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Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are

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Following up his 1996 "The Emotional Brain, " the world-renowned brain expert presents a groundbreaking work that tells a more profound story: how the little spaces between the neurons--the brain's synapses--are the channels through which we think, feel, imagine, act, and remember. In 1996 Joseph LeDoux's "The Emotional Brain" presented a revelatory examination of the biological bases of our emotions and memories. Now, the world-renowned expert on the brain has produced with a groundbreaking work that tells a more profound story: how the little spaces between the neurons-the brain's synapses--are the channels through which we think, act, imagine, feel, and remember. Synapses encode the essence of personality, enabling each of us to function as a distinctive, integrated individual from moment to moment. Exploring the functioning of memory, the synaptic basis of mental illness and drug addiction, and the mechanism of self-awareness, "Synaptic Self" is a provocative and mind-expanding work that is destined to become a classic.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2002

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Joseph E. LeDoux

23 books181 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 81 reviews
Profile Image for Sarah.
249 reviews10 followers
February 25, 2017
In simple terms, this book by neuroscientist LeDoux states that we are who we are because of how our brains are connected. Circuitry is more important than the theory of "chemical/neurotransmitter balance" Although LeDoux points to the importance of neurotransmitters in modulating synaptic transmission, he thinks that the overall connectivity of circuits is more important. At least, that's what I got from the book.

I have to admit to skimming through some parts that were a little above my head, but much of it is perfectly understandable to laypeople, or people in the medical profession. LeDoux points to the research done so far on the brain, and adds to the historical knowledge his own research. He works mainly on the workings of the brain in the presence of fear and states of anxiety, and his findings are based on this research. I had a little trouble reading about the various ways that scientists discover things about the brain. Much of the research is done through animal studies, and often involves destroying parts of the brain to see what happens. (or many times, through learning and conditioning) Monkey and rat research is used mainly, and if you are anti-animal research, you'll find it hard to read about that aspect of the work.

Being a person who has dealt with anxiety and depression, as well as chronic low self-esteem, this book had much that interested me. I knew before this that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and biofeedback worked for me, as well as SSRIs. Now I know why. I also feel a sense of optimism, that I really can change my thinking patterns with some hard work. The brain learns things and it can be hard to unlearn those patterns. But the brilliant thing is that the brain *wants* to learn, so creating new patterns is relatively easy with persistence. This is why I feel that meditation, yoga and overall stress reduction is going to be very important to my overall mental health. Psychology and neuroscience are really trying to accomplish the same thing.

Here's just a snippet of the amazing things he talks about it one section. (paraphrased here):
There's a two regions of your hippocampus called the CA3 region and the dentate gyrus. The hippocampus is known to help with learning and memory processing. When there are elevated cortisol levels, as in Cushing's disease or in chronic anxiety or depressive states, the cells of the CA3 region actually degenerate and die. The cells in the dentate gyrus normally have high rates of neurogenesis, or growth of new cells (which may be key in the forming of new memories or learning). In the presence of high cortisol, these cells do not regenerate. The brains of people with high cortisol have smaller than average hippocampus regions. With therapy or drugs, these regions typically grow again. LeDoux also points here to the work of Mark Sopolosky, who wrote the book "Why zebras don't get ulcers", which is on my reading list.

LeDoux points out that we learn explicitly and implicitly, that is consciously and unconsciously. While we may not be able to control the implicit learning, we certainly can have an effect by purposely thinking in certain ways, a la cognitive behavioral therapy. So "positive thinking" isn't just some hippie guru panacea, it makes real scientific sense. Awesome!

My next book is going to be a book on optimism by Michael J. Fox, because I'd like to read more positive things right now!
Profile Image for Greg.
92 reviews152 followers
August 18, 2009
I'm sometimes told that the popular science books I read don't do an adequate job of relaying the true scientific underbelly of the subject being talked about. That everything is being dumbed down and simplified to reach a wider audience and keep things interesting. While there are certainly elements of truth in that philosophy, I think that's being unfair to many of books that really do a fantastic job of introducing people to these concepts without forcing them to be an expert. I say all that to preface the fact that this is NOT one of those books.

