Mind Wide Open

Yesterday¡¯s FreshAir featured journalist Steve Johnson, who recently wrote a book: Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. It was truly a fascinating subject. I was mesmerized.

According to Johnson, different types of memory are stored in different types of brain cell. It is kind of like a hospital beds, some of them are in normal multi-patient rooms, some of them are in the hallway, and some of them are in VIP rooms. Apparently all memories associated with fear and sadness is stored in the VIP rooms. In addition our brain tends to remember a lot more details during the moment of danger rather than a moment of happiness. As if the brain automatically switches to high resolution mode when it is taking a snapshot of the moment of great danger. All these are because the need of survival.

Cool, huh?

¡°Our brain is constantly on-drugs.¡± Johnson said. Our brain is capable of producing all kind of chemicals to suit the moment or to alter our mood. For example, there is a particular kind of chemical that will shield us from stress. When our brain is giving out this particular drug, no matter what happened, we won¡¯t feel stressed at all. When a woman is breastfeeding, this drug is produced in high quantities in the mom¡¯s brain. Johnson¡¯s wife gave birth to a baby on September 8th, 2001. They returned to their Manhattan apartment on September 10th, 2001. The next day, as WTC were destroyed to rubbles twenty blocks away, Johnson himself was under tremendous stress, pacing the apartment trying to figure out what to do next with his young family, would it be safe for a three days old baby to be out in the streets with all the debris in the air? Would it be safe to stay where they are? His wife, on the other hand, remained amazingly calm and detached. Later, she felt guilty for her detachment, surprised at herself being such a heartless person. What they didn¡¯t know was that she was tricked by her brain which was trying to protect a young mother from stressful emotions!

Journalist Steven Johnson

He’s the author of the new book, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. He writes the monthly “Emerging Technology” column for Discover and is contributing editor at Wired. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian. Johnson is also the author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, which was named as a finalist for the 2002 Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism.