Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 13 Feb 04 10:01
Today author Steven Johnson returns to Inkwell to talk about his new book, "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life," which has just been published by Scribner. In his previous visit here <inkwell.vue.139>, Steven delved into his book "Emergence: The Connected Lives Of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" (Scribner), acclaimed as one of the best books of 2001 by Esquire, The Village Voice, Amazon.com, and Discover Magazine. The UK Guardian called "Emergence" "intelligent, witty and tremendously thought-provoking," and it was named as a finalist for the Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. Steven was also cofounder and editor-in-chief of FEED, the pioneering online magazine, as well as a co-creator of the Webby-award-winning community site, Plastic.com. Johnson's writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Harper's, and the London Guardian, as well as on the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He writes the monthly "Emerging Technology" column for Discover magazine, and is a Contributing Editor to Wired. He teaches at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and has degrees in Semiotics and English Literature from Brown and Columbia universities. He lives in New York City with his wife and two sons. Leading the conversation with Steven is Mark Harms. Mark has degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Nebraska. He worked eight years as a newspaper reporter in Hastings, Nebraska, then took a year off to travel in Western Europe and Egypt. He now works at a major financial firm in Minneapolis which, he says, "pays the bills while I pursue fiction writing and my favorite hobby -- armchair philosophy. I have a strong interest in science that I've nurtured for the last 15 years or so with a particular interest in evolution." Mark has been a member of the Well since July 2001 and is currently co-host of the science conference. His hobbies? "I dabble in Zen Buddhism. I like to listen to jazz, play the drums, play frisbee with my dog, go to art museums and hang out with my pals at the coffee shop." Welcome to Inkwell, Steven and Mark.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Fri 13 Feb 04 11:49
Thanks Cynthia. And welcome back Steven. I enjoyed the last discussion with "Emergence" and look forward to this one, to no small extent because "Mind Wide Open" is such an interesting read, also because I find neuroscience so fascinating. You start the book with a great quote from Kafka: "How pathetically scanty my self knowledge is compared with, say, my knowledge of my room ... There is no such thing as observation of the inner world, as there is of the outer world." This gets to the problem of studying the mind. There isn't much for our external senses to latch onto. Yet, now, with various emerging technologies, windows to the mind are opening up. Can you tell us what got you so interested in this subject that you decided to write a book? As the subtitle suggests -- "Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life" -- you take a practical approach to exploring the inner workings of the brain (your brain to a large extent). This as opposed to developing a theory of consciousness or some other philosophical approach. Can you highlight for us why you chose the particular tack that you did?
jane hirshfield (jh) Fri 13 Feb 04 14:19
Just wanted to say that I've been greatly enjoying the book, and am looking forward to this conversation. I have a couple specific questions, but I think I'll wait until Steven arrives to answer the opening, more general one first.
nape fest (zorca) Fri 13 Feb 04 15:57
am also reading the book and, as always, steven opens up whole new vistas. i look forward the the discussion here.
