Sunday Times, 27 March 2016
In the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel near Jacksonville, Florida, people are gathering for a conference in the usual way – schmoozing, drinking and flirting. In the silent darkness of each of their brain the rationalising prefrontal cortex is being overwhelmed by the incoming signals. More primitive, brain regions are wildly overestimating the possibility of a sexual or a career-boosting encounter.
In the midst of this erotic/ambitious maelstrom I glimpse one man in a black tracksuit flicking at his phone. His prefrontal cortex is clearly in charge and he is looking for a picture of me so he can find me in this crowd. I introduce myself.
This is David Eagleman. He is to neuroscience what Brian Cox is to physics, the friendly, enthusiastic face of an intimidating subject. Thanks to brain scanners, neuroscience is the most explosive scientific discipline of the moment. It is also the most intimate. It concerns you here now rather than, like physics, weird stuff happening trillions of miles away. Eagleman is in your head, whether you like it or not and, thanks to his ingenuity, excitable clarity and boundless optimism, you probably will.
Tomorrow he is doing a lecture for these horny and increasingly drunk conferencees. He hasn’t the faintest idea who they are – I tell him they’re something to do with the ‘hospitality’ business – but he does know they want to see his vest more or, more accurately, his VEST. This garment may make the blind see, the deaf hear and introduce everybody to a whole new sensory world. But I’ll explain all that later.
We slip out of the rising din of primitive urges in the lobby – somebody has started playing a piano – on to the terrace and start talking. Our prefrontal cortexes, as opposed to everybody else’s, are fully in control, or, rather, they are for about 50 minutes at which point more ancient cerebral regions kick in to make us shiver with cold and, in the case of Eagleman’s brain, to signal urgently that he is starving.
Our lumbering bodies then carry the 3 pounds of hyperactive fat and water in our skulls over to the restaurant where he devours a monstrous burger – he doesn’t care about food in detail, he just needs a lot. This is understandable, the man is a terrifyingly energetic calorie burner. He is currently in the midst of a career reorganisation – “My wife told me I’d be dropping from eight jobs to seven and she’s in favour of that.” She accuses him of having FOMO – fear of missing out,
“I don’t think it’s exactly FOMO but it’s a close cousin.”
“Trust me,” I tell him, “it’s FOMO.”
So here’s brief roundup of his very FOMO achievements since he was born just under 45 years ago in New Mexico.
First of all, as a child he fell off a roof. This turned out, neuroscientifically, to be a significant achievement because he noticed that, as he fell, time seemed to slow down. Even though the fall was very brief, it felt much longer because of the rate at which his senses were taking in information.
Much later he tested this by using a fairground machine to drop himself and his students at Baylor College in Houston backwards 150 feet. This made them afraid enough to test whether fear really did slow time down. It didn’t. Eagleman’s popularity and accessiblity is based, not least, on his talent for theatrical experiments.
Agred nineteen or twenty, he was for a time a stand-up comedian, claiming to have been “pretty good”. More to the point, his father was a psychiatrist who often dealt with murderers.
“I learned something from my father something that, as a child, you don’t want to believe – that people are really different on the inside. We are all the sole inhabitants of our own planet. He would sit down with murderers and I wanted to believe that if you talked to them long enough you would find they were just like you… but in fact they were just completely different. People are a multidimensional space, they are completely different from one another.”
At college he pursued this mystery of other minds by majoring in British and American literature but he was also interested in physics and space.
“I felt a bit frustrated about space somehow. I grew up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on TV. But studying it was always so distant. You could spend your life studying it but you’d never get there. But I felt we’d got the brain cornered. There’s three pounds of it right behind your eyes. It’s probably more complex than anything that’s out there, but at least we have it cornered, you can hold a brain in your hands.”
He still writes fiction and sees a link between literature and neuroscience.
“It’s a different angle on the problem of knowing ourselves. Literature is a great way to get there. It allows you to jump into different people’s heads and different points in time and space and try to understand what it is to be somebody else….Studying the brain is asking fundamentally who any of us are, why we believe the things we do and why we take the actions we do. They’re two angles of the same problem – know thyself.”
“The thing is,” he adds later, “we’re all trapped inside our own heads our whole life so we don’t know what it’s like to be somebody else.”
The theme of other minds – the utter indecipherability of othrer humans – keeps appearing in his conversation; it’s an itch he can’t quite scratch.
Now at Baylor College in Houston he directs the Perception and Action Lab and the Initative on Neuroscience and Law. He has made a six-part TV series – The Brain with David Eagleman – which ran on BBC4. His latest book was based on the series. His previous ones were Why the Net Matters, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and Sum, a bestselling set of forty short stories about possible afterlives about which Stephen Fry famously raved on Twitter. He’d just been in LA discussing his next TV series and he is now going to move to San Francisco to take up a post at Stanford and, he hopes, to finish his novel Eon, though he also has another brain book on the go called Live Wired. He is also a brilliant talker at TED events, but, these days, almost everybody is. He has also started a company, Neosensory, to commercialise that VEST.
