Is David Eagleman the cleverest man in America?

The professor of neurology, bestselling writer and former stand-up comedian wants to change the way we think about thinking. Guy Adams meets the Malcolm Gladwell of brain science

Guy Adams
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:03
Prof David Eagleman at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where he runs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law
Prof David Eagleman at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where he runs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law

David Eagleman is a 'Super Scientist' who has published Incognito, a bestselling new book about the human brain, and Sum, a collection of short stories about the afterlife. That, at least, is how he's billed on a chalkboard outside the bookshop in the Californian surf town of Santa Cruz where he's due to talk about his discoveries in the field of neuroscience.

He is officially a professor, but doesn't look much like a boffin when I find him hanging round near the cash register. Eagleman is young, well groomed, and wearing distressed denim with pointy shoes. As we head out for coffee, he catches sight of the chalkboard. "Awesome!" he announces. "They called me 'Super Scientist'!" He whips out an iPhone, takes a photograph, and, with a few taps of his hyperactive fingers, e-mails an image to his wife.

Later, I find myself mulling over this little piece of pavement theatre. Or at least the part of it when Professor Eagleman said "Awesome!". Since the comment was spontaneous, he didn't really have to 'think' about speaking: it just happened. In other words, his brain quietly oversaw a hugely complicated process, by which vocal cords, lungs and mouth conspired to make air move in a way that produced an identifiable wave of sound.

Do we digress? Maybe. But digressions are what Eagleman explores for a living. As the head of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, he has become famous for deconstructing the everyday in a manner that helps ignorant civilians like you and me to understand relatively complex ideas about the intricacies of neuroscience, the branch of science which explores how our minds work.

For example: in a famous experiment, a sample of men were asked to rank how attractive they found photos of different women's faces. Unbeknownst to them, the eyes of the women in half of the pictures had been artificially dilated. The male interviewees consistently felt more attracted to women with dilated eyes, but were unable to explain why.

Or, for another example, although in a similar vein: a more recent study, this time of strip bars, showed that the earnings of lap dancers increase by up to 50 per cent at around the time they are ovulating. Male clients cannot explain why they give the women larger tips (the menstrual cycle presumably being a verboten topic of conversation in adult establishments); they simply feel more attracted to them.

Eagleman cites both these scientific studies in talks, essays, and his new book to make a couple of basic neurological points. Firstly, that the male brain has been hardwired to seek out a fertile mate. And secondly, that many aspects of physical attraction have been "burned deep into the brain's circuitry", so that we experience them without knowing exactly why.

Sexual attraction turns out to be just one of many things that the remarkable organ inside our skulls takes care of

without us being aware of it. "Many people say that we only use 5 per cent of our brains," he says. "The opposite is true. Our brains are screaming along, all the time." We just don't always know what's going on up there.

Digression over. Professor Eagleman, who recently turned 40, leads me to a coffee shop, where we order drinks. He asks me to kindly edit out the occasional "cuss words" he will accidentally (and perhaps subconsciously) drop into our tape-recorded conversation. Then we talk through his life as what the New Yorker recently dubbed the 'poster boy' of science's most fashionable field.

Thanks partly to the invention of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines, which can show patterns of blood flow or oxygen uptake in the brain, and therefore map its activity, neuroscientists are making big strides in seeking to understand the human experience and how to improve it. "The brain is our best toolbox for understanding ourselves," he says. "There's a real public appetite for neuroscience right now because it's fundamentally about who we are." Eagleman leads a team of 12 in his Houston laboratory, which he founded in 2003 after completing a PhD. He has achieved prominence in academia for his peer-reviewed work in synesthesia, time perception, and neuro-law (the application of neuroscience to the criminal justice system). But his wider celebrity, if that is the correct way to describe the growing profile which will later attract several hundred fans to the Santa Cruz bookshop, is a direct result of the fact he's written two bestselling books.

The first, published in 2009, was Sum. It consisted of a simple exercise in creative fiction: using his knowledge of the human mind, Eagleman wrote a collection of short stories speculating about what happens when we die. In one of them, you discover that "your creator is a species of small, dim-witted, obtuse creatures". In another, the afterlife is filled only with people you remember; since you never meet strangers, you eventually conclude that the world is empty. In a third, you get to choose what creature you'd like to be in the next life.

