In the Tradition of Oliver Sacks, ‘The Brain with David Eagleman’ Brings the Wonders of Neuroscience to a Wide Audience
“The most complex thing we have found in the universe is the human brain,” says neuroscientist David Eagleman as he embarks upon his six-part PBS series, “The Brain with David Eagleman,” which investigates the organ at the core of human existence. In this wide-ranging, instructive, and engaging program, Eagleman covers familiar ground as well as new territory in human neuroscience, imparting to the viewer a palpable sense of excitement derived from his passion for the topic and the fast pace of advances invigorating the field.
This is an ambitious series taking on a range of topics, including synesthesia, Asperger's syndrome, Henry Molaison's amnesia, the hippocampi of London cab drivers, Einstein's brain, Sigmund Freud, the Iowa Gambling Task, the fMRI of political affiliation, cochlear implants, plasticity, robotics, dopamine, the drug war, consciousness, emergent properties, cryonic suspension, and much more.
The six hours fly by as the viewer is treated to one interesting neurotale after another. But while the coverage is impressively broad, it is not especially deep, no doubt mainly because of time limitations. The knowledgeable viewer may be left wanting more depth on a topic before the next one is introduced, but this is an enticing sampling of many intriguing areas, and in general, the brief presentations do not disappoint. Perhaps more importantly, for the attentive layperson the series is highly effective as an introduction to these complex subjects.
Indeed, Eagleman is well suited to the task he lays out for himself. A researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative for Neurosciences and Law, he has eclectic interests spanning the range of cognitive neuroscience. And he can rightly claim other qualifications justifying his aim of popularizing neuroscience: his undergraduate degree was in British and American literature, he is a writer of best-selling fiction, and he even did a short stint as a stand-up comic in Los Angeles. All of this adds to the appeal of the series. Eagleman is frequently in front of the camera, entirely at ease as he earnestly explains difficult concepts with unpedantic confidence and obvious fascination with his subject matter.
Coming soon after the loss of the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose prolific writings based on the detailed study of his patients remain widely read, this series serves a complementary role in offering the perspective of a curious neuroscientist investigating the brain in a more experimental context. While Sacks writes of his experiences listening to and examining patients with extraordinary neurologic phenomena, Eagleman presents data derived from a well-designed study or ideas from provocative new research. Both approaches have enormous value, as the brain will only yield its secrets to the combined efforts of all who seek to understand it.
Eagleman names Francis Crick as one of his mentors, and much like Crick and other scientists who have relished the public arena — Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson come to mind — the narrator is given to grand summary statements. Eagleman comes forth with exuberant, thought-provoking comments such as “the brain is like a city from which function emerges via a superhighway of neurons,” “reality is something created inside our heads,” and “the human brain is nature's perplexing masterpiece,” all with such good-natured optimism that the unconvinced will become less so. His narrative blends mature neuroscientific sophistication with a youthful, informal style of pedagogy; he is a gifted educator with considerable communication skills.
One area of special focus for Eagleman is what might be called neurolaw, the study of how brain states may influence criminal actions and how these behaviors are dealt with by society. In this age of mass shootings, the story of Charles Whitman may, sadly, seem less shocking than it did in 1966, when the architectural engineering student took up a rifle and killed 14 people and wounded 32 from atop a tower at the University of Texas. Eagleman brings up this horrific event as a reminder that the brain mediates all behavior, good or bad.
A central detail less often remembered from this incident is that the autopsy of Whitman's brain disclosed a pecan-sized astrocytoma that was pressing on one of his amygdalae. What role did this tumor play in Whitman's violent act? Can neurobiology be ignored in the adjudication of crime? Eagleman rightly points out that considering the organ of behavior in the explanation of human action is crucial to more informed societal efforts to reduce or prevent destructiveness in all its manifestations.
Still more sobering is his foray into the world of psychopathy and the darker side of human nature. Eagleman explains the putative basis of the psychopathic personality with reference to medial prefrontal cortex dysfunction — plausible enough in view of recent neuroimaging data — and then moves on to consider genocide, that most hideous extension of psychopathy.
In a trenchant moment that brings clarity to this loathsome human proclivity, he points out that psychopaths are in fact quite few in number compared with the many people who collude in genocide. The real culprit in the rise of genocidal groups is the use of propaganda, an odious strategy that fuels group contagion and reduces empathy so that the oppressed persons are seen as less human. The insight is crucial to comprehending the depravity to which our species can descend, and timely indeed as the world continues to grapple with the question of how to deal with man's inhumanity to fellow man.
The last of the six parts, entitled “Who Will We Be?,” is likely the most provocative. Here, Eagleman considers the future of neuroscience, particularly with respect to brain preservation, computer simulations of the mind, and the possibility of immortality. There is already a program underway, he informs the viewer, in which recently expired bodies are frozen in liquid nitrogen to prepare for some future breakthrough that could enable reanimation and the restoration of consciousness.
Others are working under the hypothesis that computers may become so powerful that they can mimic brains, he notes, and a group in Switzerland has set a goal of simulating a working human brain by the year 2023. To explain how this feat might be accomplished, Eagleman proposes that a mind may be somehow coaxed to emerge from the many units of a computer just as it does from the many neurons of a brain.
“The Brain with David Eagleman” is clearly a work designed to bring the world of cognitive neuroscience to anyone who might be interested in it. Big ideas are discussed without hesitation, and this perspective means that many details must necessarily receive less attention. But Eagleman is a convincing tour guide, and his unstated goal of being an ambassador of neuroscience — a public intellectual taking on subject matter some may consider too esoteric or controversial for widespread dissemination — is laudable in a time when so much new knowledge may prove so valuable to society. As an heir to Oliver Sacks, David Eagleman contributes to the task of making often abstruse information about the brain less intimidating, demonstrating in the process how important it is for all of us.