inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #26 of 63: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 19 Feb 04 18:37
You'll have to ask Steven exactly where the Freud quote comes from,
probably from "Beyond the Pleasure Principle."

I'm not sure where the term "divided self " comes from, quite possibly
Liang. A post-modernist term is "dispersion." Clearly the Buddhists
have been on to the divided mind for centuries and I suspect a lot of
other observant thinkers down the line have too. In modern terms I tend
to think of it coming from William James or Freud. While Ego, Id and
Superego may not be very good models, they still speak of internal
forces often working in opposition.
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #27 of 63: David Dawson (dawson54) Fri 20 Feb 04 00:26
Jane: As a footnote to your post in <20>, I'm just finishing a new
book entitled "The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's
Block, and the Creative Brain," by Alice W. Flaherty.  I have been
absolutely bowled over by the scope and insight of this book, which
looks at the revelations of brain science (for want of a better term)
in regard to such topics as the connection between metaphor and
emotion, hypergraphia (which the author has experienced), why and how
we write, and the "inner voice" that deeply connects writers and
readers via this amazingly complicated vehicle called the brain.  In
other words, it addresses a good many of the topics and questions that
you raise.

I'm just now opening my copy of "Mind Wide Open," so I'll be playing
catch-up.  Sounds like it's going to complement this Midnight Disease
book very well.  I'm looking forward to joining in....
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #28 of 63: jane hirshfield (jh) Fri 20 Feb 04 10:02
Thanks, David--I read some reviews of that Flaherty book and yes, it did
sound fascinating--thanks for the recommendation.

Today's press reports an interesting bit of research that seems somewhat
connected to my musings (based on previous research-reading) about
literature activating the same brain responses as "real" life-- that couples
responding empathetic reactions to one another's (well, actually, they just
seemed to test the women--were they afraid the men would prove less
empathetic? I'd love to see the thing run again the other way) pain. Here a
url with the basics:

(should have posted that on a separate line, and sorry, I don't know how to
convert it to a "tiny")

Not only does empathetic response activate some of the same areas as one's
own pain response, but in this experiment the experience was "communicated"
by means of an intermediary symbol--the women were responding not to the
men's facial expressions or groans or whatever, but to a symbol indicating
what level of pain was being inflicted.

The implication for literature that I draw... the writer has to create a
character or situation about which the reader cares enough to feel
connected; once that's done, the experience on the page is processed exactly
as if it were one's own. Now, this is what anyone would have said without
the benefit of neuroscientists confirming it--but it's kind of fun to see
the mechanism demonstrated in the research.

(Steven mentioned that he's on book tour--I'm amazed he's been able to come
in here at all under those circumstances, they can be pretty all-consuming.)
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #29 of 63: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Fri 20 Feb 04 19:43
Regarding what you said, Jane, in <21>

>What great literature does is create what I feel to be equally
>primary experience, *through* language.

Another fascinating book on neuroscience is John McCrone's "Going
Inside: A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness."

In it the author puts forward that idea that the brain is a kind of
awareness engine (among other things), working to produce awareness for
the purpose of making decisions in the present moment. As a contrast
to humans, we can say an animal's awareness, like a wolf's, is strongly
geared toward dealing with present situations. Wolves have memories
and learn from experience, but these are there to serve awareness of
the moment. A wolf hears something rabbit-like and this draws up images
and memories of chasing rabbits and sometimes catching them. The
memories feed the wolf's decision making in the moment.

With humans, you have the added capacity of complex grammatical
language. What this helps us do is generate false moments in our minds
(i.e. reflect). With language we can dwell on all sorts of scenarios
with words conjuring images and experiences, creating imagined present
moments and sort of tricking the brain into reacting as if these
moments were real, at least to a degree. Anyway, I think it supports
what you're saying about "great literature."
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #30 of 63: gary (ggg) Fri 20 Feb 04 19:47
a very apt synchronicity, <jh>, and an interesting article.   (yea, why no
men, huh!?)  "emotional and not cognitive processess are triggered by the
mere perception of a symbol": like ... an american flag, after 9/11, say.

well, i tried channeling steve, on the road, but his chakras are all
consumed. however, his amgydla informed my subconvious:  he will be speaking
and signing in the bay area soon.   I caught 12:30 (noon time) at stacey's
on market, monday feb 23.  maybe elsewhere too
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #31 of 63: Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Fri 20 Feb 04 21:01
Obviously, you all are doing just fine without me! Sorry I've been
unable to post more frequently -- this tour has been much busier than
any of my other tours: back-to-back media, signings, etc pretty much
all day, plus all the travel. Nothing to complain about, other than the
fact that I've missed being more involved here. 

