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Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life [Hardcover]

Steven Johnson
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 27 2004
BRILLIANTLY EXPLORING TODAY'S CUTTING-EDGE BRAIN RESEARCH, "MIND WIDE OPEN" IS AN UNPRECEDENTED JOURNEY INTO THE ESSENCE OF HUMAN PERSONALITY, ALLOWING READERS TO UNDERSTAND THEMSELVES AND THE PEOPLE IN THEIR LIVES AS NEVER BEFORE.Using a mix of experiential reportage, personal storytelling, and fresh scientific discovery, Steven Johnson describes how the brain works -- its chemicals, structures, and subroutines -- and how these systems connect to the day-to-day realities of individual lives. For a hundred years, he says, many of us have assumed that the most powerful route to self-knowledge took the form of lying on a couch, talking about our childhoods. The possibility entertained in this book is that you can follow another path, in which learning about the brain's mechanics can widen one's self-awareness as powerfully as any therapy or meditation or drug.In "Mind Wide Open, " Johnson embarks on this path as his own test subject, participating in a battery of attention tests, learning to control video games by altering his brain waves, scanning his own brain with a $2 million fMRI machine, all in search of a modern answer to the oldest of questions: who am I?Along the way, Johnson explores how we "read" other people, how the brain processes frightening events (and how we might rid ourselves of the scars those memories leave), what the neurochemistry is behind love and sex, what it means that our brains are teeming with powerful chemicals closely related to recreational drugs, why music moves us to tears, and where our breakthrough ideas come from.Johnson's clear, engaging explanation of the physical functions of the brain reveals not only the broad strokes of our aptitudes and fears, our skills and weaknesses and desires, but also the momentary brain phenomena that a whole human life comprises. Why, when hearing a tale of woe, do we sometimes smile inappropriately, even if we don't want to? Why are some of us so bad at remembering phone numbers but brilliant at recognizing faces? Why does depression make us feel stupid?To read "Mind Wide Open" is to rethink family histories, individual fates, and the very nature of the self, and to see that brain science is now personally transformative -- a valuable tool for better relationships and better living.

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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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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 Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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I'm gazing into a pair of eyes, scanning the arch of the brow, the hooded lids, trying to gauge whether they're signaling defiance or panic. Read the first page
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Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I read this book before Steven Johnson's later works, The Ghost Map (2006) and Where Good Ideas Come From (2011) and then re-read recently, before composing this commentary. Because Johnson is a very serious thinker with an almost insatiable curiosity, he devotes uncommon time and thought to what he writes and draws heavily on a wealth of secondary sources that he duly acknowledges. For this book, there are generously annotated notes (Pages 217-255) and an extensive bibliography (Pages 257-262). Other reviews have offered insightful reasons for holding this book in high regard. I agree with those reasons and see no need to recycle them now.

Here in Dallas, there is a Farmer's Market near the downtown area where several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I offer a selection of brief passages representative of the high quality of Johnson's skills.

'Unlike so many technoscie3ntific advances, the brain sciences and their imaging technologies are, almost by definition, a kind of mirror. They capture what our brains are doing and reflect that information back to us. You gaze into the glass, and the reflection says to you, 'Here is your brain.' This book is the story of my journey into that mirror.' (Page 17)

