David Eagleman (@davideagleman) is a neuroscientist at Stanford, host of Emmy-nominated PBS/BBC series The Brain, author and co-author of several books including The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, and CSO of NeoSensory, a company that specializes in sensory substitution technology.
What We Discuss with David Eagleman:
- The science that encourages lifelong learning as a way to fend off the effects of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
- How the human brain processes senses beyond sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch — and how we might upgrade our senses in the not-too-distant future.
- What flipping a coin can tell us about the subconscious brain.
- How our memories and self-identities are built from the brain’s interpretation of reality — which is quite different from reality itself.
- Will we ever be able to download skills directly into our brains?
- And much more…
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Your brain is a large part of what makes you you. It governs the senses through which you perceive the world, and provides the means for the world to perceive you uniquely. If you damage your hand, it’s inconvenient. If you damage your brain — even a little — the person you are may no longer be the person you were.
Stanford neuroscientist, author, documentary host, and CSO of sensory substitution technology company NeoSensory David Eagleman joins us to shed some light on the neuroprotective benefits of lifelong learning, why seeing (or hearing or touching or smelling or tasting) shouldn’t be believing, and the not-too-distant future of sensory superpowers. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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More About This Show
If you stop to evaluate the room where you find yourself right now, you rely on the senses at your disposal to paint a picture of the overall scene. Provided you possess the traditional five senses, your eyes are viewing these words. Your fingers are probably resting on a keyboard or are wrapped around a smartphone. Your ears may be listening to anything from a favorite Spotify playlist to children playing outside. Perhaps the taste of morning coffee lingers on your tongue while your nose is trying to guess what kind of fish some rude coworker just started warming up in the office microwave.
There’s a lot going on. But is your brain piecing together the details of this information in a way that paints an accurate picture?
“The part that we are consciously aware of is just the very tip of the iceberg,” says David Eagleman. “You’ve got almost a hundred billion neurons in your brain, and they’re all operating their little neuron lives and they’re doing their things with all of their neighbors. Each neuron is connected to about 10,000 others and so it’s…unbelievably complex. It wouldn’t be useful for you to have access to the information at that level…”
What we’re aware of is the brain’s interpretation of the world around us in a way that makes sense on a surface level rather than the overwhelming entirety of minutiae that we’re processing moment to moment on a subconscious level.
In other words, we’re operating on a need-to-know basis, and — compared to the raw percentage of incoming information on which our brains are constantly chewing — we don’t really need to know much to navigate our way around our place in the cosmos.
Senses Working Overtime
Our senses are far from perfect, and the information they gather doesn’t always get processed by the brain in a reliable way. For instance, an eyewitness in court might swear she saw two males of average height accosting a newspaper vendor in broad daylight when maybe it was really just one husky-voiced woman yelling at a couple of guys running a hot dog stand under a bright streetlamp at dusk.
It wouldn’t be perjury because the eyewitness believes her account represents the truth, though the intervening month between then and now has made fiction clearer than fact. The data gathered by the eyes only constitutes about five percent of what’s really going on, and the brain fills in the rest based on what it’s expecting from the environment.
“Really what your eyes are for is just taking care of violations of expectation,” says David.
This holds true for most of our senses — the way we take in external data is minimal compared to the heavy lifting our brains do to process that data. Bu the upside of this is that neuroscientists like David and his team at NeoSensory have been creating technology that allows senses to pick up data traditionally gathered by other senses. This is what allows a blind mountaineer to climb by “seeing” with his tongue, or a deaf person to “hear” music with her skin.
It could also pave the way for the invention of entirely new senses yet undreamed of. Imagine tasting colors, hearing food, or touching brightness.
“It turns out that it doesn’t matter how the information gets to the brain as long as it gets there — you can send it through your tongue or you can send it through your eyeballs,” says David. “These spheres we have that we’re so used to are just photon-capturing devices that then turn photons into little electrical spikes…and they send them back to the brain.”
Lifelong Learning for Cognitive Fitness
The human brain is far more adaptive to changes — from learning new things to rewiring itself after severe damage or surgery — at an early age than later in life. But just because most of us listening to this podcast are past our prime for optimal learning doesn’t mean we should give up on learning new things throughout our lives.
Beyond keeping life interesting, staying mentally engaged has been proven to keep the ravages of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s at bay.
Cultivating an active social life is one of the best ways to maintain this level of cognitive fitness, but David points out that playing an instrument, learning a new language, juggling, or really anything that motivates us enough to get out of bed in the morning can work wonders.
“The key is, once you start getting good at something, you do the next thing that’s hard for you,” says David.
Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about why our brains exhibit more plasticity when we’re younger and what purpose rigidity serves as we age, what studying nuns for 30 years has taught us about cognitive preservation even in the presence of physical neurodegeneration, how anosognosia knocked a justice off the Supreme Court, what VR adoption might do to make lucid dreaming more common to our species, and lots more.
THANKS, DAVID EAGLEMAN!
If you enjoyed this session with David Eagleman, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
- Other Books by David Eagleman
- The Brain with David Eagleman
- David Eagleman’s Website
- Center for Science and Law
- Eagleman Lab
- David Eagleman at Facebook
- David Eagleman at Twitter
- The Blind Climber Who “Sees” With His Tongue by Buddy Levy, Discover
- Scientist at Work: Benjamin S. Carson; For Many, Pediatric Neurosurgeon Is a Folk Hero by Robin Marantz Henig, The New York Times
- Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman
- The Neurologists Who Fought Alzheimer’s By Studying Nuns’ Brains by Natalie Zarrelli, Atlas Obscura
- What Reality Are You Creating for Yourself?, Isaac Lidsky at TEDSummit
- BrainPort V100
- Anosognosia, Psychopathy, and the Conscience by Jack Pemment, Psychology Today
- These Lucid-Dreaming Companies Want to Help You Control Your Dreams by Michael Schulson
- Can You Teach Yourself Synesthesia? by Megan Garber, The Atlantic
- Just Flip a Coin
- Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Transcript for David Eagleman | How Your Brain Makes Sense of the World (Episode 27)
David Eagleman: [00:00:00] Who you are is a combination of your genetics and every experience you've ever had. Neither of which, by the way, you had any choice over, I mean the genes you came with, and all the experiences you had as a child, the formative experiences, you had no choice over that, but that sends you off on a particular trajectory.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:16] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with my producer Jason DeFillippo. On this episode, we're talking with my friend David Eagleman. David is a sharp cat. This guy, man, he has an amazing knowledge of the brain and he has some of the most interesting insights into how our brain works. These are the greatest insights I've read in a long time about the old noggin and it's his way of combining that insight with an exceptional ability to articulate those same insights and make them useful to you and to me is one of the main reasons why I wanted to have him on the show today.
[00:00:47] This stuff fascinates me because our brains are a large part of what makes us us. If we damage our hand, it's inconvenient. If we damage our brain -- even a little -- who we are changes in some ways so it depending on who you ask. Our brains kind of our us in some way and today we're talking about senses. They're not what you think they are. You think you can see with your eyes? Well, think again. It's your brain doing most of the work and the things you think you see, those are mostly illusions constructed by your brain. No, really you won't need eyes and you might not need ears in the future either. In fact, we might nay -- we will one day have technology that is so much better than our regular eyes and ears for what we're trying to do that we'll all have superpowers and David will tell us how this is going to work and how it already works.
[00:01:39] I got to try out the bracelet and the vest that you're going to see in Westworld this month, if you're watching that show. And that allows deaf people to actually hear using touch and we'll discover why not only our senses but our memory and therefore our identity, our concept of ourselves is almost entirely false and constructed by our brain based on, well you'll find out. We'll also explore how a blind mountain climber can see using his tongue and how we can steal ourselves against cognitive decline by learning Chinese or something to that effect. Last but not least, we'll see why flipping a coin is a great way to see which decision your subconscious brain, the computer, which has made all the calculations in the first place actually prefers. And don't forget, we have a worksheet for today's episode so you can make sure you understand everything that David and I are talking about here on the show.
