DATE February 26, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Steven Johnson discusses how the mind processes various
emotions and talks about his book "Mind Wide Open"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
My guest, technology writer Steven Johnson, writes a lot about computers, but
his latest project focuses on the human brain. He wanted to understand what
happens when we affect phony sincerity, how we learn skills and store
terrifying memories, what attention and focus are, and why humans laugh.
Johnson reviewed new scientific discoveries and used his own head as a
research tool, subjecting himself to a battery of cutting-edge tests of brain
function. The result is his new book, "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the
Neuroscience of Everyday Life." It's a commonsense explanation of what parts
of the brain and what chemicals are at work as you move through your day.
Steven Johnson writes the Emerging Technology column for Discover magazine and
has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other
publications. He's written two other books, including "Emergence: The
Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software."
Steven Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. STEVEN JOHNSON (Author, "Mind Wide Open"): Thank you. It's great to be
DAVIES: In your book, you early on describe an experience we've all had,
where you're speaking to someone who has a piece of bad news--say they didn't
get a job promotion or a job they wanted--and we all show the appropriate
signs of concern. But if it's somebody that we don't really like, feel maybe
they deserve some bad breaks or we feel some rivalry with, we worry that a
little part of us is flashing the wrong signal. What's going on in our heads
when that happens?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, it's a great kind of moment. It's one of those little
moments that reveals something very important about the way that the brain
works, which is the general insight here is that your brain is made up of lots
of different parts, lots of different tools that are kind of simultaneously
working at any given time. And while you have a unified sense of being a
single person, your brain is actually multiple things that are all working
alongside each other in parallel. And occasionally they get out of sync with
So, for instance, in the situation that you're referring to, you have this
moment where you're kind of--your rival, who's kind of behind the scenes, not
explicitly a rival, but you're supposed to be in a kind of social setting
where you're supposed to be nice to them. You try and paint an expression of
doleful kind of concern onto your face. You know, you're trying to give them
a look of, `Oh, Bob, I'm so sorry to hear that news,' but then this little
smile leaks out of your side of your mouth as you're looking so concerned.
What's happening at that moment is, in fact, that there are two parts of the
brain that are vying for control of the same face.
Effectively, there's a part of the brain that controls voluntary facial
muscles, so when you decide to actively smile, to put a fake smile on your
face, for instance, or to kind of contort your face in some way, the voluntary
muscle control is kind of in charge at that moment. But involuntary emotional
expressions come from a different part of the brain; largely it's called the
limbic system, which is kind of an older part of the brain in evolutionary
terms. And those expressions, really, we don't have a lot of control over.
When we genuinely laugh, when we genuinely smile, when we tear up, we're not
fully kind of consciously, deliberately in control of those emotions.
So that's what you're seeing at that particular moment when you're trying to
look concerned but you have that kind of Schadenfreude smile that sneaks out.
You're basically sensing that there are these two separate areas of the brain
that are simultaneously trying to control your face. And one of them has to
win or, you know, in some cases they kind of split the difference and you have
a serious look and a smile at the same time, and it doesn't look very
DAVIES: There's a refrain from an old Eagles song: `You can't hide your
lying eyes.' And I'm wondering if, at times when we are giving contradictory
signals because different parts of our brain are competing for the facial
expressions that come out, are we also trained to recognize these tiny, subtle
movements in the crinkle of a mouth or a twinkle of the eye?
Mr. JOHNSON: We are.
DAVIES: Do our minds--are our minds programmed to recognize it, in a way?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes this is referred to as mind reading, not
in the sense of ESP but a more prosaic but nonetheless, I think, miraculous
skill that most humans have a great proficiency in. We're extremely good as a
species at analyzing these subtle emotional expressions, changes in the
muscles of the face and in gesture and in intonation and posture, and decoding
these little cues to intuit what somebody is kind of mostly feeling--I mean,
their kind of emotional tenor of their current state. And we are so good at
reading these cues that we don't even realize how much of a talent it is.
It's a very complicated kind of symbolic system, but we process it almost in
an intuitive way.
And we've started to understand how good the talent--how talented we are at
this by looking at folks who do have difficulty with it, and one of those
groups is people who suffer from autism. Autistic people, because of the way
that their brains are organized, in a slightly different way, have a very hard
time mind reading. They're sometimes called mind blind in the sense that they
aren't able to decode these subtle facial expressions and make these kind of
on-the-fly assessments of other people's emotional states, which accounts for
their kind of strange social distance that you feel when you talk to somebody
who suffers from autism. They're often very intelligent; they score very well
on IQ tests. They can be marvelous with numbers. But they don't have this
ability to kind of peer into other people's minds as they're engaged with
them, and that's--when you see it, it really is a great disability.
But they can be trained. You can actually--you know, there are a number of
kind of--there's a DVD-ROM that's been developed that trains people to kind of
learn the language of the face, to learn how to read facial expressions the
way you would learn a second language.
