writ­ers

World-renowned neu­ro­sci­en­tist and best­selling au­thor David Ea­gle­man has pub­lished a lot of books on the brain. But a lit­tle work of fic­tion he wrote al­most a decade ago in­flu­enced read­ers’ minds in a way sci­en­tific texts never could. Ahead of his ap­pearan

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Ev­ery­one goes to Heaven, ac­cord­ing to David Ea­gle­man. God had orig­i­nally planned to seg­re­gate de­parted souls ac­cord­ing to merit, but the busi­ness of cat­e­goris­ing them as “good” or “evil” proved trick­ier than an­tic­i­pated. She briefly con­sid­ered let­ting them lan­guish in pur­ga­tory. Ul­ti­mately, She let ev­ery­one through the pearly gates.

In Heaven, the Amer­i­can neu­ro­sci­en­tist writes, ev­ery­one is treated the same: “There is no fire for some and harp mu­sic for oth­ers.” But this mandatory equal­ity – unrealised on Earth – is no utopia. The Com­mu­nists are cross be­cause their ideal so­ci­ety has been made pos­si­ble only by a God in which they refuse to be­lieve. The mer­i­to­crats are mad be­cause they’re trapped in an “in­cen­tive­less sys­tem with a bunch of pinkos”. With­out the poor, con­ser­va­tives have no one to put down and lib­er­als have no-one to lift up. In fact, Ea­gle­man writes, the only thing ev­ery­one in Heaven can agree upon is that re­ally, they’re all in Hell.

This para­phrased al­le­gory is one of 40 that ap­pear in Ea­gle­man’s in­ter­na­tional best­seller Sum: Forty Tales from the After­lives, a genre-de­fy­ing title stuffed with thought ex­per­i­ments about life af­ter death. Pub­lished in 2009, the book was the sec­ond best-sell­ing book on UK Ama­zon that year. It has been trans­lated into at least 32 lan­guages. Even now, Ea­gle­man calls Sum “one of the most im­por­tant things in my life”.

Speak­ing by phone from his base in Sil­i­con Val­ley, Ea­gle­man – who is not re­li­gious – re­calls his pleas­ant sur­prise at re­ac­tions to the book from across the spir­i­tual spec­trum: ev­ery­one wanted to claim it as their own.

“There’s so much in there that I as­sumed would be deemed sac­ri­le­gious, but some re­li­gious groups just thought it was re­ally cool,” he says.

“They said it helped them to wres­tle with their no­tion of what God could be.”

The 46-year-old, a lec­turer at Stan­ford Univer­sity and a Guggen­heim Fel­low, says it has been a while since he was last asked about Sum. In the past decade, Ea­gle­man’s gone on to write or co-write other crit­i­cally ac­claimed books, in­clud­ing New York Times best­seller Incog­nito: The Se­cret Lives of the Brain; Wed­nes­day is Indigo Blue: Dis­cov­er­ing the Brain of Synes­the­sia; a text­book called Brain and Be­hav­ior: A Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Per­spec­tive; a man­u­script called Why the Net Mat­ters which was pub­lished as an app, and The Brain: The Story of You, a com­pan­ion to the TV doc­u­men­tary series Ea­gle­man wrote and pre­sented for PBS. Lauded for his work on sen­sory sub­sti­tu­tion, time per­cep­tion, brain plas­tic­ity, synes­the­sia, and neu­ro­law, he has also writ­ten more than 120 peer-re­viewed jour­nal ar­ti­cles, pub­lished in the likes of Na­ture and Science.

But when asked whether he sees Sum as an in­con­gru­ous blip on his bib­li­og­ra­phy, a care­fully crafted con­fec­tion of fic­tion among sci­en­tific prose com­pre­hen­si­ble to a learned few, Ea­gle­man says he’s never thought of it that way.

The man who has been called a “su­per-sci­en­tist” and, oc­ca­sion­ally, a “ge­nius” was 16 years into his sci­en­tific ca­reer when be­gan writ­ing Sum, a seven-year in­tel­lec­tual odyssey ex­plor­ing what he calls life’s “What Ifs”. He’d been a writer since child­hood, ma­jor­ing in Bri­tish and Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture for his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree. It was only in his fi­nal se­mes­ter that he be­came “hooked” on neu­ro­science and went on to com­plete a PhD in the field.

“There’s this ten­dency in science to pre­tend among our­selves and to our­selves that we kinda have all the an­swers, and any­thing we don’t have the an­swer for – it’s just around the next cor­ner,” he says.

“What I learned in science was so much fas­ci­nat­ing stuff, but also the vast­ness of our ig­no­rance.”

He says fic­tion has the power to grap­ple with ex­is­ten­tial is­sues – “who we are and what the heck we’re do­ing here” – in a way non-fic­tion never could.

“I feel like, for my­self, Sum was per­fectly in line with the types of ques­tions I like to ask.”

In Ea­gle­man’s lat­est book, The Run­away Species: How Hu­man Creativ­ity Re­makes the World, he makes the point that the abil­ity to ask ques­tions – to be cu­ri­ous about the “What If” ver­sions of the world – is what sets us apart from other liv­ing crea­tures. He stresses this creativ­ity isn’t the pre­serve of a gifted elite, rather, calls it the “ba­sic op­er­at­ing soft­ware” of the brain. “Whether we’re think­ing about what we’re go­ing to cook or what’s in the re­frig­er­a­tor, or when we think about a new piece of mu­sic or what we’re go­ing to say next, or how to write a card for our mother’s birth­day – what­ever it is we’re do­ing, there’s mas­sive creativ­ity hap­pen­ing there.”

Fos­ter­ing this creativ­ity and cu­rios­ity, Ea­gle­man ar­gues, is more im­por­tant than rote learn­ing facts which could be easily looked up at the touch of a but­ton. And yet, cur­rent ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems largely sti­fle those im­pulses.

“Teach­ers typ­i­cally pre­fer the well­be­haved stu­dent to the cre­ative one, who is of­ten per­ceived as rock­ing the boat,” the fa­ther of two writes in Run­away Species.

“The same cog­ni­tive soft­ware run­ning in the minds of Nasa en­gi­neers and Pi­casso runs in the minds of our young, but it needs to be cul­ti­vated.”

One of the book’s up­shots is that robots may not take our jobs af­ter all – at least not those which are “by hu­mans, for hu­mans”. Jour­nal­ism, for in­stance, is likely safe from ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence “for the fore­see­able hun­dreds of years”.

“You have to ac­tu­ally be a hu­man to know what is in­ter­est­ing to other hu­mans,” Ea­gle­man says. “By way of ex­am­ple, you’ll take all the thou­sands of words that I’ve said dur­ing this in­ter­view, and you’ll nar­row it down to sev­eral hun­dred words that are not shitty…

“That’s the kind of thing a robot wouldn’t know how to do: de­cide which things are mean­ing­ful.” David Ea­gle­man ap­pears at three events at this year’s Auck­land Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, May 15-20. See writ­ers­fes­ti­val.co.nz for de­tails.

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