The following is a conversation with David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and one of the great science communicators of our time exploring the beauty and mystery of the human brain. He's an author, a lot of amazing books about the human mind. And his new one called Live Wired with Wired is a work of 10 years on a topic that is fascinating to me, which is neuroplasticity or the malleability of the human brain. Quick summary of the sponsors, a flood of greens better help and Kashyap click the sponsor links in the description to get a discount and to support this podcast.
As a side note, let me say that the adaptability of the human mind at the biological, chemical, cognitive, psychological and even sociological levels is the very thing that captivated me many years ago when I first began to wonder how we might engineer something like it in the machine. The open question today in the 21st century is what are the limits of this adaptability as new, smarter and smarter devices and A.I. systems come to life, or is better and better brain computer interfaces are engineered while our brain be able to adapt to catch up to excel?
I personally believe, yes, that we're far from reaching the limitation of the human mind and the human brain, just as we are far from reaching the limitations of our computational systems. If you enjoy this thing, subscribe on YouTube of your five stars and have a podcast, follow on Spotify, support on Patron, connect with me on Twitter, Àlex Friedemann. As usual, although a few minutes of hours now and no ads in the middle, I try to make these interesting, but I'll give you time stamps so you can skip.
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Apple also donate ten dollars. The first, an organization that is helping to advance robotics and stem education for young people around the world. And now here's my conversation with David Eagleman. You have a new book coming out. On the changing brain, can you give a high level overview of the book? It's called Live. By the way.
Yeah, the thing is, we typically think about the brain in terms of the metaphors we already have, like hardware and software.
That's how we build all our stuff.
But what's happening in the brain is fundamentally so different. It's so I coined this new term live where which is a system that's constantly reconfiguring itself physically as it as it learns and adapt to the world around it.
It's physically changing.
So live where meaning like like hardware. But changing.
Yeah, exactly. Well, it's the hardware and software layers are blended.
And so, you know, typically engineers are praised for their efficiency in making something really clean and clear, like, okay, here's the hardware, then I'm going to run software on top of it.
There's all sorts of universality that you get out of a piece of hardware like that that's useful.
But what the brain is doing is completely different. And I am so excited about where this is all going because I feel like this is. Where our engineering will go, so currently we build all our devices a particular way, but, you know, I can't tear half the circuitry out of your cell phone and expect it to still function, but you can do that with with the brain. So just as an example, kids who are under about seven years old can get one half of their brain removed.
It's called hemispherectomy and they're fine. They have a slight limp on the other side of their body, but they can function just fine that way.
And and this is generally true. Yes. No children are born without a hemisphere and their visual system rewires so that everything is on the on the single remaining hemisphere.
What thousands of cases like this teach us is that it's a very malleable system that is simply trying to accomplish the tasks in front of it by rewiring itself with the available real estate.
How much of that is is a quirk or a feature of evolution like how how hard it is to engineer? Because evolution took a lot of work. Billions, trillions of organisms had to die for it to create this thing we have in our skull. Like because you said you kind of look forward to the idea that we might be engineering our systems like this in the future, like creating one our systems. How hard do you think is it to create systems like that?
Great question. It has proven itself to be a difficult challenge. What I mean by that is even though it's taken evolution a really long time to get where it is now, we all we have to do now is peek at the at the blueprints. It's just three pounds, this organ. And and we just figure out how to do it. But that's the part that I mean, it's a difficult challenge because, you know, there are tens of thousands of neuroscientists.
We're all poking and prodding and trying to figure this out. But it's an extremely complicated system. But it's only going to be complicated until we figure out the general principles. Exactly like if you. You know, had a magic camera and you could look inside the nucleus of a cell and you'd see the hundreds of thousands of things moving around or whatever, and then, you know, it takes Crick and Watson say, oh, you know, you're just trying to maintain the order of the base pairs and all the rest is details.
Then it simplifies it.
And we come to understand that that was my goal in life, which I've written over 10 years, by the way, is to try to distill things down to the principles of what plastic systems are trying to accomplish, but even just linger.
He said it's possible to be born with just one hemisphere and you still are able to function. First of all, just just a pause. I mean, that's kind of that's amazing. That's that's I don't know if people quite when you kind of hear things here and there, this is why I'm I'm really excited about your book because I don't know if there's a definitive sort of popular sources to think about this stuff. I mean, there's a lot of I think from my perspective, what I heard, there's been debates over decades about how how much neuroplasticity there is in the brain and so on.
And people have learned a lot of things. And now it's converging towards people that are understanding this much more. And you're much more plastic than people realize. But just like linger on that topic, like how malleable is the hardware of the human brain? Maybe you said children at each stage of life. Yeah. So here's the whole thing. I think part of the confusion about plasticity has been that there are studies that all sorts of different ages and then people might read that from a distance and they think, oh, well, Fred didn't recover when half his brain was taken out.
And so clearly you're not plastic, but then you do it with the child and they are plastic.
And so part of my goal here was to pull together the tens of thousands of papers on this, both from clinical work and from all the way down to the molecular and understand what are the principles here. The principles are that plasticity diminishes. That's no surprise, by the way. We should just define plasticity. You know, it's the ability of a system to to mould into a new shape and then hold that shape.
That's why we make things that we call plastic, because they are moldable and they can hold that new shape like a plastic toy or something.
And so maybe we use maybe we will use a lot of terms that are synonymous. So something is plastic, something is malleable, changing live wire. The name of the book is like.
So I'll tell you exactly right. But I'll tell you why I chose live wire instead of plasticity. So I use the term plasticity in the book. But but sparingly, because that was a term coined by William James over a hundred years ago.
And and he was, of course, very impressed with plastic manufacturing that you could mold and shape and then hold that. But that's not what's actually happening in the brain. It's constantly rewiring your entire life. You never hit an endpoint. The whole point is for it to keep changing, so even in the few minutes of conversation that we've been having, your brain is changing. My brain is changing. Next time I see your face, I will remember.
Oh, yeah. Like the time I sat together and we did these things.
And I wonder if your brain will have like a thing going on for the next few months, like you'll stay there until you get rid of it because it was useful for now.
I know I'll probably never get rid of it, let's say, for some circumstances. And I don't see each other for thirty five years.
When I run into you, I'll be like, oh yeah, that looks familiar. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We sat down for a podcast back when they were podcast. Exactly. Back when we lived outside. Virtual reality.