DAVIES: You mean if the part of your brain that's supposed to just see this
intuitively isn't working right, you can have the conscious part of your brain
learn, memorize the signals--this means a subtle smile, this means
Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly. And, you know, they probably never get to be as fluid
and fluent, in a sense, in speaking the language of emotional expression as
those of us who aren't autistic, but they can get much better at it. You can
train the brain to recognize these things. But they have to do it more
consciously. They have to say, `OK, wait--his eyes are curling up in this
kind of way, and I--oh, right. I think that means he's sad.'
And when I started reading the literature of this and started talking to some
of these experts and taking some of the tests that can evaluate these skills,
I started dividing up people I knew into the people who were really good mind
readers and the people who were a little bit challenged, let's say, in terms
of their mind-reading skills: the people who always, you know, tell the joke
that goes on just a little bit too long at the dinner party table and kind of
lose the audience a little bit, and then those people who you've always had
these great conversations with and they're really locked in to you and, you
know, you really just feel this connection. And I suddenly thought, `Oh, I
know what it is about those people. They have this particular skill.' And
I'd sensed the existence of the skill all those years, but I never really was
able to kind of pick it out as a real faculty until I started reading about
DAVIES: So something in our evolutionary development encouraged the growth of
this ability to recognize subtle emotional differences in other people. Do
scientists have a theory for why that helped early hominids survive and
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. It's part of a broader movement in evolutionary theory
which is a very important one, and I think it's important to stress this when
people hear kind of popularizations about evolutionary theories of how the
mind evolved--it's sometimes called evolutionary psychology. We have a lot
more interest now and awareness of the way in which the brain evolved, not
just to, you know, fight off our rivals and kill the predators and bring home
some meat, but also to make social connections, to form lasting bonds, whether
it's with partners, with our children or with our kind of close-knit, you
know, friends and family. That's a huge part of what it means to be human.
We aren't kind of isolated hunters. We travel in groups as a species. And
now, as a more evolved, cultural species, we travel in very large groups
sometimes, with nine million people.
But social connection, social bond--all these things are as much a part of the
brain's genetic wiring as our ability--you know, the fight-or-flight instinct
is. Sometimes this is called a tending instinct, that there's a part of the
brain that's designed to reach out and connect and to reach and create social
support, and that there's as much of an evolutionary reason for that as there
is for our ability to kind of--survival of the fittest, kind of beat down our
neighbors and rise to the top of the heap.
DAVIES: Well, Steven Johnson, you tell a fascinating story in this book of
the French psychologist Eduard Claparrade(ph), if I have the name right, who
had a patient who had lost her short-term memory and to whom he literally had
to reintroduce himself every day. And then one day, when he placed a
thumbtack in his hand and shook it, the next day the patient still didn't
remember who he was, but recoiled when he offered his hand for a handshake.
In other words, she didn't remember him, but some part of her remembered and
feared the extended hand. What was happening here?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. That's not the kind of behavior you want your doctor
doing, in most cases, but it revealed a very interesting part of the way that
the brain processes memory, and particularly memory of traumatic events. And
what we now believe is that there's, in a sense, a separate storage system for
memories that are traumatic or frightening, that leave some kind of negative
emotional scar. And those memories can, in a sense, have a life of their own
that's separate from kind of our conscious memories of things that we walk
around with. And so somebody, basically, who suffers from--in the case of
this patient, she suffered basically from the disorder that was in the movie
"Memento." She was incapable of forming long-term memories, so basically
her memory was wiped clean every couple of minutes. She was nonetheless
storing the memory of this traumatic thumbtack prick in her hand in a separate
part of the brain that was not damaged. So her normal memory wasn't working
at all, but her kind of trauma and fear memory was working. And it stored
this trace of it. And so...
DAVIES: Is that because one part of the brain was damaged and another was
Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly. Exactly. And then for a long time we couldn't
understand what that was. It was just--memory was memory. How could you have
a memory of something that you weren't conscious of? She couldn't explain why
she was afraid of the doctor's hand the next day after the thumbtack incident.
She had no conscious memory of it, but somehow when he reached to shake hands
with her, she had this kind of--an alarm went off, in a sense, in her body
saying, `Be careful.'
And, again, this is another case where there's an evolutionary explanation for
this, in that, you know, the brain is designed to protect us from threats and
to remind us of situations that seem similar to past threats that we've
experienced. So if there's something in a situation that seems at all
reminiscent of a previous traumatic experience, we get this--this alarm goes
off from a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is central to emotions
and particularly to fearful, traumatic emotions. And that part of her brain
was working just great.
