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Book: Mind Wide Open

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Mind Wide Open is a fun, light read by Steven Johnson. It's a pop-sci examination of the brain, with a focus on translating/rejecting Freudian ideas into a modern scientific framework. This Freud ambition limits the scope of the book: it is tourist equivalent of a quick day tour of New York by bus, a few stops, all brief.

The focus on Freud seems to come from a pop-sci similarity: Freud is one of the few psychologists whose ideas have entered into the popular lexicon and, by reinterpreting Freud's work, Johnson hopes to fulfill his goal of entering neuroscience concepts into the popular lexicon as well. Ambitious, especially in the book's final chapter which reads less like a conclusion and more like a Freud/Neuroscience manifesto (it is one Johnson's favorite chapters that he has written). If you hate Freud, don't distress. I hate Freud as well, but the most of the effort in connecting neuroscience to Freud is spent in the final chapter and only occasionally crops up elsewhere. Perhaps this is why the final chapter felt so out of place to me within the context of the book.

I prefer Emergence, Johnson's book on emergent behavior, to Mind Wide Open. Emergence was more the type of book where you want to grab a friend after reading a chapter and go, "did you know that __?" Perhaps this was an artifact of Johnson using himself as the subject of many of the experiments. Instead of focusing on the extraordinary cases of neuroscience like Oliver Sacks, we instead are confronted with the banal. We learn what Johnson learned about himself, but without being able to subject our self to the same tests the learning feels thirdhand. Much of the experiments have been better suited to a Discovery Channel special than a book, because video at least would better allow us to imagine ourselves in the experiment.

I have some limited notes in the extended. Due to the type of narrative, I found it difficult to take notes: much of the relevant details are scattered across many pages, so I eventually decided it was taking too much time.

p. 30

Most children can do "gaze monitoring" in their first year, implying built-in brain circuitry for mind/eye-reading.

p. 41

amygdala as a 'gut feeling' center:

"We've done fMRI scans of people taking the 'reading the eyes' test, and what we've found is that the amygdala lights up in trying to figure out people's thoughts and feelings. In people with autism, they show highly reduced amygdala activity," [Simon Baron-Cohen] explained.

p. 46

reconsolidation: memories get rewritten every time they're activated. Scientists blocked the synthesis of specific proteins in rats while performing a learned task: the learned behavior disappeared afterwards.

p. 52 - 58+

Memories are encoded along multiple paths. Claparede was able to get an amnesia patient to fear shaking his hand after he had hidden a thumbtack in it. While the amnesia patient couldn't encode full memories, her amygdala could still store 'quick sketch' memories.

The quick sketch approach to fear memory lets you move beyond the details into general rules of thumb: if you see something slithering in the grass -- spots or no spots -- then run away. In Borges's classic story "Funes the Memorious," the protagonist is gifted (and cursed) with an uncanny, beyond-photographic memory capable of conjuring up the slightest details from the most incidental occurrence two decades before. Near the end of the story, the narrator says, "I suspect, nevertheless, that [Funes] was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details..."

p. 63

Reliving a fearful experience may only increase your fear of it. McGaugh gave beta blockers to recent trauma patients. The beta blockers the autonomic system from kicking in. With less of a fear response the memory wasn't as strongly marked by the amygdala and post-traumatic stress symptoms were decreased.

p. 66

Argument against repressed/censored memories:

But in the modern portrait of amygdala activation, there is no clear mechanism for the repression or censoring of traumatic events; there are unconscious memories recorded, but those memories are not unconscious from having been repressed by some kind of internal censor. They're unconscious because the amygdala operates largely below conscious awareness, and regulates autonomic behavior we can't directly control. The traumatic memories are captured by the amygdala not because the executive brain (the ego in Freud's formulation) can't tolerate them in some fashion; they're captured because they contain information that might be useful for the future safety of the organism.

p. 69: "When the brain revisits traumatic memories, it isn't trying to beat them into submission; it's trying to keep them relevant."

p. 90, 96

Short term encoding: short strings of data (e.g. phone numbers) are stored in a "phonological loop." We have separate ways of encoding visual data. It's easier to remember a phone number forward because we replay the audio loop. It's easier to remember visual data backwards because our brains are designed to backtrack visually, e.g. tracking where a projectile came from.

p. 110

oxytocin the 'love' chemical and tend-and-befriend vs. flight-or-flight: women are more likely to seek out social support in a stressful situation. Some researchers theorize this is due to the effect of oxytocin, a chemical released during childbirth, breast-feeding, sex, and stressful situations. Estrogen enhances the effect of oxytocin. Oxytocin helps manage stress as well as increase the effects of opiates. Research with prairie voles shows that if you block oxytocin, they go from monogamous, biparental behavior to indiscriminate mating. Oxytocin receptors in prairie voles and humans both overlap with dopamine receptors. "...it's possible that oxytocin does not create the visceral pleasure of love and attachment, but it does enable that pleasure to last longer than it normally would." (p. 132)

p. 123-130: laughter as a social bonding response

p. 125: "In his book, Provine suggests that the 'feigned tickle' can be thought of as the Original joke, the first deliberate behavior designed to exploit the tickling/laughter circuit."

p. 124: chimps practice tickling/laughter throughout their lives.

p. 144: happiness increases idea generation.

Comments (1)

Nice commentary. I found the neurofeedback chapter to be intriguing, particularly since these devices provide useful information about brain activity but are not as immobile or costly as an fMRI setup. The data obtained is different, of course, but the mere thought that one can slip on a helmet and achieve "thought control" of a video game (sort of) is intriguing.

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