Mind Wide Open – Review

by: Johnson, Steven

Publisher: Scribner

Copyright: 2004

Cover: Tom Brown/Fredrik Broden

Type: Softcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 6/25/2005

Summary: Enjoyable reading. Mind, matter and science.

In a very simple, seemingly effortless fashion, author Steven Johnson achieves a reconciliation between the mind-map (id, ego, superego) of Freudian psychology and what researchers have learned about the brain over the last seventy years through such tools as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Johnson also makes a rather surprisingly good argument that the emphasis upon brain science-nerves, hormones and chemicals giving us consciousness-dose not demote the mind to being merely a chemical factory nor cloud the infinite horizons of spirituality as envisioned by poets and grandmothers.

Johnson starts his quest to find what is available in the world of biofeedback. His goal is to discover from neuroscientists what they have learned about the brain and how it affected their perspective on the “mind”. The author relates this journey without resorting to ossifying scientific jargon. More importantly, he achieves a rare balance between the dogma of science and the dogmas of the other kind. He recognizes that there are more questions than answers in either of the two perspectives. This openness is what makes MIND WIDE OPEN so readable.

In an early chapter, we learn that there is a word neuroscientists use to refer to the silent communication that goes on between people engaged in verbal communication. The silent or subliminal part of the conversation is called “mindreading”. It is the receptive component of what we call “body language”. We intuitively know that we pick up the emotional state of another person by observing facial expression and body posture. We might also realize that there are people studying this silent language. Johnson makes the non-intuitive observation that in order for verbal language to evolve “humans needed a viable theory about the minds of other people”. That “viable theory” arose from our capacity to “read” body language. Sub-systems within the architecture of the brain are responsible for producing the body language. Our brains are wired to pick-up the non-verbal communication. To illustrate the complex road on which the dual communication systems of the brain can lead, Johnson examines the process of smiling.

The distinguishing characteristic of a fake smile and a “Duchenne smile” (named after the man who published a book on smiling in 1862, Duchenne de Boulogne) is found in one set of facial muscles called “orbicularis oculi”. The muscle at the outer edges of the eyebrows is involuntarily used in a real or “Duchenne smile”, but is not used in a fake smile. The silent component of our communicative abilities are usually able to distinguish between the two types of smiles. To farther illustrate the dual masters of our communicative capabilities, Johnson points out that people who “suffer from a disturbing condition known as central facial paralysis, which prevents them from voluntarily moving either the left or right side of their face’, are incapable of producing a full fake smile. Yet, when told a joke, their face is fully animated with a smile. Like faking a smile, it is extremely difficult to fake “getting the joke”.

MIND WIDE OPEN is full of these markers on the way to understanding brain and mind. It is a journey, fittingly, which does not reach an end. In looking at the mind as “an emergent property of the brain: a whole that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts”, Johnson provides a very understandable description of the brain. But he makes the observation, more than once, that knowing the location of the “‘food craving center’, or the ’jealousy center’” within the brain does not get us any closer to understanding the mind. He uses the term “neuromap fallacy” to describe this examination of a twig in the belief that you are seeing the forest. The mind is much more than coordinate points on the brain.

This is an enjoyable book to read and is highly recommended.