David Eagleman Gets In Your Head
From Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers‘ Conference
Welcome to Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Over the past 25 years, SVWC has become the gold standard of American literary festivals, bringing together contemporary writing’s brightest stars for their view of the world through a literary lens. Every month, Beyond the Page curates and distills the best talks from the past quarter century at the Writers’ Conference, giving you a front row seat on the kind of knowledge, inspiration, laughter, and meaning that Sun Valley is known for.
On today’s episode, John Burnham Schwartz speaks with David Eagleman, who not only teaches neuroscience at Stanford University, but is also CEO and co-founder of New Century, a company that develops devices for sensory substitution. Eagleman is the author most recently of Live Wired: The Inside Story of the Ever Changing Brain, as well as The Brain, The Story of You, and many other books. He’s the host of the new Netflix documentary, The Creative Brain. And not only all that, but his short story collection, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, inspired producer Brian Eno to write 12 new pieces of music, which they performed together at the Sydney Opera House.
In the conversation, we explore how Eagleman is a spirited and enlightening guide to so many important biological and moral issues underpinning our lives and behaviors from QAnon and cults to the wiring of Trump’s brain, to the relationship between identity, personality, biology, empathy, legal culpability and much, much more.
From the interview:
David Eagleman: Brains are tremendously fluid. And every moment of your life, your brain is actually reconfiguring itself. You’ve got 86 billion neurons. These are the specialized cell types in the brain and your whole life, they’re changing their connections. They’re unplugging. It’s like a huge forest going on in there that’s alive, and somehow the textbook picture just doesn’t capture that adequately. So for years, I’ve really wanted to write a book about brain plasticity. That’s the term we use in the field: plasticity. But I actually think that term is a little underwhelming because the original reason for that term was because the material that we call plastic is something that you can mold into shape and it’ll hold that shape. That’s what’s special about plastic. And so William James, the great psychologist, thought, oh, maybe, you know, brains are kind of like that. You learn that my name is David Eagleman, and there’s a change in your brain that holds. But I think plastic is a totally underwhelming term now that we know so much about what these 86 billion neurons are actually doing and how they’re living.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and the New York Times bestselling author of Sum and Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. The writer and host of the Emmy-nominated PBS television series The Brain, he is an adjunct professor at Stanford University, a Guggenheim fellow, and the director of the Center for Science and Law. He has also written for publications such as Discover Magazine, and he appears regularly on National Public Radio and the BBC.