A Writer-Slash-Neuroscientist on How Science Informs His Fiction

Floating brain on green background
Photo: Chris Parsons/Getty Images

Scientists often don’t get a lot of credit for being an imaginative bunch, at least not compared to artists and writers. But David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who, in addition to his nonfiction books about the brain, has also published an acclaimed collection of short stories. In a recent Reddit AMA (which he did to promote his PBS mini-series) he argued that this really should not be so surprising, because there is more creative work involved in science than most people realize. 

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In both fiction writing and in the laboratory, most of the work is taking leaps of imagination, and then looking back to see whether you’ve landed somewhere useful. Most of the time, it’s not useful, and so you leap again. Once in a while you land somewhere interesting. Science is often portrayed as a linear, step-wise process, where each discovery leads to the next. I think the way textbooks are written often buttresses this illusion. But in fact it’s all about asking lots of what-ifs. 

The work he does in the laboratory is one way of exploring the world, but so is the work he does on the page, he continued. When another commenter — a fellow scientist — chimed in to say it’s hard to read fiction when your real interest is science, Eagleman answered: “Don’t give up on the fiction. It illuminates other ways of knowing the world.” 

A Writer-Slash-Neuroscientist on Imagination