Synaptic Self, while almost certianly a simplified version of what Ledoux understands about the field, is not for the lay reader. Ledoux talks about neurons, action potentials, neurotransmitters and neuromodulation, different areas and structures in the brain, synaptic plasticity, etc...and while he describes difficult concepts in detail, and uses drawings when applicable, if you have no familiarity with the brain or the nervous system coming in I can imagine getting less than intended out of this book(or alternatively it might force you to do side research on your own and be an incredibly valuable learning experience). If you've read Pinker's How the Mind Works, imagine a more neuroscientific explanation of much of the material covered in that book.

Early on Ledoux makes the following statement:

My notion of personality is pretty simple: it's that your "self," the essence of who you are, reflects patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in your brain. Connections between neurons, known as synapses, are the main channels of information flow and storage in the brain. Most of what the brain does is accomplished by synaptic transmission between neurons, and by calling upon the information encoded by past transmission across synapses.

The rest of the book proceeds to delve into the mechanics of this. He splits the brain up into three main systems(cognition, emotion, motivation), describing how each of them work and then explaining how they all work together(though he uses these three as a simple distinction, and doesn't argue there are just three physical systems within the brain). But while there is some serious neuroscience content in here, Ledoux does a respectable job of zooming in and out and speaking at whatever level is appropriate to get his point across. Understanding the self is more than just understanding neurons, it's understanding systems of neurons, and understanding how the functioning of those systems translates into behavior, thoughts and emotions. Ledoux integrates both psychology and philosophy into the conversation where applicable, and has a great natural ability to help the reader make sense of the more difficult issues.

More than anything though, Ledoux's main point is that many of the historical arguments about nature vs. nurture are all asking the wrong question. It's obvious that both are right, but what is important to remember is that underlying instinct, memory, thought, emotion, learning, behavioral change, etc...are the synaptic connections in the brain, and the synaptic changes that occur throughout life. And that if we want to understand how the brain works and how we become who we are, we need to understand how these connections are formed, and how they can be changed.

Profile Image for Christy.
113 reviews275 followers
December 1, 2016
"Cutting edge" in the field of applied neurobiology to psychological-emotional development, and the role of synapses in the brain specifically. There is a bunch of Brain-Based Learning (BBL) in the K-12 classrooms, and not all of it is likely good by way of any grounding in scientific data. Still, the idea of "teaching to the brain" has taken hold. I used this as a text when it came co-teaching an advanced Cognition and Learning class with a SPED professor back when I was an "ED prof" myself. Joseph Ledoux is quite a character with a synthetic mind and an imaginative descriptor of brain workings, and is also a musician who plays in a NYC band when not teaching at NYU. I also heard him at a conference on the brain and education, and he was fantastic! While enjoyed his work immensely, without some background in basic brain neurology, though, it was difficult for a cohort of mostly principals aiming for superintendency jobs to get through and absorb. One great review of the class said "Ledoux? LeDon't!" Loved that.
Profile Image for Virginia.
189 reviews
March 31, 2008
I would put this book into the category of "interesting, but not fun to read." Why? Because I'm interested in all that cool new neuroscience research, but I really had to force myself through some of this. It is very technical, and although it has the appearance of being accessible to the layperson, it truly is not. I have a little background in brain physiology but still found myself having to reread paragraphs and passages to clarify what LeDoux was talking about. The diagrams didn't seem to help much, either. On the upside of things, the chapters on the emotional brain were a little easier to get through.

