Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Joseph LeDoux: Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Nothing throws the act of reading into disorienting relief like a book about neuroscience. Language wields considerable power on its own, but it's another thing to pore over the mechanics of what makes language work, as neurons size up potential partners in different parts of the brain, squirt amino acids across synapses, and change the brain's chemical makeup in ways that convert data into the gooey matter of thought. The relationship between the literal and the ethereal forms the basis of Synaptic Self, a fascinating, sometimes overwhelming attempt to follow the machinations of the brain to their abstract conclusions. Starting with a synopsis of the evolving nature of the "self" in philosophy, psychology, and physiology, Joseph LeDoux, a professor and brain researcher at New York University, addresses that most unwieldy of subjects through the empirical divinations of neuroscience. The core of his argument rests on synapses, the empty gaps that neurons bridge to form circuits. LeDoux's remarkably accessible descriptions of the process crackle like the electrical storms that rain chemical ooze on the brain. That initial charge fades as he digs deeper into necessarily difficult material, sketching out functionally distinct processes with impenetrable details and ostensible "Eureka!" moments that prove anticlimactic to the casual brain fan. About a third of the material is exceedingly difficult, but LeDoux succeeds in airing it out as he wanders between the rigors of science and the tantalizing questions lying beneath the surface. Defining the conscious/unconscious self as "the totality of what an organism is physically, biologically, psychologically, socially, and culturally," he presents a convincing case for his seemingly reductive ties between deduction and extrapolation by exposing the commutative properties of cause and effect. It's a readily acknowledged tall order, as most brain research derives from experiments on rats chasing cheese or monkeys maneuvering for Fruit Loops. But LeDoux's image of magically self-actualized neural circuitry allows him to point toward the tangible birth of the ghosts in the machine. One particularly memorable anecdote compares the fundamental similarities between the neural processes of humans looking at pictures of distant loved ones, and lab rats who continue to exhibit trained behavior long after their incentive is taken away. Though he's careful not to reduce all of existence to currently knowable science, LeDoux seems most enthralled by empiricism's potential to expand its reach. Synaptic Self ultimately inspires more questions than it answers, but it goes a long way in ordaining the steps to humanity's timeless tango with tautology.