Following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, neuroscientist David Eagleman ‘93 is taking to the airwaves to teach his favorite subject — the brain.
Trying to characterize David Eagleman’s hyperactive mind can quickly turn into a reductionist exercise. That’s because the lines of inquiry pursued by the neuroscientist, best-selling author of literary fiction and popular science, TED presenter and Brian Eno collaborator are the stuff of wonder. At Rice, Eagleman started out as a double major in English and electrical engineering, switching to space physics before graduating with a degree in English literature. But his college route was circuitous, to say the least. He took time off to serve in the Israeli army, attend school at Oxford and — somewhat endearingly — to pursue a career on stage, as a stand-up comic in Los Angeles. Upon his return to campus life, the decision to seek out neuroscience as a career was fueled by a seminar he took with Sydney Lamb, now a professor emeritus of linguistics and cognitive science and the author of “Pathways of the Brain: The Neurocognitive Basis of Language” (John Benjamins Publishing Company,1999). “That was the first domino for me in the series of dominoes that led me to becoming a neuroscientist,” Eagleman said.
At Baylor College of Medicine, he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and oversees the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. His ongoing studies of time perception, synesthesia and sensory substitution demonstrate that the mind is an unreliable narrator. Eagleman’s public profile soared in 2009 after he published the best-selling “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.” In 2011, The New Yorker published “The Possibilian,ˮ an entertaining and widely read profile about Eagleman.
Even so, we might not know as much about Eagleman’s intriguing brain research if it weren’t for his public role as a science educator. And that role is about to be amplified through a new six-part PBS series, “The Brain with David Eagleman,” which airs this fall (Wednesday evenings, Oct. 14–Nov. 18, 9 p.m., CST). Eagleman serves as producer, writer and presenter for the program. Science writer Rachel Fairbank recently caught up with Eagleman in his Baylor School of Medicine lab for a preview of the series (which features Houston and Rice in a starring role), what he hopes audiences will learn, how he balances the roles of researcher and public scientist, and why IHOP is the best coffeehouse for getting work done. —L.G.
What was your inspiration for your PBS series, ‘The Brain with David Eagleman’?
When I was a child, we didn’t watch any TV in my house except for Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos.’ That was such an inspiration to me. Essentially everybody from my generation was really turned on to science by the beauty and simplicity with which Sagan turned us on to big ideas. That was the seed of my inspiration. Also, I really love teaching, but if I’ve only got 30 to 100 students in a classroom, then it’s limited as to the sort of reach that I have. [Television] is a completely different medium by which I can reach tens of millions of people at the same time, instead of just a small classroom. I love engaging minds on brainy topics because they are fundamentally at the heart of everything that matters to us as individuals and societies and civilizations. The brain is right there at the center.
How did the opportunity to do this series come about?
Over the last several years, I had talked with probably a dozen production companies about doing an epic series on the brain inspired by ‘Cosmos.’ I ended up meeting with a production company in England called Blink Films, and it was a great match. We flew out to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who had a special fund set aside to do a big series, and we won that grant. It got rolling two-and-a-half years ago. We hooked up, got the budget to do the show and then started with index cards. I was essentially just doing a data dump. We arranged the series into six one-hour episodes on big questions:
What is reality?
Who is in control?
Who am I?
How do I decide?
Do I need you?
Who will we be?
Give us a preview into one of the episodes.
The fifth episode of this series, ‘Do I Need You?,’ is all about this young field called social neuroscience, which is about how brains are fundamentally wired to interact with other brains. We are extraordinarily social creatures and that’s got all kinds of upsides in terms of collaboration to build universities to civilizations but it’s also got this downside, which is that we are very prone to having in-groups and out-groups.
One of the things that I really take a deep dive on in that episode is genocide. I traveled to Sarajevo, where there was a genocide during the Bosnian War. I went up to Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed, slaughtered by Serbians. I went there to really try to understand what happened. People typically look at genocide through the lens of history and politics and economics, but for a complete picture there is another lens that’s useful, which is neuroscience.
This series is described as a trip into the inner cosmos. What are you hoping viewers will take away?
An understanding of their own identity, which is an ever-shifting phenomenon. We have this illusion of continuity, that we are the same person. This illusion is helped along by the fact that we have the same name, the same hometown, the same résumé throughout our lives, but in fact who you are is a constantly moving part.
We come into this world and we get told so many stories about what everything is about. One of the things that science can bring to the table is a deeper understanding of what’s really going on.
What special insights do you think neuroscience can lend to this idea?
