determined from birth. He defines mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, as well as other serious disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s as being programmed into our brains from day one. Sufferers of these are destined for their fate from the day their first cell divides. He even illustrates gender roles and interests as being set in stone, which defeats all arguments of feminism. You may disagree, and being female myself this did make me see red, but before you establish any negative impressions of his book, give it a try. It will open a whole new perspective to you.

In addition to my opinions being remodelled after completing his book, I had been introduced to a lot of new interesting concepts. There is such a vast array of disorders Swaab describes, caused by a small deformation or error in signalling in the brain, which may sound bizarre to us, but to a lot of people it defines their lives. One of these is Body Integrity Identity disorder where people are convinced a part of their body, usually a limb, doesn’t belong to them and is controlled separately to their own brain. Despite numerous attempts at convincing doctors to amputate them off, only a few are successful. Furthermore, he illustrates progressing into Alzheimer’s as the backwards development into a brain of a newborn, acquiring infantile properties, loss of control, understanding and coordination. It is fascinating to see the parallels he draws with these two very similar yet different brains. In other sections of the book he speaks about pregnancy, how a mothers actions and choices influence the developing foetal brain. According to Swaab, smoking during pregnancy increases the likelihood of giving birth to a homosexual or paedophilic child.

Swaab’s book pools together some ludicrous arguments but he supports them with clear biochemical evidence. If neurobiology is something that interests you and you’d like to get a flavour of just how powerful the human brain is, then this book is just right for you. As anxious and irritable some sections of his book may make you feel, I find it a comforting thought that all these different characteristics and views people have can be defined by simple chemical molecules. I believe it opens a window of opportunity for us to delve into exactly which neurotransmitters, neurons and organs get involved in a particular process. This allows us to work on repairing damaged processes that lead to mental disorders, neurological diseases, as well as certain characteristics of people, such as paedophilia, that are deemed heinous or unethical. If we can work on ‘fixing’ these people, we could significantly reduce crime rates, mental hospital admissions, as well as the number of people suffering from neurological diseases. It really would be a solution to a great number of global issues.

[1] Latson, Jennifer. “Book Review: “We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s’’ by D.F. Swaab – The Boston Globe.”Boston Globe. N.p., 20 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 July 2016.

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