Steven Johnson: Mind Wide Open

Steven Johnson opens his whirlwind tour of modern brain science asserting his intent to deliver a “long-decay” idea in each chapter: the sort of thought that will resonate with you after you finish the book, even possibly altering your behavior.

And he delivers at least a few that stick for me. I learned things about the amygdala and the fear response that will be helpful when I’m allowed to ride a bike again; since I don’t remember the accident itself, I can expect not to be particularly afraid. And now I understand why for the past several years I’ve reacted so strongly to the sight of a car door opening ahead of me, even ones I can easily avoid and that pose no signficant threat.

I was also especially fascinated by Johnson’s chapter on laughter and tickling. After discussing compelling research that illustrates that laughter has very little to do with humor — maybe this is one of the hallmarks of the long-decay idea; it sounds counter-intuitive at first blush, but makes increasing sense as you think about it — Johnson stops just short of suggesting that laughter may have been a precursor to language. He argues that it’s a form of communication, and I’m inclined to think that what it communicates is largely “I’m going to interact with you in a non-threatening way.” (Even though we sometimes use it now to communicate the reverse.)

I didn’t find Johnson’s insight all equally affecting (and I’d bumped into some of them before, blunting their impact a bit) but they were all certainly interesting. As with The Ghost Map I found Johnson an exceptionally lucid writer.

But my naval-gazing response to his fear response chapter was no accident. Throughout Mind Wide Open, Johnson draws parallels between his personal anecdotal experience and the research he is writing about. The Ghost Map was so good that it earned Johnson a lot of leeway with me, and I’m glad I started with it instead, because otherwise I think I might have found passages like this irksome:

As I write these words, my attention is divided roughly between tw primary actions: thinking about the words as they are geneated in my head and materialize on the computer screen, and half listening to familiar songs playing in the background…I also have a vague background sense of mood — a bright midmorning working alertness, slightly caffeine enhanced.

Fortunately, that’s about the peak of the book’s self-involvement, but I can really recommend it strongly only to those who don’t mind a good bit of Steven Johnson the writer/husband/father mixed in with their brain science.

Perhaps predictably, I also became interested in the things Johnson might be saying without intending to say. He lives in New York and the book was written (judging from the interview dates) during 2001-2003 — and even so it was startling to me just how much of a shadow the events of 11 September 2001 cast over this book. (Speaking, for what it’s worth, as a resident at the time of the other city in which an airplane was flown into a building.)

needs more demons? perhaps just a touch fewer personal demons, actually

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

2 thoughts on “Steven Johnson: Mind Wide Open

  1. Your third paragraph reminds me of a time when you were quite young – we were with Mom, most likely somewhere in public, and you laughed at something that wasn’t funny at all – I don’t remember what. I must have chided you for being socially inappropriate, because what I *DO* remember is that Mom really nailed me: Sometimes, she said, laughter means embarrassment, not amusement. And I remember thinking that, as usual, she was absolutely correct. (I hope that I apologized to you, but if I didn’t do it at the time, I do so now.) Much love!

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