Jim Fleming: David Eagleman is a bit of a Renaissance man. Not only a bestselling novelist, but also a rising star in the world of neuroscience. In his new book, "Incognito," he explores what he calls the secret lives of the brain. Anne Strainchamps talked with Eagleman about why most of the real action in the brain is happening below the level of the conscious mind.
Anne Strainchamps: Let's start out with, as you do in the book, with a few basic facts about the human brain. You say that it's the most complex material that we've discovered in the universe, and yet it only weighs three pounds. What makes it so complex?
David Eagleman: Well, the brain is made up of billions of neurons, neurons are the cells of the brain, and these are connected to each other in such a jungle of complexity that at this moment in time we don't have really much of a clue at all about the detailed patterns at the, at the very small level. So for example, every neuron is connected to about 10,000 of its neighbors, in very specific ways. And what this means is if you were to take a very tiny chunk of brain tissue, a cubic millimeter of brain tissue, there are more connections in there than there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Now the weird part is we look at this very complex machinery, you know it's sort of got the consistency of mashed potatoes, and somehow all that wet gushy stuff is us.
Strainchamps: What's so bizarre is we are composed of these billions, trillions of bursts of neural connections, and yet each of us feels like a single unified organism. I am me, myself.
Eagleman: Ha, right. So that's mystery number one, why we have any unified sense of self at all. I'm calling this the team of rivals framework for thinking about the brain. Because something I've been interested in for years is how is it that you can argue with yourself, and cajole yourself and make deals with yourself. If you're at a party and someone offers you chocolate cake, part of you wants that chocolate cake, and part of you says no, don't eat it, you're gonna get fat. You can have this argument with yourself, and then finally you might say, OK fine, I'll eat it, but only if I go to the gym tomorrow. But who exactly is talking with whom here? Isn't it all you somehow? And so this got me thinking, this is the only framework for understanding the brain. It can only be understood in terms of competition between competing parts that all have their own goals.
Strainchamps: That team of rivals phrase, you borrowed I assume from the historian Doris Kearnes, good one, who used it to describe Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. And Lincoln set up his cabinet that way, specifically to give him an advantage in governing. He wanted to be able to hear lots of different opinions. What's the advantage for us of having a brain that functions like a team of rivals?
Eagleman: Well, it may be that this is the reason why humans are so much more flexibly intelligent than many other animals, because having a team of rivals gives us different approaches and possibilities to try out.
Strainchamps: Can you begin to identify some of the members of that team of rivals that is, are there certain people who are always sitting at that inner table?
Eagleman: There always seems to be a battle between what we might summarize as emotion and rationality. The ancient Greeks actually had an expression that, life is as though you are a charioteer and you're trying to stay on the straight road, but you have two horses, the white horse of reason and the black horse of passion, and each of them is always trying to pull you off the road in a different direction, and your job as the charioteer is to hang on tight and try to keep the middle road between these. And that's probably quite a good thing. We wouldn't want a society of people that are Mr. Spock. The emotional part is really important.
Strainchamps: I think at some point in your book you say that the Germans have a name for it: your inner schweinhund, which means your inner pig-dog?
Eagleman: Yeah, I heard that when I was in Germany some years ago and I said, wait, what is it, what do you mean? Yeah, you have overcome your inner schweinhund. I don't think we have an expression like that in English, but somehow the inner pig-dog is this "I want it now" kind of system.
Strainchamps: So it sounds to me as though the paradigm that's emerging now is this idea of the self as really, well the team of rivals that you described, this construct of multiple selves, you also kinda throw out a question in the book: who deserves the credit for great ideas? You know, we tend to think, we do, you know, if I've had a great breakthrough it's my brain, it's my thought, right? And yet, there's a way in which maybe we don't quite deserve the credit.
Eagleman: Yeah that's right. You know, the analogy that I use is that the conscious brain, the part that you think of as you, is the smallest bit of what's happening in the brain, and it's as though you're a stowaway on a transatlantic steamship and you're taking credit for the journey without crediting all the massive engineering right under your feet. That's exactly the situation we're in. We say, "Oh, I just had an idea," but of course it wasn't us at all. Your brain's been working on that for hours or days or weeks, consolidating information, putting together things, trying out different combinations, and at some point it serves it up to your conscious brain, and you say, "Oh, I just thought of something," but it wasn't really you at all.
Strainchamps: So there are all these functions inside my brain that are in some ways not me, that are working on things without my being aware of them, or without my even asking my brain to work on these things, and then they'll pop out with an answer.
Eagleman: Yeah, exactly. And we all learn this at some point, that if you try really hard to remember the name of some movie or some vocabulary word in Spanish or something, the way to do it is just stop thinking about it, because you can rest assured that your brain's working on it in the background and at some point, it'll just float up to you, and you'll say, "Oh, I thought of that."
Strainchamps: Maybe this explains why history is full of a few geniuses, artists, writers, whatever, who've said, was it Mozart who famously said he didn't compose his music, he just took dictation?
Eagleman: Oh, I didn't know that one, that's a nice one. But there are many artists who come to exactly that same conclusion, in fact even the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who came up with the equations that unified electricity and magnetism, on his death bed he said that his famous set of equations, it wasn't really he that had discovered them, it was something within him. And William Blake, and Goethe, they said sort of the exact same thing, they said, you know it wasn't really us, it was, these things just came to us.
Strainchamps: It was Blake who said, often against his will!
Eagleman: Yeah, that's right! As far as artists or scientists coming up with things inside of them, something that struck me as interesting is how we think about artists who get into their unconscious brain by the help of drugs, for example. So Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "Kubla Khan" when he was on an opium high. And the question is, who exactly do we credit "Kubla Khan" to? I mean, he was high as a kite when he wrote that poem, so do we say Coleridge was a genius because he wrote this, but the fact that he wouldn't have been able to unless he took the drugs, who exactly gets the credit for it? I just think it's an interesting issue, because he couldn't write those words while sober, so it's not the conscious Coleridge that we can give the credit to, it was something deeper inside of him.
Strainchamps: What you've been describing is an emergent paradigm, a new way of thinking about consciousness and the self and the mind, what changes for you, I guess, do you think about your mind, yourself, differently now?
Eagleman: Oh, I definitely do. My book, "Incognito," is the culmination of being in neuroscience for almost twenty years and thinking about this stuff, but over the course of that time, it has definitely changed the way I see things. It actually puts me on the side of being extremely optimistic and amazed at everything, I sort of find myself full of awe and wonder every day at every little thing that happens as a result. So you know, when I walk into the laboratory every day, it's like taking a ship into the inner cosmos and getting to explore whole planets and galaxies of things that are so weird and foreign, and yet fundamentally, they are us. So it's not just exploring any old cosmos, it's exploring the cosmos that makes us who we are, and that defines what we love and what we're afraid of and why we act the way we do. Yeah, it does change the way that I see myself and other people, but it doesn't make it sort of more depressing and mechanical, it's just the opposite for me, it makes it this real awe and wonderment about what the heck is going on here.
Fleming: David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine. He talked with Anne Strainchamps about his book, "Incognito: the Secret Life of the Brain.”