MIND WIDE OPEN and EMERGENCE

I’d like to take the time to recommend the writings of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life.

In the research style of Howard Rheingold, Steven Johnson seems to spend his time traveling around the country collecting bits of information from inventors and scientists, as well as a healthy backlog of reading material. I like that Johhson, in his wonderfully meandering style, isn’t afraid to drag literary works into the mix as well. There’s a delightful (for me) moment in Mind Wide Open when he uses Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to illustrate the point he’s making about brain functions. He also uses a passage from Henry James’ The Golden Bowl (okay, so I may be remembering this incorrectly) to illustrate the the way that people (and their brains) continuously interpret the subtle interactions of body language and facial expressions.

I read Emergence first and, as per usual, I can’t quite recall the place that I originally read about this book, though I seem to remember reading this interview with Steven Johnson on Salon.com when it originally came out. I didn’t read the book at the time or even look for it. What I can’t remember is what prompted me to read the book now. It’s funny that I can remember an interview I read three years ago, but not the reason that I decided to read a book two or three months ago.

–Completely tangentially, but I think that the image or metaphor of my brain that most seems to fit is based on a dream that I had some time ago, but that was so vivid it’s stuck with me ever since. I had a very detailed dream in which I designed and built a circular cage in which fans were arranged in such a way that air blew through the cage in a constant tumult. Into this cage, I put thousands and thousands of cut-up words and phrases, so that, when the fans were blowing, the bits and pieces of paper would fly about in a constant and random flurry of motion. In the dream, I would stand in the middle of this cage and, in order to ascertain the answers to my questions, I would reach out into this moiling of paper and grab the bits of paper that I needed. I would use this as a practice of prophecy or divination and, in the dream, I was absolutely convinced that this system would work. What was fascinating to me, even while dreaming it, was the detail that went into the construction of this device (shall I call it a fragmenomancer?), from the initial technical drawings to the bolting and shaping of metal and electrical systems. And me without an engineering bone in my body. So, transpose words on paper to thoughts as words on scraps of paper that flurry around the self, momentarily and somewhat randomly coming into vision, then… that seems about right. My brain as a giant cut-up machine.

Emergence deals primarily with the way in which complex systems arise out of the interaction of simple rules, repeated many times. For example, the way in which the 20 or so chemical signals that one ant creates, repeated many times over, generates ant colony behavior from the layout of the colony to the way in which an ant colony will react to food or scarcity thereof. Johnson goes on to discuss the properties of emerging complexity which appear in such disparate things as the physical development of cities over time, human brains and software development. He’s even got people talking to him about how creativity is an emergent property. Emergence is well worth reading. Especially in terms of the way in which emergent complexity, as metaphor, changes the ways in which we think about our world around us and ourselves.

In many ways, Mind Wide Open seems like a logical follow-up to Emergence. In it, through his conversations with neurologists and bio-feedback engineers, Steven Johnson records his exploration of his own brain. There’s an interesting thing that seems to happen (to me) when I read about how brains function. I’ll be reading some description of a mental reaction to some situation and, while reading, I’ll find my own brain beginning to mirror that reaction. It’s very strange. Perhaps this happens more than I think, but I’m only hyper-aware of it when reading a book about brain activity. Very worthwhile for all you brain enthusiasts out there. (Heh.)

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