A word about the consciousness question: yes, it's true that the book
deliberately avoids speculating about where consciousness comes from,
but Jane's exactly right that the experience of consciousness is a huge
part of what I'm talking about -- learning, in a sense, to be a better
listener to the mind, to hear all those modules playing in sync (or
mostly in sync) with each other. That is indeed a kind of
consciousness, even a higher consciousness. But what isn't addressed in
the book is how that consciousness comes into being, how it's even
possible that I'm able to feel the release of adrenaline in the first
place. Almost every page of the book includes a description of some
kind of consciousness, but there's no point where I try to *explain*
consciousness. That's another way in which the book is literary in its
approach to the mind. 

A few odds and ends: I seem to recall that the Freud quote is from a
preface to Pleasure Principle, but I'm in a hotel in Houston right now,
not my study in Brooklyn, so I'm not sure. And yes, I'm reading at
Stacy's Monday at 12:30, and Keppler's in Menlo Park on Tuesday at
7:30. Come out if you can!
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #32 of 63: jane hirshfield (jh) Sat 21 Feb 04 09:08
Oh, I was hoping they might have also put you into Book Passage in Corte
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #33 of 63: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 23 Feb 04 13:14
(wondering how the Stacy's reading went...)

Steven, before you joined us here in Inkwell we'd been discussing brain
function from another angle with David Shenk, author of an Alzheimer's book
called "The Forgetting." I'd asked him a question that we batted about a
bit but never quite got sorted out. So I want to bring it up again in
hopes that you might be able to shed some more light on this.


A few months ago, one of the residents in the memory care wing where my mom
is died. He'd been fairly low-functioning -- non verbal, mostly non-
reactive, almost never interacted with the other residents. But he wasn't
on hospice watch, so his death was somewhat sudden.
The staffers were quite sad. The residents didn't appear to notice that
the man was gone. But they somehow felt sad anyway. We suspected they
were picking up on the staffers' feelings, despite their best efforts
at hiding their sorrow. 
And I know that when I'm getting frustrated with my mom, even if I keep
my voice calm and don't give her any obvious outward indication about
what I'm feeling, she gets upset. She definitely picks up on my feelings.
Since her reasoning abilities are pretty well shot, and since she's
got the mental and emotional landscape of a 4-year-old these days, what's
left in her Alzheimer-riddled brain that's allowing her to be so 
sensitive to the subtle cues that most "regular" people wouldn't see
or be aware of? Where does the brain store "intuition"?
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #34 of 63: jane hirshfield (jh) Mon 23 Feb 04 15:56
THat's a sad and interesting question, Cynthia. I just looked up intuition
in the book's index, and it has two references, both placing intuition in
the amygdala rather than the neocortex, which might explain this. But I
don't want to quash more discussion.

I never read the full John Bayley books, only what ran in the New Yorker,
but if the bit in the movie Iris about Murdoch giving a full-blown sentence
very late in the Alzheimer's process, out of the blue, is true, it raises a
similar kind of issue.

Four year olds are pretty good readers of emotions--maybe more so than us
older, more "sophisticated" adults, who want the world to be what we want it
to be and so allow ourselves to be more easily fooled by surface content. At
least consciously fooled. I suspect our amygdalas know the truth too.
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #35 of 63: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Mon 23 Feb 04 19:14
The book doesn't tackle the issue of intuition in much detail but I
suspect the word "intuition" is kind like the word "attention." We tend
to think of it as a singular faculty but it is probably produced by
various combinations of the brain's modules depending on the task. With
attention, the brain uses different areas to pay attention to a
computer game than it does paying attention to a person talking.
Someone with good attention in one area may be bad in another. Here's
what Steven writes:

"The concept of attention is a prisoner of our language: we think of
these different skills as qualitatively alike because we have one word
that embraces them all."

