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Mind Wide Open? Yes. Deep? No

eshuster's picture

Steven Johnson opens a very wide door into the mind but all the reader can see is a foyer of a large estate with several locked doors. Through personal and researched examples he briefly describes each door and what it holds, without opening it for the reader to see. The book is structured so that the audience learns through examples and the author’s personal experiences while he adds facts and historical data to complete a picture.

Attempting to explain the complexity of the brain, he writes in a clear and simplistic manner to target all audiences. Unfortunately, the book is not consistent and oversimplified. Some examples require previous knowledge without which the reader is confused or will not obtain the insight the author describes. Other examples are very clear and knowledgeable and require no further analysis or research.

Steven Johnson writes the book for the average person with the logic that by understanding the brain and how it functions, daily, we can better understand ourselves. In order to complete this goal he includes everyday examples of fear, nervousness, laughter, and general emotions all people feel. He does not write the book about disabilities, like many others, but in a colloquial manner to attract the average person with the average problems. He begins the book with an MRI of his own brain, a good visual aid and strategic introduction. “A picture is worth a 1000 words” and then he begins his 1000 (and then some) words.

The book begins with a personal story describing the author’s nervous habit, telling jokes, while wired to a neurofeedback apparatus. He talks about what that day taught him about himself. He says he jokes because that is all he knew to do in that situation. I enjoyed this introduction because it sets up the tone of the book, how he writes and what the goals of the book are. He writes for the everyday person so that anyone can read it while utilizing experiences that people can relate to and imagine. He specifically stays away from writing about Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases that an average individual will be unable to follow.

Specifically, I enjoyed the smile example. He discusses a person by the name of Duchenne, someone I had never heard of. He writes about the history of the discovery before relating the discovery to an example the average person can understand. He talks about the muscles one uses when faking a smile and used in a genuine smile, without specifically telling the reader what muscles are used. When I read this section, I was confused at first because he states that there is a difference in the crinkle in the outer corner of the eye (I couldn’t visualize his description). He then discussed the issue further and related the topic to a stroke victim where a fake smile can be seen with a half smile (because the face is partially paralyzed) and a real smile can be seen with a full smile (because a genuine smile is involuntary).

I felt like I learned from this example but it only gave me a sample of the knowledge I desired. I wanted to know what muscles a real and fake smile used but it wasn’t addressed. A picture of a real and fake smile would have also helped and satisfied what I couldn’t see by the author’s description. This example is like showing a dog a treat but holding it so far that the dog must get through obstacles to get it. I had to research the difference between the real and fake smiles and what muscles they used. It would have satisfied my interest if the author was more descriptive and thorough.

The same theme of superficial analysis runs throughout the entire book. Johnson does not fully explain his ideas but expects the audience to satisfy their own curiosities. Whether this is his strategy or an accident, it is very frustrating. Johnson’s book is a compilation of ideas that he may fully understand but the connectivity and depth are very much lacking for the reader.

The brain is complex. There is no doubting this statement. It is Johnson who tries to touch every topic without fully explaining and delving deep into it. I would have enjoyed the book better had he used fewer examples while completely establishing and fully analyzing his point. When I first read the book, spring break, I was confused by many topics because I had never taken a neurobiology class and the topic had not yet been discussed in class.

The neocortex, only explained at the end of the semester, was something I had neither heard of prior to the book nor was it fully explained, when first introduced, in the book. On the other hand, the Amygdala, “which plays an essential role in fear response” (Johnson, 29) was defined immediately after its introduction. I felt that Johnson defines some terms but assumes the audience knows others. He is inconsistent in defining terms and some other structural aspects.

Although subtle, the book begins with a quote from Kafka about self knowledge. The quotes give me, and other readers, a brief introduction about the chapter and the goals, the author has, throughout the book because the quote is found in the preface. Another quote is found in the first chapter about how our senses convince us. The quote is by Freud. As I read through these two chapters, I really enjoyed the quotes and the insight they gave me as an introduction for the information I was about to read. As I kept reading, I was ready for the next quote in chapter 2. I turned the page and found no quote.

With much disappointment I kept reading but felt like I had no prelude to the chapter (which I desperately wanted/needed because the chapters were long and filled with a variety of different ideas). After reading the book I found that the preface, chapters 1 and 5 and the conclusion all had the quotes (which I feel accentuated the section) while chapters 2, 3, 4 and 6 lacked these initial quotes. His structure initially demonstrated the presence of these quotes (which would have better aided my understanding of the book), but was inconsistent throughout the book.

Overall, I enjoyed his stories, examples, and attempts to simplify without oversimplification. He compares the brain to an orchestra with every instrument working together to produce a symphony. His ideas and logics were very interesting but needed something more. I liked the explanations of the Attention Scanner and fMRI, things I had never heard of. The pictures of his reading and what the fMRI machine looked like was a great needed visual, but while trying to simplify many aspects of the brain a picture would have helped with comparisons he discusses in the book.

As a non-native speaker of English it is difficult to visualize what an author describes without pictures or any other visuals. I am positive that I am not the only non-native speaker that read this book but clarification is key for understanding the brain. In this book, the examples are present to simplistically explain aspects of the brain. Unfortunately, the book is glossy, and does not delve into the more complex aspects of the brain or the examples presented.

In a book claiming to widely open the mind it does in deed open a wide picture, however, it is superficial and not blurry. I think it is better to specialize in one aspect or field rather than knowing a little about all fields. I chose this book because I am interested in really learning about the mind and its everyday functions. I feel I learned something but it was not as I had expected. The title is true but the meaning involves learning much more than actually written in this book. “Mind Wide Open” is catchy but does not explain the book. It is a fallacy that attracts readers with a disappointing feeling upon completion.

I expected more.



Johnson, Steven. “Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and The Neuroscience of Everyday Life” Scribner. New York. 2004.