How and why the brain sciences can help to “open wide the mind’s caged door”
I read this book before Steven Johnson’s later works, The Ghost Map (2006) and Where Good Ideas Come From (2011) and then re-read it recently, before composing this commentary. Because Johnson is a very serious thinker with an almost insatiable curiosity, he devotes uncommon time and thought to what he writes and how well he writes it, drawing heavily on a wealth of secondary sources that he duly acknowledges. In this book, there are generously annotated notes (Pages 217-255) and an extensive bibliography (Pages 257-262). Other reviews have offered insightful reasons for holding this book in high regard. I agree with those reasons and see no need to recycle them now.
Here in Dallas, there is a Farmer’s Market near the downtown area where several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I offer a selection of brief passages representative of the high quality of Johnson’s skills.
“Unlike so many technoscientific advances, the brain sciences and their imaging technologies are, almost by definition, a kind of mirror. They capture what our brains are doing and reflect that information back to us. You gaze into the glass, and the reflection says to you, ‘Here is your brain.’ This book is the story of my journey into that mirror.” (Page 17)
“The attention system works as a kind of assembly line: higher-level functions are built on top of lower-level functions. So if you have problems encoding, you’ll almost certainly have problems with supervisory attention. When people notice attention impairments, they’re usually detecting problems with the focus/execute or supervisory levels, but the original source of the problem may well be farther down the chain, or it might be localized to a particular sensory channel.” (Page 93)
“Understanding the roots of laughter requires a kind of hybrid of the Darwinian and Freudian models. We laugh primarily because laughter is a crucial component of the emotional glue that connects parent and child during the vulnerable years of development. Children who laugh and roughhouse and tickle with their guardians create powerful bonds of affection with those grown-ups, and the bonds help them survive.” (Page 127)
“For reasons probably both generic and cultural, I am not much of a mystic, but these flashes of insight [while writing this book] were the closest thing I had to the experience of mysticism. These sparks were the transcendence that Keats sought when he commanded us to ‘open wide the mind’s caged doors.’”
Note: The quotation is from the beginning of John Keats’s poem, Fancy:
“Ever let the Fancy roam,
Pleasure never is at home
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth,
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth;
Then let winged Fancy wander
Through the thought still spread beyond her:
Open wide the mind’s caged-door
She’ll dart forth, and cloudward soar.”
“To me, one of the most moving discoveries in the brain sciences – after a century of Darwinian conflict and Oedipal struggle – has been the emerging understanding of the brain’s affiliative systems. Our brains are designed to love and connect as much as they are designed to flee and fight.” (Page 264)
To his great credit, Steven Johnson relies on layman terms (to the extent possible) to explain the neurological context of dozens of everyday situations. For example, How to “read” people accurately? Why and how do we devise self-delusions? How to explain what I characterize as “the invisibility of the obvious”? What is the neurochemistry behind love, hate, joy, rage, and other extreme emotions? With what does a brain “teem”? Why and how can great works of art (painting, sculpture, music, ballet) move us to tears? And in anticipation of a book Johnson wrote years later, where do breakthrough ideas originate?
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to read Steven Johnson’s later works as well as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Gerald Edelman’s Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine.