“The most gorgeous phenomenon in Biology” – Neuroscientist David Eagleman explores the brain at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Online

Describing himself as a Cyber Optimist, Neuroscientist David Eagleman discussed his new book Livewire:  The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain with Jenny Niven at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Online today.

Joining the conversation from Stanford, California, Eagleman outlined the premise of the book, which was 10 years in the writing, as looking at the brain as a self-regulating system that is continually changing calling it “The most gorgeous phenomenon in Biology”.  He enlarged on the remarkable flexibility of the brain, particularly in children and infants, and its ability to extract patterns and, despite being locked in silence and darkness and only dealing with electromagnetic pulses and spikes, being able to figure out how to use that data.

Eagleman outlined details of a sensory substitution wristband that he was currently developing with the participation of hearing impaired people to see how the brain responded to sounds captured and translated into frequencies vibrated directly onto the skin.   They were finding out how people who were deaf could learn to understand the auditory world around them by circumventing the ear and getting to the brain by another route.  People wearing the wristband were developing a subjective internal experience – in the same way that infants learn to hear as their brain learns to translate sound waves into recognisable speech. 

Eagleman has also posited a new theory in the book about why we dream.  Explaining that research had shown that when sight was restricted or damaged, other senses started to take over the visual cortex of the brain enhancing smell, hearing, touch and taste, he suggested that over evolutionary time the brain has reacted to 12 hours of darkness every day with other senses encroaching on the dormant visual cortex by dreaming.  It was a defensive activation – the visual cortex stimulating activity every 90 minutes or so to maintain its territory.  It has been proved that the more flexible you are as a species, the more REM sleep time – and in particular infants dream more than adults as their brains are more flexible.

A fascinating hours discussion ended with Eagleman admitting that there was one silver lining to the Covid19 Pandemic.  “It forces our brains off the path of least resistance.  We’ve all been struggling to think what we do now.  That’s the best thing you can do for your brain – give it novel challenges.”

This event was part of Ideas for Our Times: The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Event Series.  The Edinburgh International Book Festival continues until Monday 31 August and all events are free to watch through the website edbookfest.co.uk.

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