[00:02:25] That link is in the show notes at JordanHarbinger.com/podcast. Now here's David Eagleman. Consciousness. It's kind of like a newspaper. Our conscious brain is like a newspaper. It's just reporting the things that our brain has already done. So explain how this works because I think most of us think, “My brain, the part that's talking to me anyway, that's my, that's all the processing power. I'm so fast at everything because my brain is in real-time explaining to me how this thing works and I'm just getting it right away.”
David Eagleman: [00:02:54] Yeah. I mean, the part that we are consciously aware of is just the very tip of the iceberg. You've got almost a hundred billion neurons in your brain and they're all operating their little neuron lives and they’re doing their things with all of their neighbors. Each neuron is connected by 10,000 others. And so it's this unbelievably complex thing there. And it wouldn't be useful for you to have access to the information at that level because all of that is the level of chemicals and electrical signals and so on. And for you to operate at this enormous scale of walking around with 30 trillion trillion cells and finding mates and you know, apples and rivers and whatever. It's just a completely different space and time scale that you're operating at. So we’re these giant creatures, we’re like the death star, that were moving around and even though, and it's so weird that we're made up of this other little stuff that we have really no access to and no acquaintance with what it's doing.
[00:03:54] But the bottom line is it's doing tremendously complicated things that we're just scratching the surface of in neuroscience. And I don't mean that in an optimistic way like, “Hey, we're scratching the surface.” I mean, it sucks how little we know about what's going on under there. Okay, but yes, as far as your conscious perception goes, you're just this very top thin layer of what's happening and you think, “Oh, I feel happy. I feel sad.” Whether this is a good situation or it's a bad situation. But what you're doing is incorporating tons and tons of data and there's this little thing at the top that tells you, “Oh, go that way or go that way.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:31] So it's kind of like if I'm looking at my phone and I get a push notification or a text message, what I'm seeing is in reading is the text I'm not seeing. Okay. This gets translated into binary and then sent through a processor that turns it into a radio signal that sends it to a tower --that all is just happening in the background. I just think, “I type in my screen and it shows up on your screen and I think I'm so smart. Look what I invented, right? I just sent a text. I'm a genius.”
David Eagleman: [00:04:57] Exactly right. And yeah, that's funny. And it turns out one way to sort of come to understand just a little bit about how much you're doing that you don't even realize you're doing is to look at somebody’s text message in a foreign language. So look at next time you run into a friend from China or Africa or someplace and or the Middle East, and they have a different alphabet and you think, “God, all these arbitrary squiggles on the screen here, how can they possibly make meaning at it?” When you look at your arbitrary squiggles, you don't even think about all the work that your brain is doing to translate those on the screen instead of just, “Oh, hi, yes, I'll meet you for lunch at noon. Great, let's go.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:36] Yeah, that's true. I started learning Chinese a long time ago. Four or five years ago and when people hear me speak it, they're like, “Okay, that just sounds fake”, right? Is that really how you know, you're really speaking Chinese? I can't believe it and I also can't really believe it because at some level, every time I speak Chinese, my brain, one part of my brain goes, “How did you do that? And how was that other person doing that? And also you can speak English”, and it's not that I'm impressed with myself, it's an impressed with my brain. Yeah. Any brain -- To take a symbol that is literally just squiggles and go, “These more complicated squiggles. I have to memorize each one of these. I don't have letters with sounds”, and but my brain has no problem doing it. If I put the work in manually looking at the flashcards and everything, my brain is like, “Hey man, hurry it up here.” This is easy for my brain and hard for the rest of me, right? It's the motivation and the discipline, the time, everything that the brain is like, “Got it. Next.”
David Eagleman: [00:06:32] Yeah, sort of. I mean it's unbelievably hard at our age to make changes to the brain.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:38] Is that true? I’ve heard… Damn it!
David Eagleman: [00:06:40] That is true. It's true. Kids' brains are very plastic. That's the term we use in my next book called Live Wire, which won't come out until 2019 but the idea is, I'm actually suggesting that the word plasticity isn't quite the right word, but nonetheless, it's the word we use as a field, but the idea comes from the material plastic you can mold into shape and it holds onto that shape and that's what people are impressed with the brain, but in fact it's what the brain is doing is even better than that. It's like holding shape and then passing that shape on to other things and then readjusting to new stuff. Like there's this whole passing of the information that's happening, so it's even more impressive than a piece of plastic nonetheless. Nonetheless, we use the term plasticity to me just generally that I can tell you a fact and you can remember that fact a month from now, you'll remember that fact. Why? It's because there are physical changes in the structure of your brain. They're actually ongoing changes. But that's the super impressive thing that brains can do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:34] So neuroplasticity or as I guess plasticity in general, that tends to downgrade as we get older. Because you read all these studies like, “Oh, before you're five, you can learn all these languages”, and then you see another study that's like, “Actually anybody can learn a language”, and then it's like, “Well, not as good as a kid. Well, maybe just as well as a kid.” And now I'm confused.
David Eagleman: [00:07:54] Neuroplasticity definitely declines as you age. In fact, there are lots of operations that are possible for children. For example, if you have something called Rasmussen's encephalitis, which is a--you're getting seizures in one whole hemisphere of your brain, half your brain. The surgery now that they do is removing a whole hemisphere, removing half of your brains, whole hemispherectomy. This was actually pioneered by a great neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, Ben Carson, he ran for president, which is very interesting. But he sort of pioneered the hemispherectomy. The point is…
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:30] Maybe he gave one to himself. Just kidding, Benn. Sorry about that.
David Eagleman: [00:08:37] The point is, it's just completely incredible that you can take it out half the brain, as long as the kid is under six. If the kid is over six. I mean, if we took out half your brain, you'd be dead.
[00:08:45] You wouldn't survive that. But a kid under six, all the functions of the brain sort of just rewire on the available real state. So, yeah, so kids brains are really, truly much more plastic. And of course if you look at the speed that children pick up language and start getting really good and making jokes and doing subtleties and so on, probably unfortunately with Chinese you'll never be that good. You probably won't lose the accent -- the American accent Or Canadian, are you?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:12] No, I mean everybody thinks I am because I'm from Michigan, which is like a Canadian with shitty health care. But thank you. That means you think I'm friendly and nice.
David Eagleman: [00:09:23] Yeah, exactly. That’s right. You'll probably never lose the accent in Chinese and probably doing things like fast joking around in Chinese you'll never get, you know..
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:31] And the joke is I'm a white guy that speaks Chinese that makes them laugh already. I don't need to be funny on top.
David Eagleman: [00:09:36] You know, I speak a little bit of Ethiopian. Amharic is the language of Ethiopia. And whenever I go to an Ethiopian restaurant I always get, it's a little bit of a surprise that I get from them…
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:44] Yeah, because you don't look Ethiopian at all. I'm not sure if anyone's ever told you that.
David Eagleman: [00:09:48] So brain plasticity. Yeah. The fact is it really is much more plastic when you're young, unbelievably plastic, in fact the number of connections you have between neurons called synapses. This is something that from the day you're born, this number expands and expands as neurons connect and connect. And by the time you're two years old, that's the peak that you'll ever have. You've got an unbelievable density of connections. And from there, it's this game of stripping away the connections. It's like pruning an overgrown garden.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:16] Oh man, that sounds like bad news actually. It's bad news for us. Yeah. Yeah. Because of that pruning never stops so I assume.
David Eagleman: [00:10:21] That's right. I mean, that's the good news. Also, the whole idea about brain plasticity is you learn the rules of the world, so you learn the right things to say and the way to act and how to be, and how to drive a car and how to stay on the right side of the roads. So plasticity, the benefit of it is you learn the rules of your culture and your world. The downside of it is that, you know, as you learn that and things get more in place, it's just harder to break that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:50] So we just kind of adapt to our situation and then continually adapt and become more maybe regimented in our adaptation.
