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
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.