Intuition is probably a larger catch-all term. 

But it does seem clear the amygdala is doing a lot of the "mind
reading," quickly processing the numerous signals of communication --
facial expression, body language, tone of voice -- beneath the level of
conscious awareness. I'm not sure, but I can imagine that an
Alzheimers sufferer may have significant damage to the neocortex yet at
the same time may have a pretty healthy amygdala. This could explain
Cynthia's mom's behavior.

There's an anecdote in the book about a Memento-like amnesiac who
can't form new memories. The woman's doctor has to reintroduce himself
every time he meets with her because she never remembers him. One day
he puts a tack in his palm and shakes her hand. The next day, the woman
has no recollection of him or the painful handshaking, nevertheless
she avoids shaking hands. This suggests the amygdala was doing its job
but the neocortex wasn't able to draw any memories into consciousness.
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #36 of 63: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 24 Feb 04 15:38
    <scribbled by cdb Tue 24 Feb 04 16:19>
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #37 of 63: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 24 Feb 04 16:23
(36 scribbled because of disjointed thought process. let me try again!)

Yes, David Shenk also discussed that amnesiac in "The Forgetting." A
fascinating thing to ponder, for sure.

As far as the amygdala and Alz, I asked him about it -- pondering if it
was one of the areas of the brain that wasn't attacked by plaques and
tangles until the end stage of the disease -- he said no, "The amygdala is
actually ravaged very early in the disease." If that's so, then your
theory doesn't work, murffy. The extra sensitivity to others' emotional
states that Alzheimer sufferers exhibit can't be coming from the amygdala.
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #38 of 63: Gail Williams (gail) Tue 24 Feb 04 16:30

I'm not sure the recognition of emotions is an intuition thing.  Isn't 
the ability to sense emotion supposed to be deep down in the brain?  
Isn't it in the dinosaur part we share with birds, those feathery 
bundles of emotional response?
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #39 of 63: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Tue 24 Feb 04 19:28
Oh well. Back to the drawing board. I suppose if the amygdala is
ravaged early on by Alz then so is the bulk of the limbic system.

Another thought regards the amygdala's "quick and dirty" way of
processing information. The memories that it records and draws on have
less information than the conscious memories we normally think of.
Maybe, because of this, the amygdala can some how function better in a
damaged state than the neocortex because its function is less complex.

Also, damaged brains are able to cobble together functionality,
co-opting other systems to support a damaged one. Perhaps the brain
considers it more important to cobble together core emotional responses
than to produce "higher-level" cognition.

Just thinking out loud ...
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #40 of 63: David Dawson (dawson54) Wed 25 Feb 04 00:42
Re: intuition.  There was speculation a couple of years ago that we
all possess something the researchers were calling the "enteric brain."
 Basically the theory was that the digestive system is far too complex
to do its job based on signals merely from the vagus nerve, and hence
the nerves that control the thousands of actions per minute necessary
to digest food -- all day and all night -- were in fact a secondary
brain.  If I recall correctly, some researchers had concluded that the
types of neurons and the stew of chemical transmitters were identical
to the brain in our heads, and that this was true only in the digestive
system (as is smooth muscle tissue).

So, their conclusion was that "gut feelings" were real, and that often
our enteric brains would foretell or inform before our conscious minds
picked up on it.  In other words, intuition.

This may be complete piffle for all I know, but having had fairly
extensive gut surgery I can attest that everything does work
differently, and that I am much more likely to feel emotions in the
guts than I was before the surgery.

As above, just thinking out loud....
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #41 of 63: Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Wed 25 Feb 04 19:57
Hey gang, back in Brooklyn finally after the most arduous stretch of
the book tour. The Stacy's event was a complete delight, at least as
far as I was concerned: full house, lots of great questions, nice
energy in the room. I do love the Bay Area -- it really feels like my
second home in the US...

One quick and no doubt disappointing response to Cynthia's fascinating
and difficult question: I don't know the answer. Jane and Murffy both
said exactly what I would have said, which is that the amygdala
definitely plays a role in the recognition of emotional states and
expressions in other people. But Alzheimer's does seem to target the
amygdala as fiercely as it does the hippocampus (the seat of memory),
so I don't have a good explanation for what Cynthia is experiencing
with her mom, other than the fact that the brain has all sorts of
redundancies built in, and so there may well be another part of the
brain that is also involved in emotion-recognition and that isn't
damaged by the plaques. So it's a mystery to me as well...