In the end, I'm not even sure I read the whole book because I ended up skipping around until I found something interesting and understandable. Either I need more neuroscience classes or LeDoux needs to dumb it down to make it accessible to the non-scientists among us.
Profile Image for Mehtap exotiquetv.
383 reviews242 followers
May 31, 2021
Neurowissenschaftler Joseph DeLoux nimmt uns mit in die Welt der Synapsen und erklärt wie diese Neuronen und elektrischen Straßen in unserem Gehirn uns Menschen formen und welche Areale dabei eine Rolle spielen.
Wie funktioniert unser Gedächtnis? Wo werden Emotionen gebildet? Wie entstehen elektrische Impulse? Mit Hilfe der letzten bahnbrechenden Ergebnisse aus der Forschung, erklärt er ein schönes Bild über das größte Mysterium des Lebens. Unser Ich. Dieses Buch ist super für Menschen, die kompakt über das menschliche Gehirn informieren möchten.
Profile Image for David Miller.
308 reviews4 followers
May 6, 2013
I'm not afraid to say that parts of this book were very complicated. In some of the middle chapters, all I could really comprehend was that there sure was a lot of advanced chemistry going on between brain cells. Chemistry was never my best subject.

But the book's central point is very well presented: everything about ourselves is a consequence of how our brains are put together, and how our brains are put together is a consequence of the genes we start with and the fine details of our environment. This fits with what I have come to believe the nature of the mind and the soul to be, so I took to the thesis heartily. The complexity involved in manifesting that principle in a real human brain, however, is nothing short of dazzling.

I particularly found the chapter on mental illnesses to be informative. There's a fashionable backlash these days against the over-medication of America that isn't wholly unjustified. LeDoux admits that drugs which act on large areas of the brain, as today's drugs do, are not able to precisely target the intended brain systems and so cause many unpleasant side effects. But the entire book adds up to a solid defense of the principle that drugs are a legitimate approach to dealing with mental illness. If our memories, attitudes, behaviors, and so on are all tied to synaptic activity, and synaptic activity is electro-chemical in nature, then it stands to reason that chemicals can be used to change the mind in beneficial ways.

This book is very logical and scientific, particularly in its acknowledgment that much remains unknown and that many conclusions cannot be applied universally. There are frequent references to ongoing experiments and studies, testing new dogma and exploring long-standing questions. Some of those questions may even be answered by now, but the sheer number of them means that exciting research will no doubt continue for a very long time. It's that sense of excitement as we discover more and more about how we tick that animates the book, even in the midst of dense technical vocabulary.
Profile Image for Jimmy Ele.
233 reviews89 followers
September 11, 2015
A wealth of information about the brain and the way that it communicates. The main focus of the book is the synaptic connections within the brain. The most interesting chapters for me were: "The Most Unaccountable of Machinery", "Building the Brain, "The Emotional Brain Revisited", and "Synaptic Sickness". I thoroughly enjoyed the description of how the brain is built whilst the baby is developing and further on as it grows into an adult. The beginning chapters were essential in order to get an understanding of the basics of neuroscience. My favorite chapter was the Synaptic Sickness chapter as it deals with psychological problems due to chemical imbalances between synapses beautifully. My only qualms with the book are that it is full of the latest speculation. Many theories are examined fully, and most of them are unproven and have many counter theories vying for supremacy. In conclusion, not much is known about the mysterious space between our neurons deemed synapses, and this book is proof of that lack of knowledge. However, I am grateful for whatever is available to us about the latest developments in this intriguing branch of knowledge and I am much richer in having read this rather than having skipped it.
Profile Image for Layla.
26 reviews
July 6, 2010
An enormous snooze-fest. My dissertation research is essentially about "what makes us who we are" so I was really looking forward to reading this book. LeDoux left whole bodies of research regarding early life experience and how it influences later emotionality and the brain completely untapped. It was more like a textbook with related chapters but nothing that connected it all together into a coherent view-point. Super disappointing.
Profile Image for Ali.
17 reviews2 followers
May 6, 2022
It's a book about the organ that is most associated with a person (or is the person).
It covers a lot of areas and delves into most of them in detail.
A good introduction on the brain structures, its development stages, and evolutionary history.
Reviews the history of neurons, their mechanisms, and how hormones affect them.
There is much on memory: Introduces parts of the brain involved in memory formation and storage and also its chemistry.
How your brain motivates you (or himself) to do things.
Origins of collaboration of chemicals and psychiatry.
Profile Image for Ronnie Li.
6 reviews8 followers
December 7, 2016
I wouldn't say that this is a book to read "for fun." LeDoux does not do a fantastic job of bequeathing his knowledge and the frontiers of neuroscience research to the layperson. This book gets pretty technical; for example, when he mentions Hebbian plasticity and AMPA/NMDA receptors, the average person without a decent neuroscience foundation will likely get lost and ponder its significance. Nevertheless, because I majored in neuroscience at my university, I was more than well prepared to read this book. I enjoyed the prose, although it seemed like a long and dense research paper at times.

