This really is your brain on drugs

In "Mind Wide Open" Steven Johnson looks under the cranial hood to find out what makes him -- and us -- tick.

Published February 18, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

My frontal lobes purred smoothly as I finished Steven Johnson's new book, "Mind Wide Open." This was satisfying on a number of levels. For starters, it seemed appropriate to be operating an efficiently working brain while reading a book about brain science. Brains are complicated mechanisms, even when written about by as fluid and intelligent a writer as Johnson. When you are pondering the mysteries of the amygdala and the hippocampus, you want your own neocortex to be precision tuned.

Setting aside the happy congruence between the subject and my own instrument of comprehension, I also simply enjoyed feeling my synapses firing like a Ferrari's pistons, feeling "on." Everything seems possible when your brain is gung-ho. Flush with cerebral power, I was poised to write the best book review of my life, scattering profundities like flower petals at a wedding. Alert, sensitive, focused -- I felt like a fine designer drug was coursing through my system.

Which, as Johnson takes pains to stress, is entirely accurate. Our brains are always on drugs, the natural kind; our moods and intellectual states are generated in a seething cauldron of complex chemicals -- mind-altering substances with names like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin. I (and Steven Johnson) feel high when the ideas are pumping out, and that is not a metaphor.

Helping us understand how our brain chemistry shapes our daily emotional and mental ups and downs is one of Johnson's main missions in "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life." It's a personal story -- Johnson's own brain is the protagonist, and those of his wife and children are also key characters. That coziness fueled a third level of appreciation for my brain's attraction to this brainy book. The ongoing contemplation of my brain design is a chore I've never been allowed to ignore: My mother is a neuroscientist, a woman who has always displayed an obsessive fascination with my frontal lobes.

She's run me through an MRI to get up close and personal with every dendrite in my neural neighborhood. She has a way of sighing that screams "danger, danger, cerebral malfunction in firstborn offspring!" I will never forget the look she gave me one day, after I returned home from a debacle of major proportions. Her expression said, "Just let me get in there with a scalpel and a screwdriver and I know I can fix that damn thing!"

Though not the kind of scientist to completely discount the role of nurture or environment in shaping her children, she has always had a fairly determinist streak when it comes to brains. Big frontal lobes: good. Small lobes: very, very bad.

And I always rebelled at that -- just as, at times, I found myself bridling at Johnson's analyses of laughter and love and fear in terms of brain structure and chemistry. Was it all really so simple, so many Legos snapping together neatly? What about my will, my consciousness? Are we not more than mere neural nets? And nobody gets to take apart my brain, thank you very much. Not my mom. Not Steven Johnson.

But by the end of this fascinating and graceful tour of the brain, my jaw had unclenched. With his third book, Johnson, the co-founder of the pioneering Web magazine Feed, has reached that lustrous point in his career where, if he's interested in writing about something, I'm interested in reading about it. And his basic thesis, that the more aware we are of how our own brains work, the better we can manage our daily tumbles through the white water of our mental lives, isn't deterministic at all. It's really pretty sensible.

"Mind Wide Open" is an incredibly accessible journey through a complicated wilderness. There are (very) occasional lapses into neuroscientist-ese ("Extended release of the stress hormone glucocortocoid causes atrophy in the neurons of the hippocampus"), but for the most part Johnson is crystal clear, drawing on his own experiences and his own firsthand encounters with state-of-the art brain science to illustrate what top neuroscientists understand about the way our minds work, today.

Johnson is amusing when he takes us on a tour of current neuro-feedback technology --- machines that allow users to manipulate computers simply by thinking -- and when he attempts to capture his own creative process by undergoing a set of brain scans (excerpted here). But he is most compelling as he deconstructs essential human characteristics in terms of brain chemistry and evolution. He ties his own fears, ever since 9/11, of crisp, clear New York weather to his amygdala's sense of self-protection. He theorizes that his wife's odd sense of calm in the aftermath of the attacks has to do with heightened levels of oxytocin in her system as a result of just having given birth.