David Eagleman: [00:10:58] Exactly. We are creatures of our space and time. Okay. And if you can like imagine that you are born with exactly your same DNA and whatever you come sliding out of the womb in 1529 in Nigeria, your culture would be so different. Or in China or wherever, everything would be so different about your culture. You'd be a different person because you are obligated to learn that space in time. That's what makes you who you are.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:27] But I would have a better Chinese accent if that were the case, depending on where I was born I suppose. So we're really the last one's knowing what's going on in the brain. So the conscious brain is like the screen or the printer of a computer instead of the processor but we think it's the processor because that's the part that's talking to us, right?
David Eagleman: [00:11:46] That's exactly it. Yeah. Can't remember if you and I have ever talked about this before, but one analogy that I used in my book Incognito was that it's like the CEO of a major company, you know, so if you're CEO of Pepsi or United Airlines or something, you've got hundreds of thousands of people working there. You can't possibly know what's going on in everybody's cubicle and where the food's coming from, the tires for the vehicle, you don't even, you can't possibly know that. You'd only mess things up if you knew that. So your job as CEO is to kick your feet up on the desk and wait for problems to happen. And when your phone rings, then you answer and you try to solve problems. And that's exactly what the conscious mind is about. As long as things are going according to plan, no problem. But you know, if I go to that door and I reached for it and you snuck in last night, you've undrilled the doorknob and drilled it in three inches below, or suddenly I become consciously aware of the doorknob because it's violating my expectation. But otherwise I wouldn't even be aware of it. I just opened the door and I'm out.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:43] Right. So that, Oh, that makes sense. So it's like fumbling around in the dark and then realizing, “Oh, I'm not in my own house. I don't know where anything is.”
David Eagleman: [00:12:49] Yeah, exactly.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:50] And then you got to actually..
David Eagleman: [00:12:51] Exactly. So this is the funny part is that the job of the brain is to learn the rules of the world and get good at it and automatize everything and make everything happen really well and fast. So when you get in your car and you drive, you may remember the first time you ever got in a car seat. And you've got all these things and now it's nothing. You can twiddle with the radio and talk to the person next to you and so on. This is the brain doing its job well where it takes a very complicated thing and it just makes it super unconscious for you. But the tension we have, the challenge we always have is how do we prevent ourselves from becoming just totally automatized creatures? How do you keep hitting yourself with novelties so that you're always learning new things and changing your world model?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:30] Why is that important?
David Eagleman: [00:13:32] It's important for a few reasons. One is that in terms of what happens with dementia, as people get older, the typical thing that happens is that people's lives shrink after they retire and then sometimes their hearing is getting worse and so they go out less and less because it's not as enjoyable to them. So anyway, their world shrink, they're not getting any novelty. And when their brains start to generating from something like Alzheimer's, you see the cognitive effects of that as opposed to people who get Alzheimer's disease, but they are embedded in a world where they're having to do all these social things. Then you don't see the effects of that. Then they die cognitively doing fine. And it's only an autopsy that you realize they had Alzheimer's.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:17] Really? So someone can have a degenerative brain disease and you don't even notice it because their brain is doing enough work to swim upstream, so to speak.
David Eagleman: [00:14:26] Exactly. And this is what came out of this giant study with nuns over the last 15 years. All these nuns agreed to donate their brains when they pass away. And so the researchers look at these brains and they notice, “Gosh, a lot of these have Alzheimer's”, and yet no one ever knew that. That's how this was discovered. Yeah. I mean this is a very rich understanding now about the importance of cognitive fitness as we summarize it, which is just, if you keep your brain active, what you're doing is even as parts of it are falling apart, you're finding new ways of making new connections. So there is adult plasticity. I want to be clear about that. The adult brain is plastic. It's just not nearly as much as the child's brain.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:01] So if as a practical exercise then, even if we're not getting older, but let's say that we are, we want to stave off some of this degenerative brain -- I don't know what you would call it.-- Just degeneration of the brain I guess.
David Eagleman: [00:15:16] Yeah. Well and specifically the cognitive effects there. The cognitive degeneration, because even if your brain degenerates, it's okay as long as you're making new roadways.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:25] Right. So then an idea would be to actually do something like study a foreign language or any subject really.
David Eagleman: [00:15:31] Exactly. Whatever it is that floats your own boat because that's the only thing that's going to get you out of bed in the morning anyway. But there were some, people do Sudoku, having an active social life is one of the most important things that people can do. Because other people are hard, not in a bad way, but in the sense of, you know, they see something surprising and you have to think of that the next surprise. Anyway. So people is all kinds of good cognitive exercise. You know, languages, musical instruments, juggling, anything you want to do. The key is once you start getting really good at something, like when you get good at Sudoku, you give it up and you'd do the next thing that's hard for you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:06] Sure. If you want something that never gets easier, try Mandarin -- gets a little easier. But now if I had not by a whole lot, at least not in the last half decade.
[00:16:17] This episode is sponsored in part by The Great Courses Plus. As you all know, knowledge unlocks many-a-door in life. It's important to keep learning and stay ahead of the curve and The Great Courses Plus, along with shows like this of course, is a great way to do that. The Great Courses Plus has over 9,000 -- you know there's that joke in there, that stupid meme in there -- over 9,000 lectures in virtually any category, top professors, experts about pretty much anything that interests you. You can discover new interests, you can pick up new hobbies, you can listen to them or watch them through The Great Courses Plus app at anytime, which means TV, laptop, tablet, smartphone. I would check out The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal. You know, it's funny, you know, they wanted to name this The Art of the Deal and they're like, “Dammit. Not doing that.”
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:02] Yeah. Slash just stigma. But The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal grade tools for both your professional and personal life. And you know, whether you're negotiating in a competitive setting, a collaborative setting, they talk about the respect, humility, empathy, establishing credibility, establishing rapport and how that's key in getting what you want. And you're going to get a lot out of The Great Courses Plus. So check out, we've got a free month of unlimited access to enjoy any of their lectures. To get this, you've got to sign up through the special URL that we're about to dole out down there. Start your free month today. Sign up at thegreatcoursesplus.com/Jordan, thegreatcoursesplus.com/Jordan. This episode is also sponsored by Varidesk. These are really great products and they're just made so well. These are standing desks or devices that you can put on an existing desk that'll turn it into a standing desk and then turn it back into a regular desk with a little click.
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[00:18:48] I want to talk a little bit about senses because one, that's one of the things that you're working on here and we'll talk about that in a bit, but I think we'll start with sight because I think a lot of people imagine that their sight is exactly what they see, right?
[00:19:00] Just seeing is believing or like, “No, I saw this, I'm sure of it. This is exactly it.” And then we find out things like, I'm a former lawyer and you find out witnesses, things they saw could not ever have happened. Or then they find a video and it's like, “How did you see three people when there's one Asian child? How does that, how did that have –“, and our memory and sight, all these things are playing tricks on us. And we used to think, “Oh well that person's just crazy or memory's faulty.” But we find that not only is memory faulty but sight itself. And I was recently speaking to Isaac Lidsky, I don't know if you know who this person is. He went blind as an adult and he said that he can see things but it's not the same. And he said seeing envisions not about working eyes, he basically trained his brain using senses to examine the result of his actions. And it seems like a lot of that drives with things I've read in your books, which is that vision isn't necessarily what our eyes are seeing. It's actually constructed in the brain.
David Eagleman: [00:20:00] Yeah, exactly. So yeah, almost all of it is happening. It's this internal loop that you've got going back and forth based on all of your expectations and so on. Like I expect that you're sitting here and we're in this building and I know the thing. And so it's all happening in here. And the amount that's coming in through here is about less than 5% of your eyes through your eyes itself. Exactly. And that's because if you actually look at the number of fibers going to the visual cortex from the eye, you've got a certain number of fibers. Those go to this intermediate realization. And then that goes to the visual cortex that provides 5% of the input to the visual cortex and all the rest of the input is from elsewhere. It's from, most of it, from feedback from other areas. So what that means is that's exactly what you'd expect from a system that really cares about feedback and having its own loop, its internal loop of what it thinks it's going on and what it's doing all the time is saying, ‘Here's my model of the world, of the world that's out there right now”, and really what your eyes are for is just taking care of,
[00:21:00] again, violations of expectation such as, “Wait what? Well, I didn't expect that thing to be there” or suddenly that's something that you need to pay attention to because you're hungry or thirsty, snarly looking for things that look like a glass of water or whatever. You use your eyes to detect new data and then you incorporate that in your model. You say, “Oh, there's a glass of water on the table over there” and then you go and get it. But until you need to know something, you generally don't know it all. For example, we're sitting in a room, they're having to be a bunch of chairs here, if I were to ask you how many chairs are sitting over there and what kind are they?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:34] Ooh, that's a tough one. So without looking, I don't know, there's maybe like 14 over there and they're black office chairs, but I don't really know much else about them. They're kind of those generic Aeron chairs. How many Aeron there?
