“I set out to track as many charts, real-time displays, and 3-D models of my mental life as I could find,” writes journalist Steven Johnson in Mind Wide Open, his gonzo attempt to examine the inner workings of his brain. Using the tools of modern neuroscience, from cognitive tests to MRI scans, he creates an impressionistic portrait of the mind at work.
Neuroscience’s storied past is rife with brute-force investigations: lesion experiments; lobotomies; the much-studied case of Phineas Gage, survivor of an accidental blast that sent a tamping iron through his skull, altering his personality forever. Fortunately for Johnson, peering into the brain’s black box isn’t as terrifyingly invasive as it once was. Johnson dons sensors and watches his adrenaline levels spike as he nervously cracks jokes. Instead of consuming massive amounts of chemicals with the goal of mind expansion à la Timothy Leary, he describes how gazing at his infant son registers a bond of love as powerful as opiates. He gets his brain scanned to learn about his obsessive focus on writing. Unlike many popular psychological investigations focusing on the abnormal—e.g., the books of Oliver Sacks—Johnson emphasizes everyday behavior, making his book instantly accessible.
Though the book is well researched, it sometimes doesn’t dig deeply enough into the brain’s labyrinthine folds to satisfy more avid neuro-enthusiasts. Descriptions of current research hang on quotes from one or two experts instead of surveying a broad range of thought, and discussions of brain chemistry are disappointingly brief. But his knack for describing complex concepts in a fluid, intuitive fashion, as in his fine Emergence (2001), keeps the book afloat. Johnson possesses the rare ability to ground abstract ideas in concrete human realities, while leavening heavy explanations with humor and heart.