Mind Wide Open: Your Brain an the Neuroscience Everyday Life by Steven Johnson came out in 2004. As Publisher Weekly says, “It’s the rare popular science book that not only gives the reader a glimpse at an emerging field, but also offers a guide for incorporating its new insights into one’s own worldview.”
Johnson begins by reviewing Freud’s idea of Mind Sight. “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may conceive himself that no mortal can keep secret. If his lips are silence, he chatters with his fingertips, betrayal oozes at of him at every pore.” In other words, our bodies will betray us. We can hone in on these body language skills so that appears as if we can read minds—hence, the term Mind Sight. Mind reading is another word for empathy. Most of us posses empathy to some degree, however, Autism prevents some from accessing these innate tools. Autistic people must go to school to learn how to read people—to learn Mind Sight.
Interestingly, some scientists now believe that memories effectively get re-written every time that they are activated thanks to a process called reconsolidation. The cortex can forget things, but the Amygdala stores memory for us. Thus, we subconsciously correlate things and memories can be triggered. For example sunny days can be more anxious than overcast ones for some people because 9/11 happened on a sunny day. Our brains have been designed to allow the fear system to take control in threatening situations while preventing the reign of our conscious, deliberate selves. Long term stress may, in fact, do damage to the hippocampus—the region that deals specifically with memory and emotion.
Johnson goes on to discuss ADD and ADHD. He mentions Tor Norrentranders book The User Illusion in reference to how little stimuli actually catches our attention. He talks about how there is a law of 7. We can only chunk information in groups of 7 or less. Scientists are studying how to combat the malfunctions of attention—including computer programs and the idea of learning how to switch modes when necessary.
Oxytocin is a hormone released by the body. It creates emotional attachments between mother and child during breastfeeding and also between lovers after orgasm. Lactating mothers handle stress better than their non-lactating counterparts due to this hormone. Human can be addicted to love, but reptiles don’t appear to have oxtytocin as they abandon their children at birth and move indiscriminately from mate to mate. Scientists have discovered reptiles lack the neo-cortex, which is the seat of higher language and regulates emotional response.
There are receptors in the brain for drugs—particularly Endogenous Opiates. Are brains recognize chemicals in marijuana, nicotine, mushrooms and even chocolate as natural. Drugs substitute or fool our brains into thinking these chemicals are produced by our own bodies instead of coming from an outside source.
Psychiatric drugs work on this same principle. Those who are depressed suffer from “rejection sensitivity.” They avoid situations where they could be hurt or rejected. Prozac and other SSRI’s help with this particular problem. Bad news is not taken so hard and rolls off us easier when we have more serotonin in our systems.
Interestingly we tend to remember sad memories with more clarity than happy ones. Happy memories become fuzzy over time. Why? Because our brains just don’t underline the positive and negative memories the same. We are hard-wired to remember events that some how deviate from our expectations.
Chronically low dopamine levels can induce cravings for food, drugs and other things. Doing thrill seeking activities or taking drugs can help us to fulfill those needs left by the low dopamine levels.
Robert Cloninger came up with the “Unified Bio-Social Theory of Personality.” Serotonin=Harm Avoidance.Dopamine=Novelty Seeking. Norephinerine=Reward Dependence. You can be a stay at home hedonist or a fearless reward seeker or an independent seeker searching for new experiences despite danger.
Repression, we find, does not result in a drive dissipating into nothingness. But rather, it creates a kind of potential energy confined to the unconscious. These drives will seek ways to escape and be released, so it is important to deal with things rather than repress them in the long run. Build enough pressure and you will have an explosion of uncontrolled hysteria, anxiety and even madness.
Mentally we are a self divided. We consist of two different types of memories. We have procedural memories like how to ride a bike and declarative memories which allow us to remember that bike crash in 7th grade. Our brains have a natural selection all their own.
Readers shy about slapping electrodes on their own temples can get a vicarious scientific thrill as Johnson tries out empathy tests, neurofeedback, and fMRI scans. Mind Wide Open both satisfies curiosity and provokes more questions, leaving readers wondering about their own gray matter. I highly recommend reading it.