May 04, 2012 by Sandra Petri
Neuroscientist and New York Times best-selling author David Eagleman spoke May 2 at Drexel University’s second annual College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Lecture, likening neuroscience to ‘a computer studying its own hardware’
“…It would be as though your computer started controlling its own peripheral devices and pulled off its cover and pointed its webcam at its own circuitry and started to figure out what it’s made out of. That’s the situation that we are in. And what we have found, under the hood there, is the most complicated device we have ever found in the universe,” Eagleman said.
Eagleman received his doctorate in neuroscience from Baylor College of Medicine in 1998. He currently serves as the founder and director of Baylor’s Laboratory for Perception and Action as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He also has published four books, both fiction and nonfiction, dealing with different aspects of the brain. In 2011 he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, and he is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Wired and various other publications.
During the lecture, titled “The Secret Lives of the Brain,” Eagleman spoke about various aspects of neuroscience, including the human subconscious, perceptions of reality and time, synesthesia, and legal applications of his work.
The subconscious, Eagleman explained, plays a bigger part in decision making than most people know. A study showed that when men were asked to rank pictures of women’s faces in terms of attractiveness, a majority gave higher scores to the women whose pupils were dilated — a sign of sexual readiness. Even though their conscious minds didn’t know what dilated pupils indicated, their subconscious was attracted to it. In addition, Eagleman discussed the phenomena that people named Dennis or Denise are more likely to become dentists and that people are more likely to marry someone whose name starts with the same letter as their own.
“So what we see is that there’s this gap between what your brain is doing and what the conscious mind knows. There’s this enormous gap. So the question is: why? … If you try to reach down with your conscious mind into things that have been automatized, and they’re being taken care of by the unconscious brain, the whole operation runs more poorly,” he said.
He also tackled the question of reality, the contradiction between what humans see and what actually is. Using multiple optical illusions and other simple exercises, Eagleman showed that “vision is not anything like a camera. … The way vision actually works is that your brain generates lots of internal activity, and that is merely modulated by the little bit of data that dribbles in through these two holes in your skull.”
“In my opinion, the subject matter was extremely fascinating because the human brain is one of the biggest mysteries of life. I was astounded by how much knowledge Dr. Eagleman has and how charismatic and enthusiastic he is about his research,” Nikita Shah, a freshman biology major, said.
According to Eagleman, about 4 percent of the population has synesthesia, a condition where the different senses are connected in unordinary ways. Some people with synesthesia see every number and letter in a particular color; some see explosions of color when they hear music. This is because of increased connections between the brain areas, and Eagleman and his team invented an online test to identify synesthetes.
Eagleman also spoke about the neural basis of morality, legality and decision making. He explained that humans make two faulty assumptions about the brain and how it applies to culpability. The American legal system assumes that humans are “practical reasoners” who are free to choose their actions and that “all brains are created equal.”
“America is the No. 1 country in the world for the percentage of our population that we put behind bars, … and the reason is we treat incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution for everything, and it rests on these sorts of assumptions. … A third of the prison population has a mental illness. That means that our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system,” Eagleman said.
The solution, then, requires a completely new perspective on the incarceration process and the prison system in America. Neuroscience can be applied to the legal environment in this way, and Eagleman is currently working on a way to rehabilitate drug addicts without sending them to prison, which perpetuates their addiction.
In Eagleman’s system, patients would be hooked up to a machine that would show them a picture of their drug of addiction and read the signals in the brain indicating a craving. A bar would show up on the screen, giving a visual representation for the intensity of the craving. The addict could then try to get the craving under control and shrink the bar, essentially giving the long-term decision-making part of the brain strength over the short-term craving.
“I love how he integrated two fields that seemingly have nothing to do with each other and created this whole potential industry to utilize neuroscience to improve the judiciary system,” Shah said.
If only one thing can be gleaned from Eagleman’s lecture, it is that his research in a myriad of neuroscience-related fields will continue to revolutionize how we consider the power of the brain. For more information, check out his book, “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.”