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SYNAPTIC SELF by Joseph LeDoux


How Our Brains Become Who We Are

by Joseph LeDoux

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2002
ISBN: 0-670-03028-7
Publisher: Viking

The author of The Emotional Brain (1996) elaborates on the theory that the particular patterns of synaptic connections in our brain provide the keys to who we are.

LeDoux (Science/NYU) begins with a short course on what neurons are, how synapses connect them, and why these connections are key to the brain’s many functions. He follows that with a discussion of brain development, explaining how nature and nurture together shape the synaptic organization of the brain. Genes make the proteins that determine how the neurons are wired together, and experiences create changes in these arrangements. Synapses, the junctions between neurons, encode and store information, which is accessible to us through memory. Without learning and memory, LeDoux points out, the self would be an empty expression of our genetic constitution. He sets himself the technical task of explaining just how neuronal circuits are modified by what we learn and remember; he considers how the brain systems that underlie thinking, emotion, and motivation develop, interact with, and influence each other to make us who we are. Arguing that synaptic changes underlie mental illness, LeDoux looks at the implications of his synaptic theory to the understanding and treatment of schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders. In addition to describing research in his own lab, he discusses the work of his predecessors and his colleagues in the brain sciences. To keep the sometimes dauntingly technical presentation as clear as possible for those without a background in neuroscience, the author has supplied pared-down line drawings accompanied by straightforward captions; additional helpful background information, complete with suggested readings, is included from time to time in boxed inserts.

While the general reader may find portions of the text challenging, LeDoux offers a fascinating view into that “most unaccountable of machinery,” the human brain.