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Knocking on New Doors :A Review of Mind Wide Open

Lyndsey C's picture

          Fortunately for many of us, studying neurobiology doesn’t have to be rocket science. In fact, it’s merely brain science! According to Steven Johnson, author of Mind Wide Open, studying the brain is best approached with an open mind (pun intended). At times, it may be difficult to comprehend the various complex processes which are occurring within our skulls each day. Furthermore, it is often a challenge to relate such knowledge to our everyday lives. Johnson’s book attempts to make this journey a little less arduous, however, by colloquially explaining several salient brain processes in a way that inexperienced readers can understand and appreciate without much confusion.
            As the author explains, understanding the brain requires us to learn a unique language about neurobiology, and throughout his book, Johnson acts as both translator and teacher to improve our communication of ideas and theories underlying brain processes. By integrating this specialized grammar into our daily lexicon, we are able to discuss important concepts and raise interesting questions that prompt us to continue researching and generating theories related to the brain. In this manner, Johnson familiarizes his readers with 200 pages of text on neurobiological processes by incorporating his own experience and interest with celebrated research to create a comprehensive manuscript that scratches the surface of the multi-layered subject matter, bringing us along on what winds up being a remarkable exploration through the brain. Of course, Johnson is incapable of answering all questions related to the biology of the brain in his short book, but just as our Biology 202 class laid stepping stones for students to begin their journey to understanding the mind, Mind Wide Open likewise encourages us to further examine lingering questions by providing us with a set of keys to unlock unopened doors
            Throughout the semester, a particularly salient topic for our class regarded the I-function. What is it? How does it work? Is it necessary? Do animals possess it? These are just a handful of the many questions we sought to answer as the semester progressed. Johnson appears to have come up with these same questions. In Mind Wide Open, Johnson describes his research experiences related to the I-function, though he does not provide the same term to define this mysterious mechanism. The author includes a variety of examples related to the significance of the I-Function, several of which we have touched upon and debated in class. However, just as our class served to bring us closer to the truth without spoon-feeding us answers, Johnson likewise could not simply explain the I-Function without posing more questions. In particular, the author uses examples that many of us can relate to such as fear and attention. Imagine walking down a dark alley way, for instance. Although you are (presumably) safe as you imagine this scenario, part of you may feel uneasy or afraid. But, “which you is you?” Johnson asks (51). Or, in other words, which part of you is afraid and which part knows it is safe? Additionally, which of these parts is the real you and is it in any way linked to the I-Function? Johnson’s text leads us to ask such additional questions in order to bring us closer to the truth without ever flat-out providing answers. Though this may be frustrating for some readers, I personally found great enjoyment interacting with the text through such a unique form of dialogue in which I could respond to Johnson’s questions with my own questions and vice versa. This style of writing was not only impressive, but also encouraging because as each conversation developed over chapters, I began to feel more knowledgeable and prepared for future discussions.
            Despite the potentially frustrating aspects of Mind Wide Open’s absence of distinct answers, I found the book to be inspiring and entertaining because of its relevance to everyday life, which I can very much appreciate since at times it can be difficult to link brain complexities to the real world. By far, I most enjoyed reading Johnson’s chapter entitled Survival of the Ticklish because the contents explored an interesting subject-matter that I have always had an interest in, yet we did not have sufficient time to discuss in class this semester: laughter. Admittedly, at first glance, laughter does not appear to have any substantial link to neurobiology. Yet Johnson was sure to provide evidence falsifying this naïve assumption. According to the author’s extensive research, laughter has an evolutionary purpose. Upon reading this, I wondered how humor could possibly pertain to survival of the fittest. To my surprise, Johnson explained that “laughing is not an instinctive physical response to humor the way a flinch responds to pain or a shiver to cold,” (120) as I once assumed. Instead, it is “an instinctive form of social bonding that humor is crafted to exploit.” In other words, the roots of laughter are not cultivated in humor; instead, laughter functions, at least in part, to strengthen relationships. As I read on, I realized that this makes perfect sense considering we often laugh with loved ones and rarely laugh with strangers. In fact, laughing with strangers is what transforms acquaintances into friendships. Johnson additionally describes a relevant research finding that people are 30 times more likely to laugh when in the company of others than when alone supporting the concept that laughter is a construct of social bonding. Indeed, there is a biological reason explaining why laughing is contagious. On a different note, being one to always laugh at my own jokes (perhaps more than my audiences) I was interested in learning what it is about my sense of humor that drives me into a fit of laughter at the sheer mention of the word “fart.” Piecing together the information Johnson published with what I know about the kinds of things that make me laugh, I was able to discern what should have been obvious: Apparently, laughing is the brain’s response to unexpected or surprising circumstances. By autonomously facilitating such situations using my I-Function, like mentioning a particular bodily function, I am able to amuse my unsuspecting, more rational self which of course would never dream of producing such inappropriate banter. Perhaps this is the same reason why puns and metaphors are so entertaining to some people, such as myself, and it likewise explains why babies find the game peek-a-boo so hysterical. Johnson’s description of laughter sheds light on what makes us chuckle at sudden one-liners, just as when a mother’s unexpected exclamation “Peek-a-boo!” is enough to send a baby into a flutter of giggles. Survival of the Ticklish concludes by declaring that in constructing the comical situations mentioned above, laughter enables the cementing of social connections.
             Another significant area of research regarding brain functioning is related to the role hormones play in influencing our behavior. Johnson devotes one of his chapters to this interesting, yet sometimes overlooked subject matter. I was delighted to draw parallels between his research and my own when studying how the “love hormone,” oxytocin, affects social bonds. In my last web paper I attempted to explain the mechanisms at work when experiencing romantic and maternal love. Johnson’s discussion followed this same path, but with a few interesting twists. For example, the author described that hormones levels unique to humans are in part what make us more monogamous beings than say rabbits. This discussion led Johnson to reveal an interesting finding that I had not come across in my own research on the role of oxytocin in facilitating relationships. Apparently, prairie voles are a distinct species that mate for life, and do so because of specific oxytocin levels which produce emotional connections between mates. Relating back to his discussion on the I-Function, Johnson conversely explains that reptiles do not possess the emotional responses that are so characteristic of us humans. Johnson presumed that reptilian lack of emotion may stem from the absence of a neocortex, which is where our class inferred the I-Function was located. By assimilating this information with that which we discussed in class, I began to imagine the circuitous relationship among hormones, the I-Function, and emotions. As per usual, Johnson’s text led me to pose new questions about such an intricate circuit, and though I could not draw definitive conclusions from the author’s content, I genuinely feel more knowledgeable about the subject matter than I had previously been before reading Mind Wide Open.
            What’s going on up there? This is the question that prompted me to enroll in Biology 202 in hopes of extracting a core basis of knowledge about brain functioning. Obviously there is much more to learn about the brain than can be discussed in a semester-long course, but our class’ continuing conversation over the past few months has paved the way for increased interest in this area of study by provocatively answering questions with new questions in such a way that each open door leads us to open new doors. Though we have discovered that no such door will ever hold an ultimate answer, there is something to be said about the fact that each door leads to new destinations which subsequently bring us closer to an understanding of how our minds work.  I am proud to say that this mind-opening class is what led me to read the inspiring book by Steven Johnson. Mind Wide Open functioned as one such door that subsequently guided me to many others that I hope to unlock and explore in the future.


Johnson, Steven, (2004). Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. Scribner: New York


Paul Grobstein's picture

Mind Wide Open

Yep, I liked the book too ... "answering questions with new questions in a way that each open door leads us to open new doors". Fits the book and pleased to have it as a characterization of the course as well.