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'Incognito': What's Hiding In The Unconscious Mind
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry Gross is under the weather
Our guest, David Eagleman, is a neuroscientist who says our conscious
minds, the part of our brains we think of as ourselves, aren't the only
forces at work when we make decisions. In fact, Eagleman says, that's a
war going on, or at least a competition between different parts of the
brain that have an interest, so to speak, in the outcome of our actions.
If we keep a secret, we're protecting a confidence, which is what we
think we want to do. But there's an urge to spill the beans because
another part of the brain knows it will relieve stress in our bodies. In
his new book, "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," Eagleman
explores ways in which the subconscious brain affects our decisions,
motivations, attractions and repulsions.
Eagleman is the director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at
Baylor's College of Medicine, where he also directs the Laboratory for
Perception and Action. He's written several books and academic articles
on neuroscience and the novel "Sum: Forty Takes from the Afterlives." He
spoke recently with Terry Gross.
TERRY GROSS, host:
David Eagleman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You describe the brain as the most
wondrous thing in the universe. And then you say the conscious mind is
not at the center of the action in the brain. It's actually on a distant
edge, hearing but whispers of the activity.
So what are you examining in the unconscious parts of the mind?
Dr. DAVID EAGLEMAN (Author, "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain";
Director, Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, College of Medicine,
Baylor University; Director, Laboratory for Perception and Action):
Well, what we find when we pull off the cover, and we look at the
circuitry inside is that the brain has colossal operations happening all
And the part that struck me as so interesting is that we have
essentially no awareness of that activity and no access to it. So if you
imagine something like lifting up the cup of coffee in front of you,
that's actually underpinned by a lightning storm of electrical activity
that allows your muscles to reach out and grasp the cup and bring it to
But the whole thing feels completely effortless to you, and in fact if
it weren't for neurobiologists holed up in lab, we wouldnât even have a
notion of electrical signals and tendons and muscles and neurons firing.
You wouldn't even suspect the existence of that stuff because none of
that's obvious to you in terms of awareness.
And what struck me as really interesting is that it turns out all of our
lives, our cognition, or thought, our beliefs, how we act, the things
we're attracted to, the thoughts we have, all of these are underpinned
by these massive lightning storms of activity, and yet we don't have any
GROSS: Now, your theory is that the brain operates as a team of rivals.
For instance, there's a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere. There's
a rational and an emotional system. Can you explain a little more your
team-of-rivals concept of the brain?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Intuitively, it feels like there's a you. So when
somebody meets Terry Gross, they feel like: Oh, yeah, that's one person.
But in fact, it turns out what we have under the hood are lots of neural
populations, lots of neural networks that are all battling it out to
control your behavior.
And it's exactly a parliament, in the sense that these different
political parties might disagree with one another. They're like a team
of rivals in this way, to borrow Kearns Goodwin's phrase of this.
They're like a team of rivals in that they all feel they know the best
way to steer the nation, and yet they have different ways of going about
it, just like different political parties do.
GROSS: So in describing how the team of rivals, your concept of how the
brain works, in describing how that functions, you use it as an example
- secrets, our desire to keep something a secret and our desire to just
confess it and get it out of our system. I want you to elaborate on how
that illustrates the team-of-rivals image of the brain.
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, this is something I found interesting because I
thought, I realized at one point that we didn't really have any sort of
neurobiological explanation for a what a secret is.
Could a toaster hold a secret? Could a computer program hold a secret?
And the reason I was interested is because there's a lot of other
literature showing that it's quite bad for the body to hold secrets. You
get an elevation of stress hormones and...
GROSS: You do? When you hold a secret, your stress hormones get elevated
just by holding the secret?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Yes, in fact there's a group at UT Austin that's been
looking at this for a while. When they have people write down their
secrets, even anonymously, or even just in a journal, their stress
hormone levels go down. Their number of doctor visits goes down.
So there's a large literature on this, about how bad it is to hold a
secret. But I just got interested in thinking: What is a secret,
actually? And, you know, it's - because you have competing populations
in the brain, if you have one part that wants to tell something and
another part that does not want to because of maybe the social
consequences of revealing something like this, that's a secret.
If both parts want to tell, then that's just a good story, and if
neither part wants to tell, then that's something that's, you know, not
terribly interesting. That's why it's not interested in telling. So
that's just one way of getting at this issue of team of rivals.
But more generally, the issue is we're always cussing at ourselves or
getting angry at ourselves or cajoling ourselves to do something or
contracting ourselves. And the question fundamentally is: Who is talking
to whom here? Right because it's all you when you're angry at yourself.
