Salon is running a long excerpt from Steven Johnson's mindblowing new book, Mind Wide Open, which I read last week and have been returning to in my thoughts several times a day. Johnson takes apart the jargon and theory of various kinds of brain and mind science and exposes us to a bunch of aha! moments about the physiological, evolutionary and non-material bases for our thought processes. Reading this book, you get this curious form of vertigo in which you begin to see your brain as a collection of chemicals and processes and physiological serendipities, and then realize that that very same collection of goo is the thing that is having this realization, and boy, that's a weird goddamned feeling. As for me, after reading this I'm in the market for a cheap travel-sized USB neurofeedback EEG.
Areas that do show noticeable changes appear on the images as a cluster of bright yellow pixels, fading out to orange and red at their peripheries. The images look strikingly like the Doppler radar images you see on the Weather Channel. (If you blur your eyes a little, you might think that yellow patch on the image was a thunderhead, not a brainstorm.) The image is projected over a grid with numbers running along each axis. The numbered grid and the slices create a three-dimensional system of coordinates, the latitude and longitude of neuromapping. The grid is made up of small cubes called "voxels," and each voxel has a specific address.
Joy begins by laying down the twenty-five slices for stage one of our experiment, the dreaded checkerboard. The pattern of activity is immediately visible, even to my untutored eyes, mostly because there's literally nothing going on in 95 percent of my brain. Only a thin band wrapping around the back of my head, roughly at ear level, glows yellow.
"We know that the flashing checkerboard is a very salient stimulus for just the visual processing areas of the brain," she says. "And that's exactly what's happening here."