Book Report: Mind Wide Open

Mind Wide Open“So this is your brain, in all its multiplicity. You are part reptile, part mammal, part primate, part homo sapiens. you are a twitchy amygdala; you are a dopamine fiend; you are under the spell of oxytocin. You are an unthinkably complex series of connections, of links, spun together by your genes and by your lived experience. You are a walking assembly of patterns and wave, clusters of neurons firing in sync with one another. You are both one and many at the same time.” (Mind Wide Open)

Title: Mind Wide Open – Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

Author: Steven Johnson

Publisher: Scribner

Publication Date: 2004

Origin: After reading How We Got To Now, I bought Steven Johnson’s entire catalogue.

Summary: In Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson takes us on a journey through the human mind, and the brain within which the mind manifests. Part anatomy lesson, part neurochemistry introduction, part psychology primer, Mind Wide Open explores the greyish goop between our ears.

Johnson introduces us to the underlying structure of our brain, and explains how the component parts come together and communicate to create our moods, memories, phobias, emotions, and more. This journey takes bounces us between the latest brain science, the historical foundations of Freudian psychoanalysis, and the evolutionary roots of our home sapiens brain, with stops in a wide range of related disciplines.

Lest this mixing of neuroscience and psychology offend you, Johnson explains the title in the first entry in the Notes section at the back of the book:

There is a widely recognized distinction in the brain sciences and in psychology between “mind” and “brain.” The former refers to the experiences we have direct access to – drives, sensations, fears, memories – while the brain is everything behind the curtain: neurons and neurotransmitters and synapses. One way of thinking about the relationships between the two – using language from my last book – is to consider the mind an emergent property of the brain: a whole that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. So the title is not intended to suggest a focus on mind over brain, but rather an opening up of the mind that lets us see the brain’s activity in new light.

My Take: While Mind Wide Open didn’t keep me nearly as captivated as How We Got to Now and Emergence, I still found it enlightening and enjoyable. I think it really comes down to my own interest in the topic: I’m somewhat interested in neuroscience, but not especially interested, so Johnson’s longer explanations and examples – things that would probably be welcomed by the avid reader – were, for me, needles extensions.

That said, I did enjoy the subject matter; it just got a bit detailed and long at times…for me.

I tend to be quite introspective, and I understand my self, my moods, etc. quite well. What Mind Wide Open added to that understanding is a breakdown of the brain components and the chemicals involved.

I should also say, though, that I did particularly enjoy the section on attention, and read several of the topical pages a few times (perhaps due in part to me reading that part on a flight, so I was finding it hard to focus…how very appropriate).

[As a fun aside: on that same flight mentioned above, the gentleman next to me saw the cover and asked what I thought of the book. It turns out that his daughter is a neuroscientist.]

Read This Book If: …you want to gain a deeper understanding of your ‘self’, both mind and brain, and all the wonderful components (both psychological and anatomical).

Notes and Quotes:

  • p20, after describing our innate ability to interpret emotion, intent, thoughts, etc. of others, which is of obvious importance for a social animal: “It turns out that one of the human brain’s greatest evolutionary achievements is its ability to model the mental events occurring in other brains.”

“It turns out that one of the human brain’s greatest evolutionary achievements is its ability to model the mental events occurring in other brains…Mindreading is literally part of our nature.”

  • p22: “Mindreading is literally part of our nature. We do it more effortlessly, and with more nuance, than any other species on the planet. We construct working hypotheses about what’s going on in other people’s heads almost as readily as we convert oxygen into carbon dioxide.”
  • p26, sounds a bit like Pixar’s Inside Out“And herein lies lesson one of that office party encounter: your brain is not a general-purpose computer with one unified central processor. It is an assemblage of competing subsystems – sometimes called ‘modules’ – specialized for particular tasks. Most of the time, we only notice these modules when their goals are out of sync. When they work together, they coalesce into a unified sense of self.”
  • p59, friggin’ (albeit useful) amygdala! “Our brains are designed to take note during traumatic events of all sensory inputs – albeit in a low-resolution form – on the off chance that some stray element will turn out to be a good predictor of future threats. If that means we develop an irrational fear of babbling brooks, and an entirely rational fear of rattling, so be it.”
  • p63, after describing how the amygdala triggers a fear response when replaying traumatic memories, and how in this manner the simple act of remembering can heighten or create phobias: “If after the fact you can keep your amygdala from underlining the memory, you can potentially ward off a phobic reaction.”
  • p89: “Even if the proverbial man on the street continues to think of attention as a unified thing, the neuroscientists and psychologists now know it to be a collection of different skills, sometimes overlapping and sometimes not. The concept of attention is a prisoner of our language: we think of these different skills as qualitatively alike because we have one word that embraces them all.”
  • p90: “Beyond sensory data, the component parts of attention revolve around how the information itself is processed in the brain. ‘Sustain’ is your ability to remain focused on a single object or task for extended periods without becoming distracted. You might be great at sustaining olfactory attention, but your visual system might be easily diverted by new stimuli.”
  • p90, it’s interesting, almost philosophical, to ponder this point: “At any given moment, so much data about the external world enters your brain through your sensory channels that the key proficiency of consciousness is not the ability to perceive the external world but rather the ability to shut so much of it out.”

