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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Journalist Johnson, whose Emergence
(2001) explored collective behavior, here branches into another arena of emergent phenomena, our brains. Volunteering himself as a test subject, Johnson gallivants to a series of experimenters in neuroscience and wires his head up to their machines. Consciousness is explicitly not his topic; rather, Johnson hunts for neurochemical and physiological bases for feelings of conscious experience involving attention, emotion, and memory. Along the way, Johnson explains how the hormone oxytocin contributes to feelings of attachment; how new biofeedback technologies can help people rewire their brains; the science behind our ability to read other people's expressions; and how understanding brain chemistry may well lead to an understanding of dreams and phobias. Spreading a gospel to be curious about one's own mind, Johnson, aided by personal anecdotes about, for example, the length of his attention span, will snare even those unfamiliar with brain science. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved