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Mind Wide Open - A Book Review

Kristin Jenkins's picture

          As biology major, I walked into Paul Grobstein’s Neurobiology and Behavior at the beginning of the semester expecting 3 hours a week of neurons, hormones, and lots of pictures of brains. Naturally, I became confused when Emily Dickinson was the topic of conversation of the first day. Well that’s odd, I thought, but surely next class we’ll begin the real neuroscience. Yet, here I am, at the end of the semester, and I feel as though my “real neuroscience” was all a distant fantasy. I never had to buy an expensive textbook, and I never had to memorize countless regions of the brain. Instead I chose my own homework and paper topics, and researched and discussed the neuroscience that interested me the most. Instead of remembering how bored I was sitting through a series of slides, I remember being engaged in lively arguments and heated discussions.

          Ultimately, this semester has been a roller coaster of discovery and reflection—both in the realm of neuroscience and within myself. Although my original expectations for the class have been dashed, I would gladly choose this past semester of generative discussions over a semester of boring lectures about neurons, hormones, and gray matter any day.

          When asked to read and analyze a book, then, I decided to choose something that would help me continue down the road of self discovery and reflection through the study of neuroscience. Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open turned out to be the perfect choice. Described as “a readable account of what makes brain science a vital component of people’s quest to know themselves,” Mind Wide Open held, for me, the promise of neuroscience that is accessible to those that do not wish to be brain surgeons, but to those that simply wish to understand, in simple terms, what “up there” makes us behave the way we do.

          Johnson introduces his book with a preface that lays out exactly what he wishes to accomplish in the next 200 or so pages. My attention was grabbed immediately by his intention to explain behaviors that I can relate to: smiling and laughing, the ability to pay attention, haunting fears, and mood swings. I do all of those things! I announced proudly to myself, and how fascinating would it be to understand why I do them? I was engaged within the first few pages—a feat that scientific literature rarely accomplishes with me.

          A few pages in and I knew that I was going to enjoy not only what he had to say, but how he had to say it. His voice comes across as intelligent, but also slightly awkward—like a nerdy friend that you know to be both smart and silly. Nothing about his tone is overly academic or pretentious, which makes him highly accessible and down-to-earth sounding. Johnson promises to keep readers of all scientific backgrounds comfortable by offering scientific explanations without the difficult scientific terminology. Says Johnson before he begins, “My approach is different….It is one of my fundamental assumptions that you can get something useful out of neuroscience with this level of mastery.” Although I am a biology major, I do not enjoy reading dense scientific “mumbo-jumbo,” if you will, and Johnson seems to understand this perspective from the very start. In addition, not only did this approach excite me as a reader of a good book, but also because of this book’s relation to the mantra of Neurobiology and Behavior: learn what you want to learn by getting things less wrong for yourself—knowledge that is useful to you is the most important kind of knowledge of all.

          Yet, despite all of Johnson’s promises to be a fun, witty, and intelligent read, in the back of my mind still lurked a suspicion that this book would not be everything I hoped it would. Subconsciously, I was bracing myself for the let down—that within the first few pages of chapter one I would become uninterested and bored after all—because it all sounded too good to be true. Having finished the book, though, I can happily say that there was no let-down to be had. Johnson remained true to his word and kept the language simple, the ideas engaging, and the conclusions easy to follow.

          One of my favorite things about Mind Wide Open was its ability to ask questions and answer them in a simple, timely manner. Often times, when reading scientific literature, I find the questions outnumber the solutions—perhaps because I don’t understand the solutions when they are presented, or perhaps because, in fact, the author doesn’t intend to offer any at all. Thankfully this was not the case with Johnson, who’s logic and thought processes were extremely straightforward and, as I’ve said before, easy to relate to.

          Each chapter presents a new question based on a situation that just about every person can relate to: Why do I involuntarily sneak a grin at times when I wish to appear sympathetic? Why am I afraid of something that doesn’t logically pose a threat to me now, but has threatened me in the past? Then, following each question is an explanation supported by historical accounts, modern experiments and studies, and Johnson’s own personal expeditions into the scientific world.

          Johnson’s accounts of first-hand participation in some of today’s most modern procedures in the world of neuroscience are part of what makes this book so unique. Johnson subjects himself to various tests, like allowing himself to be hooked up to computers to study his focus levels, or being squished into an fMRI machine to monitor the activity levels in his brain when he is engaged in stimulating thought. He begs the question “What can I learn about myself by learning this about my brain?” to both himself and to the reader. He encourages the reader to perform their own self-reflection as he shares with us his. Once again, Johnson’s friendly tone makes this type of analysis possible without sounding as though he were imposing his own personal conclusions upon his readers.

          I strongly believe that this book has at least one chapter that would be of interest to any person to read it. From the specific hormones that dictate love and sex, to how a computer program can help you dictate to your brain your own moods, this book has the potential to captivate anyone, even if just for 40 pages. Although I remained intrigued by the entire work, I was particularly interested in the chapter that discusses the brain and various attention states. While reading this chapter I am pleased to say that I not only learned a surprising amount of neurobiology, but even more pleased to say that I learned a vast amount about myself.

          So what did I learn about myself by learning all this about my brain? For one, I learned that when I feel as though I am shooting angry streaks of lightening through my eyes, I actually am—and what’s worse, people are more likely to see that message than I anticipated. I learned that my deepest fears and most embarrassing moments are that way because of chemical imprints on my mind, and that sometimes letting hurtful memories fade into the background is easier than continually bringing them to the surface through discussion. I learned that it’s OK that I don’t remember everything my best friend tells me, and that there are ways that I can train my brain to pay attention more often. I learned that I can learn something about myself through a book about neuroscience.

          In this respect, Mind Wide Open is the perfect addition to my experience in Neurobiology and Behavior this semester. So perfect, in fact, that I wish everyone had had the chance to read this book. I feel as though Johnson so simply and concisely relays the idea of self exploration through scientific exploration that I wish I had read this book before I had taken this course. When I felt myself becoming lost and confused in lecture when textbook neuroscience images weren’t being projected onto the blackboard, I could have been reassured by the idea that not all neuroscience has to be strictly neurons and gray matter. Instead, I sit here in retrospect trying to piece everything together, and I have decided that it has been an extremely useful semester.



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

Scribner Publishers, New York, NY. 2004.