After months of hints and innuendo, I'm finally ready to start talking in earnest about my new book: Mind Wide Open. The obligatory subtitle is "Your Brain, Neuroscience, And The Search For The Self." We're now about halfway through the edit cycle, which is the point at which my contributions become a little less time-consuming, though there is still room for me to change things based on responses here and elsewhere. It will be published in February of next year by Scribner in the US. (Penguin UK is releasing it in March, I believe.)
The book is an attempt to look systematically at the question of what brain science can tell you about yourself as an individual. There are a number of great books that ask questions like: How did the brain evolve? Or: how does the brain work? This book asks a related, but more intimate question: how does your brain work? In what ways can science shed light on your own personality traits, emotional habits, mental blindspots or strengths? In the book I've set myself up as a kind of guinea pig for this experiment: I take a number of tests that evaluate different cognitive faculties; I do a number of explorations with neurofeedback; I help design a series of fMRI experiments on my own head. I also have conversations with some of the world's leading brain scientists, who function as guides through this amazing inner landscape.
In many ways, the tone of the book will be familiar to those of you who read Emergence -- it's popular science with a literary gloss. (One of the sub-themes of the book is the way neuroscience echoes the insights of novelists like Woolf and James.) But there's a new first-person component to this book, something I've never really tried before in print. I talk about how understanding the brain has changed the way that I've experienced a number of personal events: 9/11, the birth of both of our sons, various frightening events, and a few happy ones as well. In a way, I've been developing this first-person voice simultaneously in the book and here on the blog, so I already have you all to thank for putting up with this work-in-progress over the past nine months. I hope you'll find the finished book worth the wait. In the meantime, I'm going to post an extended paragraph or two from each chapter over the coming week, and encourage everyone to free-associate on it -- further readings, personal anecdotes, hostile disagreements, factual corrections, haiku...
I'll start with a quote from the Preface, one that builds on what I've said above:
Every human brain is capable of generating different patterns of electrical and chemical activity. The promise of these new tools is being able to figure out what your pattern looks like. And then figure out what that pattern tells you about yourself.
It's likely that you've thought about the patterns of your own brain's wiring before. The general movement of popular psychology over the past century is one from deeply figurative descriptions of mental traits towards more physiological specificity: the movement, in a sense, from Oedipus to the neuron. Adrenaline itself has entered our everyday lexicon, as has the notion of our body administering quick chemical fixes for the pure pleasure of it: we do things, we say, for the adrenaline rush, or the endorphin high. Radio ads now tout various wonder drugs' ability to alter our neurotransmitter profiles as though they were selling dandruff shampoo. If you've read Listening To Prozac, you've probably met a person who seemed depressed and thought: hmm, very low serotonin. But these are just hunches about our inner physiological states, and crude ones at that. There are dozens of so-called "information molecules" in your body -- neurotransmitters, hormones, peptides -- each playing a key role in your shifting emotional response to external events, triggering everything from the nurturing instinct in mothers to the agitated surge of a panic attack. Could tools that measure the minute-by-minute levels of those substances in your body and brain teach you something about your own emotional toolbox? Could they help you make sense of your dreams, or your phobias? We've learned to track and monitor our mood changes with a statistician's exactitude, to explore our childhood memories, to keep our minds alert with exercise. But your moods and memories and perceptions are themselves just the sum of electrochemical activity in your brain. What could you learn about yourself if you could catch a glimpse of that activity directly? If you could see what your brain looked like when it was remembering a long-forgotten childhood experience, or listening to a favorite song, or conjuring up a good idea?
Brain imaging tools are miracles of modern science, but they are not the only inroads to your mind's inner life. Simply possessing a more informed understanding of your brain's internal architecture can change the way you think about yourself. Part of that process involves separating out mental routines that you conventionally experience in unison. If you know nothing about what's actually happening in your head, the neurological activity you experience is invisible: it's just you being yourself. But the more you learn about the brain's architecture, the more you recognize that what happens in your head is more like a symphony than a soloist, with dozens of players contributing to the overall mix. You can hear the symphony as a unified wash of sound, but you can also break out the trombones from the tympani, the violins from the cellos. To do something comparable with your own head, you don't need a million-dollar imaging machine. You just need to learn something about the brain's components and their typical patterns of activation.