There was a touch of genius about this pocket-sized book, and for a period in 2009, Amazon ranked it as the second bestselling text in Britain. It also saw Eagleman hailed as the founder member of a new spiritual movement: Possibilianism. Followers accept that modern science has neither proven nor disproven the existence of a God, and therefore revel in the infinite possibilities. "The idea that there's this guy with a beard on a cloud isn't likely, but the idea that there's nothing going on that's bigger than us is also, I think, not that likely," is how he explains it.

This year brought Incognito, Eagleman's first work of popular non-fiction, which like all of his literary projects, he wrote at his computer late at night, after returning from the lab. A sort of idiot's guide to the science of the human mind, it was published at the end of May and has been in the top 10 of The New York Times lists (and other charts) virtually ever since.

Part of Eagleman's ability to communicate with the masses lies in his headline-grabbing stunts. In one recent study, he attempted to find out why things seem to move in slow motion when we are in a near-death situation. An experiment in the project involved watching people at a theme park being thrown off high platforms, attached to bungee cords.

His real gift, though, is for communication. His books and conversation are laden with pop-culture references which make them infinitely more accessible than your average scientific paper. When, for example, he makes the important neurological point that we should be wary of thinking of a single 'I' when our brains are made up of competing impulses, he uses the erratic recent behaviour of Mel Gibson to explain his case.

Critics might call Eagleman's celebritisation of science dumbing down. But in an era where roughly a quarter of Americans refuse to believe in evolution, he has no time for stodgy elitism. "People have a lot of pulls on their time now, more than ever. And if I'm going to write a book of 75,000 words then I have to make sure there are things of human interest in there." His books are heavily end-noted, and every scientific claim is properly sourced, he stresses.

Eagleman's popular appeal has recently come to the attention of the world of television. National Geographic offered him a contract. But he has so far resisted their charms: they want him to produce Mythbusters-style programmes where he's "jumping from airplanes or running from burning buildings". He would prefer to make "a serious show that teaches people. Not something with fast camera angles". He also wants to protect his academic reputation. "These TV shows would ruin my career. And I care more about running a lab than I do about entertaining some 13-year-olds."

Eagleman's enthusiasm is nonetheless infectious, in a way that seems made for show business. He carries a pen and paper everywhere and is constantly jotting down barmy ideas for research projects. For his lab to take on a new investigation, he says it must fulfil three purposes: helping humanity, advancing understanding of ourselves, and being worth doing simply on the grounds that "it's awesome".

To that end, he is currently looking at changes which take place in the brains of smokers when they crave a cigarette. He hopes this will help him unlock the mystery of impulse control. If he can find a way to 'cure' impulsive behaviour, then neuroscience could treat drug addiction and even help prevent petty crime. In another current project, his team is studying the brains of violent gang members in Chicago. "There's this saying that nobody commits a crime in front of their grandmother. But these guys will do really awful things in front of their peers. So I'm using neuro-imaging to study what in the brain changes when their grandmother's watching. Hopefully, the things we discover can optimise community intervention programmes."

Eagleman, who was brought up in New Mexico and came to neuroscience after failed attempts at being a stand-up, uses much of his new book to explain how to re-shape the justice system. The law currently treats all criminal suspects over the age of 18 as equals. He argues that this is fundamentally flawed: differences in our brains mean that we have different levels of responsibility for our actions; a properly rehabilitative system would take this into account. A brain tumour can alter your character completely, he points out. In one documented case, an everyday family man suddenly began taking an interest in paedophilia. He was found to have a growth in his orbitofrontal cortex. When the tumour was removed, his sexual appetite returned to normal.

Collating these sort of intriguing case studies is less a job and more an obsession. Eagleman works constantly, pausing only to sleep for about seven hours a night. He has no hobbies, and has never owned a television, believing that entertainment would eat into the time he has available to work on the no less than six books he is currently writing, one of which is billed as a sort of Freakonomics about neuroscience.

"I have completely lost all leisure. I work like the caricature of an American in that I'm never not working. It's very embarrassing actually," he says. When he wrote his PhD, he spent weeks on end at a desk equipped with a bag of potatoes and a microwave. When he felt hungry, he would pop a spud on for a few minutes, and scoff it without leaving his typewriter. "I'm not a foodie. As a result I have all this extra time. My friends who are foodies lose a lot of time in the kitchen."

In roughly eight months, Eagleman's very productive workaholism will be put to the test: his wife, another neuroscientist who works in a different laboratory in Houston, has just fallen pregnant with their first child. When it's born, he may experience an unfamiliar feeling of emotional distraction. Maybe he'll even find himself wanting to take a holiday from the day job to spend time with the nipper. That sort of behaviour would be out of character. But it'll be his subconscious doing the talking.

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