Yeah, exactly. So you chose live wired. Exactly. Exactly. Because plastic implies I mean it's the term that's used in the field. And so that's why we need to use it still for a while.
But yeah, it implies something, it's more than a shape and then holds that shape forever. But in fact the whole system is completely changing.
Then then back to how malleable is the human brain in each stage of life. So what? Just that at a high level, is it malleable? So, yes, and plasticity diminishes. But one of the things that I felt like I was able to put together for myself after reading thousands of papers on this issue is that different parts of the brain are have different plasticity windows. So, for example, with the visual cortex, that cements itself into place pretty quickly over the course of a few years.
And I argue that's because of the stability of the data. In other words, what you're getting in from the world, you've got a certain number of angles, colours, shapes. You know, it's essentially the world is visually stable. So that hardens around that data as opposed to, let's say, the somatosensory cortex, which is the part that's taking information from your body or the motor cortex right next to it, which is what drives your body.
The fact is, bodies are always changing. You get taller over time. You get fatter, thinner over time. You you might break a leg and have to limp for a while, stuff like so because the data there is always changing. By the way, you might get on a bicycle making a surfboard, things like that, because it is always changing.
That stays more malleable.
And when you look through the brain, you find that it appears to be, you know, how stable the data is, determines how fast something hardens into place. But the point is, different parts of the brain harden into place at different times.
Do you think it's possible that depending on how much did he get on different sensors? That it stays more malleable longer. So, like, you know, if you look at different cultures and experience, like if you keep your eyes closed or maybe you're blind, I don't know. But let's say you keep your eyes closed for your entire life and then the visual cortex might be much less valuable. The reason I bring that up is like, you know, well, maybe we'll talk about brain computer interfaces a little bit down the line.
But, you know, like is this is the malleability a genetic thing or is it more about the data? Like I said, that comes in.
So the malleability itself is a genetic thing. The big trick that Mother Nature discovered with humans is make a system that's really flexible as opposed to most other creatures to different degrees.
So if you take a an alligator, it's born. Its brain does the same thing every generation. If you compare an alligator 100000 years ago to an alligator now they're essentially the same.
We, on the other hand, as humans drop into a world with a half baked brain and what we require is to absorb the culture around us and the language and the beliefs and the customs and so on.
That's what Mother Nature has done with us. And it's been a tremendously successful trek. We've taken over the whole planet as a result of this. So that's an interesting point, I mean, just the one guard at that, I mean, this is a nice feature. And if you were to design a thing to survive in this world, do you put it at age zero, already equipped to deal with the world? And it's like hardcoded way or do you put it do you make it valuable and just throw it and take the risk that you're maybe going to die?
We are going to learn a lot in the process. And if you don't die, you'll learn a hell of a lot to be able to survive in the environment.
So this is the experiment that Mother Nature ran. And it turns out that for better or worse, we've won.
I mean, we put other animals in zoos and we. Yeah, that's why I might do better. OK, fair enough. That's true. And maybe the trick Mother Nature did is just the stepping stone to. But so that's that's a beautiful feature of the human brain that is valuable. But let's on the topic of Mother Nature, what do we start with? Like how blank is the slate up?
So it's not actually a blank slate. What a terrific engineering that's set up in there. But much of that engineering has to do with, OK, just make sure that things get to the right place.
For example, like the fibers from the eye is getting to the visual cortex or all this very complicated machinery that you're getting to the auditory cortex and so on. So things first of all, there's that.
And then what we also come equipped with is the ability to absorb language and culture and beliefs and so on.
So you're already set up for that. So no matter what you're exposed to, you will you will absorb some sort of language. That's the trick, is how do you engineer something just enough that it's then a sponge that's ready to take in and fill in the blanks?
How much of the malleability is hardware? How much software is that useful in the brain?
So, like, what are we talking about? So there's like there's neurons, there's synapses and all kinds of different synapses and there's chemical communication like electrical signals. And there's chemical communication from the and the synopsize are what I would say. The software would be the timing and the nature of the electrical signals, I guess, and the hardware would be the actual synapses.
So here's the thing. This is why, really, if we can I want to get away from the hardware and software metaphor, because what happens is as activity passes through the system, it changes things. Now, the thing that computer engineers are really used to thinking about is, is synapses where to neurons connect.
Of course, each neuron connects with 10000 of its neighbors, but at a point where they connect, what we're always thinking about is the changing of the strength of that connection, the synaptic weight.
But in fact, everything is changing the receptor distribution inside that neuron so that you're more or less sensitive to the neurotransmitter, then the structure of the neuron itself and what's happening there all the way down to biochemical cascades inside the cell, all the way down to the nucleus, and, for example, the epigenome, which is the, you know, these little proteins that are attached to the DNA that cause conformational changes, that cause more genes to be expressed or repressed.
All of these things are plastic.
The reason that most people only talk about the synaptic weights is because that's really all we can measure. Well, and all this other stuff is really, really hard to see with our current technology. So essentially that just gets ignored. But but in fact, the system is plastic and all these different levels and. My my way of thinking about this is. An analogy to paint layers, so paint layers is a concept that Stewart brand suggested about how to think about cities.
So you have fashion which changes rapidly in cities.
You have governance which changes more slowly. You have the structure, the buildings of a city which changes more slowly all the way down to nature. You've got all these different layers of things that are changing at different places to different speeds.
I've taken that idea and mapped it on to the brain, which is to say you have some biochemical cascades that are just changing really rapidly when something happens all the way down to things that are more and more cemented in there.
And this is actually this actually allows us to understand a lot about particular kinds of things happen. For example, one of the oldest, probably the oldest rule in neurology is called rooibos law, which is that older memories are more stable than newer memories. So when you get old and demented, you'll be able to remember things from your your young life. Maybe you'll remember this podcast, but you won't remember what you did a month ago or a year ago.
And this is a very weird structure.
No other system works this way where older memories are more stable than the newer memories. But it's because.
Through time, things get more and more cemented into deeper layers of the system and and so this is, I think, the way we have to think about the brain, not as, OK, you've got neurons, you've got synaptic weights, and that's it.
So, yeah. So the idea of live where and Live Wired is that it's like it's a gradual yeah. It's a gradual spectrum between software and hardware. And so the metaphors completely doesn't make sense because like when you talk about software and hardware, it's really hard lines. I mean, of course, software. Is unlike hard, but even hardware. But like so there's two groups, but in the software world is levels of abstractions, right? There's the the operating system, there's machine code and then it gets higher higher levels.
