|2009 Distinguished Alumni- David Eagleman '89|
David Eagleman graduated from Albuquerque Academy in 1989, majored in British and American literature at Rice University, and obtained his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine. For his graduate thesis work he proposed a new theory of how information can be transmitted in the brain, and that theory has since been corroborated by experiments in other labs. David did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, where he worked with, among other people, Nobel laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
Currently David is on the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine where he runs a neuroscience research lab. His research has been featured in many venues, including the Discovery Channel, BBC News, ABC Primetime, and Discover magazine. His works of non-fiction include Dethronement: The Secret Life of the Unconscious Brain (Pantheon Books); Ten Unsolved Mysteries of the Brain (Discover Magazine); and Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (MIT Press), co-authored with Richard Cytowic. David's book of literary fiction, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, debuted in February 2009.
Tell us something about your work at Baylor where you direct the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law.
My job, at least on its good days, is to try to figure out how the brain works. Not necessarily what goes wrong with the brain, but how the whole thing operates in the first place, under normal conditions. In other words, how do you put together hundreds of billions of cells and get something interesting out of that—like vision, memory, intelligence, the perception of time, the taste of feta cheese, the redness of red, consciousness, and so on. My research lab has 16 students in it, and we try to decipher the brain's secrets from all angles, leveraging the full armamentarium of modern neuroscience. We use tools from genetics to neuroimaging and everything in between.
In the Laboratory for Perception and Action we study how the brain perceives the world and interacts with it. In the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, we try to understand how our current knowledge of neuroscience will affect the way we think about criminal behavior and criminal punishment. A biological explanation of behavior will not exculpate criminals; instead, it will introduce opportunities for rational sentencing and customized rehabilitation. Right now we treat jail as a one-size-fits-all solution, and our jails have become the nation’s de facto mental health care system. As we gain a better understanding of the neural bases underlying behavior, we have a real opportunity to improve the system.
Has your work in neurosciences and the law had any impact so far on how we make laws and punish criminals, or led to any new methods of rehabilitation?
I was recently invited by the government of New Zealand to speak to their Ministry of Justice. Since New Zealand is a small, nimble country, there is a greater chance that they can put real changes into place. I think the most immediate changes will occur in this country only if and when I can successfully develop new methods for neurally-based rehabilitation. Then we can go to the legal system with innovative options and new realities that will have to be included in its deliberations.
Your work is a long ways from where you started—as a literature major first at Rice and then Oxford University. How did that change come about?
My parents, who are both scientists, are also lovers of literature. We had extensive bookshelves in my house and I grew up drawing from those from as young an age as I can remember; then my English teachers at the Academy fueled my passion. By the time I left for college I knew that I would devote myself to literature and science in equal measure. In my senior year at Rice, however, I realized that I was always going to the Rice library to check out books about the brain. I found the topic amazing. So at the end of my senior year I applied to Baylor College of Medicine for neuroscience, and to UCLA for film school. I figured I would see which way the winds of fate blew me. Here I am. And the area is so amazing that I've never looked back.
Speaking of your early years, tell us about your experience at Albuquerque Academy and what you remember most about your years here.
Troublemaking. Besides that I seem to recall being involved in Speech and Debate and on the track team. I took a good deal of math and enjoyed that, but far and away my favorite subject was English. As it turns out, biology was my least favorite subject. Hated it.
Who was your favorite Academy teacher?
I could no sooner pick a favorite star from the sky. But the ones who had the most influence would be my literature teachers Frannie Robertson, John Gray, and Sean Murphy; Mickey Prokopiak, with whom I have kept in touch for 20 years; the inimitable and high energy Smitty, who could always see the larger potential in his students; and Ken Hause, who reminded us that the world is bigger and weirder and more open than was typically conceived of in our philosophies.
What are some of your best Academy memories?
Lying on the grass during a warm day. Leaning back on the hoods of our cars talking about the important things in life. Dion's pizza. Filling Mr. Kuh's office with crumpled newspapers from floor to ceiling. Banging away at our improvised instruments during senior drum circle. Meditating in Bear Canyon. Watching the talent of our class blossom. And all the things we did at that age because we didn’t have fully developed prefrontal lobes. Truck surfing and that sort of thing. Most of those I can't talk about here.
Do you stay in touch with any of your Academy friends?
Mark Bieniarz and Alex Ritchie remain, to this day, two of my best friends. The three of us road tripped all around the United States throughout college and grad school. Mark and I used to sit on the hood of his Chevy and talk about how we might end up in the same city someday. And, by some luck and coincidence, we both landed in Houston. Twice. First, we both ended up going to Baylor College of Medicine for grad school, he for his M.D. and me for my Ph.D. We then went off in different directions again but both ended up as faculty at Baylor years later—he in cardiology and me in neuroscience. Our lives have continued to run in parallel: we both got into buying real estate at the same time and, by coincidence, we also got puppies and new girlfriends at the same time. Alex is a lawyer in Denver and I always stay with him when I'm there. He is the father of a great family now, and we still spend our time talking about all the same stuff we did when we were younger. And when he busts out his Wii, you could be watching two 18-year-olds competing. He remains a terrific friend.
How did your Academy education prepare you for your career, and, on a related note, what advice would you offer today's students as they prepare for the future?