His goal is to give us tools to better understand ourselves. And for this reader, he succeeds.

A few hours after typing the opening paragraphs of this review, I realized with a start that the glorious rush of working with my totally on-the-ball brain had faded. More than faded -- it was gone completely! I was feeling a little irritable, a little antsy, not quite interfacing neatly with my children as I picked them up from school and fed them dinner. I started to wonder: What just happened? Had some stray event upset the smooth operating efficiency of my once mighty neural machine?

Steven Johnson writes, in a chapter titled "The Hormones Talking": "So begin with this basic premise: you are on drugs. With every shifting mood, every twitch of anxiety, every lovelorn glance, you are experiencing the release of dedicated chemicals in your brains that control your emotions, chemicals fundamentally the same as the ones you might otherwise find in a dime bag or a coke spoon."

This could easily be read as reductionist -- you are only whatever your chemicals are currently saying you are -- although Johnson explicitly rejects that description of what he's about in the book's final chapter. But I found it helpful. With his words in "mind" I was able to step aside, to recognize the feeling of being out of kilter, and by doing so, ameliorate it rather than wallow in it. That doesn't mean I was rushing to pump some external serotonin or dopamime substitute in my system -- although I certainly was tempted to ingest a strong cocktail. But I could see myself as an organism that had gotten a little out of whack, and that was OK.

As Johnson writes, "Knowing something about the brain's mechanics -- and particularly your brain's mechanics -- widens your own self-awareness as powerfully as any therapy or meditation or drug. 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."

As I sifted through the archaeological trail of my afternoon, seeking an answer to my irritability, it occured to me that perhaps I was having an infatuation withdrawal flashback. At one point in my afternoon, I had, without mental preparation, been reminded of a failed love affair when I glanced at a picture of someone I had recently been emotionally involved with. On a surface level, I had winced momentarily, but quickly shrugged the discomfort away, as I went on through the rest of my day, shuttling kids to and from after-school classes and preparing dinner. But looking back, I began to suspect that, beneath my conscious surface, chemical reactions set in motion by that glimpse were cascading through my brain, undermining my sense of all-systems-go stability. (Or maybe it was just a late-afternoon sugar crash.)

It made sense. Poets and writers have burned through billions of neurons striving to define love, with varying levels of success. We tend to resist the idea that it is a purely biological process -- it's something so much more, whatever it is.

But anyone who has been through a period of infatuation cannot honestly deny that there are aspects of it strongly similar to a chemical high. It's fun, it's addictive, you want more. Whether this has its roots in evolutionary adaptations that encourage humans to find partners for the purpose of reproducing is a question I'll leave alone for now. (Suffice it to say that there is much meat of that sort in "Mind Wide Open" to chew on.)

For now, posit that the feeling of infatuation results in the release of chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Is it such a stretch to believe that the mere memory of an infatuation can remind the brain of how it felt when all those chemicals were surging, and that the absence of that same neural activity can result in a less than happy brain? I'm simplifying here, even further than Johnson, who excels in taking enormously complex topics and reducing them to deliciously ingestible form. But I found my own self-analysis comforting.

Like a productive session of psychotherapy, or a good long serotonin-boosting run, thinking through the possibility that my antsy out-of-sortsness had some chemical roots based on real things that had been happening in my life was uplifting. Rather than make me feel like I was a machine, it made me feel like I was comprehensible, and with comprehension came clarity, and some amount of peace.

We live in a remarkable time. That it is even possible to take pictures of the insides of our brain, and catch, as Johnson does, a snapshot of the moment when he is having an idea, engaging in his own creative process, is miraculous and magical. That, as human beings, we are capable of engaging in what Johnson calls "recreational neuroscience" is a tribute to just how amazing our brains are, when we use them to our fullest capacities.

Stephen Johnson is using his brain like a grandmaster in "Mind Wide Open." The rest of us are lucky to be able to watch.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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