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Mind Wide Open

Steven Johnson

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Our brain isn't a single computer system - it'sa group of modules, each specialised for a different task. Becomes obvious when we see people with damage to one or two areas of brain, and who have brain failures but leave rest of brain functioning normally.

And the modules interact, some modulating, some translating, some feeding data back into other systems.

Human skill ofmind reading - figuring out what another person is thinking about, or feeling. Very young kids teach themselves gaze monitoring - they look to see what an adult is looking at.

Autistics have problem mind reading.Often high IQ and very logical, but lack social intelligence. They have to be taught what different facial expressions, or tones of voice, actually mean. An early predictor of autism is inability to gaze monitor.

Memories not all stored in same place. French patient with localized brain damage which prevented short term memories being retained. If she met someone, she would completely forget them 15 mins later. Herdoctor had to reintroduce himself ach morning. Then one day he hid a drwaing pin in his hand when shhok hands, pricking her. Next day, she'd completely forgotten him as usual, but reused to shake hands with him, and couldn't explain fear.

Turns out our brain stores 'danger' in two places - the cortex, where a lot of data gets (slowly) integrated to identify an image, and the amygdala, where the brain gets a very fast alert to flee, freeze or fight. The amygdala works off very small amounts of data - a long thin outline in grass is enough to trigger 'snake!' warning.

This extreme generalising function of amygdala is good and bad. Good, because don't have to learn that each snake might be dangerous. Bad, because wide range of possible stimuli. Vietnam vet might interpret truck backfire as a gun shooting at him, or a thunderstorm as bombing.

Once understand that our brains are on drugs all the time, that our thoughts and emotions are controlled by drugs, get a bit of perspective when you feel overwhelmed by sorrow or anxiety.

Brain stores memories of god and bad events differently. Good thingd stored as general impression. Bad things stored in detail, in case any of those details turn out to berelevant later on.

French expression l'esprit d'escalier, literally 'the wit of the staircase' - the smart retort you think of minutes or hours afterthe time when you could have responded to something that caught you off guard. We have plenty of retorts prepared for predictable comments, but the ones that come out of the blue perplex us. And we mull over thosebc we've suffered a social slight by not being mentally adroit enough to respond. Our brains are designed to mull over unexpected events, so that we will be better prepared next time.

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