So the other thing that's interesting about memory and trauma is that we all
know this idea that we're more likely to remember emotional experiences. When
we feel a positive or a negative emotion, that makes a stronger memory and we
tend to recall those more than emotionally neutral memories. But what is very
interesting--one of the things we've just started to understand more about--is
that with negative memories, with traumatic memories, we remember more details
than we do the positive emotional memories. So the classic example of this
is, you know, you're in a car accident, and you remember the color of the
trees, you remember the flash of the light off the hood of the car as it was
about to hit you, you remember the song on the radio--people always talk
about. And the idea is, again from a kind of evolutionary perspective, that
at moments of trauma and moments where the organism is in danger, you want to
capture as many details as possible in case one of those things is related to
the threat, so that down the line when you encounter it again you'll know to
be on the lookout.
But sometimes those details just aren't relevant. The song on the radio is
generally not related to the threat posed by a car crash, but nonetheless,
when you hear that song five years later, you feel the whole kind of fear
response well up in you. It's because our negative memories are, one, strong,
and two, they're more kind of detail-oriented.
DAVIES: My guest is writer Steven Johnson. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is science and technology writer
Steven Johnson. His new book is "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the
Neuroscience of Everyday Life."
Well, Steven Johnson, you have some interesting information here about
attention. And you did some neurofeedback games, where you strapped on a
high-tech electronic helmet. And if I get this right, you were able to move
objects like a bicycle on a video screen simply by concentrating. Now how did
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, it was a very surreal experience. It was one of the more
entertaining adventures in the course of putting this book together. Your
brain generates kind of waves of activity that you can detect on the outside
of the skull with a relatively simple electrode. And a little while ago, we
discovered that some of those kind of wave states basically can be divided up
into kind of five or six general categories, and they have names like alpha
and beta, beta, delta and so on. And some of them are associated with deep,
meditative calm, some of them are associated with attention and focus, some of
them are associated with kind of being distracted, and some of them are
associated with sleep.
And the idea of this neurofeedback technology is that you can take information
from the brain in the form of these waves, classify it, say, `OK, he's got a
lot of alpha-wave activity' or `He has a lot of beta activity' or `doesn't
have very much beta activity,' and put that into a computer, basically, in
real time, and you can see--the part of neurofeedback that's feedback is that
you can see that activity on the screen as it's happening. So you can say,
`Oh, wow, I have a lot of alpha activity. Oh, I have a lot of beta.' And
because there's some theory that you might be able to help people who have
attention problems--people who have ADD, for instance--the premise is that you
can, by getting that extra layer of feedback--it's like a kind of a brain
mirror, in a sense. You can look into your brain from a new angle, in a
sense. And if you have that information, the idea is that you can kind of
drive your brain into different states by getting that extra layer of
feedback, so you can say, `OK, right, this is me in alpha. Now if I just
change my mental state a little bit--oh, there it goes, I'm going more towards
beta,' etc., etc.
DAVIES: So if you had a kid with attention deficit disorder, I mean,
theoretically, you put this on and it's structured so that when their mind is
behaving properly, when they're concentrated, the game rewards them. Their
bike goes faster.
Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly.
DAVIES: And you kind of train--you let them associate the feeling of
concentration. Is that the idea?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. There's literally a video game which is giving the
feedback, so if you move your kind of mental state towards a wave form pattern
that's associated with attention, the bike goes faster. If you move it away
from that state, the bike goes slower. And now I tried this, and it is a very
uncanny feeling. You can--with a little bit of kind of practice, you can
reliably, you know, kind of push that bicycle across the screen just by trying
to focus. And if you then kind of unwind and relax and get a little
distracted, you'll see the bicycle slow down. It's like the closest thing to
telekinesis that I've ever experienced in my life.
It's--there are some limitations to this. It's a very crude language, in a
sense, that's being generated by these waves coming out of your skull. I
mean, it's basically capable of saying, you know, `Go faster' or `Go slower.'
It doesn't have a lot of verbs. So complex forms of mind control are not
going to be in our foreseeable future. And there is still an open question
about how useful this training is once you take the helmet off, once you take
the electrodes off. Can you learn to be in this attentive state during the
training, during the neurofeedback, and then take that learning and apply it
in everyday life? And that the jury is still out on.
DAVIES: If this kind of neurofeedback can train you to concentrate more,
could it train you to achieve a different kind of mental state--the sort of
relaxed meditation of a Buddhist monk?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. They have--there are some folks who have experimented
with that, this alpha state that is, you know, a much more meditative, calm
state. And people use the technology as a kind of an assistance to help them,
almost like training wheels for meditators, and it helps them get to that
meditative state more readily.
In fact, since I finished the book, there's a new actual video game, in a
sense, that came out that uses biofeedback, not neurofeedback. It looks at
kind of changes in your heart rate and other things. But basically, you play
the game by learning to chill out, literally, and by kind of calming your
body's internal state down. And if you're able to reach a state of real calm,
you kind of pass a certain test and you move on to the next level of the game.
I mean, it's the exact opposite of almost every video game you've ever seen,
which is normally about getting all amped up and excited and running around
and chasing things. This game is about almost kind of Zenning out.
