The idea for this book, MIND WIDE OPEN: Your Brain And The Neuroscience Of Everyday Life by STEVEN JOHNSON pdf, began with a nervous joke—a handful of nervous jokes, to be precise. A few years ago, thanks to a lucky convergence of events and a long-standing curiosity, I found myself in the office of a biofeedback practitioner, lying on a couch with sensors attached to my palms, fingertips, and forehead. As we talked, the two of us stared into a computer monitor, where a series of numbers flashed on the screen like some kind of low-budget version of the CNBC ticker tape. The numbers documented precisely how much I was sweating and updated several times a second. I’ve never taken a lie detector test, but something about having a stranger ask me questions wtiile keeping a close eye on my sweat glands put me on edge. And so I started making jokes.
Getting a little tense was partly the point of the exercise. The machine I was attached to was tracking changes in my adrenaline levels, the “fight-or-flight” hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in situations that require a sudden surge of energy. Increased adrenaline can be detected through a number of means: because the hormone diverts blood from the extremes of the body to the core, drops in temperature at the extremities often suggest a release of adrenaline (hence the sensors on my fingertips). Sweating is also a telltale sign of heightened adrenaline levels. Because damp skin conducts electricity more effectively than dry skin, the electrodes on my palms could track how much I was sweating by monitoring changes in conductivity over time.
Biofeedback systems are designed to give you a new kind of control over your body and mind by making physiological changes visible in a new way. After a few sessions, biofeedback users learn to “drive” their adrenaline levels up or down almost as though they were deciding to lift a finger or bend a knee. The brain, of course, is constantly adjusting adrenaline levels anyway—it’s just that you’re not usually aware of the process other than as a background sense of increased energy or calm.
For the first five minutes of the session, my adrenaline levels remained at the midpoint of the scrolling chart, bouncing around ever so slightly, but with no real pronounced variation. And then something in the situation—I can’t remember now what it was—caused me to make an offhand joke. We both chuckled at my remark and then noticed that a huge spike had appeared on the monitor. Making the joke had triggered a surge of adrenaline in me. Or was it the reverse? Perhaps the rise in adrenaline was me mentally revving the engines before launching my joke into the environment. Whatever the causal chain, my joke-telling and my adrenaline levels ware locked in some kind of chemical embrace.
The extent of that link became clear at the end of our session, when the therapist handed me a printout of my adrenaline levels plotted over our thirty-minute encounter. It was, simply put, a time-line of my attempts at humor: a flat line interrupted by five or six dramatic spikes. I looked at that paper and thought: I’ve caught a glimpse of me here, viewed from an angle that I’ve never experienced before. I’d known for many years that I had a tendency to crack jokes compulsively in certain social situations, particularly in situations where the formality of the setting made humor a riskier bet. But I’d never thought about those jokes as triggering a chemical reaction in my own head. Suddenly, they seemed less like casual attempts at humor and more like a drug addict’s hungering for a new fix.
I knew those adrenaline surges ware just the tip of the iceberg.
The creation and appreciation of humor is a remarkably complex neurological event, involving many parts of the brain and a host of chemical messengers. Doctors at the University of California Medical School, for example, recently located a small region near the front of the left brain that appears to trigger the feeling of mirth; while treating a sixteen-year-old epileptic patient, they applied a tiny jolt of electric current to the area, which caused the patient to find humor in whatever she happened to be looking at. This wasn’t merely a physical reflex of laughter: things genuinely seemed funny to her when the region was stimulated. (“You guys are just so funny—standing around,” she told her startled doctors.) Laughter itself involves a complex array of muscle actions, and there is increasing evidence that it triggers the release of small amounts of endorphins, the brain’s natural painkillers. (The next time you visit a comedy club, think “opium den.”)
But making jokes in conversation also requires a subtle sense of one’s audience, a feel for their sense of humor and state of mind. Such outer-directed imagination is itself governed by another part of the brain, a part believed to be damaged in autistics and that accounts for their strained social interactions.
This is what came to my mind as I thought about my nervous jokes on the biofeedback practitioner’s couch: that with each of those jokes somewhere in my head there was an elaborate electrochemical ballet unfolding, one that had been evolving since my first smile, or before. And now I had glimpsed a subsection of that inner performance as it happened. I found myself wandering how many of these little chemical subroutines are running in my brain on any given day? At any given moment? And what wauld it tell me about myself if I could see them, the way I could see those adrenaline spikes on the printout?
Preface: Kafka’s Room
- Mind Sight
- The Sum of My Fears
- Your Attention, Please
- Survival of the Ticklish
- The Hormones Talking
- Scan Thyself
Conclusion: Mind Mide Open
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