But somehow that's actually fundamentally different than the layers of abstractions in the hardware. But in the brain, it's all like the same level of the city. The city. I mean, he has kind of mind blowing because it's hard to know what to think about that. Like, if I were to ask the question, this is an important question for machine learning is how does the brain learn? So essentially you're saying that I mean, it just learns on all of these different levels at all different paces?
Exactly right. And as a result, what happens is as you practice something, you're good at something.
You're physically changing the circuitry. You're adapting your brain around the thing that is relevant to you.
So let's say you take up. Do you know how to surf now?
OK, great. So let's say you take up surfing. Now, at this age, what happens is, you know, you'll be terrible at first. You don't have your body, don't know how to read the waves, things like that. And through time, you get better and better. What you're doing is you're burning that into the actual circuitry of your brain. You're, of course, conscious when you're first doing it. You're thinking about, OK, where am I doing?
What's my body weight?
But eventually when you become a pro at it, you are not conscious of it all. In fact, you can't even unpack what it is that you did.
Think about riding a bicycle. You can't describe how you're doing it. You're just doing it to change your balance when you do this to go to stop.
So this is what we're constantly doing is actually shaping our own circuitry based on what is relevant for us.
Survival, of course, being the the top thing that's relevant. But interestingly, especially with humans, we have these particular goals in our lives, computer science, neuroscience, whatever.
And so we actually shape our circuitry around that.
I mean, you mentioned it gets slower and slower with age. But is there like I've I think I've read and spoken often even on this podcast with a developmental neurobiologist, I guess would be the right terminology. It's like looking at the very early like from from embryonic stem cells to to the creation of the brain.
And like that's like what that's mind blowing. How much stuff happens there. So it's very malleable at that stage. It's and then but after that, at which point does it stop being malleable?
So so that's the interesting thing, is that it remains malleable your whole life. So even when you're an old person, you'll be able to remember new faces and names. You'll be able to learn new sorts of tasks. And thank goodness, because the world is changing rapidly in terms of technology. And so I just sent my mother and Alexa and she, you know, figured out how to go in the settings, do the thing. And I was really, really impressed that she was able to do it.
So there are parts of the brain that remain malleable their whole life. The interesting part is that. Really, your goal is to make an internal model of the world, your goal is to say, OK, the brain is trapped in silence and darkness and it's trying to understand how the world works out there.
Right. I love that image. Yeah, I guess it is. Yeah. If you forget, it's like this is this lonely thing sitting in its own container and trying to actually throw a few or figure out what the hell's going on.
You know, what I sometimes think about is that movie The Martian with Matt Damon. The I mean, he's written a book, of course, but the movie poster shows Matt Damon all alone on the Red Planet. And I think that's actually what it's like to be inside your head. In my head, in anybody's head is that you're essentially on your own planet in there. And I'm essentially on my own planet.
Everyone's got their own world where you've absorbed all of your experiences up to this moment in your life that made you exactly who you are. And same for me. And and and we've got this very thin bandwidth of communication. And I'll say something like, oh, yeah, that tastes just like peaches. And you'll say, Oh, I know what you mean. But the experience, of course, might be might be vastly different for us. But anyway.
Yes, so the brain is trapped in silence and darkness, each one of us. And what it's trying to do, this is the important part, is trying to make an internal model of what's going on out there, as in how do I function in the world?
How do I how do I interact with other people? Do I say something nice to play something aggressive and mean? Do I you know, all these things that it's putting together about the world?
And I think what happens when people get older and older, it may not be that plasticity is diminishing. It may be that their internal model essentially has set itself up in a way where it says, OK, I've pretty much got a really good understanding of the world now and I don't really need to change. Right.
So when old when much older people find themselves in a situation where they need to change, they can actually are able to do it. It's just that I think this notion that we all have that plasticity diminishes as we grow older is in part because the motivation isn't there. But if you were 80 and you get fired from your job and suddenly had to figure out how to program a WordPress site or something, you'd figure it out. Got it.
So the capability, the possibility of changes is there. But then that's the the highest challenge, the interesting challenge to this plasticity, to this live where system. If we could talk about brain computer interfaces and NewLink, what are your thoughts about the efforts of Elon Musk, your link PCI in general in this regard, which is adding a machine, a computer, the capability of a computer to communicate with the brain and the brain to communicate with a computer at the very basic applications and then like the futuristic kind of thoughts?
Yeah, first of all, it's terrific that people are jumping in and doing that because it's clearly the the future.
The interesting part is our brains have pretty good methods of interacting with technology. So maybe it's your fat thumbs on a cell phone or something, but or maybe it's watching a YouTube video getting into your eye that way. But we have pretty rapid ways of communicating with technology and getting data. So if you actually crack open the skull and go into the inner sanctum of the brain, you might be able to get a little bit faster. But I'll tell you, I'm I'm not so sanguine on the future of that as a business.
And I'll tell you why.
It's because there are various ways of getting data in and out and an open heart surgery is a big deal. Neurosurgeons don't want to do it because there's always risk of death and infection on the table.
And also, it's not clear how many people would say, I'm going to volunteer to get something in my head so that I can text faster, you know, twenty percent faster.
So I think it's you know, Mother Nature surrounds the brain with this armored, you know, bunker of the skull because it's a very delicate material.
And there's an expression of neurosurgery about the brain is, you know, the person is never the same after you open up the skull. Now, whether or not that's true or whatever, who cares?
But it's a big deal to have had surgery. So what I'm interested in is how can we get information in and out of the brain without having to crack the skull open?
Got it. Without messing with the biological part, like directly connecting or messing with the intricate biological thing that we've got going on seems to be working. Yeah, exactly.
And by the way, we're neural link is going, which is wonderful, is going to be in patient cases. It really matters for all kinds of surgeries that a person needs, whether for Parkinson's or epilepsy or whatever. It's a terrific new technology for essentially sewing electrodes in there and getting more higher density of electrodes. So that's great. I just don't think as far as the. Future of BCI goes, I don't suspect that people will go in and say, yeah, drill a hole in my head.
Well, it's interesting because I think there's a similar intuition, but say in the world of autonomous vehicles that folks know how hard it is and it seems damn impossible. Similar intuition about I'm sticking on the musk things. Just a good, easy example, similar intuition about colonizing Mars. It's like if you really think about it, it seems extremely difficult and and almost I mean, just technically difficult to to a degree where you want to ask, is it really worth doing, worth trying?