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Fri 13 Feb 04 19:00
First, it's great to be back on the Well -- that Emergence conversation was a lot of fun, and this should be even more so, given that everyone's got a theory about how their brain works. Nice to see some old friends already in the thread! How did I come to write this book? A couple of intersecting paths. First, my books thus far seem to reproduce by spores. My first one had a chapter on intelligent, self-organizing software, which became the seed of Emergence. And Emergence had a few neuroscience riffs, and "brains" were in the subtitle ("ants, brains, cities, and software.") Of those four, I always felt that brains were the least developed in Emergence, and so I was interested in trying to make up for that neglect in a full-length book. Like many people here, I suspect, I'd been reading quite widely in the brain sciences for more than a decade: the consciousness books, the evolutionary psychology books, the wonderful studies on emotion and the body by Damasio and some of his comrades. But the more I read in that literature, the more I felt that there was a question not being answered -- in fact, not really being asked at all. Which was this: what can the modern understanding of the brain tell me about myself as an individual? Not how the human brain evolved, or how consciousness does its magic, but how *my* brain works, what makes me different from all of you. The first glimpse of this -- which I actually described in Emergence, though it appears right up front in Mind Wide Open -- came in a brief experiment with biofeedback that I did back in 2000. I was working with a machine that was tracking my adrenaline levels, and it turned out that every time I made a joke in passing, my adrenaline levels shot off the charts. (They were otherwise very even.) Now, I happen to be the kind of person that compulsively makes jokes in conversation, sometimes in situations where the joke isn't completely appropriate. (I have to actively shut off my inner stand-up comic when I teach, for instance.) Seeing those spikes of adrenaline on the monitor gave me a whole new perspective onto that personality trait: I was hooking myself up with these little surges of adrenaline by making jokes all that time. No doubt I'd experienced that chemical event on some level, but I hadn't fully been aware of it until I strapped myself to that biofeedback machine. And so I thought to myself: what else is going on in there? What else could I see if I peered inside? Because what that machine promised, in a sense, was exactly that "observation of the inner world" that Kafka considered nonexistent. So I decided to take look.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Fri 13 Feb 04 19:54
You wanted to find something that passed the "long-decay test," something that sticks around and influences the way you perceive yourself in the world, as opposed to some gee-whiz but otherwise trivial facts about the brain? One theme you develop is mind as symphony, various modules of the brain working together, and sometimes in opposition, to generate mental functioning. I thought the tension you describe between the amygdala and the neocortex was interesting. Kind of two regions of central processing, the neocortex associated with people's conscious decision making, and the amygdala making very rapid decisions beneath awareness and often preceding it. Your anecdote regarding the bay window of your New York apartment blowing out drove the point home. Can you touch on that a little? I also found it interesting that the amygdala draws on memories stored in the cortex like the neocortex does, yet the neocortex doesn't draw much directly from the amygdala. It's like two administrators drawing from the same database but not communicating directly.
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Sat 14 Feb 04 13:16
Almost every chapter of the book talks about some kind of conflict between two or more "modules" in the brain that are working simultaneously. One example I give early on is a situation that most of us will be familiar with: you're talking to someone in a conversation and they mention some piece of slightly bad news. Nothing life-threatening or tragic, just annoying: a party you weren't invited to, or rain predicted for the weekend. When you hear the news, there's a deflated feeling in your body; you feel a little stressed or sad. And then for some reason, you get distracted by something your friend says, and you forget what it was you were depressed about. For the next few seconds, something very strange happens: you still have the emotional feeling in your body, but you can't remember what it was that triggered the emotion in the first place. This kind of emotional discontinuity happens because your working conscious memory and your emotional responses unfold in two parts of the brain -- two parts that happen to operate at different speeds. Your working memory is mostly the flash of nearby neurons talking to each other in the prefrontal region, while you emotions are often full-body events, involving the release of chemicals that pass through your entire system and trigger all sorts of physical responses. The working memory system is at least an order of magnitude faster than the emotional system, which is why the depressing news can pop out of your head so quickly, while the emotion stays alive in you. This is where the symphony metaphor comes in. When you spend enough time thinking about your brain in these terms, you start to "hear" the inner life of your mind not as a unified wash of sound, but rather as a collection of different instruments, each playing a different part. Most of the time, they're in tune with each other, but not always...
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Sat 14 Feb 04 15:50
You use a lot of personal anecdotes to support your theme -- the anxiety you carried while your wife was pregnant, the relief after you son was born, then the 9/11 horror happening right afterward and so on. These are fascinating, of course, and make great segues into your subsequent topics. But some people might feel a little uncomfortable exposing their inner mental life with such detail, and quite literally with all the scanning and neurofeedback activities you underwent. Did you feel any trepidation with this approach? And how has the response been since the book came out? You also talk about traumatic stress which brings up an area I'm a little confused about. It appears that after a traumatic event, phobias can develop or be accentuated by continuously replaying the event. It becomes "underlined" in one's memory. And that pesky amygdala, not being very detail oriented, can generate fear reactions when encountering things that simply remind one of the event. Researchers have prevented this underlining with beta blockers and you suggest a "little old fashioned repression might be a healthy response for people in the weeks after experiencing the event." This seems counter to the conventional "talk-it-out" wisdom. Not that I'm beholden to that idea but I did read a recent article in the New Yorker, I believe, that mentioned a kind of therapy for post traumatic stress disorder that involves retelling the story of the event in a series of sessions with a therapist. Each telling results in changes in the story and over time the memory of the event becomes less disturbing and less gnawing. This approach apparently has a pretty good track record (though not all that popular among therapists). Perhaps, though, the approach is only relevant long after the therapy, kind of a paradoxical way of undoing the underlining that occurred shortly after the event.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Sat 14 Feb 04 19:49
Another thing that struck me (among many things. I'm currently doing a lot of digesting) is your section on laughter and how it represents more of a social glue, a kind of carryover from the tickling play of childhood, rather than a specific response to humor. You relate an episode at a communications software development retreat that showed that online communications generated more jokes but the physically present communications generated more laughter. This suggests that online communication creates a kind of social autism. There are no facial expressions to read or intonations to hear. So our "mindreading" abilities are greatly subdued. I've often wondered why online forums such as this can produce such inexplicable hostility or gross misinterpretations (crimes I've been guilty of). This artifical autism idea goes a long way toward explaning it and probably is an important point to keep in mind.
nape fest (zorca) Sun 15 Feb 04 15:48
murffy raises excellent points. and while i've certainly watched the online hostilities brew, i've actually always been a bit charmed by how over time, an individual's personality shines through all the ascii. you mention that one of the human b rain's greateest evolutionary achievements may be its ability to model the mental events occurring in other brains. online experience would suggest that this can happen even without the visual cues. does that make sense?
Dennis Wilen (the-voidmstr) Sun 15 Feb 04 16:33
I see online interaction as akin to McLuhan's "cool" media, media, like radio, that draw you inj. The limited bandwidth requires lots of input from one's imagination to fill in the sensory gaps, and to that extent it is way more involving. Online hostilities are the Internet equivalent of belief in Orson Well's Martians. This, IMHO, is far from "autism."
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Sun 15 Feb 04 20:29
I think there are two key things you have to keep in mind when talking about mindreading in the context of electronic communication. First, there's a truly amazing amount of information conveyed by the body's emotional cues -- whether through the face, or the voice, or posture, gesture, etc. Whatever else you want to say about the richness of online communication -- and there is much to celebrate -- you have to acknowledge that all of that intonational data gets dropped out of the mix. Secondly, we are as a species incredibly good at processing those subtle emotional cues. It's a communicative form at least as complicated as the alphabet, and yet you don't have to teach it in schools the way you have to teach the alphabet. We just pick it up. The fact that it comes so naturally often makes it hard for us to see how sophisticated an art it truly is, or what we lose when we communicate through channels that block out that information. So on some basic level, I do believe that communicating with other humans via rapidly typed words over the net does on the balance push us towards the realm of the autistic. Not all the way, by any means -- just a little closer. But Zorca and Dennis are absolutely right that there are ways of "filling in". The WELL offers several key supplements: 1. A persistent group that interacts on a regular basis over years, if not decades. 2. An above-average facility with written language among the members of the community. 3. A familiarity with the etiquette of online discourse: for most of us, if we decide to playfully mock a friend in this kind of forum, we'll go out of our way to signal that we're just kidding around. In real life, we wouldn't even have to think about adding that extra level of "I'm only kidding" jocularity, but here you need to do the work by hand. Put those three together (and no doubt others, some of them software features) and you get an environment where the problem of mindblindness is less severe than you might expect.
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Sun 15 Feb 04 20:35
I recognize that this is the sort of topic that could quickly hijack this entire discussion, so let me say for the record that even if online conversations are slightly more autistic in nature than face-to-face conversations, there are still plenty of reasons to have them. On the whole, I think most forms of e-discourse -- and particularly asynchronous threads -- have been a great improvement on the communications channels available to people. They just have a few limitations that are worth pointing out, if only to better figure out ways to route around those limitations.
nape fest (zorca) Mon 16 Feb 04 00:03
one point you make in the book is that studies now suggest that rather than storing our memories as whole units that we neatly retrieve, we are actually reforging the memory each time we recall it. and this "reconsolidation" takes into account subsequent experience, lending the memory a new associative context. i find this fascinating and, well, alarming! memory as synaptic hodgepodge! i wonder if you'd be willing to talk a little more about this theory.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Mon 16 Feb 04 10:11
Coincidentally, I just read Michael Shermer's column in Scientific American where he talks about an experiment where subjects are shown a video of two teams passing two basketballs back and forth. The subjects are supposed to count how many passes one team makes. During the video a man in a gorilla costume walks into the middle of the game, thumps his chest and walks out. When the subjects were asked later if they noticed anything unusual about the video, 50% said no. And many of those were incredulous, accusing the researchers of switching videos. Shermer says he gets roughly the same results when he shows the video at lectures. The phenomena plays right into what Steven is talking about regarding memory and various modules taking the forefront depending on the task at hand. It also shows that the memory-as-video-recorder model is a very poor one.
nape fest (zorca) Mon 16 Feb 04 12:14
haha. particularly since the research shows that our short-term working memory can only hold seven (or so) items at a time. a really short tape!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 16 Feb 04 13:44
I try to hold 'em, but I keep dropping a few here and there. Is that because some are heavier than others, and they won't balance? I'm here with a bit of administrivia, and a question. The administrivia is this: if you're not a member of the WELL, and you have a comment or question emerging from your wide-open brain, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll post it here. Question for Steven: I've been reading Joi Ito's "Emergent Democracy" essay, which has a section on "The brain and excitatory networks," part of which refers to William Calvin's work. Here's a quote: "Calvin notes that the cerebral cortex is made up of columns of neurons, which are tightly interlinked and analogous to the creative network. These columns resonate with certain types of input. When they are excited, they excite neighboring columns. If the neighboring columns resonate with the same pattern, they also excite their neighbors. In this way, the surface of the cerebral cortex acts as a voting space, with each column of neurons, when excited by any of a variety of different patterns (thoughts), selectively resonating and then exciting their neighbors. When a significant number of the columns resonate with the same pattern, the thought becomes an understanding. Sensory organs provide the inputs to the various columns and the brain as a whole drives output to other organs based on the understanding." Joi suggests this as a metaphor for social emergence. Do you get into that at all in the book - how social behavior relates to neural organization?
jane hirshfield (jh) Mon 16 Feb 04 14:20
To go back to the other thread as well, when I read the section in the book about mindblindness, and then the discussion here, I couldn't help but wonder about great literature...the irony being of course that the example given of subtle mutual understanding is a literary example, excerpted from one book in another. The skills of literary communication are in this case so much *about* making up for what cannot be directly observed. Rhetoric might be viewed, along with verbal facility, as a parallel system almost.... A different paradox that really struck me was a sentence in the section about fear-memory we're discussing here (p. 58, for those who have the book), which says that "in reducing the resolution of the fear memory, the amygdala performs a kind of thinking, searching out underlying commonalities ina world of unique threats." The actual idea struck me, but so did the description of it as constituting "thinking." So much of this stuff is so wonderfully humbling. We miss gorillas on basket ball courts and yet we're sure we're right about anything?
