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.
Part of this is the the author's style. Johnson is funny, personal, and earnest. He alternates between sharing his own musings and vulnerablities and recounting what he has carefully learned and experienced. When you read this book, you may feel the astonishing sensations that I did; your mind thinking about your mind within the context of your own experience and Johnson's perspectives. This was a visceral experience for me.
As much as Mind Wide Open will stimulate you, it is also a book that begs to be read more than once. Rarely do I read a book that I want to completely re-read again; I suspect that many others will feel the same.
I must admit to having scant, if any, interest in 'brain science' before reading this book. That has changed. What lies in our head not only influences our thinking; it catalogues our evolution and our pursuit of life's meaning. Mind Wide Open is a book that allows the reader to understand him/herself in ways that we have never explored before.
This is a superb book. I highly enjoyed it, I look forward to enjoying it again, and I give it my highest recommendation.
Mind Wide Open is a great book if you're new to the field of psychology or simply aren't too familiar with the actual chemical workings of the brain. The detail in the main text isn't all that deep but the end notes make up for much of the "overlooked" information. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars because while it was informative and quite revealing I think that Johnson slightly oversimplified the issues at hand. If you come into this book with anything much above a beginners understanding of brain biochemistry you won't walk away with any new ideas.
I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a beginners guide to theories of how the brain functions.