David Eagleman: “The brain works like drug traffickers in Albuquerque” | Neuroscience


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David eagleman, 50, is an American neuroscientist, best-selling author and presenter of the BBC series The brain, as well as co-founder and CEO of Neosensory, which develops sensory substitution devices. His area of ​​expertise is brain plasticity, and this is the subject of his new book, Livewired, which examines how the experience reshapes the brain and shows that it is a much more adaptable organ than previously thought.

For half a century or more, we have been talking about the brain in computer terms. What are the biggest flaws with this particular model?
It is a very attractive comparison. But in fact what we’re looking at are three pounds of material in our skulls which is basically a very alien type of material to us. It doesn’t write down memories, like a computer does. And he is able to discover his own culture and identity and to leap into the unknown. I am here in Silicon Valley. Everything we are talking about is hardware and software. But what’s going on in the brain is what I call livewire, where you have 86 billion neurons, each with 10,000 connections, and they’re constantly reconfiguring themselves every second of your life. Even when you get to the end of this paragraph, you will be a slightly different person than you were at the beginning.

How does the brain function resemble drug traffickers in Albuquerque?
It is that the brain can do remarkable things without any top-down control. If a child has half of their brain removed during surgery, the functions of the brain will reconnect to the rest of the real estate. And so I use this example of the drug traffickers to point out that if suddenly in Albuquerque, where I grew up, there was a terrible earthquake, and half the territory was lost, the drug dealers would reorganize themselves to control the remaining territory. This is because each is competing with their neighbors and they are competing for the territory that exists, as opposed to a top-down council meeting where the territory is distributed. And this is really the way to understand the brain. It is made up of billions of neurons, each competing for its own territory.

You use that colonial image a lot in the book, a sense of the evolutionary processes and struggles that take place in the brain itself.
It’s exactly that. And I think that’s a point of view that’s not common in neuroscience. Usually when we look in a neuroscience textbook we say these are the areas of the brain and everything seems to be going well. It belongs exactly where it is. But the argument I’m making in the book is that the only reason it looks like this is because the springs are all coiled tight. And the competition for every neuron – every brain cell to stay alive against its neighbors – is an endless war. That’s why when something changes in the brain, for example, if a person goes blind, or loses an arm or something, you see these massive rearrangements happening in the brain very quickly. It’s just like the French lost their territory in North America because the British were sending more people.

Brain waves during REM sleep. Photography: deco / Alamy

One of the great mysteries of the brain is the purpose of dreams. And you come up with a sort of defensive theory of how the brain reacts to darkness.
One of the big surprises in neuroscience has been understanding how quickly these takeovers can occur. If you blindfold someone for an hour, you may start to see changes where touch and hearing will start to invade the visual parts of the brain. So what I realized is that because the planet is spinning in darkness, the visual system alone is at a disadvantage, that is, you can still smell and hear and touch and taste in the dark. darkness, but you can no longer see. I realized this puts the visual system at risk of being taken care of every night. And dreams are how the brain defends this territory. Every 90 minutes or so, much of the random activity is projected into the visual system. And because it’s our visual system, we live it like a dream, we live it visually. Evolutionarily, it is our way of defending ourselves against the takeover of the visual system when the planet goes into darkness.

Another mystery is consciousness. Do you think we are close to understanding what consciousness is and how it is created?
There’s a lot of debate about how to define consciousness, but we’re basically talking about the thing that comes alive when you wake up in the morning. But as for understanding why this is happening, I don’t know if we’re much closer than we’ve ever been. It’s different from other science puzzles in that what we’re asking is how to take pieces and physical parts and translate them into a subjective and private experience, like the blush of red, or the pain of the pain or the smell of cinnamon? And so not only do we not have a theory, but we don’t really know what such a theory would look like that would explain our experience in physical or mathematical terms.

You predict that in the future we will be able to glean the details of a person’s life from their brain. What would that mean in terms of privacy and freedom?
Oh, yeah, it’s gonna be a brave new world. Maybe in 100 years, maybe 500, but it will definitely happen. Because what we are looking at is a physical system that is changed and adjusted based on your experiences. What’s going on with the brain is the most complex system we’ve ever encountered in our universe, but basically it’s physical parts and parts and, as our computational abilities get so amazing now, it’s just a countdown until we get there. Can we keep our inner thoughts private? We almost certainly will. You can’t stick someone in a scanner and try to ask them specific questions. But again, this will happen after our lifetime, so it’s something that the next generations will have to struggle with.

Do you think that in the future we will be able to communicate just by thinking?
Communication is a multi-step process. And so in answering your questions, I have many, many thoughts. And I am coming down to something I can say that will clearly communicate what I intend. But if you were to just read my mind and say, “OK, give me the answer,” that would be a jumble of half sentences and words and a random thought, like: Oh, my coffee is overflowing. It’s like you wouldn’t want to read someone’s book that hasn’t been tweaked by him over many iterations, but instead been thrown out of his brain.

elon musk with the surgical robot of his neuralink presentation of August 2020
Elon Musk with the surgical robot from his Neuralink August 2020 presentation. Photograph: Neuralink / AFP / Getty Images

What are your views on Elon musk‘s Neuralink company, which develops implantable brain-machine interfaces?
This is nothing new as neuroscientists have been putting electrodes in people’s brains for at least 60 years now. The advancement lies in its technology, which makes the electrodes denser and also wireless, although even this part is not new. I think it will be very useful in some medical conditions, for example epilepsy and depression, to be able to put electrodes in it directly and to monitor and put the activity there. But Neuralink’s mythology is that it’s something we can all use to interface with our cell phones faster. I would definitely like to text 50% faster, but will I have open head surgery? No, because there is an expression in neurosurgery: when the air hits your brain, it’s never the same again.

You haven’t started your studies in neuroscience. What got you there?
I majored in British and American literature. And it was my first love. But I got addicted to neuroscience because I took a number of philosophy courses. I discovered that we were constantly stuck in a philosophical conundrum. We would get stuck in a quagmire without being able to get out. And I thought, Wow, if we could understand the perceptual machinery by which we see the world, maybe we would have a chance to answer some of these questions and actually move forward. When I finally discovered neuroscience, I read all the books in the college library about the brain – there weren’t that many back then – and I just never looked back. .

How can we maximize the power of our brain and what are you doing to turn yourself off?
There is this myth that we only use 10% of our brain which, of course, is not true. We use 100% of our brain all the time. But the way information can be digested and transmitted to the brain can be very different. I think the next generation will be a lot smarter than us. I have two young kids, and whenever they want to know something, they ask Alexa or Google Home, and they get the right answer in the context of their curiosity. This is a big deal because the brain is more flexible when it is curious about something and gets the answer. Regarding extinction, I never take downtime and I don’t feel like it. I have a very clear sense of the time pressure to do the next things. I hope I don’t die young, but I’m certainly acting like it’s a possibility. You always have to be ready to say goodbye, so I’m just trying to do everything before this time.

Livewired by David Eagleman is published by Canongate (£ 9.99). To support the Guardian order your copy on keeperbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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