In Dick Swaab’s book ‘We are our Brains’ he talks about how who we are is determined by nature. How free-will is an ‘illusion’. A fascinating concept with some great empirical evidence to back it up. I still however believe that the body is a fantastic tool to help us see what is going on in the unconscious level. If in fact you were born in winter and are ‘more likely to become schizophrenic’, why did you choose to be born in winter? Did you soul choose to experience what it was like to be schizophrenic in this life time?
The Telegraph article bellow gives a fascinating summary into his explanations.
Source: We are our Brains: From the Womb to Alzheimer’s by Dick Swaab, review
In 1947 Lionel Trilling described a reductive “spectre” that, he said, “haunts our culture. People will eventually be unable to say, ‘They fell in love and married’, but will as a matter of course say, ‘Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference’.”
Nowadays neuroscientific explanations for behaviour have largely replaced the Freudian ones Trilling was so suspicious of. We’re more likely to talk about neurons firing than libidinal impulses. But the underlying anxiety he diagnosed remains. We want to believe we are more than our brains. Are we?
Dick Swaab, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam, doesn’t think so. In We Are Our Brains he identifies himself as a “neurocalvinist”. He thinks that everything from gender identity to sexual orientation to a propensity for schizophrenia is neurologically determined in utero. This leads him to make some counter-intuitive pronouncements. If you are born in the winter, Swaab says, you’re more likely to develop schizophrenia. Exercise is bad for you. The bigger your brain the longer you’ll live. Most antidepressants are no more effective than placebos.
Swaab argues that free will is an illusion, and that the social relativism of the Sixties and Seventies, a time when “there was a universal belief in social engineering”, was profoundly misguided. People are born bad or good, mad or sad, and there’s little we can do to change them.
More controversially, Swaab believes mothers who smoke or take drugs or are stressed during pregnancy are more likely to have gay children. Once the brain has developed environmental factors become irrelevant: “even an upbringing in a British boarding school apparently doesn’t make you more likely to be homosexual in adulthood”. Paedophilia, he suggests, is sometimes caused by a similar mechanism – exposure to higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the womb.
He defines transsexuality as a “condition” akin to body integrity disorder (the belief that one of your limbs doesn’t belong to you), and argues that anorexia is a developmental disorder completely unconnected to the fashion industry’s promotion of unrealistic female body images. “Although an eating disorder can lead to you getting a job as a stick-thin model,” he writes, “no one has ever proved that anorexic models cause a spate of eating disorders.”
Predictably, for a fan of Dawkins
, he’s down on religion. During a tour of the Vatican he drips with condescension. John Paul II greets him “in something faintly resembling Dutch”, and there are “terrible murals everywhere”. He argues that children malnourished in the womb due to their mothers fasting during Ramadan have a propensity for anti-social behaviour. (He does not mention that Islamic law discourages pregnant women from fasting.)
Swaab presents his thesis as a liberating and liberalising doctrine. If people are neurologically “programmed” to be gay or straight then condemning them for their sexual orientation is immoral, and trying to “cure” them is doomed to failure. If people are born good or bad then we should give up on the idea of incarceration as punishment.
Swaab presents himself as a taboo-breaking provocateur and much of what he says is intriguing. But his arguments are ill-served by his strident, schoolboyish contrarianism. They’re also fatally undermined by insufficient evidence. The only scientific studies he cites in We Are Our Brains are his own.Instead, most of the book is written as a series of neurological Just-So stories narrated in the manner of knock-knock jokes. “A woman who had a testosterone-producing tumor”, goes a typical report, “found that she missed it after it had been removed, because one of its side effects had been an exceptionally intense sex life.” “While in the grip of a psychosis
,” Swaab writes elsewhere, “one woman believed that she could fly. She threw herself out of the window and was killed.” “One man had visions of a bright light and a figure resembling Jesus,” he says. “He turned out to have a tumor in the temporal lobe that was causing epileptic activity.” It’s all a bit vague.
On the bigger philosophical
questions that attend his thesis – whether mind is identical with brain, for instance – Swaab remains mute. He defines consciousness as “an emergent characteristic generated by the joint functioning of the enormous network of nerve cells”, but tells us nothing about the relationship between this network of cells and the phenomenon we know as consciousness.
When brains go wrong, it’s clear that they have a huge impact on our behaviour. But the really interesting question, one that Swaab doesn’t begin to address, is whether we are only our brains.