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Wed 18 Feb 04 06:37
Jane, will you expand on what you were thinking about vis-a-vis "great literature." That's one of the latent themes of the book in a way, which is that the insights that you get from the brain science -- when you approach them from this angle -- are not unlike the insights you get from literature, and particularly literature that's focused on inner mental life, as in Henry James, Woolf, Joyce, etc. At a number of the initial talks I've given on the book tour (I'm in North Carolina this morning, heading to Texas tomorrow), people have asked during the Q&A whether I saw my approach in the book as being scientific, and each time I've said no -- these are not formal experiments; there's never any control, and the data is very subjective. (Of course it's drawing on a whole history of scientific inquiry where the data is more reliable.) But the approach in a way is more literary: a culture guy roaming through the halls of science to learn something about himself.
Jim Klopfenstein (klopfens) Wed 18 Feb 04 09:38
I'm about three-quarters of the way through a quick read, learning a lot. I expect to read it again once I've finished, paying attention to the endnotes the second time through. I can already sense that this book has changed the way I relate to my moods and emotions. I think I tend to take my mental state too seriously much of the time. From studying psychology, I have this belief that "everything is significant." Your book may serve as a corrective, by allowing me to occasionally counter this belief with the thought that "that's just my brain chemistry talking."
jessica (gobeyond) Wed 18 Feb 04 11:28
Hmmm. I think I'll have to find a copy somewhere. This sounds like a fascinating read. After decades of meditation and metaphysics, I've reached the same understanding. Absolute Mind is a whole 'nother thing; Relative Mind is just chemistry, easy to be detached from, worth observing the patterns (maybe) and cycles of, but not to be taken too seriously.
jane hirshfield (jh) Wed 18 Feb 04 12:12
I'm not sure how much I can clarify my thoughts, because they are so much at the level of musing rather than conclusion-making... I had already yellow- flagged this bit from your book, where you are dealing with the charge of potential reductionism (p. 212): "...what this book in its own way has tried to bring about is a bridging of the two worlds: of biology and society, nature and nurture, sciene and the humanities. We're back to Henry James here, and his discriminating eye. James and other classic novelists helped us see patterns in our own behaviour, in our mentail engagements with the world. Brain science can do the same, either by zerioing in on the specific constellation arranged in your own head... or simply by teaching you to listen better to your own inner life..." My interest here (I'm a poet, so it's a working interest, which I've explored in a very different book of essays of my own, Nine Gates, which you might or might not find in one of those bookstores you're doing events in) is in both ways that a person can know experience at ever more subtle and accurate levels, and ways that what they know can be transmitted to others. What Mind Wide Open explores is one level of primary experience, a level preceding language. What great literature does is create what I feel to be equally primary experience, *through* language. That's kind of miraculous in one sense, common sense in another, and in yet a third sense, begs the question of where exactly the "primary" resides. Is spring in the plum tree blooming outside my bedroom window, or is it in me feeling "springness"? Is it in you when you read me writing "the plum tree blooming outside my bedroom window"? I'd say yes, and yes, and (I hope) yes. Yet what I also love about literature, and wonder about the capacity of it, how it's done, is the way resonance, doubt, uncertainty, multiple awarenesses, can travel right alongside the surface message and be equally intended. "Meaning"'s richness. That I can't name the plum tree without bringing along with it how transient those blossoms are. How do we DO that? You say right at the start that you're not going to deal with the question of consciousness, that a lot can be investigated without entering that particular thicket. Yet of course consciousness and its increase is exactly what your book is about, along with some practical tools for working with what consciousness one finds oneself stuck in. So one of the things that was most personally satisfying for me in the description you put forward is the multiplicity of it. A small coda to what's already too many words: a recent bit of research confirmed that when a reader reads the word "lick," the motor activity part of the brain that govern the tongue lights up. A sweet validation of that old writer's trope "show, don't tell," one would think. But I'm guessing that sometime they'll be able to see that the word "anger" does the same thing. So literature travels not only mind to mind, but from inside one body into the inside of another. A pretty amazing extension of why a social primate with a big brain might learn to "read" facial expression well. Reading precedes language, literature builds on those preexistent skills, and we all get a life immeasurably richer and deeper.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Wed 18 Feb 04 20:44