And then the same, the same as applied with BCI.
But the thing about the future is it's hard to predict.
The exciting thing to me with so once it does, once, if successful, is able to help patients, it may be able to discover something very surprising about our ability to directly communicate with the brain. So exactly what you're interested in is figuring out how to play with this malleable brain, but like how persisted somehow? I mean, it's such a compelling notion to me that we're now working on all these exciting machine learning systems that are able to learn, you know, from data.
And then if we can have this other brain, that's a learning system that's live wired and on the human side and the material to communicate, it's like a cell play mechanism was able to beat the world champion, go so they can play with each other, the computer in the brain, like when you sleep. I mean, there's a lot of futuristic kind of things that is just exciting possibilities. But I hear you. We understand so little about the actual intricacies of the communication of the brain that it's hard to find the common language.
Well. Interestingly, the technologies that have been built. Don't actually require the perfect common language, so, for example, hundreds of thousands of people are walking around the artificial ears and artificial eyes, meaning cochlear implants or retinal implants.
So this is you know, you take essentially a digital microphone, you slip an electrode strip into the inner ear and people can learn how to hear that way. Or you take an electrode grid and you plug it into the retina at the back of the eye and people can learn how to see that way. The interesting part is those devices don't speak exactly the natural biological language. They speak the dialect of Silicon Valley. And and it turns out that as recently as about 25 years ago, a lot of people thought this was never going to work.
They thought it was it wasn't going to work for that reason. But the brain figured it out. It's really good at saying, OK, look, there's some correlation between what I can touch and feel and hearing and so on and the data that's coming in or between. I clap my hands and I and I have signals coming in there and it figures out how to speak any language.
Oh, that's fascinating. So like, no matter year, no matter if it's neural link to directly communicating with the brain or it's a smartphone or Google Glass or the brain figures out the efficient way of communication. Exactly. Exactly.
And what I propose is the potato head theory of evolution, which is which is that all, you know, our eyes, nose and mouth and ears and fingertips, all the stuff is just plug and play. And the brain can figure out what to do with the data that comes in. And part of the reason that I. I think this is right and I care so deeply about this is when you look across the animal kingdom, you find all kinds of weird peripheral devices plugged in and the brain figures out what to do with the data.
And I don't believe that Mother Nature has to reinvent the principles of brain operation each time to say, oh, now I can have heat pits in effect. And Fred, now I'm going to have something to detect, you know, electro receptors on the body. Now I'm going to take something to pick up the magnetic field of the earth with cryptochrome in the eye. And so instead the brain says, oh, I got it. There's data coming in.
Is that useful? Can you see it? Oh, great. I'm going to mold myself around the data that's coming in.
It's kind of fascinating to think that we think of smartphones and all these new technologies novel as totally novel as outside of what evolution ever intended or like what nature ever intended. It's fascinating to think that like the entirety of the process of evolution is perfectly fine and ready for the smartphone and the Internet like it's ready it's ready to be valuable to that. And whatever comes to cyborgs, to virtual reality, we kind of think like this is, you know, there's all these, like, books written about natural, what's natural, and we're like destroying our natural selves by, like, embracing all this technology.
It's kind of, you know, not probably not giving the brain enough credit like this. This thing this thing is just fine. Newtek Oh, exactly.
And by the way, wait till you have kids. You'll see the ease with which they pick up on stuff.
And yeah, as Kevin Kelly said, technology is what gets invented after you're born. But the stuff that already exists when you're born, that's not even tech.
That's just background furniture, like the fact that the iPad exists for my son and daughter. That's just background furniture.
So, yeah, it's because we have this incredibly malleable system. It just absorbs whatever is going on in the world and learns what to do with it.
Do you think just to linger for for a little bit more, do you think it's possible to co adjust like what kind of, you know, for the machine to adjust to the brain, for the brain, to just the machine? I guess that's what's really happening. Sure.
That is what's happening.
So, for example, when when you put electrodes in the motor cortex to control a robotic arm for somebody who's paralyzed, the engineers do a lot of work to figure out, OK, what can we do with the algorithm here so that we can detect what's going on from these cells and figure out how to best program the robotic arm to move, given the data that we're measuring from these cells.
But also the brain is learning to sew. You know, the paralyzed woman says, wait, I'm trying to grab this thing.
And by the way, it's all about relevance. So if there's a piece of food there and she's hungry, she'll figure out how to get this food into her mouth with the robotic arm, because that is what matters.
Well, that's OK, first of all, that paints a really promising and beautiful, for some reason really optimistic picture that, you know, our brain is able to to adjust to so much that, you know, so many things happened this year, 20, 20, that you think like how we're ever going to deal with it. It's somehow encouraging and. Inspiring that like we're going to be OK? Well, that's right. I actually think so.
Twenty twenty has been an awful year for almost everybody in many ways.
But the one silver lining has to do with brain plasticity, which is to say we've all been on our, you know, on our gerbil wheels.
We've all been in our routines. And and, you know, as I mentioned, our internal models are all about how do you maximally succeed? How do you optimize your operation in this circumstance where you are right.
And then all of a sudden, bang, 20, 20 times we're completely off our wheels.
We're having to create new things all the time and figure out how to do it.
And that is terrific for brain plasticity because and we know this because there are very large studies on older people who stay cognitively active their whole lives. Some some fraction of them have Alzheimer's disease physically. But nobody knows that when they're alive, even though their brain is getting chewed up with the ravages of Alzheimer's, cognitively, they're doing just fine. Why? It's because they're they're they're challenged all the time.
They've got all these new things going on, all this novelty, all these responsibilities to social life, all these things happening. And as a result, they're constantly building new roadways even as parts degrade. And and that's the only good news, is that we are in a situation where suddenly we can't just operate like automatons anymore. We have to think of completely new ways to do things.
And that's wonderful. I don't know why this question popped into my head, it's quite absurd, but are we going to be OK?
Yeah, you said this is a promising silver lining just from your own, because you've written about this and thought about this outside of maybe even the plasticity of the brain. But just this this whole pandemic kind of changed the way it knocked us out of this hamster wheel like that of habit.
