This year has knocked our brains off of their hamster wheels, says neuroscientist David Eagleman
by Darryn King
We’ve heard a lot about the irreparable toll that the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic will take on our brains, and rightly so. But not everyone is 100% pessimistic about the long-term effects. Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman says that, in some cases, dealing with this tumult could be good for your brain.
The host of PBS’s The Brain, scientific adviser of the HBO series Westworld, and author of several books on neurosciencehas recently published a new one. Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain is all about the extraordinary adaptability of that skull-encased, three-pound, jellylike mass called the human brain. In a year that has surely tested the limits of our adaptive abilities, Elemental spoke with Eagleman about what’s going on in his head and ours, cognitively speaking.
Elemental: Very important question to start off, David. Is there a neuroscientific reason behind all of us bingeing our favorite television shows?
Eagleman: That tends to be where the brain likes to be the most! That sweet spot between familiarity and novelty. We’re gravitating towards the familiar since there’s perhaps been too much damn novelty lately.
Have you been looking after your brain in this novel time?
Actually, this is the one silver lining of Covid. It knocks us all off our hamster wheels, of doing things in a particular way, and forces everyone to think of new ways of doing things. Which is actually, cognitively, quite good for you. In that sense, all our brains are forced to be more exercised than normal. Challenging your brain with novelty appears to provide cognitive protection.
What’s happening in the brain on an anatomic level?
For example, in one study, some older people who had remained cognitively active until their last days were found, at autopsy, to have Alzheimer’s disease. But no one knew it when they were alive. Why? Because even while their brain tissue was being ravaged by the disease, they were constantly building new neural pathways — new roadways — between areas that had become disconnected. As a result, they were hardly diminished in their cognitive capacities.
In contrast, if you have a roadmap that is cemented into place, then the destruction of routes is calamitous.
For another thing, I suspect what this time will do is clarify many things about life, force us to look at things in a different angle. For those of us who were on airplanes all the time, it’s this forced opportunity — that we never would have taken otherwise — to question that. It might put us in a wiser position, to compel us to not just act out of habit.
Something I’ve always wondered, reading your work: Is neuroscience a kind of superpower? Does your knowledge about how the brain works give you a life advantage?
It’s a really interesting question. On the one hand, when you are angry or hungry or in a bad mood, neuroscientific knowledge doesn’t help you out one bit there.
But the way in which it helps me out is understanding that I am not the same person at different moments in time. You can make contracts with your future self in a way that’s really useful. Like, I know I’ll be tempted to eat the cookies later, so I’ll throw out the cookies now. If I want to work out, and I know my future self might be feeling lazy that day, I’ll call a friend so they meet me at the gym at a particular time.
But anyone can do that! This is not the preserve of neuroscientists.
The idea of a contract with your future self — it sounds like that might apply to “doom scrolling.” You know, that habit of constantly refreshing our social media feeds to generate more news that just makes us feel lousy…
Yes, that’s a form of the contract you can make with your future self: If you know that if you open your social media feed, it will make you feel badly, and that you will end up wasting time with it, you can choose not to give in!
That said, I’m as susceptible to clickbait as anyone else.
In one of your famous experiments, you had people fall from a great height to see how they perceived time differently during a moment of terror. Well, 2020 has felt like one long, drawn-out period of terror. Does that have something to do with how this whole year has felt like a timesoup?
Well, as you know from that experiment, what I found was that we judge how long something took by how much memory we have encoded. When you’re in a scary situation, that’s a novel situation — and you look back and you think it took a long time because it generated intense memories.
The issue with 2020, particularly with everyone in lockdown, is that we’re all stuck in the same four walls. And even though there are stressful things that occupy our minds, the fact is we’re not laying down very distinct memories, largely because we’re not moving around to different locations. Everything blurs together because every day looks essentially just like the last one. So when you look back, you think, We’ve been in lockdown for… how long? What day is this?
In the past, you’ve talked about this idea that we’re 90% primates, 10% honeybees — that we have this incredible honeybeelike capacity to cooperate with one another for the good of the species. Looking at what’s going on in the country — which is even divided about whether we should wear masks — do you still believe that idea?
We are absolutely extremely social creatures, more so than almost any species on the planet. And the way we have built our civilization is because of this massive need for others that we have. We are excellent cooperators.
That said, we’re also pretty hardwired for this notion of in-groups and out-groups. We’ve done studies in our lab where we put you in the fMRI scanner, and you see a hand, and you see that hand get stabbed with a syringe needle. Even though it’s not your hand getting stabbed, this activates this part of your brain you might sum up as the pain matrix. This is the basis of empathy, of feeling someone else’s pain. We are extremely empathic creatures.
The interesting part is: If you give the hand a label — say, “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim,” “Hindu,” “atheist” — and you see the hand get stabbed again, the brain cares more about your in-group and less about any out-group.
What’s even more interesting is that this is really malleable. And arbitrary. In another test, you flip a coin, you get heads and you’re an “Augustinian,” you get tails and you’re a “Justinian.” Completely made-up terms. But again, your brain cares more about a member of your group, even if we just decided you were in that group a minute ago.
We are inherently extremely social creatures. But we also identify with groups, and it can happen so quickly and so arbitrarily. And that seems to be what’s happening in the world.
The whole premise of your new book is that the whole circuitry of our brains is affected by external stimuli. Considering how terrible all external stimuli is in 2020, doesn’t that mean our brains are being traumatized, in a way?
Whatever happened and happens during 2020 will shape our brains irreparably. That’s exactly true of 2019 and will be true of 2021. We can choose to call it trauma — or just say it was shaped. I choose to call it the second one.
All of us have spent our lives optimizing our function in the world. And what this year has done is force us all off the path of least resistance. And that’s what the brain needs all the time. Challenges force it to rewire itself and push what it can do.
When people retire, their world shrinks, and this is the worst thing that can happen to your brain. If everybody had 2020s all the time, we’d all be a little sharper.