An insightful conversation with the Stanford neuroscientist and bestselling author
For centuries, as astronomers gazed up into the night sky to understand the vastness of our universe. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Kepler, these scholars helped us comprehend the solar system and galaxy we call home. But hidden between our ears is another mysterious space that doctors, scientists, and neurosurgeons study: the human brain. The brain is not always eager to share its enduring secrets, but Dr. David Eagleman has made it his mission to decipher its delicate circuitries and intricate wiring. While astronomers from the past gave us a view into our expansive outer cosmos, Dr. Eagleman is exploring our inner cosmos and sharing his findings with poetic simplicity and captivating storytelling.
It was a circuitous route that led him to become one of the nation’s most respected and beloved neuroscientists. Eagleman shares, “I majored in literature as an undergraduate, because that was my first love. For a while I was double-majoring in space physics, but the items of interest—the stars—were so far away that I knew I would never actually visit them.” In the last semester of his senior year, Eagleman discovered neuroscience. “I was immediately in love,” he reports. “This elevated philosophy from the unknowable to something that could actually be directly studied. So, I proceeded to read all the books in the library on the brain—there weren’t very many at the time,” he laughs. He earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and took the road of academic research which led to his current home at Stanford University where he teaches several popular courses on neuroscience. At every moment on the journey, his north star was clear: to shed light on the dark corners of our brains.
Academia is only the beginning for Eagleman. He shares his insights into what it means to be a human with the public on his monologue podcast, Inner Cosmos, which ranked as the number one science podcast in the nation and hit the number nine slot for all podcasts. There, he addresses questions that might flit through our minds like rays of light, gone in a moment because we can’t answer them ourselves. However, Eagleman solves them with laser focus and comprehensive research and explains them through clever storytelling. Eagleman reveals our naked consciousness and allows us space to be at ease with our unknowing. Some examples of the questions he addresses include: How is drug addiction like heartbreak? How can we better detect deception? Why is our memory so questionable?
Eagleman guides us through these perplexing human experiences and provides understandable answers to challenging questions. Eagleman also gives us easy-to-follow directions for implementing the advice he shares. For example, to help keep your brain healthy and to support brain plasticity, engage in activities like driving home by different routes or rearranging the books and artwork in your office.
Along with his popular podcast, Eagleman has co-founded two venture-backed companies, Neosensory and BrainCheck. Neosensory uses a non-invasive brain-machine interface—a wristband with vibratory motor—to unlock the power of “hearing” for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. BrainCheck helps doctors quickly and easily assess patients’ cognitive functions.
Eagleman also directs the prestigious Center for Science and Law, a national nonprofit institute. In that capacity, he examines how modern neuroscience can increasingly play a role in courtrooms.
Eagleman is a renowned expert in sensory substitution, time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia, and neurolaw. With over 120 academic publications, he’s a prolific academic.
But he also captivates readers beyond the walls of the laboratory. He is the writer and presenter of the acclaimed PBS series The Brain with David Eagleman, which was nominated for an Emmy® Award and reaches audiences around the world—and he penned the companion book, The Brain: The Story of You. He also made The Creative Brain on Amazon and Apple.
Additionally, he has written the textbook Brain and Behavior which is used in cognitive neuroscience courses at Stanford and around the world. His latest masterpiece, Livewired, delves into the fascinating tale of brain plasticity. He explores how the billions of neurons in your brain constantly adapt and reconfigure through your lifetime. Eagleman uncovers the hidden workings of the brain in his bestseller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He skillfully writes about the inner workings of the mind, exploring the complex neural functions that occur beyond our conscious awareness in a manner that is easy to understand. After reading a few of his bestselling books, listening to his podcast, and watching countless videos of Eagleman explaining the inner workings of our mind, I was on a mission to meet this modern-day pioneer at the forefront of brain exploration.
Dr. David Eagleman joined me for breakfast as I sat under the dappled shade of a valley oak on Main Street in Los Altos. His curious blue eyes caught the morning sunlight, and his mischievous smile lit up his face. Meeting someone who is not only an accomplished author but also a neuroscientist, podcaster, writer, and producer was overwhelming. I had to take a few deep breaths to calm my nerdy fan-crush heart rate.
Dressed in workout gear and wearing a Neosensory wristband, Eagleman joined me for a lively conversation about his past, present, and future.
While Eagleman is not one for stepping back into the past because he’s so focused on the future, he took some time out of his very packed schedule to talk with me about his early years and its influence on his current life. Perhaps it was the limitless skies of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque where he was raised that inspired him to think about the expansive nature of the human mind and consciousness; or, maybe it was the labyrinthine bookshelves in his father’s study, which were brimming with books in multiple languages, that sparked his incessant curiosity. One memory that does stand out to him is his fascination with the Underwood typewriter in his house. At three years old, he propped himself at the desk and began typing. “I started playing around with the typewriter and learned how to type. I loved writing little books. They were just small kid things, but I enjoyed it so much that I thought I wanted to become a writer,” Eagleman shares.
