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?

June 2011By Comments

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 because he’s noticeably well preserved or, for that matter, immature. It’s simply that he’s got a puppylike energy. He doesn’t enter a room, he bounds in; he speaks rapidly and with great enthusiasm, often while simultaneously texting on his iPhone at great speed or calling up a Power­Point presentation on his computer. When I met up with him in Houston earlier this spring, he’d been married for less than six months and was still getting used to the ring; it was hard not to be distracted as he toyed with it, spinning it around one finger, slipping it onto another, and then moving it back into place again.

To all appearances, he’s completely guileless, a Candide equipped with a lot of computing power. He uses interjections like “Terrific!” and “Awesome!” a lot, speaks of one experiment that he’s “very jazzed about,” a theory that might be a “game changer,” aspects of his own work that he’s “really proud of.” Even when he swears, which he does often, it comes off as eager rather than fierce. At times he can seem somewhat manic (I mean this figuratively, not as a diagnosis). “If it’s right,” he said with regard to a theory he has about schizophrenia, “it’ll change the world,” a claim that might have sounded grandiose if he hadn’t followed it with “If it’s wrong, I’ll move on to the next experiment.”

He thinks a lot, and he thinks hard, but for a man whose father was a New York psychiatrist (his mother was a high school biology teacher), he’s surprisingly unreflective. When the family moved to New Mexico, his father kept busy by dealing guns, serving in the Army Reserve, and volunteering in the police force mounted patrol. Musing out loud that such a man presumably had a law-and-order mentality, I asked Eagleman how his dad felt about his son’s latest research, which encourages the justice system to focus more on rehabilitation and less on punishing criminals. “You’re right,” he said. “I think he’s closer to the retributivist side of the argument.” Then he stopped, nonplussed, as if I’d made an uncannily accurate conjecture. “How did you guess that? That’s interesting . . .” Which left me, in turn, nonplussed that he thought it was a guess.

His conversation—and we talked for hours, over dinner, in his lab, on the telephone—is at once supercharged and vacillating. At the start, he asserted, with great confidence, things like “We’re really hardwired to be xenophobic.” By the end, he had switched to an equally forceful skepticism—not just about neuroscience but about everything: causality, reality, the very possibility of knowledge.

Perhaps this is the natural ambivalence of a man whose life has been marked by years of hard work interrupted by visitations of unusually good luck. When he was eight, Eagleman accidentally tumbled off the roof of a house in Albuquerque. He wasn’t seriously injured, but he was inspired: He remembered the peculiar way time seemed to slow down as he was falling, and the experience eventually prompted him to want to know how the brain works. But when college came, he went to Rice to study British and American literature—not a major that generally endears one to graduate programs in the hard sciences. Still, he managed to convince Baylor to accept him into its graduate neuroscience program. “I had no biology on my transcript, but I had absorbed a good number of books on the topics and was able to convince them that I knew more than my transcript would suggest,” he said. He received his Ph.D. in 1998, left for a five-year postdoc fellowship at the Salk Institute, in California, and then returned to Houston, to join the faculty of UT’s Health Science Center. A few years later he moved back to Baylor, this time as a professor.

Baylor College of Medicine has been a prominent player in heart medicine since the sixties, when the surgeons Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley rose to prominence; in those days, transplants, angioplasties, and the like were the avant-garde of medical research. Nowadays neuroscience is one of the hottest fields. “It crosses a lot of disciplines—cell biology, genetics, development, psychiatry, physiology—so it’s something that unifies across the college,” says Paul Pfaffinger, the department’s interim chair. With the help of a large grant from the Brown Foundation, the school has been beefing up its facilities; among other things, it’s working with Texas Children’s Hospital to open a fourteen-story research facility dedicated to children’s neurological disorders. Today the department has about forty members, a spanking-new building, and five functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs that essentially produce videos rather than photographs); the machines alone cost about $3 million each. “One of the ways that you get ahead of the curve is by being the first to get in on the new technology,” Pfaffinger says. Eagleman landed in the right place at the right time.

