Steven Johnson explores neuroscience in a very accessible way by describing his journey to understand his own brain. He submits himself to MRIs, biofeedback machines, neurofeedback machines, and other neurological testing to gain insight into how his own brain (and all of our brains too) function on a daily basis.
He closes with a section about Freud, and how neuroscience, while showing the need to update or alter some of Freud's theories about psychoanalysis, does not totally replace them. Johnson posits that understanding the neuroscience and acknowledging the role that biology and even geneology play doesn't mean that we are somehow locked into behaving a certain way or that the poetic, psychological, literary, and philosophical interpretations of how our minds work suddenly go out the window. Instead, each of these interpretations have their place.
Johnson also states that understanding a little more about the chemical and biological mechanisms in his brain actually makes him feel less limited and more in control. Knowledge is power, rah rah!
Particularly interesting insights to me:
Using 10% of our brains most of the time isn't a bad thing; instead it's efficient. Our brains are composed of dozens of different tools that serve different purposes. If we used all of them at once, the sheer volume of information and input would leave us unable to function. Our brain uses the 10% (or so) that is directly tied to whatever task we're working on.
His findings turn conventional wisdom about dealing with trauma on its head. We all know we're supposed to "talk it out" when something traumatic or painful happens, and "not brag" when something wonderful and exciting happens. However, reliving memories and their associated emotions makes them stronger. Therefore talking about the painful can reinforce it and ensure the emotional response remains long after, and keeping something great quiet may cause us to lose the great emotional feeling that came with it.
Our limbic brain is more or less responsible for emotional responses and our neocortex is more or less responsible for intellection and thinking. These systems work together, but at different speeds. The limbic brain learns slowly and remains in various emotional states longer, whereas the neocortex learns (and moves on) very quickly. This explains those moments where you feel stressed or anxious and don't know why. Then when you think for a moment, you remember something that you just heard that was stress-inducing and that your neocortex had moved on from before your limbic brain was finished reacting.
There's also a fascinating section of the book about our abillity to detect emotion - subconsciously and in a split second. We're not just talking happy and sad here, but 412 different "discrete emotional concepts." All this is handled by our limbic system; in fact, bringing your neocortex into play and trying to analyze the emotions on someone's face will make your reading less accurate that going with your split-second decision.
Themes: neuroscience, psychological, self-knowledge, technology, personality