David Eagleman: [00:21:49] So there's nine of the big ones and one small one. Okay. Yeah. But so if I were to ask you if you were to stay fixed on my eyes right behind me, there's all this other junk sitting there that's been sitting on your retina the whole time we've been talking. That's true. And you probably don't know it now, but now you're suddenly, your brain cares by paying attention to it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:08] So now I know there's paint cans and empty garbage cans. And then there's some other stuff, but I don't know what it is.
David Eagleman: [00:22:12] But yes. So it turns out that what we think of as vision is this completely internal process. And the way you can understand that is you can have full rich visual experience with your eyes closed. And that's what dreams are. When you're at nighttime, you're in bed, your eyes are closed, you're having exactly the same visual process. Why? Because now your eyes are good. So you don't have this data dribbling in, but you have the same feedback loop that's going on telling you, “Okay, this is what I'm seeing. I'm now riding through a meadow on a horse and so on.” And so, right. So the first thing is we see largely what we're expecting to see. And if you pay real close attention, you always have these moments where let's say you're waiting for a friend that you're sitting at a cafe and you say, “Oh, here comes my friend.” And then you realize, “Oh, actually that's not my friend at all. It's not even the same gender, don't even say whatever.” And, but just for, there's a moment in there when you really believe like, “Oh, I'm seeing him now.”
[00:23:04] So this happens to us all the time. And yeah, when it comes to things like eye witness testimony, this is something that courts are increasingly becoming aware of. The interesting side note here is that courts, no matter how wise the judge is about this stuff, there's actually nothing you can do about it because so many cases rely on eyewitness testimony. So the best you can do is tell the jury, “Look, it doesn't mean it's true, it's just what this person thinks.” But nonetheless, you have to admit it into court.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:33] Yeah. So if they trusted the person, even the person thinks they're not lying, it's just we're relying on their brain’s prediction, which is a bummer, especially if there's bias inherent in that person's brain that even they're not aware of.
David Eagleman: [00:23:49] Totally. Right. And you know, and you may know one of the things, I direct this Center for Neuroscience in the Legal System.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:54] Oh, okay. I didn't know that actually.
David Eagleman: [00:23:49] Yeah. So it's a national non-profit, and you know, we spend all our time thinking about where neuroscience intersects with legal system. And [00:24:03][inaudible] is a huge area for this. And of course there's so many cases where, there's a woman I know she was raped, she looked in the guy's face the whole time and thought, “I got to remember this guy.” And so what happened is it went to court and she, you know, with the lineup of suspects and she picked the guy and she was pretty sure it was the right guy. It was the wrong guy. Went to jail for 17 years. And then when he got out and it was a DNA test or something, he got out, she realized how fallible her eye witness testimony was.
[00:24:38] And she felt so terrible about it and her friends all advised, “Don't reach out and get in touch with him.” But she felt so bad. She'd sent an innocent man to jail for 17 years. So she reached out and got in touch with them and now they toured the country together talking about these issues.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:52] That's fascinating because I don't know if I'd be like, “Sure, let's hang out.” If I went to prison for 17 years? I don't know if I would be like, “Yeah, we got to get together.” Like you're the literally last person that I ever want to see with my eyes or my brain. How is it that then someone who is blind can, like this, have you heard of this mountaineer who's got something on his tongue and that creates vision for him?
David Eagleman: [00:25:15] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So some colleagues of mine at University of Wisconsin, Madison built this device called the brain port, which has a little camera and whatever the camera sees gets transmitted to a little tongue, electro tactile grids. It's on your tongue. It feels like little pop rocks popping off and whatever the camera sees your tongue feels. So a line, a circle, something moving across it, that kind of thing. And it turns out that it doesn't matter how the information gets to the brain, as long as it gets there, you can send it through your tongue, you can send it through your eyeballs. These spheres we have that we're so used to are just photon capturing devices that then turn photons into little electrical, you know, spikes, action potentials are called and they send it back to the brain. And that's all your tongue is doing in this case, just capturing stuff, turning to action potentials, sending to the brain.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:04] So it's like a matter of, what do you call it, like a manually constructed man-made eyeball and instead of using whatever's behind the eyeball in our head, it's like, “Hey, let's use the tongue. It's more accessible.”
David Eagleman: [00:26:14] Exactly right. Exactly right. So this is an example of sensory substitution turn, you know, sending information to your brain via an unusual channel. Now the problem with the brain port is it can't actually catch on as very useful device. It's a terrific proof of principle. But when it's in your mouth, you can't speak and you can't eat. So there's no –
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:35] [inaudible] my favorite thing.
David Eagleman: [00:26:37] So it turns out that it's not really that practical, but what a great proof of principle and it's one of the things that inspired me in my work with sensory substitution.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:46] We're talking about the brain forming vision-based and other senses for that matter based on prediction, right? Most of what we sense is not from external input, it's from stuff that's already modeled in our brain and now you're saying we can substitute that sensory input with machines.
David Eagleman: [00:27:06] Yeah, exactly. Yup. Exactly. The thing I want to emphasize is when you're listening to somebody speaking for better or worse, you have to really attend to the external, in that case. So in other words, your brain has all sorts, I have all sorts of expectations about the English language and what phonemes are going to use. And when you use a phoneme, that's a little bit of a phoneme is a little piece of language.
[00:27:25] When you use a phoneme that's a little bit off from my expectation. My brain just says, “Oh, he meant and he sounded an “e” sound or “I” sound or whatever.” So there's a million things that I'm bringing to the table in order to listen to you, but I just want to emphasize when I'm listening to speech, I have to actually pay attention to the external world more than when I'm sitting in my house and I'm in my living room and I just have an internal model living room. I don't usually spend much time looking and paying attention to the external data.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:53] So when we hallucinate, is that just our brain’s prediction modeling gone a little haywire and maybe ignoring what's in our sensory input?
David Eagleman: [00:28:00] Exactly. You got it. I mean, that's exactly what it is. And the weird part, the very weird part to me is how many drugs there are that can cause things like hallucinations. What that indicates is that something about the exact movement of the electrical signals through these vast neural networks is an extremely delicate thing. And all you need to do is knock it, you know, 5% off. Yeah. And suddenly you're seeing silver leprechauns and having a totally different kind of experience. It's actually, yeah, it's kind of terrifying. Yeah. And in fact, just as another side note, there's so many disorders of the brain where people will have whatever kinds of delusions or hallucinations. But the thing is, there was believed them and then.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:45] Yeah, I was going to ask about mental illness because now I'm thinking, “Well, holy crap, if all we're looking at are like, Oh our eyes see this and it goes into our brain.” No. If the brain is doing 95% of the work, then I'm covered in slimy snakes is just as real to that person.
[00:29:02] Even though you can't see them, 95% of their brain is going, “No, I know that you can't see these, but they are right there.” So they believe this.
David Eagleman: [00:29:11] Oh, exactly right. And I mean there's so many examples, one is called anosognosia, which is where a person becomes paralyzed, but they deny it. And it's not that they're denying it for attention. They believe that they are not paralyzed even though they can't move their body because something about their internal model of their body is fine. And so it's a lesion in a very particular part of the brain and then they end up, you know, so this happened to the Supreme Court Justice William Douglas at the end of his career, he had a stroke. He became paralyzed. Reporters came to his house and stuff and he said, “Yeah, I was just playing football earlier and I'm just blah, blah, blah.
