David Eagleman Would Like to Introduce You to Your Brain

Dr. David Eagleman wants to make you more conscious. The Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist has built a successful career out of studying how we perceive the world, earning himself a personal lab and over 100 publications in academic journals. But Eagleman has never been content writing for the 17 people who read The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience cover-to-cover. And so for several days this past year, he took off his proverbial lab coat and donned some makeup to star in his self-written mini-series “The Brain With David Eagleman,” which premieres tonight on PBS.

The show and its companion book by Eagleman, “The Brain: The Story of You,” are testaments to the neuroscientist’s fervent belief in the relevance of his field to ordinary people. For Eagleman, you can’t begin to understand yourself or your world without understanding the “cantaloupe-sized hunk of alien computational material” that lives inside your skull.

There’s this Greek admonition to ‘know thyself,’ but that’s actually really hard to do,” Eagleman told Science of Us. “We have a thousand things that are in the way of knowing ourselves. To my mind, neuroscience is a very powerful inroad past them.”

Eagleman thinks that advances in neuroscience and computing technology have brought us to the verge of a revolution in human consciousness. He imagines a future in which human beings can instantly absorb libraries’ worth of information through vibrations on their skin, or even upload their consciousness into a silicon cerebrum.

But throughout the book and series, Eagleman focuses as much attention on his field’s immediate social applications as he does on its far-off technological ones. For him, neuroscience is an inroad to self-knowledge, which is itself an inroad to solutions for social problems as wide-ranging as how to reform criminals and preventing genocide.

Here are three key insights from Eagleman’s book and mini-series:

Your Brain Is a Team of Rivals

Know thyself” may be an important underlying principle of Eagleman’s work, but Sun Tzu’s instruction to “know thy enemy” is just as relevant. To Eagleman, the greatest obstacle to self-knowledge is often the human mind itself.

Take the example of the hungry judges. In his book, Eagleman writes about a 2011 study by researchers at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, which examined the outcomes of thousands of parole-board rulings in Israeli prisons. The authors found that the most salient factor in a prisoner’s fate was not age, race, or the nature of the crime, but whether his hearing came before or after the board had eaten lunch. Prisoners seen immediately after the judges had taken a food break received parole 65 percent of the time. Those seen toward the end of a session, when the board was hungriest, had a mere 20 percent chance at freedom.

These judges almost certainly believed that their rulings were the product of their own legal and ethical reasoning. But the study suggests that in many cases, the judges’ conscious deliberations were deeply colored — if not wholly determined — by their unconscious preoccupation with hunger.

In other words, decisions get reprioritized as other needs rise in importance,” Eagleman writes. “A prisoner’s fate is irrevocably intertwined with the judges’ neural networks, which operate according to biological needs.”

Eagleman believes that if a judge were made aware of such unconscious biases, he’d be better able to rule with that part of his mind that hungers for justice instead of sandwiches. “There’s no single you,” said Eagleman. “Instead, you’re made up of competing drives, a team of rivals, all of whom want to be in control. And as you get better at recognizing that, and understanding these competing drives, then you become better able to make decisions that are in line with the kind of person you want to be.”

To Effectively Reduce Crime, You Need to Pull It Out by Its Neurobiological Roots

Eagleman believes that this understanding of the brain can also help America make its correctional system more effective and humane. At Baylor, he directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, where much of his research focuses on exploring alternatives to the policies that underlie mass incarceration and the war on drugs.

You don’t have to be a brain scientist to take issue with the American prison system, and many of Eagleman’s objections to our extraordinarily punitive penal code are moral and sociological. But he also argues that to develop an effective system of correction and rehabilitation requires engagement with the neurobiological roots of criminal behavior.

The problem is that we treat incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Eagleman. “But people who have all committed the same crime have often done it for very different reasons. So, one person might have schizophrenia; this guy over here is a psychopath; that one was tweaked out on drugs; this next guy is doing it because of something about the neighborhood that he lives in — and none of what I’m saying lets people off the hook for breaking societal rules. But it does suggest that we can have customized ways of moving them through the system, so we’re actually solving the problem instead of imagining that all these different people will benefit from incarceration.”

His new book provides one vivid example of the kind of targeted, cognitive rehabilitation he argues for. At his lab in Houston, Eagleman puts a 50-year-old recovering crack cocaine addict named Karen into a brain scanner. His researchers then show her pictures of crack cocaine and ask her to focus on her cravings for the drug. They then ask her to try to suppress that craving, to remind herself of what her habit has cost her – personally, financially, vocationally. On the brain scan, the scientists can see the angel and demon whispering in Karen’s ears – her cravings light up one neural network, her remorse lights up another.

We give Karen real-time visual feedback in the form of a speedometer,” explained Eagleman. “When her craving is winning, the needle is in the red zone; as she successfully suppresses, the needle moves to the blue zone. She can then use different approaches [summoning negative memories/consciously reasoning] to discover what works to tip the balance of these networks.”

While Eagleman believes that drug addiction should be treated as a public-health matter rather than a criminal one, the model used on Karen could be applied to any convict whose crime was born of poor impulse control.

Your Brain Will Objectify People, If You Let It — and That May Be How Atrocities Are Born

In Eagleman’s telling, ignorance of neurobiology doesn’t merely prevent societies from effectively rehabilitating criminals, it also prevents them from solving the problem of genocide.

In his book, he lays out the work of the social neuroscientist Lasana Harris, who has searched for the origins of human cruelty in the activity of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC activates when we are interacting with or thinking about other people, but not when we deal with inanimate objects. In his lab, Harris showed volunteers photographs of people from different social groups and found that activity in their PFCs diminished when they looked at photographs of homeless people — their brains objectified the destitute.

Eagleman believes that atrocities are brought about by propaganda’s careful manipulation of the prefrontal cortex – hateful texts, films, and rhetoric reprogramming ordinary people’s unconscious minds until they no longer identify the out-group as human on a neurological level. “My hope with doing this series and the book is that people will understand exactly what the tricks of propaganda are,” Eagleman said. “So the next time they see it, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I get that pattern. I know exactly what’s happening. You’re dialing down my capacity to view this other person as a fellow human.’”

For Eagleman, what’s at stake in individuals and societies developing a clearer understanding of the minds that govern them is nothing short of humanity’s future. He believes that our species is on the precipice of expedited evolution, as our technological prowess allows us to graduate from shaping our environment, to customizing our own neurobiology. “I think things are going to be changing very quickly over the next century,” Eagleman said. “We’ll have more in common with our stone-age ancestors than our near-future descendants, because as a species we’re going to be changing – we’re already changing – so rapidly.”

But exactly what kind of species we change into will depend on millions of decisions, made by ourselves and our societies. With his new book and series, Eagleman hopes to ensure that our most critical choices will be conscious ones.  

David Eagleman Wants You to Meet Your Brain