This book was actually assigned as a supplementary textbook for my summer neuroscience course when I was a sophomore in high school; therefore, I knew it wasn't supposed to be read for leisure. With no neuroscience background at the time, I found it extremely challenging and put it off for years until I amassed enough knowledge to read it. I'd highly recommend this to those who want a serious, in-depth look at the field of neuroscience. Although this book is old, the same fundamental principles still apply.
Profile Image for M.A. Florence.
Author 15 books9 followers
January 11, 2013
Basically, I was hoping for something a bit lighter. And I was disappointed to read about all the testing on animals.
I like reading about science and the brain but this book was difficult to slog through. It got technical quickly with chemicals and pathways given throughout the book. I learned a lot but was very discouraged that neuroscience studies involve conducting research on animals. The author often referenced how one result was found after putting lesions in mice brains or a drug was found after locking up monkeys in cages to make them aggressive and anxious. Reading this led me to learn about U.S. experimentation on chimpanzees, which I find really upsetting. I can't believe our country still hasn't passed legislation to totally ban research on chimps.
Profile Image for Chrissy.
423 reviews94 followers
August 5, 2010
A wildly educational popular-ISH science book for those somewhere between novice and veteran in the field of neuroscience (basic understanding of psychology and chemistry/biology recommended). LeDoux adeptly and thoroughly covers basics of neuroscience and brain anatomy before exploring both the extremely micro synaptic level and the fairly macro applications to theories of consciousness and self-identity. While he is noticeably stronger in the rigorous scientific aspects of the topic, the broader speculations are still great food for thought. The book is well-written and not overly dense, though I'm hesitant to call it "popular science" as it's not exactly simplified either.
Profile Image for Jim Angstadt.
657 reviews36 followers
April 17, 2015
This book introduces the idea that we, meaning our memory,
is stored in the strength of our synaptic connections.
The author is too verbose to suit me, but that may just
reflect my previous readings.
Bailed half-way through.
226 reviews2 followers
November 8, 2020
An excellent book, which while from 2002 is still relevant. At least for layman, only one mention of computing power showed the book t.o be dated. The author did a good job of educating at a fairly deep level, while keeping the subject attainable. I think that the discussion of motivation may have been the weakest point for me. Motivation is a layered and complex subject when it comes to thinking about human "selves". The author admits to a problem with the research crossing between rats or other animals in a scientific environment and humans, and this deficit was most glaring here. The best takeaways for me were that 1) the actions which take place in a neuron are far more complex than a model of simply triggering action potential might lead you to believe (especially if your background is based on DNNs in computer science) and 2) The greatest difference between higher order mammals (primates/humans) and most others is the integrated circuitry making up the working memory or executive observer. Cool stuff.
15 reviews
June 19, 2018
Hard to get into but that may be because it starts off from the psychology POV before it gets to the real neuroscience, and personally, I find psych a little deadening but I really like neuro. I moved thru it faster after it caught up to relatively present-day research. It presents some interesting revelations and information... this book really made me think. I'd say if the author wants to find a broader audience, the prose could be looser. And this isn't for everyone. It's not graduate level science but there's quite a lot of diagrams and references and abbreviations for specific brain regions, circuits, and geographic areas. So it's not always "entertaining" and unless you really study it, you're not going to remember all those details. So sometimes it's too much. But in general if you really want to know more about the brain without going back to school, and are willing to put in the work for a read like this, it's well worth it.
Profile Image for Shubhang Goswami.
15 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2018
This book is riveting. I had the absolute pleasure reading this. It does get quite technical. It is like a protein bar, very dense, hard to chew, takes time to digest but is packed with goodness. It has a lot of information for a pop science book and is a great way to get introduced to the field of neuroscience. This book has been brilliant, there is so much I learned from this book.