The Academy prepared us to question broadly and courageously. I think all my classmates would agree that when we arrived at college we realized how well prepared we were and what a great education we’d obtained. I only wish I could do as wonderful a job with my students as our Academy teachers did for us. I recently visited campus and was struck by how enormously talented the students are—not just because of their innate aptitude, but because of the cultivation the Academy provides. I feel proud to be part of that heritage.
As far as advice . . . Don't chase the money. Money will always follow later if you do what you're passionate about. Always ask yourself what is important. And allocate your time carefully so you don't spill it away.
What do you see as the most important skills young people need to be successful leaders in today's world?
The ability to imagine the next "next big thing", fostering art, computer programming, listening to the signals from your body, apologizing often, cultivating optimism, encouraging the young.
You've done so much, and lived in many places, in the 20 years since you graduated from the Academy. Is there one thing or place that stands out in your mind as your favorite?
I've enjoyed many projects in my science career. Two stand out. The first is when the European Union hired me as a consultant to help them figure out how to design the new Euro bills. They spend a lot of money to include sophisticated security features in the bills, but there is still a great deal of counterfeiting because the citizens don't notice these security features. So even bad counterfeiters can get away with it. The European Union hired a neuroscientist (me) to figure out what kinds of visual elements people do and do not notice.
The second project is one in which I wanted to figure out how people experience time during life-or-death situations. People often report that time seems to go into slow motion during something like a car accident, and I was at a point in my research when I needed to know if that was true. So over the course of many months I managed to get approval for an experiment in which I dropped volunteer subjects from a 150-foot tower, backwards, in free fall. They were caught by a net below, going 70 miles per hour. I built a wristwatch-like device that measured their time perception on the way down. It was a safe but terrifying experiment. It moved the science forward, and, for what it's worth (very little), was covered by most major media.
As for where I've most enjoyed living, I nowadays live on airplanes and have largely forgotten terrestrial life.
Wasn't that second project somehow related to an early childhood experience?
When I was a child I fell from the roof of a house under construction, and it felt as though the fall happened in slow motion. When my research led me to studying how the brain constructs time perception, I circled back around to this childhood experience. I started paying careful attention to reports from people who were in car accidents—many of whom described the event as moving in slow motion. That's when I engineered the experiment I described in which I dropped volunteers from a 150 foot tower, backwards, in free fall, and measured their perception of time on the way down. It's enormously scary. I know, because I did it myself several times. As it turns out, people are not able to see like Neo in the Matrix during the fall, but they believe, retrospectively, that the event took a longer time. What we discovered is that the impression of slow motion involves how memories are laid down during a frightening event. In any case, it was fantastic to draw on a personal, formative experience to navigate my research as an adult.
Another fascinating project of yours was The Synesthesia Battery—a free online test you developed to see if one is synesthetic. Can you share a little bit about how your research led to the development of this online battery?
Previous literature on synesthesia consisted of a single subject. But I realized that people with synesthesia are fascinated by their own condition, and that they surf around online looking for information. So I figured that instead of testing them one at a time in my lab, I could develop an online series of tests. As it turns out, that simple move managed to revolutionize the study of the phenomenon. Instead of a handful of subjects, we now have rich data on over 6,000 synesthetes from all around the world, all rigorously tested. I've now launched the test battery in Spanish, Italian, and German, and well as in the more interesting alphabets of Chinese, Russian, and Hebrew. As a result of this much larger-scale understanding, I've recently published a popular science book called Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (MIT Press).
Speaking of writing, you're also a fiction writer. Your recent book Sum: Forty Tales of Afterlives has received quite a bit of attention and led to another fascinating project. How did you come to write that book and are you currently working on anything else?
I worked on Sum for seven years. Even after I went into science, I always pursued the dream of writing. As it turns out, science and art are kissing cousins. In both fields you spend your time cooking up new and concise ways of understanding the reality around you. In science, this often proceeds by thinking of new, crazy possibilities. Sometimes they're right, and that moves the field forward. More often they're wrong, and you abandon them when you realize that. But there are interesting ideas which we have no way to assess, no way to gather evidence for or against. And in those cases you simply hold them in a different mental space, the space of "maybe" or "wouldn't that be cool if." In science, that's where the idea ends. But when I go home at night, I find fiction-writing a good vehicle for reaching into the maybe bucket and exploring the ideas, drawing them out to their logical conclusions and their surprise endings.
In any case, I worked on Sum for seven years, and then tried to get it published for two more years. A lot of agents liked it, but said they had no idea how to market it; it didn't fit into any category. I've been humbled and gratified to see that this quality has not prevented the book from finding its audience. In its first week it reached the top 40 list on Amazon, and no one was more surprised than me. Then lots of things began to happen. The musician Brian Eno read the book and decided he wanted to write music for it, so he and I just returned from performing the book at the Sydney Opera House. It's getting translated into 16 languages. It's been a wild ride; lots of fun. Recently, people have begun to ask me whether I'm going to give up science in favor of writing full time. The answer is no, because they feed each other.
I recently remembered that back at the Academy I did an extra credit project in which I took a set of equations and turned them into music. This was on a Commodore 64 computer, back in the day. I got really positive encouragement for the project, and that sort of thing probably encouraged me to explore the nexus between science and art. Thanks, Academy!
One last question: With everything on your plate, do you have time for any hobbies or outside interests?
Home repair. For a while I got obsessed with buying and fixing up houses, I think because it's the only project in my life for which I get instant gratification. Most of my science papers are years in the making. Sum developed over the course of nine years. When you fix a toilet or a hole in the sheetrock, you’ve got something to be jazzed about in less than an hour!