And what we're seeing here is that there are different parts of the
brain that are battling it out. So for example, if I were to put a big
chocolate chip cookie in front of you right now, part of you wants to
eat that because it's a rich energy source, and part of you thinks:
Don't eat it, you'll get fat. You'll have to go to the gym tomorrow and
And so there's an arm-wrestle that happens there. And the way that that
battle tips determines your behavior. And essentially we just have one
output channel of our behavior, and there's only one thing you can do in
the world most of the time, and so this parliament is always battling.
There's no one in charge. There's no sort of final arbiter of it. It's
just which neural networks win out against which others.
GROSS: So does doing research like this make you really self-conscious
about the argument that you're having within yourself?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: You know, I have found this tremendously useful to build
this framework of this team of rivals and to understand what's happening
inside of me because one of the things this leads to that's quite useful
is what we call a Ulysses contract.
So you remember in the story of Ulysses, he was coming back from the
Trojan War. He realized he had a unique opportunity to pass the island
of the Sirens, where these women sang such beautiful melodies that it
would beggar the imagination, and the sailors would crash into the
Ulysses wanted to hear these songs, but he knew that like any mortal
man, he would be susceptible to steering his ship into the rocks. So
what of course he did, he lashed himself to the mast, and he filled his
men's ears with beeswax, and he said: No matter what I do, just keep
And what he was doing was setting up a contract with his future self. In
other words, the Ulysses of sound mind in the present knew that the
Ulysses in the near future would be behaving badly and making bad
decisions. So he constrained his future behavior.
GROSS: Give me an example with your own behavior.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. EAGLEMAN: My own Ulysses contracts are private, I'm afraid.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay, somebody else's behavior who you're willing to expose,
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, take this as an example. When people are trying to
get over alcoholism, the first thing they do is get rid of all the
alcohol in the house because you don't want any bottles around. So in
your moment of sober reflection, you get rid of everything so as to
avoid future temptation.
Or people who are on drug rehab programs, the first thing they're
trained is don't carry more than $20 in your pocket at any time, and
don't go down streets where you know drug dealers will be, things like
So there are many ways that we can come to know that there are
situations we'll be in that will be tempting.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Eagleman. He's a
neuroscientist who's the author of the new book "Incognito: The Secret
Lives of the Brain." And he's the founder of the Lab for Perception and
Action at the Baylor College of Medicine. Let's take a short break here,
and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Eagleman. He's a
neuroscientist. His new book is called "Incognito: The Secret Lives of
the Brain." He's the director of the Laboratory for Perception and
Action at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.
You've been doing some very interesting research on the brain and our
sense of time, and there's a very interesting New Yorker profile of you
recently, describing this research.
One of the questions you're asking is: How is your sense of time changed
in high-adrenaline situations, for instance, like if you're falling from
a high place or I imagine in a car crash, where people say that their
sense of time is slowed down. A lot of accidents people feel that way,
that while it's happening, their sense of time is slowed down. First of
all, why are you researching this? What is the fundamental question
you're trying to get an answer to?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, fundamentally, I'm interested in consciousness and
how we perceive the world and what reality is out there. And one thing
we've found from, say, visual illusions is that, you know, the visual
world is not exactly what you think it is. Instead, it's a construction
of the brain.
Well, it turns out the same lesson applies in the time domain, which is
to say although we think of time as a river flowing past, and we're
passively tracking that, in fact time is an active construction of the
And in the last 11 years or so, my laboratory has shown that there are
illusions of time where we can make you think in the laboratory that
something lasted longer or shorter than it actually did, or we can make
you think that something came before something else, even though it was
the other way around, or that something is flickering at a different
rate than it actually is.
So what this tells us is that this notion of what's happening in time is
something that our brains are involved in, and this opens this very deep
question about what is reality out there, past us.
GROSS: So one of the experiments that you've done is to have people, if
I understood this correctly, get on an amusement park ride, where you're
dropped about - was it 50 feet or something, and then...
Dr. EAGLEMAN: A hundred and fifty feet.
GROSS: A hundred and fifty feet, whoa.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You're dropped 150 feet, and then you land on a net, which
hopefully catches you safely, without any damage. But you ask people to
do that - who were doing that jump, to give you a sense of how long they
thought the fall was, and then you would...
Dr. EAGLEMAN: That's right.
