Livewired: David Eagleman

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Book Review

Before David Eagleman presents a single sentence of his own construction in “Livewired,” he lets it be known that the book, subtitled, “The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain,” offers more than science. He does so with his choice of epigraph: “Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one,” written by philosopher Martin Heidegger.

“Hopefully this book will open eyes to what it means to be a human,” Eagleman says. “We tend to think of ourselves as static. But in fact we’re changing all the time.”

Eagleman has worked on “Livewired” over 10 years. The result is a text that is both probing, philosophical and playful, in which wounded British naval officer Horatio Nelson and tragic Spider-Man villain Dr. Otto Octavius appear in close proximity; where philosopher René Descartes and soulful country singer Ronnie Milsap are separated by just a few pages. With “Livewired” Eagleman hopes to educate about plasticity of the brain, a field of study he sees as equal to the deep study of DNA.

Heidegger out of the way, Eagleman’s is a book that opens with hemispherectomy, a story about a child suffering from worsening seizures, whose family makes the fraught decision to have half of his brain removed.

“I first started studying hemispherectomies 20 years ago and I’m still stunned by the fact that we don’t talk about this every day,” Eagleman, 49, says. “You watch the news every day — Trump, weather patterns, things that are remarkable. But nothing like this. We don’t know how to built technology like this. You can’t tear circuitry out of a laptop and have it still function. You can do that with brains.”

The book’s title is Eagleman’s effort to put a recognizable name to further investigation into and discussion of the brain.

“The brain is not, as we once thought, hardwired,” he says. “It’s not hardware, its liveware.

“We talk a lot about the heart. What the heart tells you, what your gut tells you. But it’s all brain. If you get a heart transplant, an artificial heart from the Texas Medical Center, you’re still the same person. Change even a little bit of the brain and that can change a person entirely.”

Finding a place in ‘Cosmos’

Long before he became a renowned neuroscientist, Eagleman was a literature student at Rice University, where he studied literature and its mechanisms for storytelling that he’d later apply to his work. He studied at the Baylor College of Medicine and earned a PhD in neuroscience in 1998.

Immersed in research, Eagleman also found time for fiction. He wrote “Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives” in 2009. The book — well-reviewed and a strong seller — was a deeply philosophical piece of speculative fiction. Two years later, he landed on various best-seller lists with a book of science that proved inviting rather than daunting: “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.”

Like other storytellers in his line of work, Eagleman cites Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” as an early influence. “I was so caught up in it,” he says. “Here was a guy, a real scientist who cares about communicating the beauty and magic of this to me, some random kid sitting in front of the TV in New Mexico. I always wanted to be able to do that.”

In addition to his lit workload, Eagleman took several philosophy courses while a student at Rice. For the most part he found them frustrating.

“It felt to me like we’d argue a question until it ended up in a quagmire and then everyone would stop there,” he says.

He found a doorway past those stalled debates in neuroscience.

“With neuroscience, you could ask fundamental questions about ourselves,” he says. “You could do experiments and achieve answers.”

The brain has informed Eagleman’s work since. He’s published several books and developed and hosted a TV series about the brain. He spent 10 years as director of a neuroscience research lab at the Baylor School of Medicine for a decade. And he’s earned enough honors and accolades to keep his shelves and walls cluttered with totems of recognition.

He left Houston in 2016 for Silicon Valley. There he works as an adjunct professor at Stanford University, while also working entrepreneurial territory with the companies BrainCheck and NeoSensory. The latter sounds like something out of a Christopher Nolan film, claiming on its site that the company’s research “began with the idea that our experience of reality can go beyond our sensory limitations.”

Eagleman sees biology as “drafting off engineering for centuries now, with remarkable devices engineers build.”

He envisions a future in which that engineering is reversed “so we build livewired devices. That we do this thing we know is possible because each of us carries three pounds of incredible computational material in our heads.”

A life’s work

Eagleman says “Livewired” is both the beginning and the end of something. He says it “represents everything I’ve done in my science career over the past 20 years.”

While that phrase suggests a culmination of research, he insists it’s really the doorway to what comes next, which is why he finds himself in Silicon Valley. “Livewired” is a “Cosmos”-esque take on his life’s work.

While plenty of papers have been written about brain plasticity, he thinks his is the first comprehensive text that offers an overarching account of a field of study he believes warrants the same attention that greeted the Human Genome Project.

“This really is life’s other secret, the other half we need to understand,” he says. “I think this topic, this area is as important as when Darwin published his theory of evolution. It’s a major stepping stone. We get how we end up here genetically. To my mind, brain plasticity is the next step of that. Genetics gets put into the world. Then the organism is shaped by what happens to it. Humans are this incredible plastic species, more so than our neighbors in the animal kingdom. And it’s like Mother Nature’s great trick, and also a bit of a gamble on her part: dropping the brain into the world half baked. Let it figure out what to do there.”

Eagleman encircles that notion — the brain figuring it out — throughout “Livewired.” He shows a grasp for narrative and pacing that mirrors his immersion into neuroscience. So the science is presented with anecdotal stories that are at times remarkable, like that of Matt Stutzmann, who was born with no arms. As he grew older, Stultzmann determined the absence of arms to be an obstacle but not a prohibitive condition to becoming a masterful archer.

“Livewired” is populated by people and stories that speak to Eagleman’s assertion that old beliefs about a compartmental brain — with different regions solely responsible for different tasks — is outdated. That the brain is instead “a dynamic system,” capable of remarkable change and adaptation. He outlines his concept of livewiring into seven principles, all of which speak to adaptation by the brain to the world around it.

Through this study, Eagleman has gotten closer to answers he couldn’t find in his philosophy classes in the early ‘90s. Which explains why Heidegger, rather than a scientist, gets the first word in a book that seeks to explain who we are.

As Eagleman writes, “There is no you without the external. Your beliefs and dogmas and aspirations are shaped by it, inside and out, like a sculpture from a block of marble. Thanks to livewiring, each of us is the world.”

This article was first published in Houston Preview


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