A lot of people had had to reinvent themselves, unfortunately, and have a lot of friends who either already or or are going to lose their business. You know, it's basically it's taking the dreams that people have had. And so, like said, this this dream, this particular dream you've had will no longer be possible. You have to find something new. What are your thoughts? Are we going to be OK?
Yeah, it will be OK in the sense that I mean, it's going to be a rough time for many or most people, but in the sense that it is sometimes useful.
To find out what you thought was your dream was was not the thing that you're going to do, this is obviously the plot and lots of Hollywood movies that someone says, I'm going to do this and then that gets foiled and they end up doing something better. But this is true in life.
I mean, in general, even though we plan our lives as best we can, it's predicated on our notion of, OK, given everything that's around me, this is what's possible for me next. But it takes 20, 20 to knock you off that where you think, oh, well, actually, maybe there's something I can be doing that's bigger, that's better.
You know, for me, one exciting thing, and I just talked to Grant Sanderson, you know, who is a three blue one brown. It's the YouTube channel. He does. He's a if you see it, you will recognize it. He's like a really famous math guy and he's a math educator. And he does this incredible, beautiful videos. And now I see sort of Amitay folks are struggling to try to figure out, you know, if we do teach remotely, how do we do it effectively?
So you have these world class researchers and professors trying to figure out how to put content online that teaches people. And to me, a possible future of that is, you know, Nobel Prize winning faculty become Couture's like like that. That to me, is so exciting, like what Grant said, which is like the possibility of creating canonical videos on the thing you're world expert in. You know, there's so many topics that just the world doesn't you know, the faculty I mentioned was Tetrick.
There's all these people in robotics that are experts in a particular beautiful field on which there's only just papers. There's there's no popular book. There's no there's no clean canonical video showing the beauty of a subject. And one possibility is they they try to create that and and share with the world.
This is the beautiful thing. This, of course, has been happening for a while already. I mean, for example, when I go in to give book talks, often what will happen is some 13 year old will come up to me afterwards and say something. I'll say, my God, that was so small. Like, how did you know that? And they'll say, Oh, I saw it on a TED talk.
Well, what an amazing opportunity here.
You got the best person in the world on Subject X, giving a 15 minute talk as as beautifully as he or she can, and the 13 year old just grows up that that's just the mother's milk.
Right. As opposed to when we grew up, you know, I had whatever homeroom teacher I had and, you know, whatever classmates I had. And hopefully that person knew what what he or she was teaching and often didn't and, you know, just made things up. So the opportunity that has become extraordinary to get the best of the world. And the reason this matters, of course, is because obviously back plasticity, the way that we the way to bring it's molded is by absorbing everything from the world, all of the all the knowledge and the data and so on that it can get.
And then spring boarding off of that, and we're in a very lucky time now because we grew up with a lot of just in case learning.
So, you know, just in case you ever need to know these dates and Mongolian history here, there.
But what kids are grown up with now, like my kids, is tons of just in time learning so soon.
They're curious about something. They ask Alexa. They ask people home to get the answer right there in the context of the curiosity.
The reason this matters is because for plasticity to happen, you need to care. You need to be curious about something.
And this is something, by the way, that the ancient Romans had had noted. They had outlined seven different levels of learning in the highest levels when you're curious about a topic.
But anyway, so kids now are getting tons of Just-In-Time learning and as a result, they're going to be so much smarter than we are.
They're just and we can already see that. I mean, my boy is eight years old. My girl is five.
But I mean, the things that he knows are amazing because it's not just him having to do the rote memorization stuff that we did. Yeah.
That has just fascinated with the brain, with young brains look like now because of all those TED talks just just loaded in there. And there's also I mean, a lot of people. Right. Kind of there's a sense that our attention span is growing shorter. But it's complicated because, you know, for example, you know, most people, majority of people, the 80 plus percent of people listen to the entirety of the things, two or three hours for the podcast, long form podcasts or are becoming more and more popular.
So, like, that's it's all really complicated mess. And the point is that the brain is able to adjust to it and somehow, like form a world view within this new medium of information that we have. You have like these short tweets and you have these three, four hour podcasts and you have Netflix movie. I mean, it's just this is just adding to the entirety and just absorbing it and taking it all in and then pops up covid that forces us all to be home and I'll just adjust and and figures it out.
Yeah. Yeah. It's fascinating.
You know, we've been talking about the brain as if it's something separate from the human that carries it a little bit like whenever you talk about the brain, it's easy to forget that that's like that's us. Like, how much do you. How much is the whole thing like predetermined? Like how much is already encoded in there and how much is it the. The actions, the decisions, the judgments, the like, who you are, who you are.
Oh, yeah, OK, great question. Right.
So there used to be a big debate about nature versus nurture, and we now know that it's always both.
You can't even separate them because you come to the table with Sternman Nature, for example, your whole genome and so on, the experiences you have in the womb, like whether your mother smoking or drinking, things like that, whether she stressed on those all influence, how you're going to pop out of the womb from there. Everything is an interaction between all of your experiences and the and the nature.
What I mean is. I think of it like a space time cone where you have you dropped in the world depending on the experience that you have, you might go off in this direction or that direction, in that direction, because there's interaction all the way. Your experiences determine what happens with the expression of your genes or some genes get repressed, some get expressed and so on, and you actually become a different person based on your experiences. There's a whole field called Epigenomics, which is rapid epigenetics, I should say, which is about the epigenome.
And that is the, you know, sort of the layer that sits on top of the DNA and causes the genes to express differently.
That is directly related to the experiences that you have. So if you know, just as an example, they take rat pups and, you know, one group is sort of placed away from their parents and the other group is groomed and licked and taken good care of. That changes their gene expression for the rest of their life.
They go off in different directions in this in the space time zone.
So, yeah, this is this is, of course, why it matters that we take care of children and pour money into things like education and good child care and so on for children broadly, because these formative years matter so much.
So is there free will? This is this is a great year for the for the absurd, high level philosophical question.
No, no, these are my favorite kind of questions here. Here's the thing. Here's the thing.
We don't know if you ask most neuroscientists, they'll say that we can't really think of how you would get free will in there, because as far as we can tell, it's a machine.
It's a very complicated machine. Enormously sophisticated, 86 billion neurons, about the same number of glial cells, each of these things is as complicated as the city of San Francisco, each neuron in your head as the entire human genome. And it's expressing millions of gene products.
These are incredibly complicated biochemical cascades. Each one is connected, 10000 of its neighbors, which means you have, you know, like half a quadrillion connections.
