Why are many people so different? Neuroscientist says it starts in womb

New book should help to sweep away prejudice

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Dick Swaab’s new book: We Are Our Brains: From the Womb to Alzheimer’s

A new book by a Dutch neuroscientist will lead to better understanding of people who are different:  Homosexual, obese, bipolar. It’s not their fault.

Misconceptions lead to prejudice.  Homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals and sufferers of obesity, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses can not change themselves.They are what they are because of what happened to them in the womb, the neuroscientist writes.

We Are Our Brains is by Dick Swaab, who has been director of the Netherlands Institute for Brain Research for 27 years.  It is available from the soon-to-be-ex-Dymocks in Sai Kung.

“The presence or absence of testosterone makes the child develop male or female sex organs between the sixth and twelfth week of pregnancy, due to a male baby producing a peak of testosterone or a female body not doing so.   It’s in that period that the feeling of being a man or women — our gender identity –is fixed in our brains for the rest of our lives.”

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Dr Dick Swaab

Dr Swaab writes the outmoded notion that we are free to choose our sexual orientation and that homosexuality is therefore a wrong choice is still causing a lot of misery.

Transsexuality — where a man feels he is really a woman or vice versa — is due to tiny variations in genes associated with the effect of hormones on brain development in the womb. Male to female transsexuality occurs in one in 10,000 individuals and female to male transsexuality in one in 30,000.

The all-too-common problem of obesity also has a strong genetic component, Dr Swaab says.  Studies of twins, adopted children and families show that about 80 per cent of variation in body weight is determined by genetic factors.  Low socioeconomic status increases the risk of obesity. If a foetus’s developing brain registers food scarcity it will calibrate systems to retain every calorie that is consumed.

This reviewer was once critical after a couple of stiff drinks of an obese couple. This was wrong, based on misconception and prejudice. I apologise now.

There are many good quotations in the book:

“Altering the course of rivers and moving mountains is easy. Changing someone’s character is impossible.” (Chinese saying.)

“The brain?  That’s my second favourite organ.” (Woody Allen.)

“An intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex.”

“Death is peculiar. First you make a fantastic organism, then you throw it away again seventy years later.  It is a rotten trick, and if God existed I’d like to meet him in a dark alley to have a little chat about it.” (Midas Dekkers.)

We Are Our Brains is a technical book, but still understandable to laymen. It’s worth studying. There are fascinating nuggets in it throughout. Most books are forgotten in 48 hours, at least by me. This one will stay with you.

— Trevor Bailey

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