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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
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ask The Man Who Owns One June 2 2004
It is the most complicated object in the solar system, and each of us gets to carry one around at all times. The complications of the human brain, however, have ensured that among all the organs of the body or other objects of investigation, it is the slowest to yield its secrets. Especially over the past two decades there have been intense inquiry and surprising new tools for studying the brain, and in _Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life_ (Scribner), Steven Johnson has made himself a test subject for various means of looking at the brain. He is a technology writer for Discover magazine, so he gets to try out gadgets for which most of us will never be guinea pigs. His is a personal view of a universally fascinating subject, and a fine introduction to current brain science for those not familiar with the field.
The tests Johnson puts himself through and describes so openly are good subjects for his amused reflection. For instance, a few years ago he was hooked up to a biofeedback machine, sensors attached to hands and forehead. The machine was set to monitor adrenaline levels. He felt nervous, and as is his habit, he deflected the nervousness by making jokes, to the audience of the biofeedback guy. (His writing is loaded with good humor, too.) And every joke he made showed up on the monitor as an adrenaline spike; suddenly the jokes "... seemed less like casual attempts at humor and more like a drug addict's hungering for a new fix." Here was a little chemical subroutine his brain had been putting itself through every day for almost all his life, and he had not known a thing about it. He still could not explain why the adrenaline rush felt the way it did, but that's not important.
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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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5.0 out of 5 stars Open wide the mind's black box. May 15 2004
In MIND WIDE OPEN, Steven Johnson gives new meaning to the phrase, "you ought to have your head examined." Through his guided journey into the depths of the human brain, he not only reveals how cutting-edge neuroscience presents us with a new set of tools for understanding our minds (p. 184), but he also reveals how a more informed understanding of the "brain's internal architecture" can change the ways we think about ourselves (p. 8) in post-Freudian ways (pp. 185-214). Along the way, Johnson submits himself to the latest in neurological testing techniques and gadgetry--empathy tests, neurofeedback, and an fMRI scan, for instance--sharing his resulting insights about emotions, memories and consciousness. He demonstrates how the brain works more like "an orchestra than a soloist" through the chemical and electrical interactions resulting in memory, fear, love, and alertness.
On the subject of chemicals, in Chapter 5, "The Hormones Talking," Johnson reveals that the pleasure drugs otherwise found "in a dime bag or a coke spoon"--heroin, morphine, codeine--occur naturally in the brain (p. 136). "Your brain is nothing but drugs," Johnson writes; "right now, as you read these words, you are under the influence of chemicals, molecularly speaking, almost indistinguishable from drugs that could get you arrested if you consumed them openly in a public place."
Reading MIND WIDE OPEN will not only stimulate and delight your gray matter, it will cause you to rethink your very thinking process.
G. Merritt
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Review Title: How and why the brain sciences can help to 'open wide...
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. Read more
Published on April 30 2012 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED IT !
Easy to understand for beginners in neuro psychology....very interesting for advanced people too ! Witty, well written and very accurate.
Published on Dec 16 2009 by Genevieve Matte
5.0 out of 5 stars a pleasant symphony
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. Read more
Published on Dec 2 2007 by Paul J. Fitzgerald
4.0 out of 5 stars Clear and readable primer on the latest in brain science
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. Read more
Published on Nov. 18 2006 by Book Nut
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't Stop There!
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... Read more
Published on July 1 2004 by Ned C. Smith
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 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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