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The soul seeker: A neuroscientist’s search for the human essence - The soul seeker

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The soul seeker: A neuroscientist’s search for the human essence
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Scientific story-tellers and lock-pickers

At moments like this, the scientific and the literary Eagleman are most clearly one. Human beings, including scientists, he emphasizes, are storytellers. He believes scientists tell some of the best stories humans have come up with to explain how the world works. But the way that the “facts” of the science of one era are replaced by new discoveries should remind us that science is always just telling stories. The earth is pushed out of the center of the universe, Newtonian physics gets nudged by quantum mechanics – science marches on, with lots of “facts” left by the side of the road to rust.

Throw a stone into any contemporary university English department and you’ll hit at least one postmodern literary theorist who will talk about science as narrative, but it’s rare to hear it from a scientist who is as committed to the scientific project as Eagleman. Here’s someone running a lab with five high-test fMRI machines, 16 employees, and a half-million dollar-a-year budget. And it’s all just stories?

“I don’t want to say ‘just stories.’ These are the best stories we have on the planet,” he asserts, the stories that cure disease and make space travel possible. “I’m just saying that they are narratives that can change. Science is a tremendously successful pursuit, but there’s a lot of wiggle room.”

The awareness that there is always potentially a game-changing discovery around the corner is, for Eagleman, the allure of science. “I don’t think people would want to go into science unless they thought there was something big to be discovered. You go in because you think, ‘I want to kick over the whole fucking chessboard.’ That’s what makes a good scientist.”

Growing up in Albuquerque, NM, with a psychiatrist father and biologist mother who both loved books, Eagleman was exposed to lots of discussion about what makes good science and good literature. When he went off to college to major in literature at Rice University in Houston, he dabbled in space physics and engineering but avoided biology; his last biology class had been in the 10th grade, at which time he pronounced the subject “gross.” But late in his undergraduate career he found himself drawn to questions about the brain, and once he started reading he was hooked.

After doctoral work at the highly rated program in neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, he spent five years in San Diego in a fellowship at the Salk Institute before taking a faculty job in the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. Baylor lured him back three years ago. With funding from the National Institutes of Health and a few smaller grants, he pays for a lab in which undergraduates, graduate students, and regular staff members work out of a half-dozen cubicles. Conversations about work, along with various pieces of hardware used in experiments, spill over to the office’s combined conference table/lunch room. The whiteboard walls (which are actually a light blue) sport a kind of scientific graffiti – ideas for projects, questions about projects, lists of things to be done on projects – that reflects the serious but anarchic spirit of the lab.

Eagleman brings a possibilian sensibility to the lab. Over lunch, staff members reflected on that sense of openness. Research assistant Elyse Aurbach, a Rice University grad who is applying to graduate schools in neuroscience, calls Eagleman and the lab “genuinely scientific” – any idea that is intriguing is worth discussing, no matter who proposes it, and the emphasis is on innovation and collaboration. Don Vaughn was a high school student in San Diego when he met Eagleman at his school’s Science Day. After graduating from Stanford and working in investment banking for a summer (“Banking really wasn’t for me,” says the mohawk-coiffed Vaughn), he bugged Eagleman to give him a job. Now he’s working on a new study on empathetic responses in the brain as he ponders graduate school. Greg Bohuslav is a University of Houston undergrad who loves the nimbleness of the lab. When people have ideas, Eagleman will let them run a quick experiment to test it, most of which fail. To do that work without big grants, Bohuslav likes to help design devices used in experiments. “We build a stimulator (device that shoots puffs of air to stimulate the skin) for $2,500 that would have cost $35,000 to buy,” he says proudly. “There’s a value placed on ingenuity here, kind of like lock-pickers.”

Although it’s more freewheeling than most, the lab produces conventional science. For all the talk of humans’ intellectual limits – of small piers and vast oceans, of upended chessboards – there’s no doubt that Eagleman believes deeply in science. In theory, he’ll consider possibilities. But in practice, he bets on science.

Back to the radio analogy. Even if there is a force yet to be discovered that would change the way we think about consciousness, as understanding radio waves would change the understanding of a radio, Eagleman points out that we have to know how the radio works. And he wants to know how the brain works. “Understanding the machinery is not a bad pursuit at all,” he says. “It doesn’t rob the myste…, doesn’t rob the awe from everything.”

Why does he stop himself from saying “mystery”? Why replace it with “awe”?

Eagleman explains that Frances Crick, the Nobel laureate biologist whom he got to know at the Salk Institute, once told him, “What we lose in mystery we gain in awe,” and the phrase stuck with him.

“Our goal in some sense is to reduce the mystery, but that doesn’t reduce the awe,” he says. If scientists could produce a neural map that explains why chocolate ice cream tastes good, it would still taste just as good. The mystery would be gone, but the experience wouldn’t be diminished.

That leads Eagleman to make it clear he is a possibilian, not a mysterian (one who believes that there are things we humans can’t understand, problems we can’t solve). Eagleman acknowledges that in his lifetime we won’t come up with the theories to explain it all and that some of science’s stories may turn out to be wrong, but they usually are better than any alternative stories.

I poke a bit. Eagleman flies the possibilian flag, rejecting fundamentalism in religion, politics, economics. But might he be a technological fundamentalist – someone who believes that humans, using science, will always find high-energy/high-technology solutions to problems, including to the problems created by previous high-energy/high-technology processes and gadgets?