The author provides different views on theories and then gives his own opinion on the controversial theories in question. He does a great job of keeping the discussion as neutral as possible.

This book complements The Emotional Brain, written by the same author. Synaptic self is part 2.

A very good informative book. Please read.
31 reviews
August 12, 2022
Very nice and clear overview of how synapses work and how we are our synapses. I find that this is a quite comforting place from where to build future neuroscientific breakthroughs, that will hopefully contribute to a reliable and grounded discipline for psychologists. I especially liked the mental trilogy idea, I feel that it is a very useful and simple conceptualization of the human brain that anyone can understand
Profile Image for Denis Laesker.
14 reviews
March 3, 2020
This book certainly brings about a lot of insight and information about the brain, mind, and the synapses that make us, well, us. By learning about the underlying mechanisms in which our mind learns and behaves, one can start to understand his, or her, own self. Definitely a re-read after reading some of the supplementary literature.
Profile Image for Asanka.
28 reviews18 followers
October 13, 2019
Deep Learning and its use of artificial neural networks is so mainstream nowadays. Everybody in Computer Science know and use them in one way or another. However, it's funny how little we know about how its biological counterpart - the biological neural network. The fault is on us. We were too much into Mathematics since A/L that we thought Biology is a lesser science. We were mistaken.

If you are learning or using artificial neural networks and always wondered how exactly the same things are already implemented in the natural world, here's a good book to read. Things such as 'activation functions' are actually out there and they are entirely built on chemical building blocks. And they work perfectly and far more better than our artificial stuff.
Profile Image for Mina.
74 reviews8 followers
Want to read
December 24, 2022
So refreshing to read a neuroscientist who just gives you the concepts. I'm tired of books that explain things with convoluted metaphors, seemingly irrelevant personal anecdotes and watered down concepts.
Profile Image for Stacy.
683 reviews
November 23, 2020
Once again not what I was hoping for from LeDoux. After 23 pages I gave up. Too technical, too dry, and this from someone who really does find tedious work relaxing.
18 reviews1 follower
December 23, 2020
An arguement against dualism based off neuroscience research, heavily supported. A theory of mind asa a result of the synaptic operations involving emotions, cognition, and the subconscious
11 reviews
August 23, 2012
It was overall a good book, but it didn't wasn't quite what I thought it was going to be. In my opinion the author suffers from the same problem that most hard core scientists who try to write a pop-science book:an overuse of technical language and the assumption that the reader has the basic knowledge to understand what is being discussed. I'm not implying that the authors do this in a conscious manner, but since they're too immersed in they fields is perfectly normal that (even though they try their best oftentimes) they leave many things out that are essential for the understanding of the subject. This knowledge might even be so embedded in their brains and at the same time be so basic that they don't even "think" about it. Only those few who can truly dominate the art and science of pedagogy can get rid of this problem. Fortunately I have a strong background in biological sciences, so even though I had to struggle with the content I was able to get the most of it. The other error that LeDoux commits is that of giving examples that are too specific and getting too deep into each of them. I understand that this is a very (I'd say extremely) complicated subject, but the generalities can be explained relatively easily and with much more interesting and general examples than the ones he used. Besides, his writing style is also awkward: I felt as if I were reading a scientific paper most of the time. Sometimes he uses entire sentences just to mention the names of the researchers and institutions that made so and so research. This is understandable if you're writing an official paper, but not if you're attempting to convey some scientific knowledge to the layperson. Sometimes he uses entire pages guiding you through some specific circuit with all the back and forth that characterizes our messy brains, and it does so with a very technical language. This kind of "digging" into the intricateness of neuronal paths is what makes very hard to see the overall picture of how neurons make the self. Much of these examples could have been simplified and enriched with some fascinating stories of mental disturbances. Brain diseases, which besides being very interesting, are perfect examples of how the self is ultimately based on the structure of the brain, but the book falls short of these examples too (only one chapter called Synaptic Sickness is devoted to the subject, but most of it is lost in describing neural pathways and very specific biochemical processes).
Conclusion: if you have a background on neurobiology +3/5, if you don't the book is a plain 1/5.
Profile Image for Gerardo.
479 reviews24 followers
October 28, 2015
Questo è un testo divulgativo, ciononostante resta di difficile lettura. Non perché sia particolarmente arzigogolato o ricco di tecnicismi, ma perché va seguito passo passo attraverso la spiegazione di determinati processi biologici. Siamo fatti di tante piccole connessioni, ma leggere l'elenco di queste ultime non è mai un'esperienza granché interessante.