One of the ideas that I am hoping to communicate clearly in this series is the way that your decisions — your beliefs, your actions — are all generated under the hood of your awareness. This gives people a whole different kind of insight about thinking about themselves and their lives and why they do things that they are not aware of. If I had to pick one thing that is at the heart of this whole series for me, it is ‘know thyself.’ A big part of knowing thyself in modern times is understanding the machinery under the hood that makes you who you are.
So there’s a difference in what we know and what we think we know.
We all believe we know the reasons why we think this way and why our political opinions are fundamentally right and the people that don’t believe this, that there is something wrong with them. We believe that we have insight about ourselves and our lives, but one of the most valuable things that we can do is cultivate a deeper level of introspection that begins with understanding the perceptual machinery by which we view the world. What’s actually driving us and forming our identity.
One of the things the show is about is how your life shapes your brain — all your life experiences shape and mold who you are — and how your brain shapes your life, because that navigates what you do next and what choices you make in your life. These are in a constant feedback loop.
I see a lot of glimpses of Houston in the trailer.
Yes! More than glimpses, the whole show is full of Houston. The crew kept coming out from London to film here. Some of the filming days in the middle of summer were really catastrophic. We spent a whole day filming at the zoo right in the middle of last summer and between every take, I had to sop up my face.
I don’t know the answer to how Houston shaped the series, but I am really pleased that we got to put Houston front and center. There is a scene where I am playing baseball. So we got Rice baseball players in the Rice stadium, and we are playing there.
Anywhere else on campus and around town?
We filmed a whole day in the Rice Art Gallery, also here at Baylor and in downtown Houston. We filmed along North Boulevard, the really pretty street with the esplanades, and at the Houston Zoo. We also filmed at the Dan Flavin Gallery and Glenwood Cemetery, which is quite a beautiful cemetery. Seventy percent of the filming happened in Houston; the rest happened around the world. We went to Arizona and California, and overseas in Switzerland, London, Sarajevo. At some point, I should probably write down everywhere we went.
When did you first become interested in studying the brain?
It was in my senior year at Rice. At the time, Rice had no classes at all about the brain, but there was one professor — Sydney Lamb — who taught a class on neurolinguistics. (Editor’s note: Lamb is professor emeritus of linguistics and cognitive science.) There were just eight of us around a little conference table and what we did was read literature, read for source material and discuss papers. That class was the first domino for me in the series of dominoes that led me to becoming a neuroscientist. I took lots and lots of science, but I ended up finishing my major in literature.
How did you balance science and literature?
That balance has always felt very natural to me. In a sense, science and literature, I mean fiction, are just different ways of knowing the world. Science is a way of studying the blueprints around us, and literature is a way of understanding our own lives from a different angle. They can illuminate different facets of the diamond, so to speak. I spend a lot of time running a lab, and I spend a lot of time sitting in IHOP writing fiction.
So that’s your coffee shop?
When I go to Starbucks, there are all these people coming in and out at a certain timescale, so it ends up being distracting. But at IHOP, it’s a slower pace. I can just go in there and crank for eight hours. And it’s not just fiction.
Now I just write lots of nonfiction books. I just finished my cognitive neuroscience textbook. It’s funny to do these things at the same time, because writing a textbook, every sentence you have citations, it’s super dense data. And then a television show is really on the opposite end of the spectrum, where it is just as rooted in the state of the science, but it is a very different medium of telling stories with pictures and images and demonstrations. There’s just a completely different way of telling the same material.
What are the benefits of being both a researcher and a public scientist?
The public dissemination of a science piece, I find, actually helps with my research a lot because when you are going to talk to an audience that doesn’t already share all the jargon and background knowledge, it forces you to distill down what the really important pieces are, and it improves one’s understanding of which problems remain unsolved. So when you go back into the lab, you have a more clear trajectory. It’s so easy in science for people to go down rabbit holes for years, where they are pursuing some little detail that they are preoccupied with that actually doesn’t help the world at all. I think having this public communication can, in the best circumstances, serve as a rudder to make sure that one stays on course.
I have my next four books lined up. It’s a moronic way to work, but it’s just the situation I got myself into. One of them I am co-authoring with a good friend and colleague at Rice, Anthony Brandt [associate professor of composition and theory]. Every Sunday morning we meet at my house, and we work on this book. The working title is ‘The Innovation Manifesto’ and it’s all about the cognitive software that’s running under the hood that absorbs the world, processes it and spits out something new. I am really excited about that book.