Now, since the book tour has sucked a bit of my time away from this
discussion, I thought I'd make up for it by talking here about some new
ideas I've had in the past few days, partially triggered by the tour
itself. I've been thinking a lot about my everyday life experience of
dopamine, and the brain's reward system. Allow me to quote from myself
briefly to get the relevant information across:

"Dopamine... is not so much a pleasure drug as a kind of pleasure
accountant. It anticipates rewards that it expects the brain to
receive, and sets off an alarm if the reward exceeds or falls below
that anticipated level. It's not unlike what a stock analyst does in
watching quarterly earnings reports: If the company meets expectations,
there's no news. But if the company shows a less-than-expected loss,
or a surprisingly high profit, then there's something to talk about. If
you're expecting a certain reward – seeing the face of a loved one,
landing a new client – and the reward comes through as promised, the
dopamine in this system remains level. If you're denied the reward,
dopamine production drops accordingly. And if the reward turns out to
be even better than expected – the loved one shows up with a bouquet of
flowers, or the client gives twice as much business as originally
indicated – then your brain releases extra dopamine to signal the good

There's much to be said about this model in terms of understanding
what we mean when we talk about addictive personalities: one way of
thinking about people who battle addictions is that their reward
expectation levels are more easily reset by recent experience. If
you're expecting a reward of 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, and you get
delivered an 8 on one particularly good day, some people will wake up
the next morning expecting another 8, while others will go back to
expecting a 5. If life serves up another 5, the folks who were
expecting an 8 will be disappointed, and they'll have lowered dopamine
levels, which will induce a seeking/craving feeling causing them to
seek out more reward. 

I've been thinking about this a great deal over the past few weeks,
because it connects to the strangely seasonal rhythms of the writer's
life. When you're working on a book, you spend massive stretches of
time with only the slightest forms of self-delivered reward in your
day-to-day existence: it's just you and the word processor, and the
good days are the ones where you get a couple thousand words on the
page, and the bad ones are the ones where you only get five hundred.
(Or at least that's my experience -- your mileage may vary.) The
external world lets you go about your business without delivering any
positive or negative feedback. And so, in my experience at least, I
find that I get to a kind of dopamine equilibrium: the difference
between the good days and the bad days isn't really that significant,
and so I don't find myself experiencing dramatic mood swings during the
writing process. 

But then there's this phase -- the one I'm smack in the middle of
right now -- where suddenly for a 3-4 month period, that book you've
been toiling away at for two years -- or ten -- suddenly is out in the
open, and people are reviewing it or ignoring it, buying or not buying
it, showing up for readings or avoiding you like the plague. You go
almost overnight from a career where reward is entirely dealt out by
your own evaluations ("Today was a good day; I finished that chapter")
to a career where the rewards change literally by the hour ("My Amazon
sales rank just dropped 300 places!") And your dopamine system responds
accordingly. Good news inevitably leads to a crash the following day,
because you've set your expectations so high. If this were the rhythm
of my work life 365 days a year, I think I might be better at "managing
expectations," as the Wall Street folks say, but because it's this
strange anomaly that happens every couple of years when a book gets
published, I find myself more vulnerable to the swings. 

At any rate, sorry to ramble on, but I'd be curious to hear how this
corresponds to other people's work experience, whether
publishing-related or not....
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #42 of 63: nape fest (zorca) Wed 25 Feb 04 20:49
no, no. do ramble. it's like extra sprinkles on the sundae.

so do you think that you have much control over the dopamine release? other
than the actual tour schedule? do you think intake of certain chemicals,
even common things like coffee or a martini, make a difference?
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #43 of 63: David Dawson (dawson54) Wed 25 Feb 04 22:54
Stephen -- I read a similar discussion from social psychologist Daniel
Gilbert on The Edge site today.  Not identical to what you're talking
about, but very close.  From the site (

"The problem lies in how we imagine our future hedonic states. We are
the only animals that can peer deeply into our futures—the only animal
that can travel mentally through time, preview a variety of futures,
and choose the one that will bring us the greatest pleasure and/or the
least pain. This is a remarkable adaptation—which, incidentally, is
directly tied to the evolution of the frontal lobe—because it means
that we can learn from mistakes before we make them. We don't have to
actually have gallbladder surgery or lounge around on a Caribbean beach
to know that one of these is better than another. We may do this
better than any other animal, but our research suggests that we don't
do it perfectly. Our ability to simulate the future and to forecast our
hedonic reactions to it is seriously flawed, and that people are
rarely as happy or unhappy as they expect to be.