GROSS: Then you would actually measure how long it actually was. What
did you find?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, actually we had them retrospectively estimate how
long they thought the fall was. But the key part of the experiment is we
developed a device that we strapped to people's wrist that flashes
information at them in a particular way while they're falling. So we
could actually measure time perception as they're in freefall.
And it's very scary, this fall, because you're falling backwards, and
you're going very fast when you hit the net, and it takes about three
And what we find is that people think it takes a long time. When you're
actually doing the fall, it feels like it takes a very long time, and
yet what we found is that during the fall, people are not able to
actually see in slow motion, like Neo in "The Matrix."
So what this means is - what we found from this is that time and memory
and deeply intertwined, and so when you're estimating how long something
lasted, when you say, whoa, that felt like it took forever, what that
really has to do is, at least as far as we can tell right now, is the
laying down of very dense memories during a scary situation.
So when something is really hitting the fan, that's when your brain is
completely focused on the situation and writing down everything, and
when you read that back out, it seems like it must have taken forever
because we're not used to being in the zone like that. We're not used to
noting every detail and remembering everything. And so we - our
estimates of time are often influenced by memory.
GROSS: So would you explain a little more the thing that you put on the
people's wrists that had information as they were falling?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Essentially it's flashing digits at you, randomized
digits, in such a way that if you were seeing the world in slow motion,
you would have no problem reading the digits off of the screen. But if
you're seeing the world in normal time, then you're unable to read the
This has to do with - what we're doing is using LED lights, and we're
alternating negative and positive images. So imagine a three written in
LED lights, and in one moment, the lights that make the three are on,
and then in the next moment, all those lights go off, and the background
lights go on.
And if you alternate these back and forth at a fast enough rate, then it
just looks - you can't read the digit at all. It looks like all the
lights are on. If it's just slightly slower, then you can read the digit
with no problem.
And so there's a very sharp threshold, and this is how we're able to see
what is the speed at which people can see information.
GROSS: So what did you find with that?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: So what we found is that people are not actually able to
see in slow motion during the fall, even though they feel like
everything took much longer.
So when people get in car accidents, for example, they feel like
everything took such a long time, but it's not actually the same as a
movie camera slowing down the footage.
If it were, for example, then all of the sounds would become lower
pitch, and just like in the movies, the person next to you who's
screaming, it would sound like (makes noise).
But that's just a movie conceit, and that doesn't actually happen in
real life, and it's because time is not one thing to the brain. It's not
like a piece of footage that you stretch or squish. Instead, you have
different parts of the brain that care about duration, those that care
about temporal order, those that care about flicker rate, those that
care about auditory pitch and so on.
Normally, these work in concert, and we think that time is just one
thing. But what we've been doing in the laboratory is teasing these
apart and showing that time is really a construction of the brain.
GROSS: Let me just say something about this experiment with the numbers
flashing digitally on this apparatus on the wrist as the people fall. My
interpretation of that would be if I were falling 150 feet, I would
totally block out those numbers. I would be thinking: I don't really
care about your experiment. I just want to hit the net safely. This is
terrifying. These numbers are irrelevant. Please save me. Help. Do you
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, that's - yes, you'd make a good scientist. That's
exactly right. What we did is we stood at the top, and we monitored and
made sure that everybody had their eyes on the clock. We had to rule out
one subject who closed her eyes, but otherwise everyone kept their eyes
on the wristwatch.
And of course if we ran it at a slower speed, people are able to report
the digits. So we know that people can watch the thing...
GROSS: I see, okay. Who are these people?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. EAGLEMAN: You know, these are all people who volunteered to come and
do this experiment. We're not allowed to pay people to recruit them so
as not to incentivize someone to do something so scary.
GROSS: Now, the New Yorker article about you mentioned that when you
were young, you were walking on the roof of your family home, not
realizing that on part of the roof, it was just tarpaper, and there was
no actual structure underneath it, and you fell through the roof. What
was your experience of falling?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: This was actually a neighboring house under construction.
GROSS: I see.
Dr. EAGLEMAN: But my experience of falling was - you know, I suddenly
realized I had slipped off the roof. I immediately made lots of
calculations about whether there was time to grab the edge or to grab
the tarpaper. And I realized there wasn't.
And then I was looking down at the ground, the red brick floor that was
coming towards me, and I was thinking about "Alice in Wonderland," and
it was thinking about how this must have been what it was like for her
when she fell down the rabbit hole.
