Life in lockdown at home 24/7 during the pandemic may have made it more difficult for most people to think long term or keep track of time, but this challenging new reality actually can be good for one's brain, according to brain expert David Eagleman who teaches at Stanford University.
"Our brains typically make a model of the world so they can operate efficiently in it," Eagleman said. "The Covid pandemic has knocked us all off our paths of least resistance, such that our brains are forced to rethink everything. ... But the tiny silver lining is that getting knocked off your path of least resistance is the best thing that can happen to the brain in terms of plasticity."
In his recently released book, "Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-changing Brain," the Menlo Park author and neuroscientist explores the myriad ways in which the 3-pound organ inside our skulls alters itself in reaction to the outside world.
He asks tough questions — "Why is the world's best archer armless?" "How can a blind person learn to see with her tongue or a deaf person learn to hear with his skin?" "Why do we dream each night, and what does that have to do with the rotation of the planet?" — and provides provocative answers through anecdotes and cogent explanations of biological processes. Among many other wonders, the book features a boy with half a brain, a dog that has learned to walk on two legs and a girl raised with virtually no sensory stimulation.
During a telephone interview, Eagleman talked about the brain's ability to respond to external events, incessantly reconfiguring its circuitry as needed.
"Memory, in a sense, is the prototypical example of brain plasticity," Eagleman said. "When you learn a new fact, there's a physical change in the structure of your brain."
Babies, for example, arrive in the world knowing automatically how to do some things, but they quickly start sucking up as much information as they can — exploring their bodies, reacting to sounds, making noises, he explained.
"Our machinery isn't fully pre-programmed but instead shapes itself by interacting with the world," Eagleman said. "As we grow, we constantly rewrite our brain's circuitry to best tackle challenges, leverage opportunities and understand the social structures around us."
Even when the brain is injured, its resilience is phenomenal. Eagleman opens "Livewired" with the case of Matthew Simpson, who had half his brain removed as a treatment for epilepsy. Thanks to plasticity, Matthew's brain was able to rewire itself, leaving him with only a minor limp and some difficulty moving his right arm.
Eagleman was raised in New Mexico and went on to college at Rice University in Houston, Texas. A literature major who became interested in neuroscience thanks to a class in his final semester, he earned a doctorate in neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, pursued a post-doctorate degree at the Salk Institute and later returned as a faculty member at Baylor, where he directed a neuroscience research lab.
He wrote and hosted the 2015 PBS television series "The Brain" and is the author of eight books, including the best-selling "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" and "Sum," a collection of short stories about God and the afterlife.
"About 10 years ago, I began to seriously research sensory substitution, which is the issue of 'Can you get information to the brain via an unusual channel (such as the skin) and can the brain just figure that data out?'" Eagleman said.
With sensory substitution, one sense is traded for another, so that people with hearing loss can "hear" through their tongue or "feel" through their ears, he explained.
After Eagleman gave a TED Talk about the research being done in his Baylor lab five years ago, he attracted the attention of venture capitalists interested in helping him bring his work to the public. He moved to Menlo Park, took a teaching position at Stanford and co-founded Neosensory, a company that pioneered a wristband that sends vibrations to the skin that can be processed as sound by the brain.
"It was a sharp turn for me as an academic to think about going into business," Eagleman said. "I realized it offered a real opportunity to touch the lives of millions of people instead of writing more academic papers about it."
Eagleman has has advised for HBO's science-fiction series "Westworld," and his book offers glimpses of a strange new future that may be only decades away.
Asked why communicating with general readers is important, Eagleman replied, "Obviously, I've devoted my life to science, but I think it's the most interesting thing to talk about. Not only that but science is what drives our world. It's important to get the facts right so that, as a community, we can make our plans for the next era of legislation predicated on the best information we have.
"That's really the goal of 'Livewired,'" Eagleman said. "To take tens of thousands of scattered papers in the literature and build a framework about how I believe this all fits together. My hope is I've done my job right, and this book will be a landmark in this very young science of the brain."
Contributing writer Michael Berry can be emailed at [email protected].
Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the newly released book "Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-changing Brain," will talk about the brain's ability to constantly adapt to change and how it absorbs new experiences during a virtual event hosted by Kepler's Literary Foundation on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 6-7 p.m. For more information, go to keplers.org.