Book review: Synaptic Self

All students of the brain will want to read Joseph LeDoux’ Synaptic Self, a highly competent, very readable tour of the state of current knowledge about neurological functioning.

The book gets dense occasionally, and in the interest of presenting all relevant scientific findings the book can read like an annotated bibliography in places, but overall the coverage is good, the perspective objective.

To take just one example, I was particularly intrigued by the precise explanation of how Hebbian plasticity functions at the level of AMPA receptors and NMDA receptors (sometimes called “Hebbosomes”), and enzymes called protein kinases.

Given LeDoux’ work on emotion, it’s not surprising that his thinking in this area is especially lucid. The distinction between “feeling” and “emotion”, which he uses to refer to “the process by which the brain determines or computes the value of a stimulus”, seems highly useful.

Initially I was put off by the name of this book, and I have to say that the author’s ambitious attempt to show how the synapses add up to the “self” does fall flat, as we can see from the weak conclusion:

You are your synapses. They are who you are.

But the book remains one of the best introductions to the brain for the knowledgeable amateur that I’ve seen, although it hardly mentions religion, other than in the context of some early musings about religion’s view of the self. and thus will not provide much grist for the neurotheological mill.

(Numenware was down for almost two days due to a server crash. My apologies for the inconvenience.)

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