And it was very calm, and it took a long time, it felt, and in the
meantime - so that was when I was eight years old. Then I grew up, and I
became a neuroscientist, and of course I did the calculations sometime
in high school. I calculated how long the fall actually took, and it was
just, you know, about .8 of a second to reach the ground.
So I couldn't figure out why it felt like it had taken so much longer.
So when I grew up, I just found I was fascinated with these issues of
time, and I started researching it.
And, you know, at this point, I've collected probably 600 narratives
from people who have experienced this sort of effect in time, when just
when they're about to die, when they're in some terrible situation,
where everything's calm and slow, and there's no fear.
It turns out I even found in David Livingston's diary, the African
explorer, it turns out at one point he was grabbed in the jaws of a
lion. A lion grabbed Livingston and shook him, and Livingston said he
felt no fear. He was completely calm and just thinking bizarre thoughts.
And this seems to be the thing that characterizes it.
In his diary, he says something to the effect of, you know: Thank
goodness that there's an omnipresent being who's so kind to us that in
the moment of death, everything is so wonderful.
And, you know, people, when they get in car accidents or bicycle
accidents, or even when their child is in danger or something like that,
they'll often have these just sort of calm, bizarre thoughts about
GROSS: Do you have a neurobiological explanation for that?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: No, this is actually the next thing I'm working on now. I
mean, as far as the calmness goes, it is likely to involve the endorphin
system. Endorphin stands for endogenous morphine. And this gets released
in situations like this.
So it's at least in part to do with that. There's a related issue that
I'm just trying to figure out how to study right now, which is often
people will report panoramic memories in these situations, which is to
say, this sort of life-flashed-before-my-eyes issue, and it's not
actually like flashing in a cinematographic sense, but instead it's like
all of your memories are there at once. Everything is there in front of
And I'm trying to figure that out right now because in the '60s, it was
discovered that if, during neurosurgery, you put in an electrode into
the brain, and you give a little stimulation to certain parts, that
people will experience a memory. They'll say: Oh, my gosh, I just had
such a vivid memory.
And so somehow in these situations, you're pushing the brain outside of
its normal operating range, and people have all of these memories just
come to the surface of consciousness. I think it's a terrific inroad for
us to understand what the difference is between a memory when it's in
its sort of normal unconscious state and what happens when it reaches
DAVIES: David Eagleman's new book is "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the
Brain." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davis,
and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
We're listening to Terryâs interview with neuroscientist David Eagleman,
whose new book explores ways in which our subconscious mind affects our
decisions, motivations and attractions. He says different parts of the
brain constantly battle each other for a control of our behavior. His
new booked is called âIncognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.â
GROSS: I think that the work that youâre doing on neuroscience and law
is so interesting and has such kind of vast implications for social
policy in the criminal justice system. You think that neuroscience
should help us reform the criminal justice system. And your premise is
that most criminal behavior is caused by problems with brain chemistry,
and that we have to take that into account in both the courtroom and how
we try people and how we sentence them in what we do with them.
An example that you give is Charles Whitman, who in 1966, went to the
top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin and killed 13 people -
had a gun, killed 13 people, wounded 33. And why did you choose him as
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, he's a terrific example because there was nothing
about his life that presages that kind of behavior, this murder spree
that he went on. He was an Eagle Scout. He had an IQ of 135. He was an
engineering student. He worked as a bank teller. And suddenly he gets up
on the Texas Tower and murders a bunch of people. And when the police,
after he was killed, the police went to his home and they discovered
that he had killed his wife and his mother the night before.
In his suicide note, Whitman said, I would like an autopsy to be done
here because I know that something inside me has been changing for the
past year. So an autopsy was done and it turns out he had a brain tumor
and the tumor was impinging on a part of his brain called the amygdala,
which is involved in fear and aggression. And so it gets us right into
the heart of this issue. We know that we are our biology. I mean or at
least I can say we are sort of irrevocably tied to what's happening in
our biology. And when the biology changes so do you, and so does your
behavior. And so this gets us right into the heart of the question of
responsibility and culpability.
There's another example that I use in the book, which is this man who at
the age of 40 suddenly became a pedophile and he started collecting
child pornography and he made a move on his prepubescent stepdaughter.
And when his wife found this out she kicked him out of the house. He
went to sentencing. He was put into a rehabilitation program but got
kicked out because he was making sexual advances on the staff there as
well. So he was then sentenced to a jail term. But during this time, he
was having worsening headaches and so he went to the doctors finally and
they did a scan and they found out he had a massive frontal tumor.
