Eagleman examines our complex brains



Photo Courtesy Schipul The Web Marketing Company

Photo Courtesy Schipul The Web Marketing Company

Audience members at Kingsbury Hall on Thursday night got to know themselves in a whole new way thanks to the Natural History Museum of Utah. In the third installation in the “Science of Being Human” lecture series, David Eagleman, a Ph.D. in neuroscience, talked about what it means to be a human with a brain.

“I want to talk about that three-pound alien organ in every skull in this room,” Eagleman said in his opening statement.

Eagleman said humans are the only species that has developed far enough to attempt to decipher their own programming language. Eagleman compared the process to a computer opening up its own peripheral devices and aiming its webcam at its drives, asking, “What am I made of?” But for humans, the answer is even more complicated than it is for even the most advanced computers.

Tens of billions of neurons exist in the human brain, and each one is as complicated as Salt Lake City. Additionally, each neuron interacts with its neighbors, and so there are trillions of connections. Eagleman said the human brain might be even more complicated than the universe. It is also unlike anything humans know how to build. The brain is tiny, delicate and powerful. It is self-healing and energy efficient — and on top of all that — it has the capacity to contemplate the cosmos.

But humans are only aware of a miniscule portion of what is going on in the brain. Every time we experience an epiphany, your brain has been working on that thought for hours or days, Eagleman said.

“Your conscience is like a stowaway on a steamship, taking credit for the entire journey and yet totally unaware of the massive feat of engineering going on beneath it all,” Eagleman said.

Eagleman further explained every brain is like a fingerprint, and each brain has a different reality. Some women see extra colors the rest of us cannot even imagine, and 3 to 4 percent of the population has synesthesia, a condition in which one sensory experience triggers another. These people might see letters in color or hear sounds to go along with tastes. These are not diseases or problems, Eagleman said. They are alternative perceptive realities, and ones that are just as real as our concept of “normal.”

In addition, each person might have more than one reality, and even more than one self.

“When you argue with yourself about whether or not to eat a cookie, there are all these different voices,” Eagleman said. “One says, oh, you’ll get fat, one says you’ll go to the gym, one says it’s a good source of energy. So who’s arguing with whom? It’s all you, but different parts.”

He said even slight alterations to the brain cause dramatic changes because the brain is sensitive, unique and highly susceptible to damage. He told stories of brilliant, kind-hearted men who turned homicidal because of brain tumors placing pressure on certain areas of the brain.

Not all brains have equal capacity, and much of Eagleman’s work calls into question the idea of free will. This has concerning implications for incarceration, Eagleman said.

“The USA incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation, and we basically treat it as a one-size-fits-all treatment,” he said. “Our social policy is predicated on the assumption that all brains are the same, but neuroscience teaches us otherwise. There are all sorts of mental illnesses, differences in capacities for empathy and aggression, different reasons for people to commit the same crime.

In addition, up to 30 percent of inmates in U.S. prisons have mental illnesses. Prisons are thus becoming our de facto health care facilities, he said. Incarceration has even been shown to cause more crime, because it simply does not work for some brain types. Eagleman said a better system would be to take into account the differences in the brain and using meaningful methods of rehabilitation, instead of moving straight to jail time.

Eagleman began his studies with literature and philosophy, but early on something deeper started to take root. During his undergraduate philosophy classes, he discovered if he really wanted to get traction on some of the deepest philosophical problems, he would have to understand the machinery by which the human race perceives and judges the world.

He moved on to receive his Ph.D. in neuroscience at the Baylor College of Medicine. He completed his post-doctoral work at Salt Institute, and now is a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at Baylor. He is the author of several books, including “Incognito: The Secret Life of Brains” and the novel “Sum.” He is also a regular writer for the New York Times and Slate among other publications.

The next and final lecture in the series will take place at the city library on April 11 at 7 p.m. The event is free.