“At any given moment, so much data about the external world enters your brain through your sensory channels that the key proficiency of consciousness is not the ability to perceive the external world but rather the ability to shut so much of it out.”

  • p90: “The Danish writer Tor Norretranders calls this the ‘user illusion’: you think being conscious means perceiving everything around you, but in fact it means perceiving small slices of reality and still being able to switch back and forth between them with extraordinary ease. That switching is essential to the illusion of consciousness, but it can lead to sustain problems as well.”
  • p93: “The attention system works as a kind of assembly line: higher-level functions are built on top of the lower-level functions. So if you have problems encoding, you’ll almost certainly have problems with supervisory attention. When people notice attention impairments, they’re usually detecting problems with the focus/execute or the supervisory levels, but the original source of the problem may well be farther down the line.”
  • p105, on the importance of learning how to control your brain so that you can efficiently identify and switch between functional modes: “There are modes, and then there’s mode switching. Both areas are essential to learning how to use your brain.”
  • p115: “When you think about love and attachment from this perspective, love starts to look like a kind of solution to an exceptionally difficult problem: getting organisms to take care of other organisms even if it’s not in their direct best interest to do so. New parents will recognize this insight immediately; there are days (or more likely nights) when you look down at the screaming, defecating life-form on the changing table and you think, Why am I doing this? The neurocircuitry of love is evolution’s way of persuading you to stick it out.”
  • p135, quoting Aldous Huxley: “In one way or another, all our experiences are chemically conditioned, and if we imagine that some of them are purely ‘spiritual,’ purely ‘intellectual,’ purely ‘aesthetic,’ it is merely because we have never troubled to investigate the internal chemical environment at the moment of their occurrence.”
  • p140-141: “Learning about your internal brain chemistry is more than just memorizing terms. Most important, it involves learning and recognizing the side effects and subtle properties of your body’s drugs. You can’t necessarily erase those side effects just by understanding them, but you can put them in context, and anticipate the ways in which they will likely alter your judgment.”
  • p147…I remind myself of this phenomenon in those rare occasions when I’m feeling down about something, and it gets me feeling down about something else. Recognizing that the associated negativity is just my brain being a jerk, and that I’ll feel better soon is a powerful escape from the doldrums. “The feeling that everything just seems to be lining up for us after we get a piece of welcome news, or the sense that death and illness are everywhere after we attend the funeral of a good friend – these phenomena are both usually illusions, conjured up by the brain’s knack for association. Our emotional state skews our sense of perspective by seeking out memories that match our current mind-set instead of a balanced, representative sample.”

“Our emotional state skews our sense of perspective by seeking out memories that match our current mind-set instead of a balanced, representative sample.”

  • p151 introduced me to a fun term, “l’esprit d’escalier”, which literally means “the wit of the staircase”. Defined by the Oxford dictionary as “An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one’s way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room.”
  • p185 mentions that, “The amygdala now teeters on the verge of becoming a household term.” I’d say that’s true, at least for people who read books like this, like Seth Godin’s Linchpin, and so on. The same passage goes on to say that, “Google now reports that 103,000 pages on the Web mention oxytocin.” Recall that this book was first published in 2004. I just ran the search now and got more than 6 million pages. Yep, that’s a bit of an increase.
  • p209: “So this is your brain, in all its multiplicity. You are part reptile, part mammal, part primate, part homo sapiens. you are a twitchy amygdala; you are a dopamine fiend; you are under the spell of oxytocin. You are an unthinkably complex series of connections, of links, spun together by your genes and by your lived experience. You are a walking assembly of patterns and wave, clusters of neurons firing in sync with one another.”
  • p210 continues: “You are both one and many at the same time.”

“You are both one and many at the same time.”

  • p211, for anyone who was upset by the quote from p115: “It doesn’t make me love my son any less, standing there in the dark at the side of the crib, knowing something more about where love comes from.”
  • p213, quoting Steven Pinker “Good reductionism (also called hierarchical reductionism) consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them. The building blocks used by one field are put under a microscope by another. The black boxes get opened; the promissory notes get cashed. A geographer might explain why the coastline of Africa fits into the coastline of the Americas by saying that the landmasses were once adjacent but set on different plates, which drifted apart. The question of shy the plates move gets passed on to the geologists, who appeal to an upwelling of magma that pushes them apart. As for how the magma got so hot, they call in the physicists to explain the reaction in the Earth’s core and mantle. None of the scientists is dispensable. An isolated geographer would have to invoke magic to move the continents, and an isolated physicist could not have predicted the shape of South America.”
  • p214 closes things off: “The brain is the beginning of human culture, which makes culture an outgrowth of the brain’s biology, like a bloom on a vine: more beautiful than its support system, to be sure, but shaped by that system nonetheless. To grasp the true story of our lives in its entirety, we have to move beyond the bloom, past the poetry and the philosophy and the Henry James novels, down to the level of our brains in themselves as they really are. That this is even possible is one of the great miracles of our time. The mind is now open to us in ways that exceed the wildest dreams of poets and philosophers. Why not peer inside?”
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Posted in Books, Everything, Math and Science
2 comments on “Book Report: Mind Wide Open
  1. […] is that? Well, if you’ve read Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open, then you’ll be screaming “Oxytocin!” at the top of your lungs, and everyone […]

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