What happened is they took the tumor out and his sexual behavior
returned completely to normal. And what this indicates is that we depend
on our biology for the kind of decisions we make and whether those
decisions are, you know, can conform with the legal system or not.
There's an interesting postscript to his story, which is that six months
later he started showing signs of pedophilia again. He went back to the
doctor. It turns out the surgeons had missed a part of the tumor and it
had re-grown. They resected it a second time and his behavior returned
to normal. So what this means for us is this issue of given that
people's behavior is tied to their brain, what does this mean in terms
of how we think about responsibility in the legal system?
Hereâs what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean we'll let people off. We
still have to take people who are behaving badly off of the streets. We
have to take them off and lock them up. But it does open though, as we
get a better and better understanding of the neurobiology of behavior,
it allows us to do customized sentencing and customized rehabilitation.
And more generally, it allows us to structure incentives at a societal
level. It allows us to understand how brains actually operate and deal
with them in a more individualized way.
GROSS: So you're saying that we should shift from blame to biology in
the criminal justice system. So does that mean you think the judge
should be investigating if a criminal has a tumor in their brain or if
they have a serotonin problem? Or, you know, any biochemical problem in
the brain that might be the cause of their bad behavior?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Currently in the legal system there's this myth of
equality. And the assumption is if you are over 18 and you have an IQ of
over 70 then all brains are created equal. And, of course, that's a very
charitable idea but it's demonstrably false. Brains are extraordinarily
different from one another. Brains are essentially like fingerprints;
we've all got them but they're somewhat different. And so by imagining
that everyone has the exact same capacity for decision-making, for
understanding future consequences, for squelching their impulsive
behavior and so on, what we're doing is weâre imagining that everybody
should be treated the same. And, of course, what has happened is that
our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system.
Estimates are that about 30 percent of the prison population has some
sort of mental illness.
Well, there are much more humane and cost-effective things that we can
be doing there by just paying attention to the fact that brains are
individualized. Just as an example, I was just in Richmond, Virginia
talking with some judges and lawyers there. And it turns out they have a
very nice story going on there, which is - because of the confluence of
a few bad things. The bad things are they have the second highest murder
rate in the nation and they completely ran out of money. Their prisons
were overcrowded and they realized we need to do something here because
our prisons are so overstuffed - just like what's happening in
California. So they opened mental health courts, which is exactly the
right thing to do.
The idea here is if you are mentally ill we're not going to treat you
just like everyone else. We're not going to pretend that incarceration
is the perfect one-size-fits-all solution. But instead, we're going to
take you down this different path and, you know, we'll take you off the
street if you're behaving badly and dangerously, but will see if we can
GROSS: So when it comes to sentencing, you think that there are some
people who've committed some crimes for whom punishment would actually
be possibly helpful - that they would learn there are consequences for
their actions and that would teach them not to do again. But there are
other people, on the other hand, who have some kind of brain disorder or
biochemical imbalance in the brain and for these people punishment might
not be helpful in the least. It might even be destructive , but it's not
going to be helpful. Can you...
Dr. EAGLEMAN: That's right...
GROSS: ...talk a little bit about the difference between those two types
Dr. EAGLEMAN: So the frontal lobes are often thought as the engine of
socialization because this is what you build up as you mature as you
grow up. You know, a child will steal a candy bar off the shelf or
urinate in public or say something inappropriate. And what parents do
through reward and punishment is they give feedback, letting them know
thatâs not socially appropriate. And this is how you build up your
frontal lobes, which essentially squelch that impulsive behavior. Well,
what happens with these frontal temporal dementia patients is that that
frontal lobe is now gone and they are disinhibited. So now they'll steal
things off the shelf. Theyâll urinate in public. Theyâll touch people
inappropriately. They'll take their clothes off. They'll do all of these
things that are legally inappropriate. And because their frontal lobes
are damaged there's no amount of punishment that is going to somehow fix
that. And so what happens, this happens increasingly in courtrooms
around the nation where their embarrassed adult children or their
lawyers will have to stand in front of the judge and explain that it's
not exactly their fault, it's something going on in their brain.
Now putting somebody like that in jail or having them break rocks all
summer, it just doesn't make sense. It's not humane. It's certainly not
cost-effective. You're not solving the problem. So each case, the more
we understand about the brain the more we need to look at brains
individually and figure out what do we do from here.
