Mind Games

Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist David Eagleman has written a short-story collection, designed an iPad app, performed with Brian Eno, inspired an opera, won a Guggenheim, and jumped off a 150-foot ledge just to see how the brain perceives time while falling. But can he change the face of law and order?
Mind Games
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Baylor Neuro-Doc Exonerates Notorious Psycho Killer! Says Whitman Not Himself

As most of you no doubt know, on the morning of August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman dragged a footlocker full of firearms to the top of the University of Texas Tower and began firing on the town below. Over the next hour and a half he killed thirteen people and wounded thirty others, before being killed himself by a police officer.

Those are the facts. Now let’s play You, the Jury.

Had Whitman lived and gone to trial, what would it have taken to mitigate his responsibility for such a crime? An abusive father? Not enough, though he had that. There are many abusive fathers who don’t produce homicidal sons. Suppose you learned, as is in fact the case, that before the attacks Whitman had become convinced that there was something wrong with his head, and that he’d gone to see several doctors. They’d found nothing amiss and sent him on his way. But the coroner who performed his autopsy discovered a tumor that had damaged several regions of his brain, including a collection of neurons called the amygdala, which is now believed to play a central role in memory and emotional response and which, when damaged, can lead to a host of socially unacceptable behaviors, including hypersexuality, fearlessness, and paranoia. Now what?

Many of you will point out that brain tumors are like abusive fathers: Plenty of people have them without turning into killers. Others will say Whitman was no more responsible for his actions than an undiagnosed epileptic who had a seizure and crashed his car into a school bus. Most of us, I suspect, will fall somewhere in the middle. So let’s shift into the realm of thought experiment: Suppose Whitman had survived the incident and that the tumor was discovered and removed, leaving a perfectly gentle and self-possessed young man, horrified by his actions. Now who’s on trial? A good man turned bad through no fault of his own or a bad man turned good through modern surgery? Is he even the same man, before and after his operation? It’s time for your verdict: Innocent? Or guilty? And if so, of what?

Welcome to the brave new world of neuro-law. And while I’m at it, allow me to introduce you to David Eagleman, the founder and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston; the director of Baylor’s Laboratory for Perception and Action; the author of dozens of academic papers and one university press book on synesthesia (the sensory phenomenon whereby people see the number 5 as blue or smell toast when they hear a G chord); and a newly minted Guggenheim Fellow. This month he publishes his first book on the kinds of questions raised by the Whitman case, a rompish, ragged volume called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

For all that, Eagleman’s fame is greater outside the laboratory, away from the worlds of science and academia. In 2009 he published a collection of short stories called Sum, a series of speculative accounts of what happens to us after we die. The book got some attention here in the U.S. and a great deal of attention in Britain: Brian Eno, the rock musician and producer, wrote music to accompany Eagleman’s live readings, and London’s Royal Opera House recently commissioned the German composer Max Richter to write an opus based on Eagleman’s fictions.

In addition to his literary career, Eagleman flies around the country giving talks on a new movement he invented called “possibilianism” (a kind of anything-goes agnosticism). He’s written columns for the New York Times and Slate; been interviewed on the BBC, NPR, the Discovery Channel, ABC News, Univision, and PBS; and been profiled by Nova and, this past April, the New Yorker. He’s also produced an interactive iPad manifesto, half book and half app, the gist of which is summed up by its title: Why the Net Matters: How the Internet Will Save Civilization—more a feat of design than of original thought but nonetheless a nifty thing, with its rotatable images of a Black Death bacterium, its stunning graphics, and its embedded videos. Right now he and a colleague are developing an iPhone app intended to help blind people use the phone’s camera to negotiate the world.

Scott Basinger, an associate dean at Baylor, refers to Eagleman as “a rock star in so many ways.” Presumably, those ways don’t include trashing hotel rooms and snorting coke off strippers’ bellies, but Eagleman does hang out with actual rock stars. He held a public conversation on dreams with the punk pioneer Henry Rollins, and the singers Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker served as readers on the audiobook of Sum. Spurred by an anecdote that Eno once told him, Eagleman flew to England last fall with a pair of laptops and a portable EEG, which he used to run a battery of tests on sixteen professional drummers. The result, he admits, is not surprising: Yes, drummers tend to have a better sense of timing than the rest of us. Still, it was a kick to prove it.

Eagleman says he’s looking to do for neuroscience what Carl Sagan did for astrophysics, and he’s already on his way. But the brain is murkier and more complicated than even the farthest reaches of space, and Eagleman has some hurdles to overcome along the way, not least of which is the tendency of scientists and university PR departments to overstate their claims—and the eagerness of journalists to abet them in doing so. Which, by the way, accounts for the fake newspaper headline above, which I meant as a joke. Of sorts. Maybe. But more on that in a moment.

Immortality for Everyone! One Man Has a Head Start

Eagleman is forty, but upon meeting him the first word that comes to mind is “boyish.” If there’s a path to eternal youth, he seems to have found it. Not

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