As with science, so with fiction: For years Eagleman tried to get Sum published. No one would take it. Then he found an agent; within two days Pantheon had bought it; then the British publisher Canongate snapped it up and turned it into a best-seller; an advanced copy was slipped to Eno, who loved it and wanted to collaborate; and soon Eagleman was standing onstage at the Sydney Opera House, reading from the book while Eno played ambient music in the background.

Still, he remains almost comically industrious. He’s in the lab all day, and he writes every night until bedtime and all through the weekend; he has no hobbies, and he “never, ever” watches television. His wife is a neuroscientist at UT Houston and, he says, even more of a workaholic than he is. “I searched far and wide for a girl like that,” he told me.

THE SHOW

Designing scientific experiments is an art in itself, albeit one without a name. Ideally, the result is simple, replicable, explanatory, and vivid; even more ideally, it confirms a hypothesis, though disproving one can be just as valuable. Eagleman is unusually good at it, especially the simple and vivid parts. In one of his many experiments involving time perception, he asked subjects to sit at a table and push a button that caused a light to flash: easy. But gradually, and without telling them, Eagleman delayed the flash until it came about one hundred milliseconds after the button was pushed. Then he snapped it back so it was instantaneous again—at which point subjects reported, with some confusion and astonishment, that the light had flashed before they pushed the button. The reason: The brain, with its biomechanical pathways, is a sluggish conductor.

“In the cortex,” Eagleman explained, “electrical signals travel at about one meter per second, which is unbelievably slow. When you knock on a table it seems like you’re feeling and hearing and seeing it at the same time. But your tactile system, your auditory system, and your visual system process information at very different rates. They have to get stitched together, and the whole process takes so long that by the time you realize that the moment now has occurred, it’s already happened a long time ago.” Indeed, tall people realize they’ve stubbed their toe a few milliseconds later than short people do. As the button-pushing experiment shows, the brain adapts to these inconsistencies and can just as easily be tricked if the circumstances suddenly change.

Eagleman invited me to participate in one of his experiments, and of course I agreed: They rolled me into an fMRI (you’ve probably seen one on TV: a giant white tunnel housing enormous magnets that measure blood flow through the brain—a proxy for measuring neural activity, since blood will jump to nourish synapses that have exhausted themselves). I had a button in my left hand and one in my right; for the first fifteen minutes, I pushed either one, as I wished; for the next fifteen minutes, I pushed them immediately after seeing a left- or right-facing arrow on a screen above my head. Unbeknownst to me, the second series of arrows was copying the sequence I had chosen during the first half of the experiment.

Two identical activities, then, but in one case I was deciding and in the other simply following instructions. Were different parts of my brain involved, though the outcome was identical? (I wish I could tell you, but I was one of 120 or so subjects in the study, and the data is still incomplete.)

Eagleman’s most famous experiment is, not surprisingly, his flashiest. It was designed to replicate the sense of expanded time that he experienced when he fell off the roof in Albuquerque (if you’ve ever been in a car crash you’ll know the feeling). He wanted to know whether the hyperacute perception that seemed to occur was real or an illusion. So he took a few subjects to an amusement park that featured the Suspended Catch Air Device, a terrifying free-fall ride, and strapped to their wrists an invention of his own devising, the “perceptual chronometer,” which flashes random numbers on a pair of LED screens so rapidly that we can’t perceive them under normal circumstances. To find out if the numbers could be read during moments of surprise and terror—thereby suggesting that people do indeed experience such events in slow motion—the subjects were dropped 150 feet from the top of the SCAD (Eagleman tried it himself a couple of times, both out of curiosity and to ensure that it was safe) and then asked if they had managed to read the screens.

As it happens, the answer was no, which seemed to indicate that perception doesn’t become more keen during traumatic events; it just seems that way in retrospect. There have since been some significant doubts raised about both the rigor of the setup and the meaning of the results, but there’s no denying it made for a good show: When Eagleman goes on television, that’s usually the experiment he’s asked about.

THE TELL

As befits a book written by the offspring of a volunteer cop and a biologist, Incognito dives headfirst into the field of neuro-law, a field that attempts to synthesize brain science and legal theory. But it may not be received quite as warmly as his previous work; the new territory is both dense with abstract theories and potentially inflammatory. The central questions are easy to ask: What does it mean to say that someone did something consciously and is therefore responsible for his actions, and what effect should our understanding of that have on our legal system? But they’re extraordinarily difficult to answer, and many very smart people have tried.