[00:29:49] And yeah, I went on a hike”, and you know, and they say, “Well, can you clap your hands for us?” And he goes, “Yeah, I've just done it.” And it's not that he's trying to lie, it's that he really believes that. But this is so common. I should actually put together an essay about this, like across all the different sorts of lesions and problems you can get. And mental illnesses. Like for example, when somebody is having a schizophrenia episode, they believe every single thing that their brain is cooking up to them. And then later when they're out of that psychotic episode and you ask them about it, he said, “Look, last week you told me that you were having lunch with Barack Obama and that wasn't true, and now that you're feeling better, you know that it's not true.”
[00:30:30] And they say, “Yeah, I know that. I know that's not true, but I really believed it. I really believed that, you know, two days ago.” It's so interesting to see the way, and just take as another example when you're really angry about something. Like you really believe whatever your emotions are telling you that time.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:46] And really, it's easy for us to go, “That fool’s crazy”, but at the same time, “why would we not believe our own brain?” This person, of course, believes their own brain, even if what they're seeing is completely illogical. It doesn't really matter in the moment because if I thought that my arm was on fire and I could feel it and I could see it, I wouldn't go, you know, “This is probably one of those weird hallucinations that just hurts a lot. I would think my arm is on fire.”
David Eagleman: [00:31:07] Exactly. And every night when you have dreams that are so bizarre, right? They're characterized by this bizarreness. But when you're in the dream, you believe everything, hook, line and sinker, whatever is served up to you. Like my arm's on fire and I'm, you know…
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:20] So what's happening in a lucid dream where I go, “Wait, I know my arm’s not on fire. I must be dreaming because it's not really, nothing else is catching on fire. This is real.” And then you catch yourself in this little like one part of my brain’s may be telling another part of my brain, “Hey look, I know what you think. But that's not really the case.”
David Eagleman: [00:31:43] Yeah, yeah, exactly. I actually have a hypothesis. This is completely wacky hypothesis. No scientific basis at the moment. But I think that lucid dreaming will become more common in society based on the introduction of VR. Because what happens in VR is that you're in some scary situation and you have to sort of train yourself to go back and forth of saying, “Okay, look, I know I'm standing on a window washer platform 500 feet above the pavement and the railing has just fallen off and I'm about to fall to my death and so on.” But then you think, “Okay, but I also know that I'm actually not there. I'm this other place standing in NeoSensory.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:23] Tangled in the wires of the Oculus.
David Eagleman: [00:32:27] Exactly. Exactly. And so that feels to me like a very new thing in our evolutionary history, like brand new where we have to say, “Okay, I know I'm in this really scary situation. I see it, I hear it, I feel it. Everything is believable. And yet there's this other version of me that somewhere else in a safe, and it's [00:32:43][inaudible] anyway, that's exactly what's happening in lucid dreaming where you're like, “Oh my God, my arms are blah, blah, blah.” But yet I know this isn't quite real and there's this other me that's lying in a bed safe somewhere. And so anyway, I just think that as we practice moving between these realities, we'll get better at it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:01] Yeah. Basically, when you see the grid, the red grid appear on the Oculus where it's like you're going to smack your arm against the wall in real life. So I don't feel it. So we're basically our brains going to sense that it's going to lay this grid over and go, “Your arm's not on fire.” This is a lucid dream that you're having right now. So then what's going on when I'm like, and I have this, and I know this is called synesthesia, I had this in dreams where I'm like, “Oh, I'm tasting the blue.” Wait, that doesn't make any sense because it's not like I taste Blueberry Jolly Rancher. That would make sense. It's just I'm looking at blue and my dream and I go, “Oh, I can taste it.” And I don't really necessarily only see it or maybe I don't see it at all. I just think that I taste purple or blue and then I realize, usually that's right before I wake up because that doesn't make any effing sense.
David Eagleman: [00:33:46] Ah, interesting. That's interesting because usually nothing in a dream makes any effing sense and that's true. Yet you still stay in it and have a nice time.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:52] Maybe that's just the ones that I remember are the ones that are right before I wake up.
David Eagleman: [00:33:57] That's exactly right. Yeah. I mean the story of synesthesia, this is something I've studied for 15 years is this issue about it appears when we studied the brain we find that you have these parcels of territory and they tend to do their own thing. Like this one is about color, this one's about taste and never the twain shall interact. But what happens is they've got these neurons that actually reach across the border and in most people those neurons just don't do anything. They don't have any function. But what happens with drugs, there's drug induced synesthesia and with sleep there's this sort of dream-induced synesthesia is it appears that these neurons just start talking a little bit more so that you get this cross communication. It's like these countries get porous borders. And so yeah, that's all you need for your brain to say, “Oh, I'm getting a little activity there. That must be taste.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:46] Ah, okay. But it's also not something that you would normally taste, right. It can be like a color or sort.
David Eagleman: [00:34:52] Sure. Whatever part of the brain is talking to it and says, “Oh yeah, huh. I'm getting activity here. That must mean that I'm tasting, it tastes like cinnamon”, and that, yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:01] Okay. Okay. So that that to me has been fascinating because I feel like, especially when we talk about other things that have to do with senses, when I try to imagine what a blind person “sees”, they're not getting the photon input from eyes, but they could still, in theory, depending on the technology they're using, they could see something similar, but they don't miss vision with their eyes any more than I miss like what an electric eel feels underneath the ocean with these electrical impulses from its prey nearby. I don't feel that, I don't see infrared spectrum and feel sea heat coming off of things, but there are certainly animals or the predator, whatever that can do that, right? Based on using technology or just the way that it's evolved, so the idea that senses aren't just the way that we experienced them is something I think most humans don't really understand until they've read a bunch of your books and then their mind explodes because you're thinking, “Holy crap. If you can create sensors using different types of technology and technology's continually improving, then not only could we create senses that are maybe better than what we have, like an amplifier. So these shotgun microphones are better than our ears naturally hear things. Then can we create super human everything? I mean we have night vision goggles. Can we create superhuman everything?”
David Eagleman: [00:36:21] So this is exactly why I've started this company, NeoSensory, to do exactly this. So, you know, we build these devices. This is our wristband here. We've built these vests that are covered in vibratory motors and the vests convert any kind of data stream into patterns of vibration on the torso. And so one of the things we're doing, just as a starting example, is with deafness, we're capturing the sound of the world and turning the panels vibration on the torso. And deaf people can come to understand the world that way. And what we've done now is built this wristband, which has a fewer number of motors on it, but it does the exact same thing where it captures sound, there are two microphones built in here. And it turns it into patterns of vibration. So it breaks up the sound spectrum from low to high.
[00:37:09] It's doing exactly what your inner ear is doing. It's just doing it on your skin. And people can come to understand what's going on with this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:15] So are you listening to me with your wrist right now?
David Eagleman: [00:37:17] I have it off right now, but I can turn it on and I can listen to you with my wrist and then I can hand this to you too.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:24] Yeah. So yeah, let me take my Apple watch off. This antiquated POS. I want the ear watch.
David Eagleman: [00:37:32] So put your fingers out like this on both hands. And you can feel that as I'm speaking, the sound is getting translated into the motors on both sides. So as you say something, for example, you could feel your own voice.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:45] Yeah, I can feel, “Oh my, my voice is very powerful for this thing. Or is it just because I'm closer in this case?”
David Eagleman: [00:37:52] And that's the same effect by the way that your ears have, which is, you hear your own voice so much louder, but you cancel it out because it's predictable to you. So you don't even notice when you're speaking.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:02] I've got to have my wife try this thing. Jen, you've got to try this thing. So these vibrations right now to me all feel very, very similar. Of course, right? Yeah. So I would imagine that a deaf person or anybody using this really has to try pretty damn hard to, or their brain has to try hard to decode these.
