DAVID M. EAGLEMAN is director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Laboratory for Perception and Action, whose long-range goal is to understand the neural mechanisms of time perception. He also directs BCM’s Initiative on Law, Brains, and Behavior, which seeks to determine how new discoveries in neuroscience will change our laws and criminal justice system. He is the author of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia and Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain.
At some point, the Mongol military leader Kublai Khan (1215–94) realized that his empire had grown so vast that he would never be able to see what it contained. To remedy this, he commissioned emissaries to travel to the empire’s distant reaches and convey back news of what he owned. Since his messengers returned with information from different distances and traveled at different rates (depending on weather, conflicts, and their fitness), the messages arrived at different times. Although no historians have addressed this issue, I imagine that the Great Khan was constantly forced to solve the same problem a human brain has to solve: what events in the empire occurred in which order?
Your brain, after all, is encased in darkness and silence in the vault of the skull. Its only contact with the outside world is via the electrical signals exiting and entering along the super-highways of nerve bundles. Because different types of sensory information (hearing, seeing, touch, and so on) are processed at different speeds by different neural architectures, your brain faces an enormous challenge: what is the best story that can be constructed about the outside world?
The days of thinking of time as a river—evenly flowing, always advancing—are over. Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain and is shockingly easy to manipulate experimentally. We all know about optical illusions, in which things appear different from how they really are; less well known is the world of temporal illusions. When you begin to look for temporal illusions, they appear everywhere. In the movie theater, you perceive a series of static images as a smoothly flowing scene. Or perhaps you’ve noticed when glancing at a clock that the second hand sometimes appears to take longer than normal to move to its next position—as though the clock were momentarily frozen.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
A clever little book by a neuroscientist translates lofty concepts of infinity and death into accessible human terms. What happens after we die? Eagleman wonders in each of these brief, evocative segments. Are we consigned to replay a lifetime’s worth of accumulated acts, as he suggests in Sum, spending six days clipping your nails or six weeks waiting for a green light? Is heaven a bureaucracy, as in Reins, where God has lost control of the workload? Will we download our consciousnesses into a computer to live in a virtual world, as suggested in Great Expectations, where God exists after all and has gone through great trouble and expense to construct an afterlife for us? Or is God actually the size of a bacterium, battling good and evil on the battlefield of surface proteins, and thus unaware of humans, who are merely the nutritional substrate? Mostly, the author underscores in Will-’o-the-Wisp, humans desperately want to matter, and in afterlife search out the ripples left in our wake. Eagleman’s turned out a well-executed and thought-provoking book.
I’m a huge David Eagleman fan and if you want a taste of SUM and learn more about Possibilianism, listen to Emily Blunt read the short story “The Cast” here: EmilyBluntSUM.mp3.
“Synesthesia,” a documentary directed by Jonathan Fowler about people whose senses blend, or mix. For instance: a synesthete might see colors when listening to music, or taste flavors when hearing a spoken word.
In this documentary, Dr. David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine explains this condition, and four synesthetes explain how they perceive the world.
Do you know if you have it? Go here and check: http://synesthete.org/
When David Eagleman was eight years old, he fell off a roof and kept on falling. Or so it seemed at the time. His family was living outside Albuquerque, in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. There were only a few other houses around, scattered among the bunchgrass and the cholla cactus, and a new construction site was the Eagleman boys’ idea of a perfect playground. David and his older brother, Joel, had ridden their dirt bikes to a half-finished adobe house about a quarter of a mile away. When they’d explored the rooms below, David scrambled up a wooden ladder to the roof. He stood there for a few minutes taking in the view—west across desert and subdivision to the city rising in the distance—then walked over the newly laid tar paper to a ledge above the living room. “It looked stiff,” he told me recently. “So I stepped onto the edge of it.”
In the years since, Eagleman has collected hundreds of stories like his, and they almost all share the same quality: in life-threatening situations, time seems to slow down. He remembers the feeling clearly, he says. His body stumbles forward as the tar paper tears free at his feet. His hands stretch toward the ledge, but it’s out of reach. The brick floor floats upward—some shiny nails are scattered across it—as his body rotates weightlessly above the ground. It’s a moment of absolute calm and eerie mental acuity. But the thing he remembers best is the thought that struck him in midair: this must be how Alice felt when she was tumbling down the rabbit hole.
David Eagleman, is interested in the possibilities that ‘grey areas’ hold. A Possibilian, he argues, is one who is interested and comfortable with our present position of vast ignorance and one who can celebrate uncertainty.
In a world where we are supposed to have all the answers, all the time, David preaches the virtues of being unsure, and shows how and why it is possible to enjoy a clear-thinking, dogma-free awe for the mysteries around us.
THERE’S A STRUGGLE GOING ON INSIDE THE BRAIN OF DAVID EAGLEMAN FOR THE SOUL OF DAVID EAGLEMAN.
That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all, with or without a soul, whatever a soul might be.
Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman. You can find him in Houston mapping the brain’s circuitry and teaching classes at the Baylor College of Medicine. But Eagleman really lives in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.
Eagleman the scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the body and the soul. But Eagleman the writer knows that the machines can’t answer those questions.
So while he reports on the questions he can answer in scientific journals, he also ponders the what-ifs in books. His latest is Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a playful series of short philosophical imaginings of life after death. And, if things work out the way Eagleman hopes, he will fulfill his childhood dream of becoming the Carl Sagan of the brain, explaining the billions and billions of neurons in our head to a curious public. Like Sagan, the youthful Eagleman has both scientific expertise and a gift for translating complex ideas into everyday language.