Incognito is fun to read, full of neat factoids and clever experiments, along with easy-to-follow summaries of some abstruse science and a few genuine insights. Eagleman has two main points to make, one scientific and one legal or ethical. The scientific part is an account of consciousness that uses Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals” cabinet as a metaphor for how the brain works: a kind of untuned chorus of preferences, perceptions, and urges, which surface in behavior only after they’ve fought it out below the threshold of conscious choice. For the most part, he argues, our experience of choosing is little more than a mirage; hence, our belief in a core self that does the choosing is an artifact, even more so when we consider the changes that occur over time. A man who returns from war is, in Eagleman’s account, literally a different person than he was before he left home; so are you and I compared with ourselves as children. “If the eight-year-old you came up to the table and started hanging out with us,” he said to me, “you’d have more in common with me than you’d have with him.”

But surely some identity, some essence, must persist through time, I said.

“No,” Eagleman replied. “I think that’s an illusion.”

Incognito’s second argument stems from the first, albeit tenuously. Our legal system, Eagleman says, presumes that individuals are responsible for their actions, with very few exceptions. This, in turn, is based on the idea that our brains are pretty much alike, that adults who are not suffering from severe mental incapacitation have similar decision-making routines and that any crimes they might commit are therefore based on moral failure. But, Eagleman insists, this is simply not true: Individuals vary widely in their capacities for impulse control or empathy; these things are measurable in the brain and can be caused by any number of factors beyond their conscious control: genes, environment, mental disease. Certain phenomena that we once viewed as culpable—addiction, for example—we now consider at least partially involuntary and therefore less appropriate to judge. It’s reasonable to assume that as brain science becomes more sophisticated, more fine-grained accounts of why people behave the way they do will become available, and so will more effective methods of rehabilitation.

To a certain extent, this is just the centuries-old free will versus determinism debate, rehashed with fancier machines and better data. But Eagleman does his best to steer clear of those weeds. Are our actions based upon freely chosen beliefs and desires, or are we merely fleshy machines with built-in delusions of autonomy? “I don’t know the answer to that,” he says—an understandable response, since neither does anyone else. Instead he proposes that we simply bypass the question and turn our attention away from a “backward-looking legal system”—one that focuses on punishing the culprit—and embrace, instead, a “forward-looking” one, which would train criminals to control themselves better.

And here we face a problem. Let me prepare you for it by saying that it’s almost impossible to dislike David Eagleman: He’s generous with his time, he’s unfailingly good-natured, and he has an infectious capacity to enjoy himself. Above all, he’s enthusiastic. To a fault.

In conversation, in radio interviews, in Incognito, with blithe confidence and genuine wonder, he ventures well beyond his area of expertise. The field of neuro-law is relatively new but surprisingly well populated. There are think tanks, anthologies, classic papers, and classic refutations. Eagleman shows up in no neuro-law bibliography that I encountered. There are stars in the field, authorities, and up-and-comers. I contacted five of them: Though a couple had heard of him, none were familiar with his work in the field. Nor, in many cases, was he familiar with theirs: I found myself forwarding papers to him, describing basic arguments that he should have been describing to me.

These concerns are not, in themselves, damning. Academia is, after all, a hidebound place, rife with turf wars and deeply suspicious of interlopers. But they do suggest that Eagleman’s enthusiasm shades off into folly, his ambition into chest-thumping and hubris. (One example: In his book he writes things like “As director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, I have gone around the world lecturing on these issues”—even though the “Initiative” has no office, no independent funding, and only one member, Eagleman himself.) None of this would matter if he came up with interesting results; the problem is that most of the time he’s simply reinventing the wheel, and much of the time he’s reinventing it as a rhombus, making basic mistakes that would be corrected in an undergraduate philosophy class.

