A peep into the mind

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

Mind Wide Open, Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life; Steven Johnson (author of Emergence); Scribner, New York; $25.00, Rs.757.55; Pages 204.

STEVEN BERLIN JOHNSON'S book Mind Wide Open, released in January 2004, seeks to answer the eternal question that everyone has: "Who am I?". Since the question is asked by the mind, knowing how it works helps. Moreover, since we like to think of the mind as a higher-order conglomeration of the different anatomical parts of the brain, the structure and functions of these parts are essential for our understanding of who we are and what makes us tick.

Johnson uses a mix of his everyday experiences and lucid scientific narration rendered at the popular level. We can identify with the experiences he quotes and the demystified scientific explanations he gives while taking us through a tour of the brain. He explains the structure of the brain and what happens inside it when we go through the gamut of emotions of fear, love, pleasure and laughter. It is fascinating to read about the circuitry in our head that we are born with and how the power of our thinking is derived from these circuits or instincts as well as what we assimilate through our experiences. The age-old debate of nature or nurture is laid to rest by showing that we are what we are, owing to both. He shows that our behaviour is governed both by what natural evolution has endowed the human brain with and what our nurturing in the civilised world has taught us. But this learning from our worldly experiences is possible only because nature has endowed our brain with capabilities such as learning, memorising and unconscious recall.

Johnson starts to prise open our minds through a discussion on a more commonly understood subject, "the fight-or-flight" syndrome where the adrenal glands go into overdrive when faced with situations that require a sudden surge of energy, such as a threat of impending danger. He sets the tone and approach of the book by taking us through the experience of a neuro-feedback experiment that he attempts on himself. Indicators of his adrenal level, such as the temperatures of the body extremities, the heartbeat and the level of sweating in the palms, are captured and a combination of these is displayed to him in graphical form. He narrates how by concentrating on the state of excitement his mind is in he is able to effect changes in the graphic indicators of his adrenal flow. Through this and several other such experiments, Johnson helps us get that "brief glimpse of my brain's chemical feedback" to teach us "something new about my personality".

By the end of three chapters, Johnson introduces us to several toolboxes and chemical factories in our brains and links them all up to provide interesting explanations about our behaviour. The fascinating part is to use different faculties of our brain to read consciously explanations about how they function and orchestrate together. This is not very different from seeing through our eyes the image of those same eyes staring back at us from a mirror. Johnson's book is "the story of my journey into that mirror".

As we read on, Johnson, with great ease, alternates between observations of what we do in our everyday experiences and the relevant description of the human brain's anatomy and working. He analyses activities such as talking to colleagues, recognising faces of acquaintances, paying attention, and experiencing emotions, while describing some of the things that we do of which we are not even aware of. He intersperses this with descriptions of the structure and function of relevant parts within the brain, their inter-working, and the chemicals they secrete to make those experiences possible. He provides us with deep insights into and startling revelations about our brain. The revelations are in the nature of how and why we do certain things and the insights pertain to the part of the brain that is involved in those experiences and the evolutionary basis for them.

One insight is that while we converse there is a `silent duet of two internal monologues'. One thought process is translated into speech and delivered while the other runs silently within, plotting what the listener is thinking and anticipating how he/she is likely to respond. A startling fact revealed is that 95 per cent of the time we detect correctly the emotions the other person is undergoing by just looking into his or her eyes. A test conducted by the scientist Simon Baron-Cohen consists of the subject looking at pictures of eyes that include only the eyebrows and the lower part of the eyes and guessing by `gut-feeling' the emotion that they represent. The subject has a choice of over 93 emotions to choose from and yet a statistically large number of people who took the test proved correct 95 per cent of the times. Describing the research of Edouard Claparede and Joseph LeDoux, Johnson provides us more insights into the working of amygdala, the seat of emotions. "The principal insight that emerged... is that the experience of danger follows two pathways in the brain, one conscious and rational, the other unconscious and innate, dubbed the high road and the low road".

Concentration and paying attention is another major topic of discussion revolving around the neuro-biofeedback technique of controlling one's Theta waves, which one can see on a monitor that is fed out of electrodes connected to one's skull. There is an important difference between paying attention as in listening keenly to someone without missing anything and the attention that we pay while concentrating at performing music or participating in sport or other activities at very high levels of perfection. The observation he makes is of Tiger Woods, whose eyes while playing revealed a certain trance-like status oblivious to the cheering of more than 500 fans from close quarters. His own words: "Great athletes are trying to reproduce the strategy that evolution stumbled across when it created the quick-and-dirty route that fear response follows in the brain. If you don't have time to think, better to get rid of thinking." The cortex needs to be conditioned not to think, while the unconscious mind that has perfected what is to be done physically is provided a free reign. Nearer home, we are reminded of Arjuna who did not see or hear anything except the eye of the bird, while taking aim with his arrow.