He was voted one of Houston’s ‘most stylish men’. Houston, I tease him, is not exactly Paris. He points out indignantly that Houston is America’s third largest city and that the rather unstylish track suit is just what he wears on planes. Then he turns all coy on the subject – “I have nothing to say about that”.
He looks like a seventies rock star – he has thick, black hair, sideburns and a loud, sometimes booming voice. He seems to chew his words and there is always a laugh coming through. When he says ‘a lot’ it comes out as ‘a laaart’. His favourite word is “Interesting!’” which he sort of sings in a falling cadence.
He ahas a dog called Maya. The Veil of Maya is in Hindu philosophy the veil of illusion that conceals the real world from our eyes, exactly what out selective senses do. The entire family except for Sarah, his wife, is named with neuroscientific intent. He has two children, a 4-year-old son called Aristotle or Ari which is Hebrew for lion, and a 7-month-old daughter called Aviva which is Hebrew for spring. Apart from reminding himself that he is Jewish – though he has never been observant – the children present him with a very intimate version of the deep neuroscientific problem of other minds.
“The challenge of raising children is this increasing separation. They are completely attached to you and dependent on you at first and then it’s just this road to independence and it hurts a bit. I remember the time when my wife and I first moved Ari’s crib into his own bedroom and her eyes filled with tears, it was just a moment of this separation that happens.”
Unexpectedly, he tells me he was walking though Jacksonville airport when he saw a father and daughter, clearly separated for some time, hugging, unable to let each other go. “It brought a tear to me eye,” he says and it brings another as he tells me. Knowing the incompleteness of the world provided by our sense clearly does not protect us from the feelings it inspires.
Okay, so the child’s brain is where we should start with the Eagleman view of neuroscience. The, roughly 86 billion neurons in Aviva’s brain are generating connections at the rate of 2 million per second and will continue do so until she is two. Ari’s brain is already cropping these connections and will continue to do so until the whole process settles down in his mid-twenties. This cropping process is how we become who we are. Children and teenagers are odd, wildly imaginative, risk-taking or just downright annoying because their neurons are over-connected. Cropping these connections is how the brain edits the flood of incoming information from the senses down to something that works for a viable adult human mind.
“What the child is exposed to,” he says, “that’s what prunes the garden.”
Basically it’s use it or lose it. The child’s brian stops using connections that are of no use in its contacts with the world and they die; the others grow in strength. If you don’t go through this process you’re in trouble. In his TV show Eagleman has some heartbreaking sequences involving now grown people who were, in their early years, locked up in Romanian orphanages receiving the bare minimum of care. The rest of their lives are dominated by the fact that their brains did not fully synch with the world the rest of us inhabit.
Your brain takes what it needs to make a world. Locked in the darkness and silence of your skull, it doesn’t see, smell, hear, taste or touch anything, rather it makes a world that works for you out of the electrical impulses flowing from your eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. The real world smells of nothing, feels like nothing and is colourless and tasteless.
“The thing about it being colourless and odourless,” Eagleman explains, “is what we would find so strange about reality if we could somehow see it. We wouldn’t be us if we could see it. But also we would see that it’s much much bigger than we ever imagined. We see about one ten trillionth of the electro-magnetic spectrum and we call that visible light, but the rest of it is exactly the same stuff – radio waves, X-rays, gamma rays, microwaves. It’s all the same stuff just at different frequencies. It’s totally invisible to us, it will pass right through our bodies. If you could see the whole world it would be … God, it would just be such a different experience it would blow our little minds off.”
He describes the brain as “a general purpose computing device” which simply deals with what it is given by the peripherals – eyes, noses etc – provided by nature. But, unlike a computer, the brain has plasticity, it constantly adapts and changes according to both the inputs and its own condition.
Perhaps the most staggering – and most hopeful – evidence of this plasticity came from a US study of 1,100 nuns, monks and priests. Their calling meant they had similar and very stable lifestyles and they couild easily be tracked through their live as and beyond when their brains were removed for study. In some cases, they found that though, as he puts it, their brains had been “chewed up by Alzheimer’s disease”, they had shown no cognitive defects. Why?
“They were intellectually active, they dealt with other people, they had chores, they had responsibilities, they talked to each other. Other people is the hardest thing that we have to face in terms of exercising our brains and they live in these communities until their old age. Even as their brains were falling apart, they were able to establish new roadways between point A and point B.
“The problem is that once people retire they tend to do less exploration of the world, they just watch TV and stop reaching out and challenging themselves, I guess when people reach a certain age they think they’ve paid their dues and now they’re going to relax but that’s problematic.”
The other point about brain plasticity – and this is where that vest comes in – is that we don’t need to regard the input systems – our senses – as fixed. All these systems do the same thing, they send electrical impulses to the brain. This means we can create different systems. Famously one blind man was given some sight by a light sensor fixed to his tongue. The electrical impulses from this were, after a while, interepreted by the brain as visual images. So, potentially, we can cure deafness and blindness simply by bypassing the ears and eyes. Or we could invent entirely new senses. Eagleman imagines us being able to sense our Twitter feeds or stock market prices.