Eagleman certainly is upbeat about the possibility of finding significant ways to replace current sources of energy, for example. He believes that the more dire the problem, the more creative humans are; as we get closer to running out of oil, the incentive to solve the problem will pull us through.

Eagleman has confidence in the species, and confidence in himself. When I asked him about his admiration for the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan, he explained that he “would love to turn people on to the big ideas” the way Sagan did through books and the 1980 PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” Although he’s a boyish 38 years old, Eagleman doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that he wants to carve out for himself that kind of special public place for himself as a scientist.

“Growing up, me and my parents, we never said ‘Someday you can be the president of the United States.’ We always felt like, ‘Someday you can be the next Carl Sagan.’ That was always the goal. That would be the apex for me.” Why such respect for Sagan? “He took the most beautiful ideas that we have in science and laid them out there in a way that any eighth-grader could understand, and that could bring tears to they eyes of any adult,” says Eagleman, noting that watching a DVD copy of “Cosmos” he recently bought had, indeed, brought tears to his eyes. [To watch the introduction to the series, go to]

Beyond the joy of knowing about the world, there also are practical reasons we might want to deepen our understanding of how the brain constructs reality. Eagleman also works in the new interdisciplinary field called neurolaw, sorting through the implications of brain science for culpability, sentencing, and rehabilitation.

Imagine, for example, that Charles Whitman had not been shot dead in 1966 after he killed 14 people and wounded dozens with a rifle from the top of the Main Building at the University of Texas at Austin. What if the brain tumor found by an autopsy had instead been revealed by neuroimaging and it had been demonstrated the tumor caused his murderous rampage? If he had lived and gone to trial, should that have affected a legal determination of guilt? The type of sentence? The evaluation of when he might be paroled? Consider how controversial the existing insanity plea tends to be (recall John Hinckley, Jr.’s successful insanity plea after shooting Ronald Reagan) and it’s easy to imagine the ruckus that is ahead down this road. [To see a video of Eagleman speaking on “The Brain and The Law,” go to]

At the end of the pier

On these subjects, the confident Eagleman is on display, talking fast and then faster, offering elegant summaries of complex scientific theories and constructing analogies to explain the firing of our neurons. He hits roadblocks and thinks through solutions on the fly. Conversation with him is just plain fun.

But the more interesting side of Eagleman comes when he runs up against a truly troubling question, when he’s stopped cold by the overwhelming complexity of the world – both outside and inside us – and the limits of human intelligence. Instead of tossing off glib responses, he slows down and reveals the struggle inside Eagleman, between the confidence-bordering-on-hubris of a neuroscientist and the humility-that-produces-doubt of a writer who knows he’s chewing on age-old questions that won’t be solved in this or any other age.

In five hours of interviews, we ran into those walls a handful of times, most notably when I asked whether our big brains might mean we humans are a tragic species. Might our intellectual capacity to achieve great things contain the seeds of our own destruction? Given the multiple crises and threats, especially to the ability of the ecosystem to sustain life into even the near-term future, I ask, “Is the human story a tragic story?”

“That’s interesting. I would say …” he starts before pausing for 20 seconds, an eternity in Eagleman-time. He reframes the question: “Do we hit the solution or the disaster first?”

Here’s Eagleman’s upbeat answer: “My biggest place of hopefulness is in the fact that we’re leveraging human capital more than we’re ever done before. So I feel like that makes it even more likely for solutions to come along. I don’t mean to be a panglossian scientist and say that science progresses, it’s always going to lead to solutions, but yea, I …”

His voice trails off. Eagleman may be an upbeat possibilian, but he remains true to possibilianism. He repeats his confidence that we can meet challenges, but he knows the question can’t be dismissed. Being a serious possibilian is exciting, but it also can be scary. Are there any possibilities that scare Eagleman-the-scientist?

“I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and I sometimes feel like, oh my god, what if I’ve gone just a little too far? When you reach your arms down into it, sometimes I feel like I’m seeing the matrix in a sense. Oh my god, this is all a construction. So the same question that excites me [how does the brain construct reality?] can also scare the shit out of me a lot of times. Because it’s much more comfortable to imagine that you open your eyes and the world is full of color and things just exist and time flows like a river. But when you start breaking all that down and seeing that it’s a construction of the brain, it’s kind of awful, I guess because it makes you feel so alien to everything you’ve ever known and loved.”

Does that mean Eagleman-the-writer wants to believe that he has both a brain and a soul? How would he respond to the simple question, “Does David Eagleman have a soul?” He pauses again.

“So, I can answer that in two ways. I can tell you from my internal experience, and from my scientific training. Internally, I have felt as I’ve gotten older that I am not the same as my body, despite all of the neuroscience. How do I put this? What’s clear is that I depend entirely on the integrity of my body. As things in my brain change – if I were to develop a tumor, for example – that could completely change who I am, how I think. So I’m somehow yoked to my brain in a very strong way, and the question for all of us is, are we yoked to it 100 percent or is there some other little bit going on? From the inside, I have an intuition that I’m not just equivalent to my body. That said, intuitions always prove to be a very poor judge of reality. So, if you ask me, ‘do I have a soul?’ I would say ‘you know, I kind of feel like there’s something about me that’s a little separate from the biology.’ But I have no evidence for that.”

This struggle between the brain of a scientist and the soul of a writer continues in Eagleman. Maybe the brain allows itself to imagine a soul to take the sting out of mortality of the brain. Maybe the soul allows the brain to pretend to be in control, secure in the knowledge that the soul is immortal.

Hard to say, but in the space between the materialist and mystic, anything’s possible.

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