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THE BRAIN: THE STORY OF YOU – DAVID EAGLEMAN

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      Iliana Aljure
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      David Eagleman, neuroscientist who specializes in brain plasticity, time perception and synesthesia, among other things, is the author of the wonderful book, “The Brain: The Story of You”, and other two books called “Sum” and “Incognito: The Secrets Lives of the Brain”. He is also the writer and presenter of the PBS series THE BRAIN.

      Aside from the quality of the publication, in terms of paper, images, use of color, cover page and back cover, the author presents dozens of studies and research in each chapter, to illustrate each of the topics, which in my opinion, are magnificent resources to understand a complicated theme such as the brain. It is written in a simple way so readers who are not scientists, biology majors or doctors, can comprehend, but maIntaining a high and complex level of information.

      The book is divided in six chapters, followed by an introduction:
      1. WHO AM I? – He says we are born unfinished! It takes us months to acquire motor, language and articulation of thoughts, and many years to be independent of our caretakers. In other words, we depend on others for our survival. He goes from childhood pruning to the aging brain, touching plasticity, consciousness and memory, emphasizing that brains are as unique as snowflakes and that from cradle to grave, we are a work in progress, constantly changing.
      2. WHAT IS REALITY? – We have direct access to the world through our senses, and because of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, the brain receives signals constantly, interpreting this information. Everything we experience is an electrochemical signaling in a complex series of neural pathways, redefining reality second by second. He explains the “binding problem” in neuroscience: how is the brain able to produce a single, unfired picture of the world, given that vision is processed in one region, hearing in another, touch in another, an so on! Also he says that a person’s reality might not be the reality of another,because each brain perceives it differently. He also talks about the “timewarp”, which is the subjective experience of time slowing in life threatening experiences. In the end, reality is personalized, edited and presented just for you.
      3. WHO’S IN CONTROL? – The universe inside our heads, extends far beyond the reach of our conscious experience. Simple things like recognizing a face, which might seem of no effort, requires a vast computation of actions inside the brain, that is below our conscious awareness. This unconscious machinery is at work all the time, even when we sleep. From walking to making a phone call or making meaning of what we read or any type of human performance, movements are animated by trillions of calculations inside our brains. Measuring brain waves (Theta, Delta, Alpha, Gamma and Beta) through EEGs, has helped neuroscientists to understand what kind of waves are seen while doing different tasks. Freud suggested that the mind is like an iceberg, meaning that the majority of it is hidden from our awareness. And sometimes our consciousness goes missing ending in violent acts; our lives are steered by forces far beyond our capacity for awareness or control.
      4. HOW DO I DECIDE? – Eagleman with humor describes that our brains (neural populations) are like a human parliament, composed of rival political parties which fight out in decision making tasks. We are composed of many drives and all of them want to be in control. Our brains make thousand of decisions everyday, dictating our experience of the world. The winning network defines what you will do next. In this decision making game, the author reveals that there is a richness added to it, which are the emotional states, ever present and are also the secret behind how we navigate in the world. Without the constant flux or flow in deciding, we would be hostages of our most basic drives, being unable to choose wisely the now or plan the future ahead. We are not a single mind but rather a collection of many competing drives, that influence our choices for our own well being and for society.
      5. DO I NEED YOU? – NORMAL BRAIN FUNCTION DEPENDS ON THE SOCIAL WEB AROUND US! That means we require other people’s neurons to thrive, connect and survive. Our survival as a human race, is not only about food and shelter, is about being able to make quick assessments everyday of who is a friend and who is not because reading people’s intentions and emotions will mark the survival of the species. Our brains make social judgements constantly because of the joys and sorrows of empathy. Social depravation causes psychological pain because without interactions, the brain suffers. And the receptors for social pain, are the same ones that the ones from muscle pain (like when you are wounded): it’s called the “pain matrix, as Naomi Eisenberger says, in this chapter. Social rejection is so meaningful, that it hurts literally. We bind together in groups: sports, family, clubs, circle of friends, religion, race, culture, language, color of the skin, etc… He also talks about Syndrome E, which is characterized by diminished emotional reactivity, which allows repetitive acts of violence, as we have seen in numerous wars. The chapter ends with a remarkable thought. “In this age of digital hyperlinking, it’s more important than ever to understand the links between humans. Human brains are fundamentally wired to interact. WE NEED EACH OTHER.”
      6. WHO WILL BE? – Eagleman says that human history is at a moment where the marriage of our biology and our technology will transcend the brain’s limitations. We can hack our own hardware to steer a cause into our future. The brain has an amazing ability to adjust and change, known as brain plasticity, and that is the secret to our success as a human race. It is the key to our future because is the door to making modifications to our own hardware. We’ve become better plugging machinery directly in our own bodies to improve hearing or vision. The brain learns to understand the signals and rewire. He talks about sensory substitution giving an example with a device he calls the VEST, which is used in a study for the deaf, with his students at Scott Novish. This wearable tech enables people ti use sounds from the environment, mapping them into small vibrational motors all over the torso, so sound becomes moving patterns of vibrations (see it working in eagleman.com). He talks about a foundation that preserves human bodies or just heads after death, though cryoprecipitation (vitrified or ice-free state), the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, with the intention of reviving them in the future, which has not yet happened. He also mentions the “connectome” from Dr. Sebastian Young, the “human brain project” form a large research group in Switzerland, both working on simulations of a brain through their vast connections. In the same path, artificial intelligence has become a major source of study, making astounding progress, being the University of Plymouth, in England, a leader on humanoid robots that simulate a child’s brain. Questions like, can a computer ever be programmed to think, so that it has awareness, like a mind has? or what is required for consciousness?, or are we already living in a simulation?, are the key questions in his final chapter.

      I believe it is a remarkable piece of literature and I highly recommend it to any of you brain lovers!


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