Thus: In a radio interview he once predicted that we’ll see immortality available in our lifetimes, by downloading the contents and connections of our brains into cheap and readily available supercomputers. But this idea, as appealing as it may be, rests on a conceptual error: A little reflection suggests that the computer will not be you in another form but rather something else that’s taken up the thinking patterns you let go when you died. To see why, suppose that such a machine already exists. Imagine, too, that instead of waiting until you die to boot it up, you start it when you are, say, thirty, and in good health. Now which one is you? Both of them? No, there can’t be two yous, not like that. Most people would describe such a situation by saying, “No, I’m me. The computer is just a replica of me.”

But if that’s so, then when you die the computer is still going to be no more than a replica of you. The plausibility of Eagleman’s supposition comes from a certain sleight of hand. It’s a little easier to think of a computer becoming you when you’re not around to lay claim to your own identity. But that’s simply wishful thinking: It’s not as if your “self” suddenly becomes free to make some metaphysical jump over to the computer at the moment of your death. No: Whether you’re dead or alive, you’re you, it’s it, and that’s that.

Or take, again, his claim that different people have very different brains and that it’s therefore unfair to use a one-size-fits-all approach to meting out justice. Even if the first point is true, the second doesn’t follow: It is perfectly possible for people to have dissimilar neural systems but identical obligations. The physical and the moral are, for the most part, different categories. People vary in all sorts of ways, but that doesn’t mean we should treat them differently in the courts. There’s a reason, after all, why Lady Justice wears a blindfold. Eagleman is, admittedly, more interested in the sentencing phase of the legal system—where mitigating factors are often taken into account—than the guilt-finding phase. But in a number of places in Incognito he makes rather extreme claims about biology and culpability. He writes, “It no longer makes sense to ask, ‘To what extent was it biology and to what extent was it him?’ The question no longer makes sense because we now understand those to be the same thing. There is no meaningful distinction between his biology and his decision making.”

Such statements suggest a certain confusion about the relation between physical facts and moral or legal principles. A chihuahua is built differently than a mastiff, but we judge whether they’re good dogs or bad dogs by their bite, not their brains. Stephen J. Morse, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a former co-director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Project, suggested to me that even a man with a brain tumor that, say, flooded his head with unseemly sexual urges might be considered responsible for resisting those urges. Then again, he might not, but a cluster of considerations would have to be taken into account: legal precedence, moral intuition, surrounding behavior. As neuroscience becomes more sophisticated, it will surely become part of that cluster, but it’s unlikely to be the deciding factor.

And in any case, Eagleman’s science simply isn’t there yet, and neither is anyone else’s. There have been aggregate studies of, for example, obesity that track tens of thousands of people over decades, but we still don’t really know what causes it. Eagleman’s experiments rarely involve more than 120 subjects. It’s certainly true that you have to start somewhere, but the data sets are too small to be more than suggestive.

Indeed, he’d be the first to say so—or, at least, the second. “I’m not the type to ever make the claim that we know this, we know that,” he told me. And then he went on to talk about the “huge results” that he’s gotten in his empathy experiments, to insist that our legal system “just doesn’t match up with everything that we know about neuroscience,” and so on. When I called him on the inconsistency, he admitted, “It irritates me when neuroscientists talk to people outside of neuroscience and act like ‘We’ve got this nailed.’ And I sometimes do that as shorthand.” Actually, he does it a lot. Consider, for example, his assertion that selfhood is an illusion. If it were true, then surely I could stop paying my mortgage, since it wasn’t really me who signed it. When I suggested as much, he quickly backtracked: “There is continuity here,” he said. “But people drift, people change.” Well, as the philosopher J. L. Austin once said, with regard to the sorts of extravagant claims philosophers sometimes make, “There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.” But sound bites and radio shows don’t lend themselves to subtlety, and much of Eagleman’s audience is bound to miss the second bit.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” and maybe it is. Or maybe such contradictions are just the result of doing too many things to do all of them well. After dinner one night, Eagleman and I stood outside the restaurant for a while, talking and arguing. Toward the end, he came close to renouncing the entire endeavor—the pursuit of knowledge, faith in progress, the conduct of science. “I would never assert that science will be able to answer everything,” he said. “I don’t know if it will. Maybe it will. Or maybe the toolbox will run out at some point and we’ll be standing on the pier, looking out at the water and saying, ‘Okay, this is where it ends.’” Soon afterward, we said goodnight. I went back to my hotel to sleep, and he went back home to work.

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