When Eagleman was eight years old, he fell off the unfinished roof of a house still under construction. While in mid-flight, time seemed to slow down for him, and Eagleman faced his mortality at a very young age. This brush with death led him to write the mind-bending literary fiction Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. The book is an uncanny speculation of what the afterlife could be through forty different short stories. One of my favorite chapters is one in which the afterlife is filled with countless versions of “you.” There is the “you” who worked out every day, the “you” who stayed home, watched television, and ate junk food. There is the overly critical version of “you” who is doing much better in the afterlife than “you” ever did because of that version’s commitment and grit to their goals. I could easily see myself running into better and worse versions of myself and wondering how I would handle it.
Along with praise for Sum from the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine, Eagleman was contacted by Brian Eno, the British musician, composer, record producer, and visual artist. Eno persuaded Eagleman to turn his book into a theatrical production with 12 tales from Sum. It seemed like an inconceivable triad—a book about death, a neuroscientist, and a musician—but on June 6, 2009, at the Sydney Opera House, the theatrical production Tales From the Afterlives debuted to a sold- out audience. Then, independently, Max Richter, one of the most prodigious figures on the contemporary music scene in the United Kingdom, composed and produced Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives at London’s famed Royal Opera House.
Achieving a career at Stanford University, being a national bestselling author, and becoming the author of an internationally acclaimed, bestselling book-cum-opera are significant milestones for most people, but not for Eagleman. He is a man who celebrates possibilities and is searching for answers, so much so that in a 2009 NPR interview, he called himself a “possibilian.” Eagleman explains, “A possibilian is somebody who is into the possibilities, who thinks that it’s silly to commit to any particular story.” Eagleman’s drive for inspiration and possibilities fuels his search for the next groundbreaking project.
Since 2007, Eagleman has been researching a rare trait called synesthesia. He explains, “Synesthesia is a blending of the senses. You might see a letter, and that will trigger a color experience for you. Or you might hear something, and that triggers a visual shape. Or you might taste something and that puts a feeling on your fingertips.” In 2011, Eagleman and Dr. Richard E. Cytowic wrote Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, explaining the neuroscience and genetics behind synesthesia’s multisensory experiences.
By building online tests, Eagleman collected data from over 65,000 synaesthetes worldwide, which has forwarded the understanding of this condition. He theorizes that sensory processing disorders in autism could be a form of synesthesia. Eagleman explains, “You know how certain textures or sounds can be very triggering for those with autism? I suspect it’s a form of synesthesia. Instead of triggering a color, external stimuli are triggering something aversive.”
His groundbreaking research on autism and synesthesia could shed light on the murky landscape of mental disorders, and he might discover strategies that provide genuine assistance to individuals affected by these disabilities.
Our time together was coming to an end. I ask Eagleman jokingly, “So, what else are you working on?” I expect nothing more than an answer about his syllabus at Stanford for his 120 students, where he teaches three different courses on brain plasticity, literature and the brain, and the brain and the law. He sits up straight and sets down his cup of coffee before answering, “I am working on five books right now. Three are nonfiction, and two are fiction. I’ve been writing my next book of fiction, essentially a follow-up to Sum. It’s not a sequel, but the book has the same playful spirit as Sum. I’ve been working on that book for 14 years.”
How does he do all this and get eight hours of rest every night? “I can jump from one thing to another because, essentially, I’ve got these different idea buckets. Whenever I have an idea, I know exactly which bucket it goes into. So, each book or project develops slowly like a Polaroid, and then one day, I wake up and know it’s done.”
With a last sip of my cold chai, I remember he mentioned something about starting a television production company. “Aren’t you also writing screenplays?” I ask, amazed by all that this single human has accomplished.
Eagleman leans forward, looks at his phone quickly, and without missing a beat, shares his exciting news: “Yes! I started this production company about six months ago. We’re developing 10 different projects right now. I’ve written a family drama series about five families in Palo Alto … but it takes place 30 years from now when science has evolved and there are new ethical questions.”
One would think that with all that Eagleman has on his plate, he would be a man weighed down by all his responsibilities, but he’s not. Instead, his voice has genuine excitement when he talks about his many projects. He shares, “Everything I’m doing I love.”
I have time for one last question, so I ask him what advice he would give those starting in life. “Of all the subjects arrayed in front of you, only a few are going to resonate deeply with you. Do gut- checks often to figure out what you love, what gives you energy. And then put your efforts into becoming the best at that.”
As I navigated a new route home, I reflected on the insights Eagleman graciously shared. With his unwavering passion for the brain, dedication to sharing knowledge, and creation of educational content on consciousness, Eagleman has revolutionized our understanding of the enigma that is our 3-pound companion.