David Eagleman: [00:38:23] You’d be surprised at how intuitive the whole thing is. So we have a series of videos on YouTube that we have with like, okay, here's a dog barking, here's someone knocking on a door, here's a person laughing, here's a person speaking, here's a car passing you, here's a smoke detector -- all these things are unbelievably intuitive, strangely so, when you listen to them with your skin, you think, “Oh yeah, that's a dog barking. That's a person laughing, that's a blah, blah, blah.” So on day one people can score, you know really well on these tests where we present a sound to the wristband directly from the phone to the wristband and then we say, “What was that? We’ve given them four choices. Was that a, you know a person speaking? Was that footsteps? Was it a toilet flushing? Or was it a car passing?” And people are really good at it on day one. And then they just get better from there.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:12] What's the highest level of proficiency that anyone's achieved with something like that or with the vest?
David Eagleman: [00:42:16] You know, that's a good question. We don't know the answer to that yet because we keep doing these seven day studies, which is something we're about to change and two weeks from now we're about to run a hundred day study, so we'll finally know that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:30] Because in theory, right, if somebody can in X number of days replace their ears with this entirely, which is the idea, I assume. Then at some point then they're only limited by that technology, which is, there's two microphones in there. They're probably pretty high quality, but there's going to be a time in which they want to have crazy futuristic microphones that can hear everything within a whole city block or something like this or whatever usable radius, right? And you could be sitting around and you could listen to pretty much anything you wanted.
David Eagleman: [00:43:04] Yeah, exactly right, exactly right. And in fact, so this is where things are really interesting for me. So from the point of view of running a company, deafness is our clear market path and we're working super hard to get this product out by December of 2018 for the deaf community. There's 77 million deaf people in the world. So that's our clear market. But yeah, it's a big community actually. But my next interest is in the human augmentation rather than just replacing something that's been lost. And so for that, I think you saw this talk I gave Ted of years ago.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:38] The reason we met is you are forced to give it in a pinch because I think somebody who didn't show up to a party where we were and it's like, “Can anyone give a talk?”
[00:43:46] And it's like, “David Eagleman gave a Ted talk”, and you're like holding a drink, “Cheers!” I'm just going to go up there and give a talk now. That's how we met in the first place.
David Eagleman: [00:43:55] That’s exactly right. Yeah. So you know, a big part of the interest for me is how we can do sensory addition, not just substitution. And so, you know, we've tried all kinds of interesting things. We're sort of keeping heads down at the moment, focusing on the different thing. We've got lots of different projects happening right now.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:14] What kind of extra senses are we talking about? And that reminds me, that's funny. The reason we didn't get to talk at that party is this woman was like, “So then ESP is real?” And you're like, “Well…” and you're trying to be polite. And then it just was like impossible for her to accept your answer.
David Eagleman: [00:44:30] That's funny. So many times probably we all do this. We ask questions hoping for a particular answer.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:37] A neuroscientist ESP is real. “Well, that's not exactly what I meant.” “No, it's what I heard.”
David Eagleman: [00:44:43] Exactly. Because this is ESP in the sense that if I feed in, I mean just expanding on your example, if I take visual or auditory data from the next room and feed it in here so that I can hear what's going on, that is extra traditional sensory, yeah, in a manner. But you know, we're doing all kinds of things like feeding real time streams of data from the internet so that you really tapped into something bigger. So some examples that are given in the past, some things like some new things I kept talking about, but some examples that you may know is like with drone pilots, we've hooked up the drone so that it's transmitted via Bluetooth.
[00:45:19] The pitch of the all role orientation and heading, all to the operator and the operators wearing the vest and they're feeling all of this data from the drone. It's like extending your skin up there. They're feeling it and they get a whole completely different sense of the drum because it's something that is impinging on their skin, which is just one of your, you know, sensory windows to the world.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:41] So we're kind of unlimited in the way that we can experience this stuff. Because I would imagine touch is kind of like the smoke signals of routing external data to your brain, right? Whereas at some point, and I've read about how hard this is, I think from you or someone else, eventually you actually will be able to somehow tap into our neural network, not just through our skin or eyes or our tongue.
David Eagleman: [00:46:06] Yeah. You probably read that from someone else because I will say this is just a matter of opinion…
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:10] And if you said it's freaking hard and I’m like…
David Eagleman: [00:46:12] Exactly. That's the thing. It's really, it's not clear to me that we're ever going to say, “Hey, let's implant electrodes to get a closer sort of be closer to the source and hit things that way.” It's not that that would be a bad idea. It's that neurosurgeons simply aren't going to do that. For people who say, “Hey, I simply want to be augmented, so I'm going to go in for an open head surgery”, because there's always risk of infection and death on the table. And it's not clear to me that consumers will want to, you know, I want to interface with my phone faster. I certainly do, but I'm not going to go and get an open head surgery.
[00:46:46] There's an expression in neurosurgery, which is when the air hits your brain, you're never the same. And we don't know why that's true, but it just, you know, it's just sort of what gets said in neurosurgery. It's not something you take lightly. And this is why I think that that idea has no future and planting electrodes. The other thing is that, you know, in the same way that your skin will push out a splinter, your brain will push out, your brain tissue will push out electrodes. And so when you do electrophysiology and implant electrodes on somebody, about a year later, only 25% or more.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:19] Oh yeah. So it's not going to be as useful.
David Eagleman: [00:47:23] Exactly. So that's why I'm really high on this idea of, let's pass an information via other routes like the skin. And you know, soon as people say to me, “Oh, why don't you do something like a pair of glasses or put something in the ear or something like that.”
[00:47:36] And the reason is you need your vision and your sight for lots of other things, your vision and your hearing for lots of other things that you're doing. But your skin is just totally unused. There's so much opportunity to pass information in that way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:51] I'm excited to see how these vests and bracelets end up. I'm sure you are too, since you're spending your life inventing them. But it seems like there's so many options for augmenting and creating. I think one of the things that you and I had talked about before was, what if you could feel things that we're about to hit you without seeing them, right? I mean, what if that vast knew that there was a car coming at you a hundred yards away and as it got closer, the vest is vibrating to the point where it's like “Move”, you know, you have just enough time to get out of the way.
[00:48:24] It's like my Tesla when I'm about to hit something at a high speed, it makes those noises and then it eventually just breaks for me.
David Eagleman: [00:48:29] Yeah, exactly. One of the things that we have done is an experiment with a blind participant, what we did is with LIDAR cameras, we got a sense of where everything was. I mean a very fine sense down to inches resolution of where everything is in the room, desks, chairs, people, so on. And then he feels where a person is. So he feels a person, you know, a hundred yards off to his right with a very soft buzzing on his skin. And then there's a person, let's say 30 yards off on his left and that's a more intense buzzing because the person closer and as the person gets closer and closer, the buzzing becomes more intense. And as the person walks around behind him, he feels exactly where the person is.
[00:49:09] And the thing to emphasize here is that that is better than what a sighted person says. Yeah. You don't know where people are at a distance and where they move and unfortunately because of the timing, what this is? April of 2018, I can't tell you any details, but later this month, the next season of Westworld comes out and our vest is in Westworld. And so the idea that we do there is a similar one to what you're talking about. I can't say it any more than that at the moment.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:37] Fair enough. Fair enough. We'll have to come back later and be like, “Oh, I saw the thing you are not talking about on my show.” I need that though. Jen always sneaks up on me in my studio to bring me water and I freaking have a heart attack because I've got headphones on.
[00:49:49] I'm looking at a screen, I'm talking to a microphone, she'll stand at you, she'll be behind me. But if I had a vest that tapped me and let me know that she was there, It’ll probably add another few years to my life. Momentarily in the heart. What about things like memory? You know, if our memory is constructed of things that our brain does in our identity of who I am as a person is constructed largely of my experiences based on those memories. Does that mean that a lot of the things I think about myself are just made up by my brain? A lot of the things I think about myself are false. There are illusions.
David Eagleman: [00:50:25] Yeah, exactly right. I mean, and it probably starts with this sensory stuff, which is, if I misperceive what I have seen and it’s sadly a misperception like, “Oh, there's an Asian child, but I think there are three men standing there.”
