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We Are Our Brains by D.F. Swaab: A Disappointing Ode to the Western Materialism

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Topic: Science  |  Series: Reflections
This book caught my attention recently in a bookstore in Amsterdam. Already the title is somehow provocative and even though I don’t identify myself with it at all, I did not hesitate a while to add this piece to my "brainy bookcase". The book promised to explain why the brain and different chemical processes within it form our personalities.

I do not really find useful to write down something that has already been written. I found a few reviews of this book on internet. This one makes the point just as I would make it: The neurocalvinist Swaab and his efforts to limit our existence to chemicals produced in and by our brains.

To be honest, I found the first pages of the book quite impressive. However, the self-explanatory stories that started to pile up to support some of the Swaab’s findings started to be somehow suspicious after a short while. Three chapters completely blew my mind further away: 15 – Neurotheology: The Brain and Religion, 16 – There isn’t More Between Heaven and Earth… and 17 – Free Will, a Pleasant Illusion. Especially chapter 16 excited me immensely. I had hard time to finish it without exploding.

I am always keen on discussions about the relationship between science & religion and spirituality. Being myself a scientist with a strong inclination to spirituality (or being an experimental philosopher, how I prefer to call myself), I have never really seen a reason why science and spirituality should be on fight. I rather perceive them as the Jin & Jang of the world: on one hand standing in the opposition & making each other complete on the other. I feel a huge difference between saying "spirituality" and "religion", hence I appreciated Swaab’s use of the latter in chapter 15. In fact, I agree with a few hints about religion making the humankind to behave as a herd. I certainly do not need a church to be able to judge what I should do in certain situations.

Chapter 17 was a polemic about whether we have a free will, thus whether we have "our lives in our hands". OK, interesting. That debate has been on the table since the Middle Ages. Whatever. Just one point, Mr. Swaab, the fact Spinoza wrote something does not make it the eventual Truth. And actually it was not a polemic - it was just a summary of arguments to support the opinion that we do NOT have a free will and that we have our lives preprogrammed in our brains.

Having just delineate myself as a spiritualist (with inclination to witchcraft and fairy tales) my thoughts and imagination reach far beyond the borders pinpointed by the materialistic society. Hence reading chapter number 16 felt like a sting. Swaab’s uses the word "arrogant" to describe the folks who think/dream/feel there actually is/might be "something between the Heaven and the Earth". But the Arrogance is just a second name of the whole book! Mr. Swaab, the Western scientist who got it all right! Sure…

The highlights of the book are the pages within chapter 16 where Swaab writes about traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture and especially about the herbal therapy. Really, I had to take brakes to first take a deep breath and then just to laugh. He puts the whole concept of so called alternative medicine down just for one reason effectively: it is not the Western world style. How narrow-minded! Describing herbal therapy on four pages using a few arguments that "prove" the herbs being ineffective in most cases and toxic in many. Using the same arguments and borrowing a few stories I could put down the whole concept of Western medicine in five minutes!

Finis coronat opus: Swaab ends chapter 16 by coming up with a cheerful statement: "The important point is that TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) is now being investigated using controlled, Western methods…" Sure, let’s judge everything that does not come from the West, let’s improve everything and everyone by Westernization, let’s ignore all that lies outside of the mainstream, let’s spit on everything and everyone that is not scientific enough, on everything that can’t be measured. How disappointing a book eventually!

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