Book Review: Mind Wide Open


The very title of Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson (Scribner, 2004) suggests a fairly breezy treatment, and the book is wide-ranging and readable even for non-scientists. A good part of the book is composed of Johnson’s personal experience with a variety of devices and tests. In that respect, it is reminscent of Powers of Mind by “Adam Smith”, a decades-old tome written by a hard-headed economist who decided to test meditation and other mind-altering techniques.

Devotees of neuromarketing will enjoy Johnson’s account of his visit to Columbia University’s powerful fMRI facility. He describes in detail what fMRI subjects experience while in the magnet. The author was scanned while trying to perform a writing/editing task, selected for his usual ability to concentrate intently. The scans typically showed activity in diverse parts of the brain until at one point he got caught up in the “flow” of editing his words; this period of focused concentration showed up clearly on the scans when all areas of his brain became quiet except for a couple, the language centers the medial frontal gyrus. That area is associated with coordinating activity in different areas of the brain. (If there’s a flaw in this book, it’s that the few photos and scan prints are reproduced in a very mediocre manner.)

At a slightly lower-tech level, Johnson visited a couple of neurofeeback facilities. He tested a device called the Attention Trainer intended to reduce brain theta levels and increase concentration. High theta levels are associated with distraction, and by wearing a wired helmet users can control a video game and, more importantly, experience what reduced theta levels “feel” like. Johnson found that he could indeed control the on-screen activity purely with his mind, and also found that he was a very focused listener; he achieved the lowest theta levels of his session unintentionlly while listening to another person explain the device.

Another neurofeedback system Johnson personally tested was at the Othmer Institute in California. There, he leaned to shift mental states from alert to almost drowsy by responding to a video reward structure. The reward system was simple – as the subject’s brain acitivity moved toward the state set as a goal by the experimenter, a Pac-Man-like graphic would move through a maze and beep. By avoiding trying to achieve a particular state and simple “being pleased” when the Pac-Man beeped, Johnson was able to shift to perceptibly different states.

Along the way, Johnson touches on a variety of neuroscientific topics, including the neuroscience of humor, research on oxytocin (the reputed love hormone), and how today’s brain science meshes with Freud and psychoanalysis. A recent blog post, Armchair Neuroscience, talks about some other topics covered by Johnson. An earlier review by Steven Rubio comments, “One could imagine aging hippies reading this and rediscovering the joys of meditation, if not the joys of LSD…”

Brain science devotees will find this book interesting and accessible, and even regular readers of such books are bound to find new insights.

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