Again, I need to emphasize, this does not mean that anybody gets off the
hook. If somebody is doing asocial behavior we have to take care of
that. We have to get them off the street in one way or another. But
imagining that our system of punishment and reward with jails and, you
know, this deterrence effect and so on, imagining that works on all
brains is an illusion that's quite outdated now.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is neuroscientist David
Eagleman. And he's the founder and director of the Initiative on
Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine, where he also
directs the Lab for Perception and Action. He's the author of the new
book âIncognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.â
Letâs take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about
research that you're doing.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is neuroscientist David
Eagleman. He's the author of the new book âIncognito: The Secret Lives
Of The Brain.â Heâs also the director of the Laboratory for Perception
and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine.
In some of your research you ask yourself why do people believe in God?
You've written speculative essays about if there is an afterlife, what
might it look like? So I'm wondering if you think that the brain shows
that we create a narrative even when there's something we can't make
sense of, we try to create a narrative that will make sense of it. Do
you think that we're wired not only to create a narrative but because of
that wiring we create a God to explain the universe which we cannot
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, it is the case â it is the case that we're always
looking for patterns. And this is what humans are really good at and
most of the time this serves us quite well. And this is essentially how
science proceeds, itâs the fuel of science. We observed many things and
we make hypotheses about what might be the model behind it. The fact is
that coming up with the idea of a God or a creator is a perfectly good
model, itâs a perfectly good hypothesis for what might be going on. And
then the idea is we use the tools of science in as much as we can, to
weigh in and gather evidence for or against that hypothesis against all
the other possible stories.
GROSS: Our listeners might know, you call yourself a Possibillion.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: In other words, you were raised as a secular Jew then you became
an atheist and now you consider yourself a Possibillion, meaning?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Hereâs what it means. Itâs - Iâve spent my life in
science, that's what I've devoted my life to and it's the single most
useful pursuit that we have in terms of trying to understand the
blueprints around us and trying to figure out what in the world is going
on here, whatâre doing here? But at some point the pier of science comes
to an end and we're standing at the end of that pier and looking out
onto unchartered waters that go for as far as the eye can see. Most of
what weâre surrounded with is mystery. And what one comes to understand
in a life of science is the vastness of our ignorance.
Look, we know way too much to commit to a particular religious position.
And we don't know nearly enough to commit to strict atheism so why don't
we try to figure out the structure of the possibility space? Why do we
use the scientific temperament, which is one of creativity and tolerance
for multiple hypotheses and try to at least understand the shape of the
possibility space? And we can import the tools of science to carve off
parts of that and say okay, that does not seem to be the case. But where
the toolbox of science runs out we, you know, our table is wide â
scienceâs table is wide and we can hold lots of hypotheses until we have
sufficient evidence to weigh for or against various ones.
GROSS: So you're just keeping and open and investigative mind?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Beyond an open mind, itâs an act of exploration about what
we think is going on. And somehow in the polarization that happened over
this last decade in the debates between the religious and the atheists,
somehow that got left out. It's either God or no God. And both of those
positions are, you know, I'm just surprised that we haven't gotten past
those two diametrically opposed and probably to, you know, these are
those positions I think is sort of large thinking enough given what we
know about the cosmos.
GROSS: And so you're saying it's not just God or no God. It's maybe
something other than God.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Oh, I mean we could make up a million possibilities.
Dr. EAGLEMAN: I mean just as a - I don't obviously mean these as real
possibilities but, you know, physics tells us there are somewhere
between nine and 13 spatial dimensions. So what if there were whole
civilizations living between dimensions five and eight? Well, that would
be really interesting, right? And weâd want to know that. But somehow if
you're just talking about God or no God, that somehow gets left out.
And one of my mentors, Francis Crick, he and another biologist Leslie
Orgel, at one point when they were, you know, trying to figure out the
origin of life on earth from RNA and DNA and so on, they said well, what
if it were the case that life was planted here on earth. Let's say rode
in a one an asteroid or put here by aliens. And they really got, a bunch
of people in the scientific community really jumped on these two giants
of biology for even suggesting that maybe we were planted here by
aliens. But you know what? It's a perfectly good hypothesis. I mean we
don't know enough to rule that out. It belongs on the table along with
all of the rest of them.
And so Possibilism is really about the scientific spirit of throwing
everything onto the table and then sorting it out from there.
GROSS: So some people listening to you will be thinking that what you
said about, oh, maybe there were aliens who, you know, who created
people on earth are, you know, there are different universes maybe and
stuff like that. Some people might think thatâs science fiction, that's
not science. This guy said heâs a neuroscientist, not a science fiction
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Essentially, this is the heart of science. We always come
up with hypotheses and we bring evidence in to weigh for or against
those hypotheses. And in science, of course, we never even talk about
truth or proofs. We talk about where the weight of evidence suggests at
the moment, you know, what we think is the best narrative at the moment.
