The Brain Man of Baylor

David Eagleman, Neuroscientist

By Lonna Dawson September 29, 2015 Published in the October 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Neuroscientist David Eagleman discusses parenting, the prison system and his new PBS show.

Image: Todd Spoth

David Eagleman’s 3-year-old son is desperately trying to reach the light switch in the Eaglemans’ family room, straining on his tippy-toes and gripping the doorframe. Click—one light goes off. It’s not enough. He still can’t show us how his dinosaur puzzle glows in the dark. He jumps. Click—a second light. Still, the triceratops refuses to glow. Propelled by instinct, Eagleman moves to help, then quickly backs down. 

“I feel like I should—well, no. Actually, struggle is important,” he says. Seconds later, he leaps up and helps his son turn out the lights. 

“The responsibility is so overwhelming to shape a brain,” he tells me on another day. We are at a café at Baylor College of Medicine, where Eagleman directs both the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the recently rechristened Center for Science and Law. First thought: this is just how a neuroscientist would talk about parenting. Second thought: when does he ever not think about the brain?

He’s certainly had a great deal of success with making the complex seem simple. Thanks to his books Incognito, a highly readable meditation on the power of the non-conscious brain, and Sum, a book of short stories imagining what the afterlife might be like, Eagleman has become both a best-selling author and something of a celebrity scientist. His Q score will likely only improve after The Brain with David Eagleman premieres this month on PBS. Three years in the making, it’s a six-part look “under the hood,” as the neuroscientist likes to say, not some arcane take on the amygdala and medulla oblongata.

“That would never work for a show. That wouldn’t even be interesting,” Eagleman says.

Rather, he has other complexities in mind, such as how we answer the so-called big questions that only our brains have answers to, questions like who am I? and how should I decide? and do I need you? Indeed, the very first episode of The Brain begins with no less a big question than what is reality

Eagleman’s own reality is dedicated to the brain these days, although that hasn’t always been the case. By the time the New Mexico native was in tenth grade, he’d already concluded that the subject of biology was “gross” and “boring,” and when he went to Rice for college, he doubled-majored in space physics and literature. After taking some time off following his sophomore year in hopes of pursuing a screenwriting career in Los Angeles, he returned to Rice and dropped science altogether, graduating with a degree in literature. 

During his last semester, however, Eagleman read a magazine article that sparked his interest in the brain and neuroscience. Soon, he found himself reading “everything I could get my hands on,” contemplating an advanced degree in the subject and facing an obvious problem: how to get into a graduate program in neuroscience at Baylor with an English degree. “I don’t have any biology on my transcript so that probably is going to be a big strike against me,” Eagleman recalls telling the admissions panel. “I’ve read all these books. Ask me what I know and I’ll tell you.” 

What he knows now is that neuroscience is a field with vast applications. He’s no fan of sports, rarely even watching the Super Bowl. But only a neuroscientist could have created BrainCheck, a video-game-like app that assesses concussions on the football field. “It’s a very sensitive way to measure exactly what’s going on under the hood. I can just in five minutes figure out everything I need to about what’s happening in a system that we can’t see otherwise.”

As head of Baylor’s Center for Science and Law, Eagleman advocates using science to inform our attitudes toward crime and punishment. If it’s the case, for instance, that 65 percent of the American prison population meets the medical criteria for substance abuse (as an independent study concluded), then maybe prison isn’t the right place for them. 

What science tells us, Eagleman says, is that “it doesn’t work to stick someone who’s addicted into jail and hope that’s going to solve their problem.” Indeed, such a strategy is doomed. “A more scientifically informed one would be, ‘What do we know about the brain and drug addiction and what are the techniques available coming out of neuroscience to help address those?’” 

Oh, and Eagleman has a quite simple description of the so-called war on drugs: “completely goofy social policy.”

Football, drug addiction, identity, love, reality—it all comes back to the brain, all of it, so many avenues in need of investigation, it almost makes your brain hurt. But not Eagleman’s. He seems to have an uninterrupted exuberance, whether mid-afternoon at his office or mid-evening at home with his family—his neuroscientist wife Sarah, his son, and the family’s latest addition, a 3-month-old girl. Amid all the sleep-deprived nights, the new parents haven’t lost their senses of humor. No, they answer when asked if they’ve ever collaborated professionally, before quickly adding that they have considered jointly writing a book of short stories tentatively titled Peanut Butter and Money Sandwiches. This reduces the couple to hysterics, and it takes several moments for David to compose himself and explain what those are. “What really rich people eat,” he finally informs us. 

They joke too about parenting their daughter, especially now that they’ve parented a son. “The first time it’s just solid panic,” admits Sarah, her legs crossed on the living room floor. “Now we know we can keep it alive for three-and-a-half years.”

And while neuroscience has almost infinite applicability, it can’t do the impossible, like make you a perfect parent. The Eaglemans seem to accept this. For his part, David credits his recent work in plasticity—the myriad ways our brains grow and change in response to stimuli—for liberating him from that particular obsession. 

Shaping the childhood brain is “way too complicated for me to deal with,” he admits, and it comes as something of a comfort to hear him fall back on the same mantra as parents the world over. “My job is to be the best parent I can be.” 

Though not the only one, as I learn a few minutes later.

“We’ve got these limited lifetimes and it’s our job to try to have some sort of real freedom there or do something a little bigger than just play our roles.”  

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