Steven Johnson has a new book out and it’s a great read. I was a big fan of his last book Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software, and it wasn’t just me that liked it; it had an effect on everything from the Howard Dean campaign to The Matrix trilogy. Along with his regular pieces for Wired and the New York Times, the book confirmed him as one of the most interesting and readable science writers in the US.
His trick as an author is to spend time with the people at the cutting edge of the science and then explain their work through his conversations and interactions with them. It works a treat. It makes the books so readable because you’re with a guy having fun. I met up with Steven last week and got the feeling he was slightly bemused by the way people keep buying his books, reading his articles and treating him like a guru. He does it because he loves it and that playful curiosity comes through in his writing. He’s what Pat Kane might call a ‘player’.
Mind Wide Open: One Man’s Journey into the Workings of his Brain is Steven being playful and inquisitive again. This time, rather than wondering how ant colonies work or slime mould self organises, he wonders how his brain works. He finds out how Tiger Woods blanks out the crowd when teeing up, he finds out why his wife was calmer than he was in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, he finds out why we can remember events and images from years ago but can’t remember phone numbers from two minutes ago. And he explains it all with page-turning clarity and humour.
The book is well timed because we’re increasingly interested in understanding our brains and how we can change their characteristics and performance. From anti-depressants to Ritalin, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Memento we’ve got brains on the brain. The science, as Mind Wide Open shows, is moving fast. Certainly I was quite surprised when I went to a recent conference in the US how many ‘enhancements’ are in the R&D pipeline. It may not be long before we can enhance our memories using drugs for example.
Anyway, it’s a really interesting book, well worth a read.