And so it's incredibly complicated thing, but it is fundamentally appears to just be a machine.
And therefore, if there's nothing in it that's not being driven by something else, then it seems it's hard to understand where free will would come from.
So that's the camp that pretty much all of us fall into. But I will say our science is still quite young. And, you know, I'm a fan of the history of science.
And the thing that strikes me as interesting is when you look back at any moment in science, everybody believes something is true and they just they simply didn't know about, you know, what Einstein revealed or what.
And so who knows?
And they all feel like that with at any moment in history. They all feel like we've converted to the final answer.
Exactly. Exactly. Like all the pieces of the puzzle are there. And I think that's a funny illusion that's worth getting rid of.
And in fact, this is what drives good science, is recognizing that we don't have most of the puzzle pieces.
So as far as the free will question goes, I don't know at the moment, it seems would be really impossible to figure out how something else could fit in there. But, you know, 100 years from now where textbooks might be very different than they are now.
I mean, could I ask you to speculate? Where do you think free will could be squeezed into there, like what that even is? Is it possible that our brain just creates kinds of illusions that are useful for us? Or like what? Where could it possibly be squeezed in?
Well, let me let me give a speculation answer to your question. But but, you know, don't and the listeners podcast me on this.
I'm not saying this is what I believe to be true, but let me just give an example. I give is at the end of my book, Incognito. So the whole book of Incognito is about, you know, all the what's happening in the brain. And essentially I'm saying, look, here's all the reasons to think that free will probably does not exist. But at the very end, I say. Look, imagine that you are, you know, imagine that you're a Kalahari Bushmen and you find a radio in the sand and you've never seen anything like this.
And you you look at this radio and you realize that when you turn this knob, you hear voices coming from their voices coming from it. So being a, you know, a radio materialist, you try to figure out like, how does this thing operates? You take off the back cover and there's all these wires. And when you take out some wires, the voices get garbled or stop or whatever.
And so what you end up developing is a whole theory about how this connections pattern of wires gives rise to voices.
But it would never strike you that in distant cities there's a radio tower and there's invisible stuff beaming. And that's actually the origin of the voices and this is just necessary for it. So I mentioned this just as a speculation, saying how would we know? What we know about the brain for absolutely certain is that when you damaged pieces and parts of it, things get jumbled up.
But how would you know if there's something else going on that we can't see, like electromagnetic radiation? That is what's actually generating this.
Yeah, you paint a beautiful example of of how totally. Because we don't know most of how our universe works, how totally off base we might be with their science until.
I mean. I mean. Yeah, I mean, that's inspiring. That's beautiful. It's kind of terrifying. It's humbling. It's all all of the above.
And the important the important part just to recognize is that of course, we're in the position of having massive unknowns. And, you know, we have, of course, the known unknowns and that's all the things we're pursuing in our labs, trying to figure out the.
But there's this whole space of unknown unknowns. We haven't even realized.
We haven't asked yet. I kind of ask a weird, maybe a difficult question. Part of it has to do with I've been recently reading a lot about World War Two. I'm currently reading a book I recommend for people, which is. As a Jew has been difficult to read, but the rise and fall of the Third Reich, so let me just ask about the nature of genius, the nature of evil. We look at somebody like. Einstein, we look at Hitler, Stalin, modern day Jeffrey Epstein, just folks who through their life have done with Einstein, done works of genius and with the others I mentioned have done evil on this world.
What do we think about that in a live wired brain? Like how do we think about these extreme people? Here's here's what I'd say.
This is a very big and difficult question.
But what I would say briefly on it is, you know, first of all, I saw a cover of Time magazine some years ago, and it was a big, you know, sagittal slice of the brain. And it said something like what makes us good and evil? And there was a little spot pointing to it. There's a picture of Gandhi. There's a little spot was pointing to Hitler.
And these Time magazine covers always make me mad because it's so goofy to think that we're going to find some spot in the brain or something. Instead, the interesting part is.
Because we're live wired. We are all about the world and the culture around us, so somebody like Adolf Hitler. Got all this positive feedback about what was going on and the crazier and crazier the ideas he had is like let's set up death camps and murder a bunch of people.
And somehow he was getting positive feedback from that. And all these other people, they're all, you know, spun each other up.
And you look at anything like I mean, look at the you know, the Cultural Revolution in China or the, you know, the Russian Revolution or things like this where you look, this is, my God, how do people all behave like this?
But it's easy to see groups of people spinning themselves up in particular ways where they all say, well, would I have thought this was right in a different circumstance? I don't know. But Fred thinks it's right and Steve thinks for everyone around seems to think it's right.
And so part of the maybe downside of having a live wired brain is that you can get crowds of people doing things as a group. So it's interesting to you know, we would pinpoint Hitler saying that's the evil guy. But in a sense, I think it was Tolstoy who said the king becomes a slave to the to the people, in other words.
You know, there was just a representation of whatever was going on with that huge crowd that he was surrounded with, so so I only bring that up to say that it's you know, it's very difficult to say what it is about this person's brain or that person's brain.
You obviously got feedback for what he was doing. The other thing, by the way, about.
What we often think of as being evil in society is my lab recently published some work on. In groups now groups, which is a very important. Part of this puzzle. So it turns out that we are very we are very, you know, engineered to care about in groups versus outgroups, and this seems to be like a really fundamental thing.
So we did this experiment lab where we brought people in. We stick them in the scanner and we don't know if you noticed, but we show them on the hand sorry.
We show them on the screen six hands and the computer goes around randomly picks a hand, and then you see that hand get stabbed with a syringe needle to actually see a syringe needle, enter the hand and come out.
And it's really what that does that triggers parts of the pain matrix.
This area is in your brain involved in feeling physical pain. Now, the interesting thing is it's not your hand that was stabbed. So what you're seeing is, is empathy. This is you seeing someone else get stabbed, you feel like God is awful, OK? We contrast that, by the way, with somebody's hand getting poked with a Q tip, which is, you know, looks visually the same, but it's you don't have that same level response.
Now, what we do is we label each hand with a with a one word label, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Scientologist, Hindu. And now the computer goes round, picks and stabs the hand.
And the question is, how much does your brain care about all the people in your outgroup versus the one label that happens to match you? And it turns out for everybody across all religions, they care much more about their ingroup than their. And when I say they care, what I mean is you get a bigger response from their brain. Everything is the same. It's the same hands. It's just a one word label. You care much more about your than your Outram, and I wish this weren't true, but this is how humans are.