[00:50:38] It's not only misperceptions like that, it's just generally the three people standing there are, do I think that they're all threatening? Do I think they're friendly? Do I think they're just having a good time with themselves that they're paying attention to me? You know, there's so many things that we bring to the table and then that ends up being the substrate of our memory of, first of all, our memory is really lousy. But let's just imagine that the sensory part coming in is the first start of what we need. So the thing that I'm encoding in the first place might be very different. But then after that, every time I recall a memory, it can get changed. And the emotions that are involved at the time and the emotions when I'm recalling can change what I think is true.
[00:51:23] And of course we have lots of ways of storytelling. So if I find out a piece of information later, like, “Oh, one of those three guys was actually a murderer.” And then when I think back on that event that I can't remove that new piece of data from my old memory. And so I think, “Oh yeah, I saw that in that guy's face. I knew that guy was a murderer.” So yeah, memory is super lousy. The weird part is that's all we've got. The part that's been very interesting to me lately is just thinking about the way that, I mean AI right now in 2018 AI stinks. I mean, there's all kinds of excitement and some amount of hype about what it can do and so on, but it's really not that good. I mean, my two and a half year old daughter can do so much more than any AI machine could for the foreseeable future.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:07] But that's a human being who's like an educated child undergoing education, right? Yeah. Maybe it sucks compared to a small child, but a small child is a pretty impressive invention nonetheless.
David Eagleman: [00:52:16] Oh, exactly. No, but that's the thing. The human brain, even of a small child is so far beyond anything we do. So people like to talk about, yeah, let's talk about Westworld and like talk about other things where computers are going to take over, but they are nowhere close to the capacities of human. Not for a long time. Even the past of my dog by the way, who could go out and yeah, just figure things out. And nowhere to run anyway, be that as it may. The part where AI has this beat silly is with memory. Because I mean obviously I can put, you know, a 200 page manuscript into my computer in the form of zeros and ones, and it feeds it back to me precisely verbatim.
[00:52:54] But the parts where this really interests me is for example, you complete 20 questions with a computer. So you think of something and the computer says, “Well, is it red?” And you answer yes or no. And then it says, “Okay, well is it bigger than a breadbox?” And you answered yes or no and so on. But the thing is it asks you 20 questions that seem completely random, that don't sort of follow on from one another. And at the end it can say, “All right, I think what you're thinking of is, you know, bang a microphone”, and it's because in the giant space of all the things that it might be, the first question asks you puts up a plane in that space. It divides that. From that. Then the next question puts up another plane in that huge multidimensional space and the next one puts up another plane and another plane and these 20 questions end up giving you bang.
[00:53:40] Like, here's the only thing that could be left.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:45] Like this, what is it called? Asymtotal? So the opposite of exponential. It's cutting everything in half.
David Eagleman: [00:53:48] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That's right. And it gets closer and closer until it gets the thing. Whereas with a human, if I asked you, is that blah or blah? And you answer, I have to then remember that. And then my next questions will follow on that. And then I asked you the next thing. What I'm doing is solving in a very different way. Instead of putting these hyper planes in this huge multidimensional space, I'm solving it by this sort of lame human method, because I can't remember. I can't think about every single object all at the same time Yeah. In fact, I wouldn't even be able to remember 20 random questions in a row, but it's trivial for a computer to do. So I think that's one place where they'll really be an advantage.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:29] How can we combat some of the subjectivity of memory or this illusion of truth-effect that that you've talked about in some of your books? Is there anything that we can do about that? Or is it just like, look, your memory is false. It's created by your brain. It's affected by your emotions. You're hopelessly going to get things wrong consistently.
David Eagleman: [00:54:46] It's slightly worse than that though. Because it's not that it's false, it's that it's false sometimes more of the time. It's truthy. And so if I were to tell you, “Hey, Jordan, don't trust any of your memory”, you'd say, “Gosh, It really happened. Like, I have to imagine that's my wife and this is my home and this is my bedroom and so on.” Right? You have to rely on it. It's at the extremes about taking things 100% seriously. Like “I know what I saw.” You know, one of the most important lessons that can emerge from this I think is this issue of, “I don't know, how did Fred respond to me at the party? I'm not sure. I thought he was being blah, blah, blah. But you know, I'm going to take that with a grain of salt.” And the same when we get very emotional about things, whether that's anger or jealousy or feeling hurt by something, just thinking, “Okay, well it's possible that I don't actually know what happened there for two reasons. Not only is my memory lousy, but also being inside another person's head. That's a whole of the universe to be inside of. And how do I know what was going on in there?
[00:55:55] And even though I am absolutely certain that she said that to hurt my feelings, maybe not. Maybe I had nothing to do with that.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:02] So now we're in the realm of our brain trying to predict what somebody else's brain tried to predict and then simulate that based, you know, through the filter of our emotions. And then make a decision.
David Eagleman: [00:56:12] Yes. Exactly right. It's a wonder that anything happens at all and that we have things like, you know, roads and countries and buildings and organizations because it's just, it's amazing the amount of guesswork that we all have to do with each other's brains. We have this very low bandwidth channel between people of speech and when I say something like, “Oh Jordan, I just had the best croissant or something.” And you imagine what the “Oh, I want the best croissant” would be to you, but it's a completely different thing going on in your head than my head.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:44] Right. You're thinking it was light and flaky and that was just the bread. They didn't put a bunch of crap on it. And I'm thinking it had chocolate in it and it was a gummy bears ached in or something. Right? And that's just the least of the differences.
David Eagleman: [00:56:54] Yeah, exactly. And so sometimes people ask me this question about whether we will get to a point where we can put in data to the brain, like in the Matrix, you know, I want to fly a black Hawk helicopter and you just upload it. And the answer is it would completely depend on our ability to do what's called system identification, which is, could I actually understand the whole structure of your brain as an individual brain as opposed to my brain because there's no possibility of uploading flying a black Hawk helicopter to both of our, I mean there's not a single piece of code that would work for both our brands because for me, I might understand how to fly it in terms of thinking about horses that I grew up with and how you pull on a horse and the way you lean and you might understand it with some video game that you played as a child and how you do this thing.
[00:57:39] And yeah, we would just, we would predicate it on top of different assumptions and feelings and connect, you know, ways of moving and so on. Anyway, so the point is we'd have to kind of understand everything in your brain to know how to upload something new into it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:57:56] Otherwise. Right, then there are only other option would be to 3D print identical brains for everybody at some point, which is like, yeah, might as well just put in…
David Eagleman: [00:58:05] You have a bunch of brothers that are exactly like you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:09] Program the damn thing to fly itself. It's going to be a lot easier than 3D printing a bunch of identical brains and putting them in humans --which are still going to have epigenetic differences and emotional stuff and diseases that affected or trauma.
David Eagleman: [00:58:21] Exactly right. Because who you are is a combination of your genetics and every experience you've ever had, neither of which, by the way, you had any choice over, I mean, the genes you came today within, all the experiences you had as a child, the formative experiences, you had no choice over that. But that sends you off on a particular trajectory.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:36] Yikes. All right, so here's a practical we can end with here. A lot of people say, “Oh, if you want to make a decision and it's sort of a binary yes or no decision, you should flip a coin. Because if you flip a coin and then when it's in mid air, you can think about which side you hope it lands on and then you've got your answer.” And that always sounded like, okay, maybe that works. Maybe it doesn't. However, if our brain, our subconscious brain is already processing all of these different things all the time, can we access that by flipping that coin and then our brain wants one side to land because it's already made the decision based on all these subconscious factors.
David Eagleman: [00:59:12] Yeah, I recommend this all the time. Actually, my mother taught me this when I was like eight years old. This thing about flip the coin and let it land. And then when you see what it is, see if you feel disappointed or not. That's the key is, yeah, and it's just a terrific way to quickly probe. Essentially it's getting your emotions to give you the answer because emotions are sort of they are type of cognition, but with a wide lens so that you're just sort of taking in all the data and saying, “Okay, I feel good. I feel bad about this.” “This is scary. This is, you know, something I want to go towards is something I want to go away from.” And so often when we're, you know, chewing on two things, you have the sense of, “Okay, well what about that?” But if you say, “I'm going to commit”, and you toss the coin and it lands on heads and you say, “Okay, well then that's that."