The vest which the conferencees were keen to see was invented by Eagleman and his students at Baylor. It’s called a Variable Extra-Sensory Transducer – hence VEST – but it really is a vest in that it is warn tightly against the body beneath the clothes. Little vibrating motors “convert data streams into dynamic patterns of vibration across the torso”. The brain can learn to interpret these vibrations into just about anything we like.The vest can, potentially, make the deaf hear, the blind see and investors and twitterers even more enervated than they already are.
“The brain accepts what you feed it. There are many kinds of peripheral devices used by animals, we can make our own peripheral devices and feed any kind of information into it. Our preipheral devices were just inherited on the long road of evolution, there’s nothing fundamental about them, we can take in any kind of data.”
The vest has now been “spun-off” into a company called Neosensory, which, I would guess, is perfectly capable of being the next Google.
Oh and he’s started, seemingly by accident, a new religion. It’s called Possibilianism and, fankly, it knocks scientific atheism out of the park.
“That’s where I stand in terms of those big questions about the world. It’s essentially that we know way too much to buy into anybody’s particular story and we know way too little to pretend we’ve got the answers and so when I walk into a bookstore and I see people arguing one side or the other and it seems strange to me. So I’ve defined this this position which is just keeping one’s mind open in the possible space of what is going on in this strange cosmos.”
He gave one talk about it and it caught on worldwide. He’s seen papers on Possibilianism from Uganda, India and all over the US.
“My book Sum is essentially the Possibilian manifesto. It’s 40 completely different short stories about what this is all about. i could wirte 400 or, collectuively, we could write 4000. That’s the point of it – to shine a flashlight into the possibility space.”
Possibilianism mandates humility – we just don’t know so many things. His own humility includes scepticism about the current state of our knowledge. He regards the FMRi machines, the primary brain scanning tools that have fired current interested in neuoscience, as far too primitiive – “I’m not that big a fan, in twenty years we’ll look back and guffaw.” He does this looking back from twenty years in the future thing a lot.
“Google seems to be enormous now and in charge of the internet but when we look back in twenty years it will be Schmoogle or something.” And on the state of physics, he says, “In twenty years we may have forgotten about quantum mechanaics and we’ll have schwantum mechanics.” He is, in short, impatient to get there, wherever there is. The present is never enough, and FOMO can include fear of missing the future.
Above all, he doesn’t want to miss the future because he is pretty convinced it will be good. He is a straightforward American optimist.
“If you look at the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, gay marriage, these are all these steps point in the same direction. They don’t come about for free, they take a lot of work, but they’re all pointing towards increased equality. That’s why I believe it’s possible to know ourselves a little better as a species and not just act like gorillas.”
His book on Why the Internet Matters argued that the internet would make tyranny impossible in the future, people would simply know too much. It was published in 2010 and looks, after the failure of the net-driven Arab Spring, distinctly dated now. But he is clinging on to his hope.
“What’s useful about the net now and probably into the foreseeable future is that it prevents governments, it means that the citizens have a voice. I think in general it is a forec that goes against the force of tyranny.”
But central to his optimism is that, in the future, we will know ourselves better through the insights of neuroscience. He believes, for example, that education will include neuroscientific insights about the rises of tyranny and violence – how people demonise out groups using the same language, typically comparing them to cockroaches or rats.
“If you imagine a world in which it is just part of education to learn what happens when you dehumanise an out group and ask how it is possible for young 18-25 year old men can come to believe they are right and everybody else is wrong. Then it would be more diffiuclt for something like ISIS or tyrants to arise.”
He speaks of enormous moral progress and quotes Martin Luther King – “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
I point out to him that this, in fact, does not work. The psycho-analysis of Freud – one of his heroes – was inspired by the entirely rational idea that if you explained to people what was wrong with them, they would get better. Overwhelmingly they didn’t. And the one great truth about ISIS and their successors is that the coherence of their posision arises from the very rejection of all the wisdom represented by people like optimistic American neuroscientists, who are, by definition, wrong about everything.
He looks a little unhappy about all this, feeling, perhaps, that I am trying to deny him the future he habitually sees as brighter and better than the present. I feel a little guilty, but, on the other hand, I know he won’t read any of this because he told me “I can’t read articles about myself for the same reason Woody Allen can’t watch his own movies.”
What Eagleman represents is a peculiarly American kind of artist whose media are fiction, non-fiction, TED talks, television, the internet, strange experiments and wild tales. Neuroscience is his ostensible theme, but, really, it’s the same theme as all art. As he describes it is the “great puzzle to figure out what the f*** we are doing here.” And, FOMO sufferer that he is, he really wants to solve that puzzle.
He wanted to follow up the giant burger with a pudding.
“How ya doin’, bud?” he asks, clearly hinting I should join him another couple of thousand calories. But he is shamed by my austere order of a mint tea and he has one too. Back in the lobby the lower regions ot the assembled brains are still running rings round the prefrontal cortices.
“They’re going to have terrible hangovers when you give your talk.”
He grins, shrugs and lopes off to his room to write his talk.