I wonder how fundamental that is or if it's a it's the emergent thing about culture. Like if we lived alone with that, if it's genetically built into the brain like this, this longing for tribe.
So so I'll tell you, we address that. So here's what we did. There are two. Actually, there are two other things we did as part of this study that I think matter for this point, one is so OK, so we show that you have a much bigger response. By the way, this is not a cognitive thing. It's a very low level basic response to seeing pain in somebody.
OK, great study, by the way. Thanks. Thanks. What we did next is we next have it where we say, OK, the year is twenty, twenty five and these three religions are now in a war against these three religions. And it's all randomized. Right. But what you see is your thing and you have two allies now against these other.
And now what happens over the course of many trials to see everybody get stabbed at different times? And the question is, do you care more about your allies?
The answer is yes. Suddenly, people who a moment ago you didn't really care when they got stabbed. Now, simply with this one word thing that they're now your allies, you care more about them.
But then what I wanted to do was look at. How ingrained is this or how arbitrary is so we brought new participants in and we said here's a coin toss the coin. If it's heads, you're an Augustinian. If it's tails, you're a Justinian totally made up.
I guess they toss it to get whatever we give them a band that says Augustinian on it, whatever tribe they're in now. And they get in the scanner and they see a thing on the screen says the Augustine isn't just Indians are two warring tribes. Then you see a bunch your hands. Some are labeled Augustine and some are Justinian.
And now you care more about whichever team you're on than the other team, even though it's totally different, you know, is arbitrary because you're the one who tossed the coin. So it's it's a state that's very easy to find ourselves in. In other words, just before walking in the door, they'd never even heard of Augustinian person just in. And now their brain is representing it simply because they're told they're on this team.
You know, now, I did my own personal study of this. It's so once you're an Augustinian, that tends to be sticky because I've been a Packers fan. Green Bay, Pakistan, all I have now, Boston with like the Patriots. It's been tough going from our livewire brain to switch to the Patriots.
So once you become it's interesting. Once the tribe is sticky. Yeah, that's true. That's it.
You know, we never tried that about saying, OK, now you're adjusting it. And you weren't Augustino how how sticky it is.
But there are studies of this of monkey troops on some island.
And what happens is they look at the way monkeys behave when they're part of this tribe and how they treat members of the other tribe of monkeys. And then what they do, I've forgotten how they do the exactly, but they end up switching a monkey. So he ends up in the other tribe. And very quickly they end up becoming a part of the other group and hating and behaving badly towards the original group.
These are fascinating studies, by the way, this is this is beautiful in your in your book, you have you have a good light bulb joke. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the label has to want to change.
So I am a sucker for a good Lagbaja.
OK, that's a given. You have an interest in psychiatry my whole life, just maybe tangentially. I've kind of early on dream to be a psychiatrist until I understand what it entails. But you know what you know, is there hope for psychiatry, for somebody else to help the Slive wired brain to adjust?
Oh, yeah. I mean, in the sense that and this has to do with this issue about us being trapped on our own planet. Forget psychiatrists.
Just think of like when you're talking with a friend and you say, oh, I'm so upset about this. And your friend says, hey, just look at it this way.
You know, all we have access to under normal circumstances is just the way we're seeing something. And so it's super helpful to have friends and communities and psychiatrists and so on to help things change that way. So that's a psychiatrist who have helped us.
But but more importantly, the role that psychiatrists have played is that there's this sort of naive assumption that we all come to the table with, which is that everyone is fundamentally just like us.
And when you're a kid, you you believe this entirely. But as you get older and you start realizing, OK, there's something called schizophrenia and that's a real thing. And to be inside that person's head is totally different than what it is to be inside my head or their psychopathy and to be inside the psychopath head.
He doesn't care about other people. He doesn't care about hurting other people. He's just doing what he needs to do to to get what he needs. That's a different head. There's a million different things going on. And it is different to be inside those heads that this is where the field of psychiatry comes in.
Now, I think it's an interesting question about the degree to which neuroscience is leaking into and taking over psychiatry and what the landscape will look like 50 years from now. It may be that psychiatry is a profession, you know, changes a lot or maybe goes away entirely and neuroscience will essentially be able to take over some of these functions.
But it has been extremely useful to understand the differences between how people behave and why and what you can tell about what's going on inside their brain just based on observation of their behavior.
And, you know, this might be years ago, but I'm not sure there's an Atlantic article you've written.
About moving away from a distinction between neurological disorders, quote unquote, brain problems and psychiatric disorders or quote unquote mind problems, so it's on that topic. How do you think about this gray area?
Yeah, this is exactly this is exactly the evolution that things are going is, you know, there are psychiatry and then there were guys and gals in labs poking cells and so on. Those were the neuroscientists. But yeah, I think these are moving together for exactly the reason you just cited and where this matters a lot.
The Atlantic article that I wrote was called The Brain on Trial, where this matters a lot.
Is it the legal system? Because the way we run our legal system now and this is true everywhere in the world is, you know, someone shows up in front of the judges bench or let's say there's, you know, five people in front of the judges bench and they've all committed the same crime. What we do because we feel like this is fair, is this area you're going to get the same sense. You'll get three years in prison or whatever it is.
But in fact, brains can be so different. This guy's got schizophrenia. This guy is psychopaths go straight down on drugs and so on, so that it actually doesn't make sense to keep doing that.
And what what we do in this country more than anywhere in the world is we imagine that incarceration is a one size fits all solution.
And you may know we have the America has the highest incarceration rate in the whole world in terms of the percentage of our population we put behind bars.
So there's a much more refined thing we can do as neuroscience comes in and changes and has the opportunity to change the legal system, which is to say this doesn't let anybody off the hook. It doesn't say, oh, it's not your fault and so on. But what it does is it changes the equation. So it's not about, hey, how blameworthy are you? But instead is about, hey, what do we do from here? What's the best thing to do from here?
So if you take somebody with schizophrenia and you have them break rocks in the hot summer sun in a chain gang, that doesn't help the schizophrenia doesn't fix the problem. If you take somebody with a drug addiction who's in jail for, you know, being two ounces of some illegal substance.
And you put them in prison. It doesn't actually fix the addiction, doesn't help anything.
