Hannah Critchlow
Hodder & Stoughton
2019 | 256pp | £20
ISBN  9781473659285

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An image showing the book cover of The Science of Fate

What makes us who we are? Are our thoughts and lifestyle choices hard-wired into our DNA, or are we the product of our upbringing and environment? Was I really predetermined to eat that entire pack of Jaffa Cakes for breakfast this morning? These are the kinds of questions that neuroscientist and science outreach fellow Hannah Critchlow ambitiously seeks to answer in her new book, The Science of Fate, as she invites you to embark with her on a fascinating voyage into the depths of the human mind.

The concept of fate has been around since the ancient Greeks, persisting through literature and folklore for about 3000 years. Whether or not we have the power to influence our own destiny is mind-boggling to think about, and has been a topic of discussion for years. Critchlow explains that everything – from our genetic lineage to our childhood upbringing, the friends we make and the risks we take – has the power to shape our brain and alter our perception of the world around us, influencing our thoughts and actions without us even knowing.

Critchlow explores how fundamental desires such as our favourite foods, our choice of partner and our hopes and dreams, as well as the more complex parts of our life like our career choices, religious beliefs, and tendency to drink alcohol or take drugs, are effectively programmed into our brain’s circuit board.

So does this mean that we should all just take our hands off the wheel and surrender ourselves to the unfaltering path laid before us by fate itself? Well, not exactly. The human brain is an unfathomably complex machine, made up of 100 billion neurons (give or take a few billion), each connected to thousands of others – so it’s no wonder that the big mushy mass makes a few of its own shortcuts by establishing repeating thought patterns. Critchlow considers whether or not we can change our mind and completely reverse these learned behaviours.

Still, to the average pessimist like myself, it could seem like this makes for some quite bleak reading. But the down-to-earth nature of Critchlow’s writing is consistently engaging. She succeeds remarkably at creating a low barrier of entry, even for less scientifically literate readers with little more than a curiosity. The earlier chapters even led me to an unexpectedly deep and personal introspection into why my own mind functions the way it does.

‘It’s no exaggeration to say that we are living in the era of the brain,’ Critchlow says, and she’s absolutely right. Neurology and genomics have come a long way in the past few decades, and the The Science of Fate provides an excellent overview of how we can use these developments to understand some of the human mind’s greatest intricacies. It’s a fantastic point of entry for anyone interested in the human brain.