DAVIES: One of the most interesting parts of the book, I think, dealt with
laughter and how the brain controls laughter and where it comes from. You
know, we see evolutionary advantages to a lot of what you discovered in mental
processes--how, you know, fear imprints information that our brains need and
how our recognition of emotion in others enables us to live as social beings.
But human beings, it turns out, and chimpanzees love to laugh. Why did that
evolve in our brains? I mean, how did a good yuk help us survive on the
Mr. JOHNSON: As you mentioned, our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, not
only do this very clear kind of laughing--their vocal apparatus is slightly
different so it doesn't sound exactly like human laughter, but if you see a
chimpanzee kind of doing this panting, like, thing that's clearly a kind of
chimp laughter, you find it infectious as well. You'll start to laugh along
with it. And, in fact, tickling is a very important part of chimp culture,
and among the chimpanzees that have been taught sign language, tickling is
apparently a frequent topic of conversation, which I love--that they're just
sitting around talking like, `Hey, I had a good tickle the other day. You
want to tickle me later? I'm free at around 5.'
So it's a clear part of our nature. And the question is, you know, where does
it come from? And it turns out that if you look at it, really, just almost
from a kind of sociological perspective and go around, as some people have
done, and count and assess when people laugh, most of the time--almost, you
know, 90 percent of the time--we aren't laughing at things that are
traditionally funny, that are traditionally kind of humor. Humor is only kind
of a small proportion of the many things that will trigger laughter in humans.
Most of the time it's just kind of passing statements and people kind of
sending a little signal of kind of happiness or, you know, `Hey, I'm enjoying
this conversation.' It's not responding to somebody saying, you know, `Two
penguins walk into a bar and one says to the other'--you know? That's a very
rare laughter-triggering event, even though we think of humor and laughter as
being so closely connected.
Now where did this come from? Well, we think that it evolved because it is
one of the brain's primary reward mechanisms that causes us to seek out other
people and stay close to them and develop social bonds with them that will
protect us in the future. And, again, it's part of the brain's kind of
tending social connection, positive emotion circuitry that's just as important
as the fight-or-flight, fear, negative emotional kind of circuitry.
DAVIES: Writer Steven Johnson. His new book, "Mind Wide Open," deals with
the neuroscience of everyday life. He'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, a trip back in time with the Jefferson Airplane. Ed Ward
reviews some remastered albums. Also, TV critic David Bianculli tells us all
about Donald Trump's reality and his reality TV show, "The Apprentice." And
more on the human brain with Steven Johnson. His new book is called "Mind
(Soundbite of "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane)
Ms. GRACE SLICK: (Singing) One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you
small and the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all. Go ask
Alice when she's 10 feet tall. And if you go chasing rabbits and you know
you're going to fall, tell them a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the
call. Call Alice when she was just small. When the men on the chess board
get up and tell you where to go, and you just had some kind of mushroom and
your mind is moving slow...
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies of the Philadelphia Daily News
filling in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with journalist Steven Johnson, who writes the Emerging
Technology column for Discover magazine and has written three books. His
latest is "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life."
To research the latest science in the field, Johnson subjected his own brain
to a variety of cutting-edge tests. In one of them, he asked a researcher at
Columbia University to put him in a functional magnetic resonance imaging
machine. He wanted to see what's happening in his own brain when a new idea
Mr. JOHNSON: Now you have to stick your head in this enormous contraption.
It's very claustrophobic and it's very loud and frightening, and you can't
move your head. I was in there for about 30 minutes and you can't move your
head more than a fraction of an inch. So it's precisely the least hospitable
environment for coming up with a good idea. And we did basically each
stage--we had kind of two rounds of each stage of the experiment.
And so the first time I was supposed to come up with my idea at the very end.
I just basically--for the 30 seconds that the cameras were rolling I was just
flailing around. I mean, my inner monologue was, `Think of an idea. Think of
an idea. Come on, think of an idea. Come on, think something. Think of
something.' Couldn't think of anything. So then I had a minute or two to
compose myself before we did the last stage of it and I thought, `You know
what? I'm going to do something which I've already been doing kind of
instinctively,' which is--I already found myself thinking of how I was going
to describe this experience for the book because I knew I was going to have to
write it up. And so for this last round, the countdown, five, four, three,
two, one, and the machine starts up and for those 30 seconds, I build in my
head, you know, two sentences which are kind of intact enough that two days
later when I go to sit down and type them into the computer, they're pretty
much word for word there. They actually show up in the book a few pages
before the description of this.
And then we go back five days later and she shows me the scans. And the
difference between those two last images is one of the most extraordinary
things I've ever seen in my life. In the image where I'm not coming up with a
good idea, I'm not writing well, I'm not doing anything other than flailing
around, there is vastly more activity in my brain. In the image when I'm
actually doing what I do best, when I'm thinking up a sentence and composing
in my head, there's less activity than in any of the other images that we
scanned over the entire 30-minute session. There's just a small amount of
activity in the language centers; there's a little bit of an activity in an
area of the brain that is almost like the conductor of the overall orchestra
of the brain that's telling areas, you know, to kind of keep quiet or get
active. There's even very little activity in the visual processing areas,
which is--you know, even though my eyes are open, I'm not actually processing
that much visual information because I'm thinking; I'm focused, and then
everything else is dark.