And so, you know, there's this illusion that all of us learn in high
school where we look in textbooks and science seems to proceed in a
linear lockstep manner where so-and-so discovers this and then the next
person and so on. But science never proceeds that way. Every major
advance in science has been a creative leap where someone says, well,
gosh, what this really strange story were true? And then what you do is
you make a lot of these leaps and you look back to see if you can build
a bridge back to what we already know in science. And when you can
that's progress. And when you can't that's an interesting hypothesis
that you just file away and you keep.
And for myself I, you know, I spend all of my day in the laboratory
coming up with hypotheses and the ones that I can't do anything further
with scientifically I come home and I write fiction about.
GROSS: There's one more thing I want to squeeze in, if you don't mind
before we let you leave.
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Sure.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Sure thing.
GROSS: That is I know some of our listeners have probably read your book
âSome,â which was a bestseller. And this was a series of scenarios that
you created envisioning possible afterlives. Like if there is an
afterlife what might it be like? And you use your knowledge of
consciousness and neuroscience to help create these different visions.
What led you to even take on that assignment?
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Well, now, of course, the thing is this is literary
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. EAGLEMAN: ...so I've always been a writer as well. Yeah. So these
are actual speculations about an afterlife. We have no idea what happens
to us when we die. One possibility is that we just shut off and itâs
like an eternal sleep. Okay, that's fine. There are infinity of other
possibilities and this is one of those scientific problems that we can't
at the moment gather any evidence for. We just don't know one way or the
other. So when I was growing up as a Jewish kid in New Mexico, you know,
all my friends were Christian and they would tell me about their notion
of heaven and hell. So I met a rabbi one day and I said to him, what is
the Jewish view of the afterlife? And he said, you know, you ask two
Jews you'll get three opinions.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. EAGLEMAN: And I thought that was so liberating. I just I loved that
and that was the seed - I guess I was 11 years old â that was the seed
that led to me writing âSomeâ many, many years later. Because I thought
what a terrific sort of backdrop against which to explore what is
important to us as humans, right? The afterlife, I mean nobody knows
what it is. So I made up forty mutually exclusive stories, each one if,
you know, if anyone of those is true means the others are not true. But
I just made up stories where let's say God is a married couple or God is
the size of a microbe and doesn't know that we exist because weâre at
the wrong spatial scale. Or you relive your life except that all the
moments are chunked together so you spend X number of hours brushing
your teeth and, you know, 30 days waiting in line and seven months
having sex and so on.
You know, I just made up all these different things. But what they're
really about is the joys and complexities of being human. And the
afterlife using that as a backdrop is just such a wonderful way to get
into these issues.
GROSS: David Eagleman, it's really been great to talk with you. You're
doing such fascinating work. Thank you so much.
Dr. EAGLEMAN: Thank you, Terry.
DAVIES: David Eagleman's new book is called âIncognito: The Secret Lives
of the Brain.â
You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, name your favorite monster. David Bianculli considers creepy
things on TV as a new DVD set of HBO's âTrue Bloodâ is released. The
seriesâ new season starts June 26th.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Fangtastic Voyage: 'True Blood' Vampires Live On
DAVE DAVIES, host:
If there were a stock market for pop culture obsessions with monsters it
might go something like this: vampires have been solid earners for years
now. Zombies were a hot startup in 2010. Werewolves are on the rise. And
witches threaten to be the next big thing.
Our TV critic David Bianculli uses the new DVD release and imminent
return of HBO's âTrue Bloodâ to examine our obsessions with things that
go bump in the night.
DAVID BIANCULLI: HBO Video has just released Season 3 of âTrue Bloodâ -
12 episodes bringing us up to speed on Sookie Stackhouse, the psychic
southern waitress; on Bill Compton and Eric Northman, the two vampires
in love with her; and on all the other far-from-normal residents of and
around this particular bayou town. And in a few weeks, on June 26th, HBO
launches Season 4 of âTrue Blood,â which doubles down on its paranormal
When we left off, Sookie, played by Anna Paquin, had felt used and
betrayed by both of her vampire lovers, and discovered that her own
psychic gifts - as well as some more recent ones - were due to a
formerly unknown lineage. She's part human and, as it turns out, part
fairy. Her loyal vampire boyfriend, Bill Compton, doesn't love her any
less - but another vampire, Russell, the sinister vampire king of
Mississippi, warns Sookie that there might be a reason for that. Russell
explains this as Sookie has him chained and captured - and just after
he's almost burned to death from exposure to the sun.
