The more we learn about the human brain, it seems, the less we know for sure. In the 50 years he's focused on it, Dutch neuroscientist D.F. Swaab has studied the brain at every stage of being. We Are Our Brains is a “neurobiography” of the brain, but it reads more like a gazetteer—you can start anywhere and be assured of finding something interesting.
Brains was first published in the Netherlands, where it spent more than two years on the bestseller list, and it's easy to see why: Despite the complexity of the subject matter, Swaab makes it accessible and reader-friendly and admits freely that science can't always explain why things work because we simply don't know. In the case of electroshock therapy, “Perhaps it's a bit like when your computer seizes up: You switch the power off, switch it back on again, and hey presto, it works again.” Who knew that “Hey, presto,” was a diagnostic tool?
From early childhood development through the ravages of dementia, Swaab chronicles the life of the brain, and when his focus remains there, the book is a pleasure. Digressions into his personal views on recreational drugs, religion and homosexuality slow things down and are neither supported or refuted by his research as presented here. There should be plenty to say about the brain without such questionable asides.
Swaab is upfront about the limits of our knowledge, and wants We Are Our Brains not to be viewed as a source of answers, but instead as a spur to asking better questions. These could lead to medical breakthroughs, or just a greater appreciation for the world's most sophisticated and energy-efficient supercomputer, which happens to be resting between your ears. Whether We Are Our Brains or not is still open to debate, but Swaab's research helps illuminate the vast network of tasks and functions that fall under its jurisdiction, and it's an impressive list indeed.