Who am I?
JAD ABUMRAD: Recently, we interviewed a guy named Steven Johnson, who wrote a book. And he tells
this story of how the book came about.
STEVEN JOHNSON: There was one specific event actually that really kind of triggered it, which is that I
tried a -- a biofeedback experiment.
JAD: He had found a place where he could get hooked up to a bunch of sensors and probes, and then
see what was happening inside his body in real time.
STEVEN JOHNSON: So I went in, having been kind of curious about this, and tried it out. And it's kind of a
therapeutic environment where there's a kind of a doctor who sits there and talks to you. It's a bit like
going to a shrink. And we started this session, and there was a little screen, and you see this little line
kind of scrolling along. And initially, it's very even, a kind of flat line. And after about a minute or two of
talking, the doctor actually said, "You know, your adrenaline system seems very well-regulated."
JAD: [laughs] Oh, my God!
STEVEN JOHNSON: And I said, "Thank you very much. Thank you. I've always suspected that it was." And
then for some reason, about a minute or two after that I decided -- as I sometimes do -- that I would
make a joke. And so I tossed out some stupid little joke about something. And instantly a huge spike
appeared on the screen. There was this giant kind of surge of adrenaline that had been released in my
body. And we both kind of turned and looked at the monitor and said, "Whoa! What was that?" And
then at the end of this session, he -- we talked for about 30 minutes, and he gave me this printout of the
whole session. And it was effectively a chart of my attempts at humor.
STEVEN JOHNSON: It was this flat line interrupted by six spikes of jokes, you know, successful or
otherwise that I had tried to make. And I looked at that, and I thought of all the times over the years
that I had found myself, you know, making borderline inappropriate jokes at situations where a joke was
probably not the appropriate thing to do. When I teach, you know, compulsively making jokes to get
laughs from the students. And I thought, somehow years ago I set up this little circuit in my head that
guaranteed me this little jolt of adrenaline every time I made a joke. And I felt kind of like a drug addict
more than a funny guy.
JAD: A glimpse of himself he was not prepared for. And it got him thinking ...
STEVEN JOHNSON: How many other routines like that are going on in my head at any given time? And
what would happen if I went out and tried to track them down?