Il testo, però, - e questo è il suo grande pregio - fornisce numerose informazioni di base sulla natura biochimica del cervello. Partire da questo testo permette di capire meglio il mondo delle neuroscienze, anche perché, a volte, altri autori per rendersi più interessanti tralasciano dati tecnici necessari, sicuramente utili ma per forza di cose noiosi per un non addetto ai lavori. Ma non fa male, vista la loro importanza, conoscere quanto meno i rudimenti della biologia del pensiero.

Al di là dei vari tecnicismi, il testo mette ordine tra varie scoperte scientifiche e propone un modello del pensiero umano. Molte delle soluzioni di LeDeux non suoneranno nuove alle orecchie di chi è ben nutrito di filosofia, ma non si può ignorare che stavolta ci siano delle corrispondenze con dati scientifici, frutti di esperimenti che analizzano la chimica del nostro essere.

In estrema sintesi, L. sostiene che il nostro essere sia una commistione di cognizione, emozione e motivazione. Il tutto dipendente sia da strutture biologiche di base sia da esperienze. Non esistono elementi più importanti, noi siamo tutte queste cose e tutte ci condizionano allo stesso modo. Bisogna dire che LeDoux viene dagli studi sulle emozioni, questo rende la sua testimonianza molto interessante perché disfa quel pesante luogo comune che vede le emozioni come qualcosa di inspiegabile. Sono spiegabili, invece, ma sono anche estremamente complesse.

Questo testo è destinato a tutti coloro che vogliono approfondire alcuni aspetti della nostra biologia e a tutti coloro che si interessano di filosofia della mente, ma vogliono integrare quanto sanno con dati scientifici.

E' un capolavoro di chiarezza, ma la tematica non permette chissà quale sfoggio di doti narrative. Che si affronti questo testo con spirito scientifico e si impareranno molte cose.

Profile Image for William.
137 reviews
April 10, 2014
LeDoux has a winner again

Joseph LeDoux has written an exciting book that captures the current state of research in neuroscience. He makes life easy for the lay reader by thoroughly covering not only his own research and theory but that of most other points of view both contemporary and historical thus helping to place his work in a context that gives the reader the feeling that he is reading something on the cutting edge. He is so thorough that one almost thinks that he gives a little too much time to the philosophical approach but at least he stays away from burying the reader in qualia.
In a nut shell, LeDoux makes his argument that Hebbian plasticity is alive and well and that the mechanism for learning and memory is located at the synapses through the action of the neurotransmitters. You almost feel that, by God, he's got it right. The interaction of different neural loci such as the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex are pictured as creating interconnecting networks that craft our responses to the environment, both external and internal. These are all made coherent by wrapping them in the mental trilogy of cognition, emotion and motivation. My only concern is when he mentions the retrieval of stored information and the comparison of present neural information with previously stored experience. This implies that an agent is lurking about conducting these activities. It's the homunculus rearing his ugly head. He also leaves out the interesting research conducted by Benjamin Libet on the disparity between response and the intention to respond. But these are small matters for there is much to fascinate and inform the reader who is fortunate enough to come across this book.
LeDoux also provides an interesting chapter on synaptic sickness. This chapter could stand on it's own though it flows elegantly from the previous theory. It gives a cogent explanation for mental illness and the promising approaches to it's treatment at the level of neurotransmitters and synapses.
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