[01:00:02] If you then feel really disappointed by having made that decision, it's a really good way to probe what's going on under the hood.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:09] So does our subconscious brain communicate using emotions in some way or is it like subconscious brain to emotions then? Do they are conscious brain? Is that kind of…
David Eagleman: [01:00:18] Yeah, that's a great question. Not always, I mean, anytime you have an idea of very specific cognitive clear idea that's also coming from your subconscious mind, which has been working under the hood, you know, trying things out for a long time and then it says, “Oh, here's something that's worthwhile.” And he gets served up and you say, “Oh, I just had an idea.” So it can be from, you know, narrow angle lens to wide angle. It can be anything that gets served up. Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:43] Huh. So it's not necessarily as with all things brain, it's not as simple as “Oh, the emotions come from your subconscious and then they inform your conscious brain.” It's like maybe.
David Eagleman: [01:00:52] Yeah, exactly. And the other thing to be aware of is emotions are not always a good judge. Let's say I'm tossing the coin, do I want to eat the chocolate cake or to the broccoli? It lands a broccoli and I feel disappointed so I might eat the chocolate cake. But it doesn't mean it was the right decision. It just means that's sort of what the majority of your brain wants to do is eat the chocolate cake.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:14] Yeah. The loudest voice, the squeaky wheel wanted the chocolate cake and the rest of your brain is going, “Damn it! We're going to die young.”
David Eagleman: [01:01:18] Exactly. And you know, people often, how do I put this? We all sort of put on a pedestal, this notion of intuition. And in fact, intuition is not necessarily any good. It's just representing, you know, everything about your genes and your experience all put together.
[01:01:34] And sometimes the lowest parts of humanity, just as an example. Xenophobia. So you know, if somebody says, “Hey, I want to buy your house”, or you know, “Hey, let's do this thing together”. And if you feel an intuition of, “Oh, but that person doesn't look like me, doesn't sound like me, and so on”, and you have the xenophobia, that doesn't mean that your intuition is so wonderful. It means your intuition is lousy in that way. And it's not meeting the level of the better angels of our nature. And you know, and where we've built our legislation to be. Yeah, in a sense, we often legislate things into place to get away from people's emotion.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:14] So is there anything we can do to mitigate our intuition? Because a lot of people really put a lot of focus on, well, you know, “My gut says this and I always trust my gut.” And what you're saying is, “Hey, look, your gut is influenced by your emotions. It's influenced by the winds of the weather pattern in your brain, if you will, on any given day. It does not have any basis.” And a lot of people think, “Oh, Malcolm Gladwell blink, you know, your brain's doing all this really complex stuff and it's communicating using your intuition and what you're saying is maybe, or maybe it's totally full of crap and just wants to eat a piece of cake.”
David Eagleman: [01:02:47] Yeah, exactly. I think the advantage we have as humans is we've got these big prefrontal cortexes, which is the part behind the forehead, and that allows us to simulate possible futures. And so what we're able to do as humans, as far as we know better than any other species, is think about the future and think about the kind of person you would want to be. And so there are all kinds of habits and ways of getting yourself to act in alignment with that. And that's the important part. It's not, “Okay, I'm going to trust my gut”, because that will often steer you wrong. Instead, I think probably the best guiding light we have is to say, “Look, I've thought about it in, you know, a session of sober reflection and this is the kind of person I want to be.” And then you try to act in accordance with that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:33] David, thank you very much.
David Eagleman: [01:03:34] Thank you Jordan. Awesome. See you again.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:40] Jason, I always loved talking with David Eagleman. One, he's a friend of mine, so you know, we're always relaxed and having fun. And two, it's just so rare to go sit down with one of the best brain scientists of our time and just be like, “Hey, so I have this random question about eyes or how my hand works”, or like, “Hey, how come this thing works this way or what? What super powers am I going to have in the future?” And he's like, “Well, I can't say that I'm working on this for this three letter agency, but in theory dot, dot, dot, dot, dot.” And I'm always like, “Oh my God, the second that's declassified, I want to put it on the show.”
Jason DeFillippo: [01:04:15] Oh my God. Are there substances involved before you send these questions? Because you know, I could just see you looking at your hand going, “I could use a better hand, dude.”
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:23] Yeah. Am I or am I not a giant? Yeah, there's a lot of things that go on in the brain where I just think like, “Wow, we are under utilizing this thing.” Because one of the things I took away from this conversation was that our eyes are… we're talking about computer hardware and peripherals here, right? We're talking about your eyes being let's say the monitor and then suddenly it's like, “Oh, we have 4k. Well actually we have 5K retina display”, and you can upgrade that and of course it requires more processing power, but our brain has a ton of processing power and it's not just able to process, let's say what's coming in from our eyes or what's coming in from our skin or what's coming in our ears so we can upgrade those peripherals. It is possible now.
[01:05:11] It's also possible we just don't understand everything that the eyes and ears do and in fact, I guarantee you that's the case. However we can specialize things for different ways of evolving, right? We don't necessarily now have to know within two degrees what temperature it is. We can dress accordingly or we could have a computer regulate our temperature for that and we could figure out other ways to use the skin, the eyes, the ears, even things like taste and electrical conduction that our brain can learn how to use. The idea that that mountain climber could see, if you recall from the show, using his tongue, was that his brain figured out that electrical signals on the tongue meant certain things and it created vision based on that, and that means that our brain can essentially create an almost unlimited number of different types of senses. Not just better vision, not just better hearing, but “Oh, I can feel things behind me that are invisible.
[01:06:06] I can see infrared or electricity or radiation”, things like that are totally possible in the future.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:06:11] It's so cool. And when I come up there to San Francisco, since I'm moving back to Cali, I want to hang out with David Eagleman because this is one cool cat.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:18] Yeah. I actually went and did this interview at NeoSensory, which is the company in Palo Alto that is creating the vest, the bracelet and these XO skins that are just substituting our senses and this stuff is affordable. This is not something that's going to be 20 grand. There are XO skins for virtual reality. They are like 400 bucks that you can use to feel another avatar's touch. You can feel the wall, you're grazing the raindrops landing on you, someone's shooting at you, which sounds a little painful. Hugs, explosions, all that stuff. And they've created these SDKs for developers so that you can just create haptic applications that control the XO skin and this stuff is coming out like this year.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:07:03] It's so cool. This is Ready Player One in our lifetime.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:07] Yeah. Not in our lifetime. I'm talking about before that movie comes out on freaking Blu-ray. You might have the ability to do some of this stuff, you know, so it's nothing short of amazing. So thanks so much to David Eagleman. He is. He's got a bajillion different books. They're all great. We're going to link to those in the show notes. The newest one is called The Runaway Species, but we'll link to a bunch of them in the show notes and if you enjoyed this one, don't forget to thank David on Twitter. We'll have that linked up in the show notes for this episode along with the worksheets, which can be found as always at JordanHarbinger.com/podcast. Please tweet at me your number one takeaway here from David Eagleman. I'm @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, and don't forget if you want to apply everything you've just heard, go grab those worksheets.
[01:07:49] JordanHarbinger.com/podcast is where they're at. There's a big red button so you don't have to go, “Hey, where are the worksheets?” They are there. They're in the show notes, I promise. This episode was produced and edited by Jason DeFillippo. Show notes are by Robert Fogarty, booking back office and last minute miracles by Jen Harbinger and I'm your host, Jordan Harbinger. Please throw us an iTunes review, a nice rating. It's better if you write something though. I'm telling you, if you write us something nice, well you can write whatever you want, but nice is what I’d genuinely prefer. Make sure you have a unique nickname. Throw some numbers in there or something or some random words because otherwise it won't post and iTunes is not going to tell you why. It's just going to sit there dumbly staring back at you and you'll know that it didn't work.
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