Given the opportunity to watch the inner workings of his own brain, Steven Johnson jumps at the chance. He reveals the results in Mind Wide Open
, an engaging and personal account of his foray into edgy brain science. In the 21st century, Johnson observes, we have become used to ideas such as "adrenaline rushes" and "serotonin levels," without really recognizing that complex neurobiology has become a commonplace thing to talk about. He sees recent laboratory revelations about the brain as crucial for understanding ourselves and our psyches in new, post-Freudian ways. Readers shy about slapping electrodes on their own temples can get a vicarious scientific thrill as Johnson tries out empathy tests, neurofeedback, and fMRI scans. The results paint a distinct picture of the author, and uncover general brain secrets at the same time. Memory, fear, love, alertness--all the multitude of states housed in our brains are shown to be the results of chemical and electrical interactions constantly fed and changed by input from our senses. Mind Wide Open
both satisfies curiosity and provokes more questions, leaving readers wondering about their own gray matter. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
It's the rare popular science book that not only gives the reader a gee-whiz glimpse at an emerging field, but also offers a guide for incorporating its new insights into one's own worldview. Johnson, the former editor of the Webzine Feed and author of the acclaimed Emergence (2001), does just that in his fascinating, engagingly written new survey. Applying what he calls "the `long-decay' test" to gauge the information's enduring relevance, he chooses a handful of current neuroscience concepts with the potential to transform our thinking about emotions, memories and consciousness. In a charming device, the writer subjects himself to the latest in neurological testing techniques, from biofeedback to the latest forms of MRI, and shares the insight he gains into the moment-by-moment workings of his own brain, from the adrenaline spike he gets from making jokes to his intense focus when composing sentences. The structure is fluid almost to a fault, as Johnson illustrates, elaborates on and returns to his view of the brain as a modular, associative network, "more like an orchestra than a soloist." He introduces the amygdala, for example, as a small region in the brain implicated in our ongoing, nearly automatic interpretation of the emotional states of others (called "mind reading"), a function impaired in autistic individuals. But the amygdala, the brain's source of "gut feelings," returns in the following chapter as important in encoding fearful memories, a connection that helps explain why fearful or traumatic memories are so much more tenacious and detailed than emotionally neutral ones. Always considerate of his audience, Johnson weaves disparate strands of brain research and theory smoothly into the narrative (only a concluding section on Freud's modern legacy feels like a tangent), which leaves readers' minds more open than they were.
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