So I looked at that and I thought, you know, OK, you know, in my moments of
kind of maybe my--most clarity, what I'm doing is actually shutting down
irrelevant parts of the brain. I thought of all the times that people have
said, you know, you only use 10 percent of your brain; imagine if you could
use 100 percent of your brain. And I thought, no, no, they have it exactly
wrong. You want to only use 10 percent of your brain. You want to have
focus. And in moments of focus and clarity what you're probably doing is
shutting down more than building up.
DAVIES: You make the point, Steven Johnson, that when you look at the brain,
we're always on drugs. There's hard-wired parts of the brains and sections
that have certain functions, but there's also chemicals that dramatically
affect what happens to us emotionally and mentally. You find an interesting
illustration in your wife's reaction to the horrible events of September 11th
because she was a new mom.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, that's right. We do have these kind of natural
chemistries in our head. It's a huge part of personality and mood and
emotion. When you feel emotions, you're feeling the release of these
chemicals in parts of your brain. And you want to learn what the drugs are
that are occurring in your brain and, in a sense, what are their side effects,
you know. If you take an over-the-counter, you know, medication for a cold
and it says the side effects are going to make you drowsy, well, you alter
your life accordingly. You don't operate heavy machinery or whatever it is
you decide to do because you know that a side effect of this drug you've just
taken is drowsiness.
Well, it turns out that the brain's natural chemistry is made up of all these
drugs that also have kind of side effects, in a sense, and one of them is this
drug, oxytocin, that is influential, again, in bonding in particularly, you
know, early childbirth and breast-feeding, and seems to play a major role in
kind of maternal instinct and bonding right after childbirth. And one of the
side effects of oxytocin is that stress seems to roll off people who are under
the influence of it more readily than people who aren't under the influence of
oxytocin. So external stressors just don't seem to have the same kind of
purchase on you that they would were you not under the influence of oxytocin.
And when--my wife and I had this very real surreal experience happen, which
was we were living in downtown Manhattan and our first son was born on
September 8th, 2001, and September 11th, 2001, was our first full day home
from the hospital. And so we had this little three-day-old baby in our house
as, you know, these planes were crashing into the building 25 blocks downtown,
and there was this very weird disconnect that happened that we didn't
understand at the time because I hadn't really read about this yet and
interviewed all the people that I subsequently have talked to, which is that,
as I was pacing around the apartment and trying to figure out, `What are we
going to do?' and feeling all this panic and, you know, adrenaline coursing
through my system and just, you know, feeling fear and trying to figure out
what was the best thing to do for a three-day-old baby--was the air going to
be bad; were we in more danger, etc.--my wife said that she was just in this
kind of almost otherworldly state and that she couldn't feel the trauma that
the rest of us were feeling; that just didn't seem to kind of have the same
hold on her that she could see in the faces of everybody else in the room.
And it made her feel guilty, like she felt like, `Gosh, I'm kind of a
heartless person, and I can't get all worked up the way that I really feel
like I should about this terrible thing that's happening to our city.'
And, you know, six months later, I, you know, interviewed this woman, Shelley
Taylor, who's an expert in all this stuff, and I came back from this trip, and
I said, `You know, I know what was happening. You were under the influence of
this drug, and it was causing stress to not have the same effect it would
normally have on you.' And I think if she had known that at the time that she
wouldn't have felt this sense of `Why am I so disconnected from this?' She
would have understood that this is one of the side effects of oxytocin and she
would just have to ride it out.
DAVIES: I think a lot of us feel that there are times--if we're in a
particularly down mood it's sort of hard to climb out of it. We tend to think
about other sad things in our life or reasons, you know, not to feel good
about what's going on. Is there something in the brain that encourages that?
I mean, does it tend to reinforce our moods rather than kind of counterbalance
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, there is, and it's something called mood congruity. And
what that simply means is that, at any given moment in time, your current
emotional state is going to play a kind of trick on your memory, which is that
you're going to be more likely to remember events that were experienced in a
mood similar to the one that you're currently experiencing, right? So if
you're sad, you're going to be more likely to just kind of pull up,
semirandomly, memories of other times when you were sad, and if you're in a
happy mood, you're going to be more likely to conjure up memories of previous
happy times. So there's almost kind of like a positive feedback loop that's
going on there. Your brain is making you feel even worse if you're feeling
blue and making you feel even better if you're feeling happy.
DAVIES: You know, I wonder if some people kind of look at your book and your
work and say, you know, you're taking the human soul and reducing it to a
bunch of, you know, neurochemical reactions.
