David Eagleman is about as close to a rock star that a neuroscientist can be.
Exuberantly youthful yet simultaneously deeply wise, he speaks about his brain research at high-profile, non-academic events such as South by Southwest and PopTech - energetically swooping across the stage. In front of packed audiences, he talks in a sonorous voice, translating key findings on how the cerebellum or our frontal lobes operate and affect our behavior.
He’s stylish enough to appear on the cover of an Italian fashion magazine; intellectually influential enough to have been profiled in the New Yorker; culturally aware enough to serve as the scientific advisor for the TNT television show “Perception”; recognized enough to have been a Guggenheim Fellow. Oh yeah, and here’s the kicker, he’s also a bestselling fiction writer. His book Sum, a series of 40 short stories that imagine the afterlife, has been published in 27 languages.
Plus he’s an exceptionally affable, approachable, genuinely humble guy. (Okay, that was the real kicker.)
We recently met up at a coffee shop in Camden, Maine, where Eagleman was presenting at the PopTech conference. He joked about how self-conscious he was about clumsily bumping into tables while holding a mug filled with a decaf soy latte, and about how it’s important for scientists to constantly be “asking dumb questions.”
Eagleman was excited to talk to SmartPlanet about his work at both the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, a national, interdisciplinary organization he founded that’s looking at how to remake the U.S. legal system; and the Laboratory for Perception and Action, at Baylor College of Medicine. The former initiative tackles topics such as how brain imaging and analyses of “Big Data” on crime patterns can help communities better understand and prevent violent behavior in new ways. The latter looks broadly at how individual brains are not at all alike — and how the differences might be significant for how we construct and manage our societies.
His work is particularly relevant in policy-related discussions in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Connecticut. Eagleman has been blogging on how brain research might help us avoid future crimes. “To the newsreaders who feel that mental illness is best viewed as an excuse, let me suggest instead that we might more effectually recognize it as a national priority for social policy,” he wrote on his blog shortly after the shootings. “If we care to prevent the next mass shooting, we should concentrate our efforts on getting meaningful diagnoses and resources to the next Adam Lanza.”
Here’s our lightly edited and slightly condensed conversation.
SmartPlanet: How exactly can looking at crime through the lens of neuroscience affect our legal system?
David Eagleman: There are some areas where neuroscience will really allow for new contexts in society, and the legal system is one of them. Because we are able now to measure things we have never been able to measure before, this allows us potentially to customize sentencing and rehabilitation. The goal is to have the whole system be more just and have more utility.
Currently, our national legal system [in the U.S.] does not allow that people are very different on the inside. Brains are not the same, neuroscience is proving, and they are sometimes very different from one another. Our system is built on the assumption that if you’re over 18 and over the IQ of 70, you’re a practical reasoner, free to choose how you act. But modern neuroscience suggests that those are not good assumptions. We treat incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution. In America, we incarcerate more of the population than any other nation in the world — because in large part, there is no nuance to how we approach the system.
My project is calling for greater nuance and refinement to create a tailored system. Just like how we have tailored education. I have to emphasize, though, that this is not about exculpation. I have to be very clear that this is really about customized sentencing and rehab that works.
SP: Can you offer a specific example?
DE: My colleagues Pearl Chiu and Stephen LaConte and I are observing real-time feedback from [functional magnetic resonance imaging], working with [drug] addicts that want to quit but haven’t been able to. We’re trying to help them quit addiction by giving them visual feedback of what’s happening in their brains, and then helping them squelch cravings. Of course, it is not guaranteed that it will work. But today we have new tools to work with. Why not use them to help people understand their brains, as well as prevent criminalized actions that have consequences for the rest of their lives — and those of others? For instance, if an 18-year-old is sent to jail for carrying two grams of marijuana, he can’t get a Pell Grant to go to college.
SP: You’re taking neuroscience out of the lab and addressing issues that everyone can understand. What’s the value in aiming for a wide audience — and what are the pressures of doing so?
DE: As an academic scientist, I feel responsible to make sure the science on the brain I put forward is correct. I try to do a really complete job — in my neuroscience books, I create pages of end notes. A tiny fraction of readers want it, but I want to make anything I write is bulletproof.
I’m very pleased and surprised by the interest in neuroscience outside of academia. For instance, I just gave a talk in Louisville, Kentucky recently. At first, I thought, I’m too busy to do this; plus, how many people will show up? I went to the venue, where my talk was a ticketed event, and 1,100 people showed up. Rock stars are used to big crowds, but scientists aren’t; yet there’s a real public appetite.
