Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Book Review- Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

emilie's picture

Book Review- Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
Emilie Wlodaver

Like Emily Dickinson, Steven Johnson relates many of the behaviors and emotions that people experience day after day to what is going on in the brain in his book Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. He provides compelling evidence through his recounting of experiences with neuroscientists and other advocates of the brain as the organ for behavior. He uses many of his personal experiences to create a perspective that is easier for the layperson to understand and in turn relate to. Often times, the topic of the brain can be intimidating, for it is one of those frontiers for which few, if any, really understand. That is why Johnson’s book is a good first step for those who wish to brave the mechanisms of the brain.

Many people are reluctant to rely on pure science and brain activity to describe behavior. They feel that it is reductionistic and oversimplified and does not account for the differences in personalities or creativity. In many peoples’ opinions, behavior, consciousness, and emotions should be left to the humanities to explain. How anyone could possibly suggest this is beyond me. The brain is one of the most complicated organs in the body. There are so many different things going on that it seems absurd to me that someone could suggest that, for example, philosophy gives a more comprehensive insight into behavior. This is not to say that psychology of sociology or philosophy don’t provide some interesting points, however, neuroscience seems to be more on the path to the truth than these other disciplines.

Johnson does a superb job at relating some of the current research of how the brain is related to behavior in a fashion that is easy to understand and plausible enough to make someone think twice about calling brain=behavior reductionistic. He introduces the reader to a population of avid advocates of brain imaging techniques such as fMRI and neurofeedback by testing their research proposals on himself. For example, he goes to Joy Hirsch, director of Columbia University’s Brain Imaging Group, to carry out his proposal to view the areas of the brain that are activated during moments of creative thought. What they discover through means of the fMRI scans is that indeed, certain areas of the brain are activated more during creative thought than when a person is reading or staring blankly at a checkerboard. One question remains unanswered, however. It doesn’t seem too hard to understand that certain areas of the brain are more activated during different activities. What is a difficult concept to grasp is if each of our brains posses similar mechanisms, what accounts for individuality and differences in opinion and ideas?

Many people are still reluctant to attribute all of their emotions and feelings to the idea that the brain is made up of different modules that all play a certain role in the creation of these behaviors. To this, Johnson writes, “To include biological perspectives in discussion of human society by no means eliminates the validity of other kinds of explanations. What people like E.O. Wilson have proposed is not biological determinism, but rather biological consilience: the connecting of different layers of experience, each with its own distinct vocabulary and expertise, but each also possessing links up and down the chain.” (Johnson, p.213) Each different perspective and discipline adds a new layer to the meaning of life. Understanding the functions of neurochemicals and hormones can only provide more insight into the vast unknown a potentially be of assistance to create a more coherent world and a better understanding of peoples’ actions.


Steven Johnson. Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life