Mr. JOHNSON: People are interestingly more content with the idea that, you
know, basic things like attention and maybe more, you know, powerful things
like fear and negative things like fear and trauma--that there is a
physiological kind of brain-chemistry explanation for how they work. But when
you start talking about love, for instance, people sometimes flinch a little
bit as I talk to them and they say, `No, no, no, no, no. You know, love
is--you can't reduce love to just, you know, a bunch of neurons.' And, to me,
I don't feel that sense of kind of the wonder being taken out. In fact, I
feel more of a sense of kind of the wonder and the magic in all of it, knowing
the extent that I know about what's going on there.
I mean, I feel this wonderful connection, in a sense, to our ancestors, to the
history of, you know, when we talk about child-rearing and parental love, to
the history of mammals and the primates and all that, but I also know that my
brain is uniquely mine. I mean, one of the great things that the science has
to teach us is how plastic the brain is; I mean, how beautifully designed it
is to capture the idiosyncrasies and the details of an individual human life.
So when I look at my boys, you know--and I've had that classic, kind of,
parental moment looking at them sleeping in the crib, you know, and I feel
that, you know, chemical kind of happiness in my brain, there's a magical
moment of commonality there of thinking that I share that chemistry with
fellow humans and with some of the primates and mammals and the whole majesty
of that story. But then there's an awareness that no other brain in the world
is triggered by precisely that same kind of constellation of stimulus, and my
son's face is uniquely captured in my brain and perhaps my wife's brain in a
way that differs from everybody else's.
So you have both, you know, a unique story, your own individual personal
trajectory through the world, and then the story of our humanity, and when
you're able to talk about those two things together in the same language. I
mean, I think that that's a rare, rare gift to me, and one filled with wonder.
DAVIES: Well, Steven Johnson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you. My pleasure.
DAVIES: Writer Steven Johnson. His new book is "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain
and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life."
Coming up, Ed Ward on the Jefferson Airplane and David Bianculli on "The
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Re-release of Jefferson Airplane's first four albums
DAVE DAVIES, host:
When you picture the 1960s, your soundtrack might well be the album
"Surrealistic Pillow" by the Jefferson Airplane. The band's huge following
has dwindled over time. Rock historian Ed Ward has been listening to the
re-release of their first four albums, and he says their music deserves a
(Soundbite of music)
ED WARD reporting:
An LSD trip follows a pattern where things start out normal, get increasingly
disorienting and then, if all goes well, there's a plateau which can be
exciting and horrifying, often at the same time. Eventually, the drug wears
off and the tripper reintegrates with the real world. This pattern occurred
to me recently as I was listening to the first four albums by the Jefferson
Airplane, that most psychedelic of American bands. The normal part started
when a singer named Marty Balin and a guitarist named Paul Kantner added a
female singer, Signe Toly Anderson, and a hot local blues picker, Jorma
Kaukonen, to their act. All of a sudden, they were a folk rock band, so they
got a rhythm section and called themselves, after a joking name Kaukonen
sometimes used, Blind Lemon Jefferson Airplane. In the summer of 1965, they
became the house band at the Matrix, a club Balin part-owned. And by the
fall, they had a new bassist, Jack Cassidy, and a new drummer, Skip Spence,
and a new record contract with RCA.
(Soundbite of music)
JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) Run time run around, don't look back, turn from
me and go your way. You left me here without anything to love. I tell you,
I've had enough of your hands running around my brain, and I've had enough of
the way that you cause me pain. So slow down, run around, you're outta sight.
Walk with me and stay the night.
WARD: Their first album, "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off," was bright and
folk-rocky. The blend of Marty, Signe and Paul's voices was radio-friendly.
The band had several regional hits but never charted nationally.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MARTY BALIN: (Singing) It's no secret how strong my love is for you.
It's no secret when I tell you what I'm gonna do, 'cause I love you. Yes, I
love you. It's no secret, everybody knows how I feel. It's no secret when I
say my love is real 'cause I love you. Yes, I love you. It's no secret...
WARD: The second stage of the Airplane's trip began with Skip Spence leaving
for the newly founded Moby Grape, Signe leaving to raise a family and drummer
Spencer Dryden arriving, along with Grace Slick, the singer from a San
Francisco band, the Great Society. RCA wanted an album as soon as possible,
so they all went to Los Angeles in late October 1966 where, as the media began
to notice the San Francisco scene, they recorded "Surrealistic Pillow," the
album that would epitomize (technical difficulties).
(Soundbite of music)
JEFFERSON AIRPLANE (Singing) ...(Technical difficulties) time goes on and I
don't know just where you are or how I'm going to find you.
Mr. BALIN: You can do whatever you please...
Ms. SLICK: Do you always...
Mr. BALIN: ...the world's waiting to be seized.
Ms. SLICK: ...want to leave me...