A Talk with Daniel Gilbert"
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #44 of 63: David Dawson (dawson54) Wed 25 Feb 04 22:59
And on another note, I noticed that the February 26 (today) episode of
Fresh Air will feature Stephen Johnson discussing "Mind Wide Open." 
If you're reading this after the fact, the shows are archived on the
NPR and WHYY sites.
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #45 of 63: Jim Klopfenstein (klopfens) Thu 26 Feb 04 07:06
I wonder to what degree dopamine is involved in expectations that
don't directly relate to simple pleasures.  For instance, if you were
satisfied with your job, received an interesting offer that fell
through, and then found the old job unsatisfying.
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #46 of 63: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 26 Feb 04 18:56
So, Steven, do you experience a hangover after the post-book phase?

I can't say I've had the experience (maybe some day). One thing that
comes to mind, though, is that sometimes I get into a kind of expansive
state where ideas click away, perception seems sharper, conversation
flows like wine. It's a good state to be in, where I like to be. Yet it
doesn't come around that often and there is kind of hangover effect
when I come down from it (even if no alcohol was involved), a kind of
drained feeling. It stands to reason my brain is recovering from its
self-induced chemical buzz. Fortunately, my expectations don't reset
themselves at that level. In fact,  for a little while, I'm not
interested re-achieving the expansive state
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #47 of 63: Uncle Jax, the Nicest Asshole on the Well (jax) Thu 26 Feb 04 23:43
Caught Steve on Fresh Air tonite ... Steve, you're a great popularizer
of the concepts of neurology in the tradition of Sagan popularizing
general science. Nice interview!
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #48 of 63: Jeff Loomis (jal) Fri 27 Feb 04 02:31
46 sounds like hypomania to me, which I've heard has something to
do with the amygdala.
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #49 of 63: Jeff Loomis (jal) Fri 27 Feb 04 02:36
See for example.

I'm not sure if this has been mentioned in this topic before, sometimes
when there are a lot of new responses I tend to skim.
inkwell.vue.207 : Steven Johnson, "Mind Wide Open"
permalink #50 of 63: jane hirshfield (jh) Fri 27 Feb 04 09:10
I'm glad you brought that up, Steven--I found that bit about dopamine very
illuminating, as previously I'd had it blurred in with pleasure stuff,
rather than expectation/reward.

My experience has been very similar to yours, in several different
contexts--regular readings, the buzz around book publication and a book
tour, teaching at workshops, going to an artist colony for a month at a
time. There's a continuum here about intense interactions with others, or in
the last case, mostly an intense interaction with one's own work, and some
social aspect to it, and in each case to some degree or another, the buzz of
public acknowledgement followed by the return to quiet regular life. It
really helped me when I learned to expect the downdraft--knowing it was an
inevitable part of the pattern made it a much less strong experience--i.e.,
my expectations were reset to include it, so it stopped happening so much.
I've taken to warning any first timer I meet at an artist colony about
it--"you may very likely go home and find yourself depressed and restless
and want to change your life, and it might help to know ahead of time how
likely that is and that it's part of leaving paradise." (I myself moved
immediately after my first month at Yaddo.)

So in my experience it makes a big difference for this to be a conscious
thing--it's the unconscious expectations of continual buzz that get to a
person, once you know what's going on it's more takeable in stride. So that
goes right back to this question of consciousness and how it enters the
dance of biochemistry--in at least some areas, it can "retrain" the
chemistry almost instantly.

(By the way, I don't recall you dealing with EMDR therapy in the book, whcih
seems, when it works, to be able to re-train the amygdala with almost
miraculous speed.)

Glad it was a  great tour, by the way!


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