An enthusiastic invitation to explore your mind from science writer Johnson (Emergence, 2001, etc.), who takes a lucid trip through the country’s brain labs.
With the help of brain-imaging techniques and neurochemical analyses, the author believes, the tools are at hand to “open wide the mind’s cage-door,” as Keats put it. Johnson begins with biofeedback, used in lie-detector tests and in measuring brain wave activity. He quickly learns that anytime he makes a passing joke his adrenaline levels shoot up. He also learns that he can control selected brain-wave patterns and that some practitioners are using feedback devices to help kids with attention deficit disorder learn to focus. Johnson’s quest for self-knowledge eventually leads him inside an MRI brain scanner, which shows a very focused medial frontal gyrus (high-level executive function) while he is experiencing a moment of writing creativity. As these self-revelations accumulate, Johnson articulates a modular theory of the brain. There are varieties of subsystems common to our evolutionary heritage, he states; how they are orchestrated is a function of our individual hereditary and lived experience. Emotional centers are critical, deepening memories and affecting cortical reasoning activities. For example, Johnson still feels queasy when he sees a clear blue sky, because that weather pattern was etched deep into his memory on September 11, 2001. Neurochemicals like serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and sex hormones fuel all brain activities. Johnson explains their roles, offering an interesting aside on the “fight-or-flight” reaction to a threat, which applies to men but not necessarily to women, who may react to danger by seeking social support or “tending,” especially if they need to protect offspring. Johnson concludes the text with arguments that neuroscience is not ultrareductionist, and that even Freudian ideas can be reconciled with today’s insights.
Celebrates the brain’s complexity and wonder even as it demonstrates that you can get to know your mind better than you ever thought.