WARD: It was the album that would lead them to their plateau. There were two
top 10 hits on it, both showcases that Grace had brought with her from the
(Soundbite of "Somebody to Love")
Ms. SLICK: (Singing) When the truth is found to be lies, you know the joy
within you dies.
JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) Don't you want somebody to love? Don't you
need somebody to love? Wouldn't you love somebody to love? You better find
somebody to love. Love.
WARD: "Somebody to Love" hit the charts just as the San Francisco hype was
starting. And "White Rabbit," an ambiguous song simultaneously praising and
warning about the psychedelic experience, followed it and stayed on the radio
throughout the summer of love. Ironically, though, the band spent most of
that summer far from the Haight-Ashbury, sequestered in the Hollywood Hills in
a house once used by The Beatles, with 24-hour access to the recording studio,
recording the follow-up.
Like the LSD peak, this lasted a long time: six months, an eternity in pop
music in those days. The result, however, was worth it.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. SLICK: (Singing) Want two heads on your body, and you've got two mirrors
in your hand. Priests are made of brick with gold crosses on a stick, and
your nose is too small for this land. Inside your head is your town; inside
your room your jail.
Mr. BALIN: (Singing) Reflections in the ...(unintelligible).
Ms. SLICK: (Singing) Inside your mouth the elephant's trunk and booze...
Mr. BALIN: (Singing) Reflections run...
Ms. SLICK: (Singing) ...the only key to your bail.
WARD: The third album was called "After Bathing at Baxter's," and to my ears
it is the most accomplished work to come out of the first generation of San
Francisco bands. It's a great album, but it's not without its faults; most
notably, a very short track with a bunch of people jabbering in an echo
chamber called "A Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly." The title
is commonly assumed to refer to cocaine which, along with alcohol, was
becoming more and more a part of some of the band members' lives.
As good as "Baxter's" was, there wasn't a hit on it. Now the band felt the
pressure from RCA. Once again, they created in the studio and guitarist Jorma
Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassidy were able to come up with plenty of musical
ideas. Good thing, too, because the lyrics were beginning to get strident.
(Soundbite of music)
JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) You are the crown of creation. You are the
crown of creation, and you've got no place to go. Soon you'll attain...
WARD: The album, "Crown of Creation," was musically tight but it was also
self-indulgent. And listening to it today it's obvious that the band had
broken into factions. Grace Slick and Paul Kantner were now a couple and
Grace was given to bizarre behavior, like appearing on television in
blackface. Kaukonen, Cassidy and drummer Spencer Dryden were more interested
in playing, and Mary Balin, who started the band, must have wondered if his
airplane had been hijacked. It had. Although the band became staples of the
new FM radio world, rather than reintegrating, they disintegrated into solo
projects, self-indulgence and, eventually, into the Jefferson Starship, a
tired parody of what had stared out as a fine trip.
DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in Berlin.
Coming up, "The Apprentice." This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: NBC reality show, "The Apprentice"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The first new network TV series of 2004, premiering the second week of
January, was an NBC reality show called "The Apprentice." The last person
standing after everyone is eliminated gets a $250,000 salary working for
Donald Trump. TV critic David Bianculli says the show has already crowned a
winner, and it's Donald Trump.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
When I heard about NBC's "The Apprentice," I couldn't believe it and didn't
want to watch it. It didn't matter that Mark Burnett, the creator of
"Survivor," was behind it; what mattered was that it was a reality show with
Donald Trump at its center. And if working for and glorifying Donald Trump
was the point of the show, I was prepared to hate it.
But "The Apprentice" is halfway through its run now and I haven't missed an
episode. I don't hate this show, I love it. That stuns me, and it also stuns
me that a lot of people I know of different ages and with different
occupations are reacting the same way.
"The Apprentice," like "Survivor," takes 16 people and divides them into two
teams of eight, then pits them against one another on sets of weekly
challenges. On "Survivor" it's stuff like swimming underwater, solving giant
puzzles and standing still longer than anyone else. On "The Apprentice" the
challenges are a lot more identifiable, and so is the behavior of the various
On "The Apprentice" teams are sent out to do things like propose and acquire
items to be donated for a charity auction, sell lemonade on the streets of New
York, manage a restaurant for a night and, in last week's episode, renovate
and rent a Brooklyn apartment in two days. Each team's efforts are measured
against the other's. The team with the highest profit percentage wins a
reward and is whisked off in one of Trump's jets or limos to go have fun. The
losing team has to go to the boardroom and face Donald Trump and his two
lieutenants, who serve as his eyes and ears while the teams compete. The team
leader of that week's challenge chooses two members of his or her team to
accept some of the blame and one of those three is fired.
That's the premise, and I know that if you haven't seen the show, it may still
seem silly and contrived, but it's turned out to defy all those
less-than-great expectations, and so has Trump. For a while, teams were
divided by gender and the women kept killing the men. But when Trump gathered
the women together for a special word, it wasn't to praise them, but to scold
them for using their sex appeal to win challenges in a manner he found cheap.
