introducing readers to writers since 1995

March 02, 2004

The Great Brain

by Ron Hogan

Last weekend, unable to deal with the prospect of seeing a guy get beaten for two hours straight with guys yelling at him in Aramaic, even for the sake of cinema, I opted instead for the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy 50 First Dates, which I actually rather enjoyed. The setup--Barrymore's character experienced a trauma that resulted in the loss of her ability to hold onto short term memories--reminded me of Memento, of course, but also of an excellent book I read a few weeks back and have kept meaning to say something about, Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson. Johnson pokes around his own neurological infrastructure, subjecting himself to fMRI scans, biofeedback experiments, and visual cue recognition tests, revealing how a cluster of different "modular" functions come together to create the illusion of a single consciousness. There's any number of fascinating paths to explore, like how an instinctual fear response can outlast the immediate memory of the provoking incident, or the potential for modern psychology to expand the Freudian paradigm and create a new way to talk about the mind--to address, for example, the self-regulation of a diverse collection of drives rather than the "repression" of one drive or another.

The emphasis on the "modular" aspects (which can be traced back at least in part to Marvin Minsky's wonderful The Society of Mind) seems to build quite naturally on Johnson's ideas in his previous book, Emergence, which addressed how complex behaviors are generated from the interaction of many, many simple units. And he's got an easygoing, highly personable style, even when he's not using himself as a case study, that makes the science very easy to follow. But if you're still confused, Johnson can explain it himself, as he did on NPR's Fresh Air. Or, if you live in New York, catch him tonight at KGB.

But what are the critics saying, you ask? Andrew Leonard reports, "My frontal lobes purred smoothly," but much further than that and you've got to register for one of those Salon day passes. Gregory Mott offers a weird piece that's more like an outline of a book review than a book review, but then it appears to be for the health section of the WaPo. Julia Keller, the cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, seems to reflect a layman's take on the book's accessibility, citing Johnson's "terrific knack for summarizing great cultural shifts in an unassuming sentence or two." Though she disliked his constant presence as a character in the book, comparing him unfavorably to the late, great George Plimpton, she's clearly enjoying herself overall:

When Johnson concentrates on his lucid and nuanced description of modern neuroscience, of what researchers know and don't know about our brains and why, he's superb. You couldn't have a better guide. You couldn't ask for more enthusiasm or lightly worn expertise.

I, for one, concur. If you read one science book this year, and so far, I've done just that, it should probably be Johnson's. Well, okay, maybe the Brian Greene. But then, you should be reading lots of science books anyway, not just one. So read them both.


I caught that Fresh Air, fascinating stuff and the author was so forthcoming, I feel no need at all to actually read the book. Speaking of brains, I thought this was interesting:

And speaking of your opening sentence:

Posted by: bd at March 2, 2004 04:53 PM

Hi, just wanted to thank you guys for getting such an informative site. Best regarts. Bert Hammer.

Posted by: Bert Hammer at June 16, 2004 05:43 PM
If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.