Denis O'Hare as Russell the King, gives one of my famous performances in
âTrue Blood.â He seems to purr and snarl all at once. And in this scene,
heâs saying all this to Anna Paquinâs Sookie, while looking like a
charred hotdog that was left out on the grill way too long.
(Soundbite of HBOâs âTrue Bloodâ)
Mr. DENIS OâHARE (Actor): (as Russell Edgington) Miss Stackhouse, Iâd
like to propose a deal.
Ms. ANNA PAQUIN (Actor): (as Sookie Stackhouse) Oh, this ought to be
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) I will give you my word that I will not
harm you or anyone you love.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Steppinâ around the fact that your
word is worth about as much as tits on a turtle, what else?
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) One million dollars.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Five.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) Two.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Seven.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) Okay. Five.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) What else?
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) I will kill Eric Northman and Bill
Compton, both. Or Neither. Or just one of your choosing.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Both.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) And your house in Mississippi, I like
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) Done.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) What do I have to do in return?
(Soundbite of growl)
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) Release me.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) No.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) It may not be me but some day some
vampire is going to rip you open to get at the essence inside of you.
Thereâs no way around that.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Shut up.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) You donât know what it is to drink your
blood. It is paradise. Arcadia. Nirvana. You don't even know what your
blood is capable of. I am surprised that your Mr. Compton has showed
such restraint. He is either a true gentleman or very, very smart.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Smart, why?
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) By showing such a degree of control
he's able to make the experience last that much longer. That's basic
tantra, where others won't be able to stop themselves. They'll drain you
dry, which is a shame, really.
BIANCULLI: It makes perfect sense that âTrue Bloodâ is returning on HBO
- and being released on DVD - during the summer. Based on the novels by
Charlaine Harris, and adapted for TV by âSix Feet Underâ creator Alan
Ball, âTrue Bloodâ is the TV equivalent of the perfect summer beach
book. It's funny, it's sexy, it's imaginative, it's outrageous - and,
like Sookie's human-fairy blood, it's addictive. It also passes my basic
test for any great ensemble TV series: Its characters are so well-
written, and so well-acted, that I can spend time with any of them
without missing the others.
In Season 3 on the DVD set, âTrue Bloodâ introduces plenty of new
characters, in addition to O'Hare's Vampire King. There are fairies,
shape-shifters, werewolves - and, in season four, we'll get heavily into
the world of witches. It's a smart move - because even though vampires
are among the hottest things in pop culture right now, even monsters are
vulnerable to the fickleness of public tastes.
Both âTrue Bloodâ and the âTwilightâ movie series began in 2008, and
both have invested heavily in werewolves as well as vampires. But in
this new decade of television, vampires are in danger of being
temporarily overrun. Last year on AMC, a zombie series based on a
graphic novel, âThe Walking Dead,â came out of nowhere and set
viewership records for that network - almost three times the audience
for AMC's âMad Men.â MTV has a new series based on an old Michael J. Fox
movie, âTeen Wolf.â And this fall, the CW network - which already has
injected werewolves into its series âThe Vampire Diariesâ - hedges its
bets by presenting, âSecret Circle,â about a coven of young witches.
My bet, though, is that vampires - more than werewolves, zombies or
witches - will prove to be the most durable media monsters of all. It's
been almost 90 years since the first memorable movie vampire,
âNosferatu,â hit the big screen - and exactly 80 years since Bela Lugosi
Those guys were monsters, though - creepy bloodsuckers, not the stuff of
swoony romance novels. All that changed in the 1950s, when Christopher
Lee embodied a more seductive brand of bloodsucker in a series of Hammer
Studios horror films. And it was codified in the 1960s, on television,
when a daytime soap opera called âDark Shadowsâ presented the central
vampire, for the first time, as a misunderstood, haunted victim. That's
the model that's been followed, for the most part, ever since - from
Frank Langella's matinee-idol âDraculaâ to all of the present-day
vampires on âTwilight,â âTrue Bloodâ and elsewhere.
So zombies may be popular now, and werewolves and witches may be on the
rise - but for a safe, long-term investment in pop culture's fascination
with the paranormal, I say take your money and let it ride on vampires.
They're undead in more ways than one - every generation, they always
seem to earn a brand new life.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and
teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.