'The attention system works as a kind of assembly line: higher-level functions are built on top of 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 supervisory levels, but the original source of the problem may well be farther down the chain, or it might be localized to a particular sensory channel.
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5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED IT ! Dec 16 2009
Easy to understand for beginners in neuro psychology....very interesting for advanced people too ! Witty, well written and very accurate.
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5.0 out of 5 stars a pleasant symphony Dec 2 2007
A highly entertaining, thought provoking, and pleasant read. It's sort of a blend of science and popular philosophy, the musings of a creative and bright guy. Mr. Johnson addresses a subject that is of great interest to me, namely neurotransmitter systems such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. He also touches upon Peter Kramer's "Listening to Prozac" and the neurotransmitter personality model of C. Robert Cloninger. Mr. Johnson points out that low serotonin may be the cause of the psychological condition of rejection sensitivity, although this may actually be caused by a high level of norepinephrine as well. My only significant criticism is that Mr. Johnson may be speculating a bit much, and making somewhat of sweeping generalizations to suit his own ideas. Nonetheless, this book is well worth reading. Author of Adjust Your Brain: A Practical Theory for Maximizing Mental Health.
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I'd recommend this highly to anyone who wants a lucidly written book on what we know about the brain. Actually I'd go further than that. The author spells out how neural chemistry shapes our emotions and our behaviour. This book is a nuts-and-bolts owner's manual to everyone who has a brain. Philosophers have always urged us to "know ourselves". Science is now at the point where the beginnings of wisdom can start with an understanding of the amygdala and the role of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and norepinephrine. The only reason I don't give this book five stars is because of the last chapter where the author attempts to "reconcile" neuroscience with Freud. This is like trying to reconcile modern chemistry with Aristotle, or astronomy with Ptolemy, not particularly interesting.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Don't Stop There! July 1 2004
A delight and a disappointment. Steven Johnson opens the door (briefly) to many of the brain's multi-level functions and then closes it before the reader can fully grasp the significance and inter-relation of the areas and functions. True, the end-papers do help but I'm still left than more questions than an answers. Maybe it's really a "teaser" for the sequel.
Still, I would recommend it for anyone like myself who is interested in the how the brain functions but doesn't have a Phd in the neurosciences.
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Maybe I shouldn't dock the book a star or two on account of the sheer drudgery and pointlessness of the final 35+ pages, but unfortunately, it was like having a tasty meal and then finding a cockroach in your dessert. I don't know whether the publisher insisted on the author tacking on the Conclusion section or if it was more organically contrived by the author himself, but it doesn't work. We have essentially up until page 183 some interesting anecdotes and introspections from the author related to developments in brain science. These I enjoyed quite a bit. Johnson took the tact, fittingly, of an investigative reporter in subjecting himself to neurofeedback measures and MRI scans. I found it very interesting to hear about procedures in great detail that have been heretofore only terms in passing to me. His writing style is fluid, and he manages to not get overly-techie in his descriptions. He dotes perhaps a little too much on his gift of writing, but while a tad annoying, that was certainly a forgivable sin.
It's when we get to that rather lengthy Conclusion section that Johnson hits the wall and seems suddenly out of his element and expertise. At least my expectation was that he would synthesize his analysis from the previous chapters into some kind of cogent summary or at least speculate based on his findings about the path forward for neuroscience. Instead, it becomes largely an odd hommage to Freudian ideas, purveying Freud as a greater visionary than he's been given credit in recent years. It was tedious and not particularly insightful. For one, the author clearly recognizes the infirmity of what he's saying.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Ask The Man Who Owns One
It is the most complicated object in the solar system, and each of us gets to carry one around at all times. Read more
Published on June 2 2004 by R. Hardy
1.0 out of 5 stars What a disappointment.
I really expected to like this work, but I was sadly disappointed to find a book about the brain that's neither well-written nor informative. Read more
Published on June 1 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Open wide the mind's black box.
In MIND WIDE OPEN, Steven Johnson gives new meaning to the phrase, "you ought to have your head examined. Read more
Published on May 15 2004 by G. Merritt
5.0 out of 5 stars Features cutting-edge brain research
Steven Johnson's study of the neuroscience of everyday life features cutting-edge brain research, blending experiential reporting and personal storytelling with scientific insights... Read more
Published on May 5 2004 by Midwest Book Review
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read into some aspects of mind's functioning
The author got curious about how his brain (and human brains in general) worked. He decided to find out. Read more
Published on April 1 2004 by GD
5.0 out of 5 stars Dr. Michael L. Johnson
In one word.......Brilliant! If you're interested in why we do the things we do, author Steven Johnson covers it. Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2004 by Michael L. Johnson
4.0 out of 5 stars A great start and a refreshing perspective
Johnson does a good job of taking concepts that could potentially be very confusing, and lays them out in an easy to read format. Read more
Published on Feb. 24 2004 by Mark Rockwell
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