The astounding example, of a lovely little pair of romantic rodents called Prairie Voles in mid-west United States that remain loyal to each other after their first mating, is provided to show the innate circuitry that we possess, more so the female of our species, for love and tending. Brain Sciences "have placed newfound emphasis on positive emotional circuits after years of obsession with negative emotions". There is also a newfound awareness of gender differentiation in the study of neuro-physiology. It would seem that females are more disposed to tending and caring as security against stressful situations. Unlike males, neither fight nor flight is an option for them when tending to their young ones. Adrenalin gives way to oxytocin, a chemical observed to be released during periods of intense emotional attachment, such as childbirth, breast-feeding and sexual climax. While researching with Prairie Voles, the Emery University Professor Tim Insel found an overlap of oxytocin receptors with dopamine receptors in the area of their brain called "nucleus accumbens", regarded as one of the brain's pleasure centres. "Their brains were wired to form attachments pleasurable."

Like many people, I was always under the impression that laughter is a logical response to humour until I came across Johnson building a case for laughter to be an evolutionary necessity. Quoting Professor Provine's study, he notes that "speakers were laughing more than listeners - 46 per cent more to be precise". The conclusion is that laughter is a human instinct to promote social bonding and the human civilisation later crafted humour to exploit our need for laughter. Related to laughter is our sensitivity to being tickled and that too unexpectedly. This is most obvious when we tickle children and it evokes laughter. Johnson goes on to show how laughter makes you healthier by suppressing stress hormones and elevating immune system antibodies. The instinct is so strong that even a threat or pretence to tickle can evoke laughter. Johnson speculates that this rough and tumble play involving tickling between parent and child could have evolved "as an emotional glue that connects them during the most vulnerable years of the child's development". The physical mechanism of laughter itself is generated in the brain stem, the most ancient region of the nervous system in evolutionary terms. This mechanism also makes laughter infectious. According to Provine, most of the time we do not consciously decide to laugh. We may not even be aware that we are actually laughing and most of the times we have no conscious control of laughter.

For some readers the ultimate reductionism could be in the chapter titled "The Hormones Talking". Some of the scientific discoveries of receptors in the brain that are tuned to receiving painkilling drugs derived from opium such as heroin, morphine, codein and so on have lead to the discovery of the brain's own endogenous opiates such as `enphalins' and `endorphins'. In Johnson's word: "Your brain is nothing but drugs... . Or put another way, it would be nothing without drugs... With every shifting mood, every twitch of anxiety, every lovelorn glance, you are experiencing the release of dedicated chemicals in your brain that controls your emotions." The choreographed secretions of oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and the rest takes us through the high points of pleasure or dumps into depressive moods, resulting in specific events in the body such as a higher heart beat rate, nausea, cold sweat, temperature drop, and so on.

The ramifications of accepting the idea of this neuro-chemical profiling of our moods and personality are controversial. One point of view against it is the fear that some people can usurp unscrupulously the social advantage of profiling a whole class of people along racial, cultural or national lines.

Any book on the mind and its biological structure and working can ignore Sigmund Freud only at the risk of losing its own credibility. Johnson discusses the relevance of Freud at the end of his book. It is amazing to see many of Freud's postulations corroborated by neuroscience. The mapping of id, ego and super ego to the structural model of the `triune brain' proposed by Paul Mclean is fascinating. The model talks of evolutionary layers of the brain `much like a kind of architectural dig site, with a series of settlements stacked on top of the other'. The brain stem is a reptilian relic and forms the lowest layer and is primarily responsible for controlling the body's basic metabolic functions, like the heart rate and breathing. The second layer, known as paleo-mammalian brain or the limbic system, is the seat of emotion and memory, comprising the amygdala, the hyppocampus and the hypothalmus. The topmost layer is the neo-cortex, "the two hemispheres of which spreads across the surface of the brain like a foam insert in a bike helmet". The cortex is the seat of abstract thought, long-term thinking and complex communications. The greatness of Freud is that as early as 1890s he proposed that much of our life is shaped by unconscious mental activity over which we has very little control. Decades of empirical research have endorsed this proposition.

Litterateurs and philosophers have speculated about the mind and human behaviour in different real-life scenarios. Brain science has now made it possible for the mind to be opened wide. "Why not peer inside?"

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