>Do you get into that at all in the book - how social behavior >relates to neural organization? The book is much more focused on the individual mind. (Correct me if I'm wrong, Steven.) But I think that focus offers a starting point for understanding emergent social phenomena. One could see it as a look at the nodes in the social network, how the nodes interact and respond to input from other nodes and the rest of the environment. >But the approach in a way is more literary: a culture guy >roaming through the halls of science to learn something about >himself. A good way of putting it but you certainly did your science homework. This quote gets to a main theme: "Brain science has become an avenue for introspection, a way of bridging the physiological reality of your brain with the mental life you already inhabit." Or, later: "The argument of this book has been that modern neuroscience presents us with a new grammar for understanding our minds." The book, with the last chapter spelling it out, is a kind of replacement therapy for Freudian language that has become so common. Freud was clearly brilliant and a keen observer. He got some things right but other things haven't panned out. The Freudian idea of the divided self is certainly born out by neuroscience. Also, unconscious processes. Clearly a lot is going on the brain that impacts behavior that lies beneath the surface of awareness. Other Freudian notions, such as repressed drives, don't hold up so well in the neuroscience grammar. Instead of a "steam engine" metaphor where repressed drives build up pressure until a leak is sprung or some catestrophic failure occurs, a "Darwinian ecosystem" is a better way at looking at the interacting modules of the brain. For example, the amygdala's role of providing protective reflexes is very useful for survival in dangerous environments but it can also create irrational fear reactions that aren't very useful. There's a kind of interplay and competition between the modules. There's always some level of dissonance in the symphony. Having some sense of this interplay can help people keep from getting freaked out when an unexpected module or unexpected release of the various brain drugs comes to the forefront. A great example the book offers is that of taking psychoactive mushrooms. If you were unaware you had taken them, then you're likely to become fearful of what happens and think you're going crazy. But if you're aware that you have taken them, then you're more likely to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Dennis Wilen (the-voidmstr) Wed 18 Feb 04 20:48
"The Freudian idea of the divided self is certainly born out by neuroscience." Few neuroscientists suport dualism of the Cartesian homonculus, let alone Freud's Ego, Id, and Superego, IMHO.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Wed 18 Feb 04 21:17
I don't think Freud was a dualist but if you don't have a good map of neurochemistry, you're limited to dualistic terminology when talking about mental processes you can't observe directly. The book talks about the Ego, Id and Superego, saying that neuroscience hasn't found them in the brain's "inner geography." Nevertheless, the general idea of the divided self is supported by neuroscience. There's also a great quote from Freud: "The deficiencies in our descriptions would probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms with physiological ones ... We may expect [physiology and chemistry] to give the most surprising information and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years of questions we have put to it. They may be of a kind that will blow away the whole of our artificial structure of hypothesis."
gary (ggg) Thu 19 Feb 04 16:57
feed was absolutely the best webzine, along with suck, and i'd buy a boatload of copies of any hardback Best Of anthologies as gifts. Have gone to my library to check out Mind...there's a list 5-deep at the public library b ut my private library (mechanics' inst) has one back next week. sounds like you're onto something, steven: a kind of pragmatic, American, news-you-can-use approach, instead of the charts and epistemology ('tho I still like cognitive science: plants THINK). the slippage in this topic already denotes a juicy confab. perhaps steven might have an opp to field some of the initial posers lobbed by our noble hosts, along with jane's now effulgent blossomings ... a kind of multiplicity already that seems to mimic the brain's symphonic concatation ? ... is there a brain analogue for inkwell.vue -- multiplexing wetware where as much as 7 or 8 threaads interweave amongst diverse voices, 24x7, not exactly simultaneously ... but effectively & a cross-post to <murffy>: is "divided mind" a freud term? i've only heard it as a title to a book by our d. laing (r.d.). i can see how his interp. can lead to divisions, but that he effectively dealt a body blow to the idea of Self as some stand-alone, unitary, inviolable, almost substantial, unitary Thing ... the quote in <24> is a humdinger, <murffy> (from where?) ... ! my mind's wide open
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