In Livewired (Pantheon, Aug.), neuroscientist Eagleman explores the human brain’s adaptability.
The book uses a modified Socratic method of asking curiosity-inducing questions and then answering them. Is this informed by your research?
You know, I teach at Stanford and it’s actually an ancient form of teaching, asking the student questions and engaging their curiosity on it. Ancient Greece had outlined seven different levels of learning, and the highest level is where you’re [genuinely] curious about something. That’s when the learning occurs best. We now know that this happens because of the neurotransmitters in the brain. When an answer comes in the context of your thinking about it, then it sticks, and the brain actually makes changes. But if I just tell you something that you’re not interested in, say, 10 important dates in Mongolian history, then it doesn’t stick.
You express excitement about humans accessing new sensory experiences. Do you think of this more as progress in data processing and sharing, or as an evolutionary step?
I think it’s a step in human evolution. Across the animal kingdom, you find lots of different devices for sensing information, for detecting infrared or ultraviolet light or magnetic and electrical fields. We traditionally had to wait through evolutionary timescales for new abilities [like these]. But now, all of a sudden, we can build this on our own.
The book discusses the potential for both virtual reality and robotics to reshape the mind. How does this happen?
What VR gives us is the opportunity to demonstrate how rapidly your body map can change. This is a theme of mine through the book: the brain is not fully preprogrammed to run a particular body. You could have been born with a very different sort of body, and the brain has no problem figuring that stuff out. But I think the way [technology is] going is actually controlling devices with our own brain activity. So imagine that I’m controlling a robot. It becomes part of what I can control, and so I start to feel like it’s part of my body. I make an argument in the book that that’s really all the self is. It’s just those things that are under under your control.
You discuss moving from pure research into commercial tech. What was that process like?
Had you asked me five years ago, I would have never thought I would stray from the academic ivory tower. But what happened is I gave a TED Talk on what we were doing in my lab. And right after it, a lot of venture capitalists said, “We want you to turn this into a company.” I had never thought about stepping out of academia, but I realized that it gave me an opportunity to affect the lives of millions of people directly. That never quite happens in academia.