It’s helpful to be able to talk about science in basic ways that anyone can understand. What I tell my students in my lab is that they need to be able explain their research to an 8th grader. Mother Nature is complex; but she also has to be simple and elegant, or she wouldn’t achieve the situation of 7 billion people on Earth that “work”! It makes me mad when people use terms such as “dumb down” if we don’t use jargon to talk about what we do. People will complex-ify something just to look like a hotshot.
I have to add, it’s really important to write books. I put out a lot of scientific papers each year, read by about 17 people each. It’s a totally different experience to reach a much wider audience. I’m an amateur history buff, and if I want to read about the Roman Empire, I don’t want to read an academic debate, but instead a narrative by a trusted guide who’s done their homework, who will offer the filter of how they understand the Roman Empire, to shepherd me through its history in only 200 pages. And leave out an arcane, Rococo academic debate. There’s a real value to doing this. More people can learn.
SP: Reading about your lab, seeing you onstage, and now talking with you in person, it seems to me that you have a playful approach to science. Is it difficult balancing the popular persona and your academic work?
DE: I wouldn’t have thought of the adjective “playful.” It’s true, I try to avoid things that are boring. There are so many things that you could do with your life — why be bored? The reason I might shy away from the word “playful” is because my work is real science, is peer-reviewed. Rather than “playful,” I’d say that my approach is simply the opposite of boring. It’s about looking for and then trying to answer questions that are poweful enough to get you out of bed at 5AM. In academia, it’s weird that we don’t get to use words like “playful,” although good science is like that. It can be super fun and amazing and intriguing. Engaging. And emotionally salient.
SP: How does your creative life as a fiction writer affect your scientific process?
DE: Good science is a creative process. You make leaps and have some way of filtering them. There’s an illusion that science follows in lock step, one thing from another. It never works that way. It’s more about wacky leaps of faith.
It can be helpful to have a method, which is really just your way of filtering through the leaps. But you have to come up with good content — that’s the part where there’s a certain way of always asking questions helps, both as a scientist and as a creative writer. My intuition on this idea: being a good scientist or creative writer is about maintaining the wide-eyed wonder of a child and asking questions all the time. That’s what really makes discovery happen in any field.
SP: Would you say that science is evolving?
DE: Science is changing really rapidly. One way is that lots of scientists are moving into Big Data. In our lab, we look at data on humans — we don’t work on animals and never will — and we focus on how we can use computational power. It is not a typical neurobiology lab.
And then we’re working with Big Data at the Institute for Neuroscience and Law as well. We’re working on an analysis of hundreds of millions of crime records from Harris County in Texas, kept since the 1960s. Right now we’re involved with serious crunching to pull out statistical info on recidivism and crime. Our first challenge is visualizing it. So in this sense, creativity and art also relevant. Data visualization is really valuable stuff; you can discover a trend when you see, wow, I didn’t realize that bump would be there. To be able to tie together data in beautiful ways allows us to see and discover patterns.
SP: Do you ever worry that if the essence of creativity is broken down as a process, that some of the mystery of imagination might be lost? Or that there might be “correct” ways of “how to be creative” emerging in classrooms?
DE: I don’t have any fear about losing the mystery of creativity. If I explain every single chemical piece in the process of why you enjoy the taste of a soy latte, it wouldn’t diminish your enjoyment of a soy latte. It might even enhance it. A long time ago I learned how my heart and body work, and I still move around…and it’s still fun.
SP: You’re interested in the condition of synesthesia [in which information between the senses is blended]. It seems very specific, but are there applications to your research on synesthetes that can apply to neuroscientific research in general?
DE: Synesthesia offers one of the few inroads into brains that have an alternative way of seeing the world. Neuroscientists work on how to understand how brains construct reality in general, but we are in the position of fish trying to understand water. What I mean by that is that we only know one way of seeing the world very well, like a fish only knows water. Learning about how synesthesia works allows us to get out of our fishbowl, and into a different medium and look at same world, but via a different internal experience. In our lab, we’re pulling the genes for synesthesia and are observing the networks in synesthesia brain. So far, we have an incredible about of data — on 19,000 synesthetes. That scale changes the field of neuroscience. Now we are able to understand a condition on a population level.
SP: Now that neuroscience has gone mainstream, do you see fMRI research reaching into new commercial areas, such as influencing product design — as in, taking the place of market research?
DE: There are other areas where neuroscientists are playing catch up. We say, “Oh, a part of the brain lights up when….” But advertisers, for a century, know what types of campaigns will affect consumers. Same with product design. You don’t need to know anything about the brain to understand what shape or style will be appealing. We may come scrambling up behind advertisers and product designers and validate them. If Apple wanted to hire me, sure, I’d say yes immediately and do the best job I could! But honestly, they already know how to do it. They’re the design experts. We neuroscientists would in come with our fancy machines and theories and explain why what they do is already true.
Image: Thatcher Cook for PopTech/Flickr