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Who You Are and How Your Brain Can Tell You

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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Who You Are and How Your Brain Can Tell You

Marissa Patterson

Have you ever wondered who you were? Where the character quirks and thought patterns that make up "you" originate? These questions and more are the subject of Steven Johnson's exploration into his personality, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. Focusing on different brain imaging techniques such as fMRI and different types of biofeedback analyses, he attempts to discover whether "tools that measure the minute-by-minute levels of [neurotransmitter, hormone, and peptides] in your body and brain teach you something about your own emotional toolbox" (Johnson 5). Passing through different elements of personality, such as emotion, attention, and memory, he describes the different mental processes and evolutional gains that relate to these aspects. He also personally undergoes neurological investigations such as the biofeedback analysis which opens the book and measures his adrenaline levels (which spike each time he nervously tells a joke). These physical manifestations of a nervous habit cause the author to feel as if he "caught a glimpse of me here...the jokes triggering a chemical reaction in my own head" (3).

Johnson brings about an important parallel to the concepts brought up in class this semester. He states "the brain is ultimately just a big lump of atoms strung together in a particular configuration, no different...from a teakettle or a crown of broccoli" (10). This echoes the perception brought up in class that the brain is just a pattern of action potentials, or as Johnson puts it, "patterns of electrical and chemical activity" (4) that are different in every human brain, which causes the differences apparent between people. The book expands on this concept beyond that which was brought up in class. The author, instead of seeking out and describing the patterns of action potentials which cause seemingly similar human behaviors, as we have spoken about often this semester, the author seeks out the brain mechanisms that explicitly cause individuality between humans.

His book title also relates to the brain/behavior connection from the course. In his book notes, he states that "the mind [is] an emergent property of the brain: a whole that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts" (217). If mind is the same as (or related to) behavior, Johnson feels that the mind is an amalgamation of the action potentials in the brain, similar to the thoughts from this semester. However, the idea that somehow personality is more than just that, (though not expanded upon by Johnson), seems to serve to pacify those who would read the book (like some members of the class) who are not convinced that brain always equals behavior to give up the idea that there is something else that makes up "you."

The initial part of Johnson's argument revolves around the expression of emotion. He feels that there are "two brain systems vying for control of the same face...the motor cortex...[and the] emotional system" (26), which causes a conflict between, for example, the laugh you try to suppress and the sympathetic face you hastily plaster on when your friend tells you how she fell down at the ice skating rink. This segregation of parts is not limited simply to emotion—Johnson states that "your personality is...the aggregate of the differing strengths of these modules" (27) which are influenced by various effects, both genetic and experiential.

These parts control everything, from heartbeat regulation to facial recognition (27). Eventually, some modules, such as those that give consciousness to the movements of fingers while typing, are slightly brought out of awareness, along with ones for breathing and sensory input (193) in order to focus on the more presently essential ones . If one of these modules, for example the one that enables you to perceive the mental status of others, is faulty, it causes a disorder such as autism. However, if that same module is enhanced, the person will be especially empathetic.

While Johnson does not go into detail about what causes these differences in modular ability, it seems to make sense that this is what could cause differences between each of us. It could simply be a matter of the ability of different aspects of our brain to function properly. If the pattern of action potentials cannot fire as rapidly or strongly, it would cause a deficit in the ability of a person to express or control that module. This could explain multiple aspects of personality, such as why some people become angered easily or why others are more able to stay dedicated to a new diet.

The most interesting aspect of the book revolves around neurofeedback and the attempts to in some way control the functions of the brain, especially those involving attention. Often this involves games that are controlled by the theta waves measured in someone's brain, and the more a person concentrates, the smaller the theta waves and the faster/more the object on the screen performs a task. This type of activity, Johnson explains, is often used with children with Attention Deficit Disorder in an attempt to let them actively discover what "paying attention" feels like.

This premise creates interesting concepts of the link between what you can (or cannot) control. Often if you tell someone to concentrate, their brow will wrinkle and their eyes may squint, but are they really concentrating or merely pantomiming what they feel concentration looks like? If one can learn to change their theta waves (and therefore their attention), what else would we be able to consciously control with the right type of practice? Neurofeedback could offer plausible solutions to different types of mental problems that could be based on errors in the strength of brain waves that are generated by the action potentials of the brain.

Johnson also cites research by Antonio Damasio that shows that unhappy feelings cause a decrease of firing rates in the fontal lobes, where ideas appear to be generated. This reflects on many of the topics discussed in class that suggest that one section of the brain could have an effect on others that may not be immediately apparent. One might not initially think there was a concrete connection between the part of the brain that controls emotion, or more specifically, the particular emotion of sadness, and the part that controls new ideas. The vast interconnectedness of the brain, where one output can cause an input in a completely different section of the brain explains many of the types of behaviors that were shown to be connected in the class examples.

Towards the close of the book, Johnson states, "whether...wiring comes courtesy of my genes or my lived experience, or via some combination package, is not necessarily relevant...what matters are the incoming stimuli and the pattern of activity that they spark" (207). This seems fitting, for a neurology text. The importance of studying the brain is merely attempting to elucidate the mechanisms that these stimuli (environmental or not) work by and how the boxes of the brain are connected to give the brain a picture of the world around it. We must continue to "get things less wrong" in an attempt to expose who we are and where that sense of "self" comes from.

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