You may feel in control, but you’re actually driven by neural “zombie systems” you’ll never even be aware of.
David Eagleman’s “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,” strips away the primacy of our conscious mind, exploring the underlying forces actually determining our choices.
Directing the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Eagleman studies time, synesthesia and neurolaw.
But he’s no ordinary neuroscientist. “Sum,” his book of short stories about various afterlives, is an international best-seller, translated into 23 languages. It led to a collaboration with Brian Eno; composer Max Richter will debut a full-length work based on “Sum” next year at London’s Royal Opera House; and the screen rights have just been sold.
We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in Manhattan.
Lundborg: How is consciousness like a “tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship?”
Eagleman: The conscious mind is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in the brain.
Even though we feel like we’re the ones navigating our lives, there is quite a bit about our desires, our motivations, our attractions, our hopes and our beliefs that is generated by parts of our brain that we don’t have access to and we’re not even acquainted with.
The brain is essentially this massive computational device that runs all of its operations under the hood.
Lundborg: So many implications -- for example, you say men find women with dilated eyes more attractive without knowing why.
Eagleman: Yes. When men were shown photographs of women’s faces, the men uniformly found the women with dilated eyes more attractive.
None of the men were able to say “Oh, I noticed her pupils were a millimeter larger in this photo.” And none of the men knew consciously that dilated eyes are a sign of sexual readiness in women.
Nonetheless, their brains knew that. They have all kinds of information that their brains are picking up at a deeper level, and it drives them toward that behavior.
Lundborg: Men want full lips, full buttocks, and a narrow waist, while women a full jaw, stubble, and a broad chest.
Eagleman: These are signs that broadcast one signal: “I am fertile.” It’s not that we’re really making a choice about what we find beautiful; we have millions of years of evolution driving us towards having that conscious summary.
Lundborg: What happens to romance?
Eagleman: We feel love, but it all has to do with securing a mate and reproduction and so on, which is not to say that we can’t enjoy every bit of it. But it’s not there without purpose.
Lundborg: Do the “zombie systems” running things without any input from the conscious mind mean free will is an illusion?
Eagleman: Some scientists think so, but what I conclude is that we might have free will but it’s probably going to be a bit player in the operations of the brain.
Consciousness does seem to be useful for setting the long-term goals of the system exactly the same way that a CEO does.
Lundborg: You say we’re nearing a time when stock market data could be plugged directly into the brain. How would that work?
Eagleman: This is the subject of my next book on brain plasticity, called “Live Wired.”
The brain is this alien kind of computational device that can wrap itself around whatever inputs it has. So there’s nothing special about eyes and ears and nose. Those are just essentially peripheral plug and play devices that can send data fibers into the brain, and the brain figures out what to do with it.
You should be able to plug anything, any data cables, into the brain and it will learn how to interpret those and it will actually have perception.
Lundborg: How exactly do we plug those in?
Eagleman: Electrodes directly into the cortex, but it’s not safe yet.
Lundborg: How can science address larger business issues?
Eagleman: Your brain operates as a team of rivals. You are made up of all these competing neural networks that we can image now, these networks that are all battling it out under the hood.
This gives us a new and nuanced way of understanding how people make decisions. When we look at things like financial markets, the future of economics is agent-based modeling, where people look at how individual humans make decisions and interact with one another, combined with the diversity of human beings.
The future of economics is going to be simulating giant populations of people interacting and trading with one another, and that’s something I’m interested in doing in the future.
Lundborg: What are you working on now in the lab?
Eagleman: Among other things, I’m studying time perception, and what’s surprising is that it’s so fluid and that we’re not just passively tracking this river of time. It’s that we’re actively constructing it with our brains. In my lab, I can show that it’s flexible.
Lundborg: What are you writing?
Eagleman: My next four books are well under way and some of them are almost done now. The first is on how the brain rewires its circuits all the time.
Then I’m finishing a cognitive neuroscience textbook for undergraduates.
There’s “Brain Food,” essentially “Freakonomics” for the brain. It’s all this really cool stuff that you’ve never read anywhere else.
And then I’m working on “Eon,” my book of fiction, which takes place over 200 billion years.
To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)