Trump surprised me then. And since that point, he's mixed up the teams twice
already and the surprises keep coming.
Everyone who pulls a paycheck can watch "The Apprentice" and identify certain
familiar types. Omarosa on the show comes off as unbelievably abrasive and
not at all impressive. She shirks a lot of her fair share and when she was
trying to charm Isaac Mizrahi into donating something for charity she couldn't
even get his name right. Another woman, Tammy, is even worse. When she's not
saying the wrong thing, she's projecting the wrong mood. Of the other
contestants, Bill is well liked but not overly successful; Katrina is
emotionally all over the place; and Troy is a country boy with big-city moves
By watching "The Apprentice" you learn how these different personal styles
work or break down in high-pressure, real-world situations.
In last week's real estate challenge, Katrina and Troy were the team leaders.
Katrina, whose background is real estate, had the definite edge going in and
knew which apartment had more potential for profit. Troy didn't know, but
when it came to selecting an apartment, he had the better moves, better and
sneakier, but not more noble. First, he eavesdropped as they placed cell
phone calls to their respective teams. Then he took a gamble.
(Excerpt from "The Apprentice")
KATRINA: You walk in here and it looks like an absolute disaster, the second
one. However, if you have vision, you could do a lot more with the second
TROY: That's--that's the key...
Unidentified Woman #1: Then that's it, Katrina.
TROY: Then you answered your own question. That's the way to go.
KATRINA: The more I talk about it, the more I really want the second one.
I'm hoping that he's not going to go for it.
TROY: My--my gut tells me...
Unidentified Man #1: Third Street, you guys go ahead and tell me what you
think right now.
Unidentified Woman #2: Third Street.
Unidentified Woman #3: Third Street.
Unidentified Man #2: That's what I think.
Unidentified Woman #3: Gut feel.
TROY: I'd overheard her already and she wanted Third Street. I was also on
the phone with my team. They told me to hold strong to that property. I'll
let you go first and make your offer...
KATRINA: Troy, why don't you just tell me which one do you want?
TROY: I'll give you 10 seconds and then we'll just go straight to the
KATRINA: OK, why don't you write on...
TROY: Nine seconds, eight seconds...
KATRINA: You write on a piece of paper which apartment you want and I'll do
it and then if they're the same, then we'll talk again. Why don't you do
that? That's fair enough.
TROY: I've got a coin. I feel good with a coin.
KATRINA: You don't feel confident in your decision?
TROY: No, I feel confident in my decision. I just want you to make the
KATRINA: Are you relying on my expertise?
TROY: OK, then we'll write it on a piece of paper. I've got to hang up the
phone, guys. Bye-bye.
KATRINA: Country boy charm's not going to work for this one. I'll write down
what I want.
TROY: OK, you write down what you want, and I'll write down what I want.
She says to me, like we're in third grade, `You write on a piece of paper what
you want, I'll write on a piece of paper what I want, we'll exchange papers,
we'll open them up and we'll start it from there.'
KATRINA: Ready? You wrote it down?
TROY: I wrote it down.
By God, I wrote, `I want exactly what you want.' Got her giggling inside,
laughing, going, `That's going to get her goat. That's going to get her
fuming a little bit.'
KATRINA: That's not ethical.
TROY: I want what you want!
KATRINA: I thought--I thought you were an honest man.
I think Troy is a sleazeball, I think he's despicable. He's the most
dishonest person that I've ever met.
BIANCULLI: Every player may remind you of someone at work. And at the end of
each episode, one of them is fired. That's the part where Trump has shocked
me, by being something other than a cartoon or a buffoon. On TV, in this
role, he has dramatic weight, like Martin Sheen in "The West Wing," and wields
his power well. His advice is good, his instincts are better, and when he has
the three vulnerable team members in front of him in the boardroom, his aim is
(Excerpt from "The Apprentice")
Mr. DONALD TRUMP: You know what? I've heard enough. Katrina, with your
experience you should have been in charge of both the renovation and
negotiation. And, Bill, you weren't a good negotiator. I think you should
have gotten a better price profit. Tammy, you got in the way of your team, and
your disloyalty has been just terrible, and you sort of understood that.
TAMMY: Throughout or just this one particular time?
Mr. TRUMP: You really--let's say it doesn't matter.
Mr. TRUMP: I mean, it is so obnoxious in this particular case. Tammy,
BIANCULLI: "The Apprentice" will end with a live finale on April 15th, but
its life and impact will extend past that. It's the first reality series I
think is worth watching more than once. I'll predict right now that when this
first season of "The Apprentice" is released on DVD--and yes, NBC, Burnett and
Trump already have committed to a second--it'll sell more copies than any
other reality series in history. That's partly because you can learn a lot
about human behavior and avoidance of workplace disasters by watching and
re-watching "The Apprentice." And it's partly because Trump is likely to buy
enough copies himself to make sure he holds the DVD record. After all, that's
just good business.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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