Happily, what neuroscience and psychiatry bring to the table is lots of really useful things you can do with schizophrenia, with drug addiction, things like this. And that's why. So I don't know if you just to run a national nonprofit called the Center for Science and Law. And it's all about this intersection of neuroscience and legal system.
And we're trying to implement changes in every county, in every state or just without going down that rabbit hole.
I'll just say one of the very simplest things to do is to set up specialized court systems where you have a mental health court that has judges and juries with the expertise in mental illness.
Because if you go, by the way, to a regular court and the person says or the defense lawyer says this person is schizophrenia, most of the jury will say, I call bullshit on that. Why? Because they don't know about it. Because they don't they don't know what it's about.
And it turns out people who who know about schizophrenia feel very differently as a juror than someone who happens not to know anybody's schizophrenic. They think it's an excuse.
So you have judges with expertise in mental illness and they know the rehabilitative strategies that are available. That's one thing. Having a drug court where you have judges and juries with expertise and rehabilitative strategies and what can be done inside a specialized prosecution court and so on.
All these different things, by the way, this is very easy for counties to implement this sort of thing. And this is this is, I think, where this matters to get neuroscience into public policy. What's the process of injecting expertise into this?
So I'll tell you exactly what it is. A county needs to run out of money first. I've seen this happen over and over.
So what happens is a county has a completely full jail and they say, you know what, we need to build another jail. And then they realize we don't have any money. We can't afford this. We got too many people in jail and that's when they turn to God. We need something smarter.
And that's when they set up specialized court systems that will function best when when our back is against the wall.
And that's what covid is good for. Yeah, it's because we we've all had our routines and we are optimized for the things we do. And suddenly our backs are against the wall, all of us.
Yeah. It's really I mean, one of the exciting things about covid, I mean, I'm a big believer in the the possibility of what government can do for the people.
And when it becomes too big of a bureaucracy, starts functioning poorly, starts wasting money. It's nice to Ivankovich and reveals that nicely and had lessons to be learned about who gets elected and who goes into government. Hopefully this hopefully this inspires talented and young people to go into government to revolutionize different aspects of it. Yeah. So that's that's the positive silver lining of covid. I mean, I thought it'd be fun to ask you. I don't know if you're paying attention to machine learning world and three.
So Dipti three is this language model is that work that's able to has one hundred seventy five billion parameters. So it's very large and it's trained in unsupervised way. And the Internet is just the reason. A lot of unstructured text and it's able to generate some pretty impressive things. The human brain compared to that has about, you know, a thousand times more. Synopsize People get so upset on machine learning, people compare the brain and we know Synopsize It was very different.
Very different. Right. But like, do you what do you think about GBG three?
Here's what I think. Here's I think a few things which Deepti three is doing is extremely impressive, but it's very different from what the brain does. So it's a good impersonator. But just as one example, everybody takes a passage that three has has written and they say, wow, look at this.
And it's pretty good. Right.
But it's already gone through a filtering process of humans looking at it and saying, OK, well, that's crap. OK, here's here's a sentence that's pretty cool. Now, here's the thing.
Human creativity is about absorbing everything around it and remixing that and coming up with stuff. So in that sense, we're sort of like we're we're remixing what we've gotten before. But we also know we also have very good models of what it is to be another human. And so, you know, I don't know if you speak French or something, but I'm not going to start speaking in French because then you'll say, wait, what are you doing? I don't understand.
Instead, everything coming out of my mouth is meant for your ears. I know what you'll understand. I know the vocabulary, you know, and don't know.
I know what parts you care about. That's a huge part of it, and so of all the possible sentences, I could say. I'm navigating this thin bandwidth so that it's something useful for our conversation in real time, but also throughout your life and your your we're evolving together. We're learning exactly how to communicate together.
Exactly. But this is this is what he does not do. All he's doing is saying, OK, I'm going to take all these sensors and remix stuff and pop some stuff out. But it doesn't know how to make it so that you leks will feel like, oh, yeah, that's exactly what I needed to hear. That's the next sentence that I needed to know about for something.
Well, of course it could be all the impressive results we see. The question is, what if you raised the number of parameters, whether it's going to be after some, it will not be it will not be raising more parameters.
Well, here's the thing. It's not that I don't think neural networks can't be like the human brain. I suspect they will be at some point fifty, you know, who knows?
But what we are missing in artificial neural networks is we've got this basic structure where you've got units, you've got synapses, the connected, and that's great. And it's done incredibly long, impressive things, but it's not doing the same algorithms is even. So, when I look at my children as little kids, you as infants, they can do things that No. Three can do. They can navigate a complex room. They can navigate social conversation with an adult.
They can lie. They can do a million things.
They they are active thinkers in our world and doing things.
And this, of course, I mean, look, we totally agree on how incredibly awesome artificial neural networks are right now, but we also know the things that they can't do well, like, you know, like be generally intelligent, do all these different reasons, reason about the world efficiently, learn efficiently, adapt.
Exactly. But it's still the rate of improvement. It's to me it's possible they'll be surprised like that.
We'll be surprised. But what I would what I would assert and I'm and I'm glad I'm going to say this on your podcast, we look back at this in two years and 10 years is that we've got to be much more sophisticated than units and synapses between them.
Let me give you an example, and this is what I talk about in Live Wired is despite the amazing impressiveness military presence, computers tend to be some basic things. Artificial neural networks turn up some basic things that we like caring about relevance, for example.
So as humans, we are confronted with tons of data all the time and we only encode particular things that are relevant to us.
We have this very deep sense of relevance that I mentioned earlier is based on survival at the most basic level. But then all the things about my life and your life, what's relevant to you that we encode? This is very useful.
Computers at the moment don't have that. They don't happen to have a yen to survive and things like that.
So we filled out a bunch of the junk. We don't need a really good at efficiently zooming in on things.
We need, again, could be argued. Let me put on my forehead hat. Maybe it's I mean, that's our conscious mind.
You know, we're not you know, there's no reason that neural networks aren't doing the same kind of filtration. I mean, in the sense the three is doing so, there's a priming step. It's doing an essential kind of filtration when you ask it to generate tweets from from, I don't know, from from an Elon Musk or something like that. It's doing a filtration of throwing away all the parameters it doesn't need for this task and it's figuring out how to do that successfully.
And ultimately, it's not doing a very good job right now, but it's doing a lot better job than we expected.
But it won't ever do a really good job. And I'll tell you what I mean. So let's say we say, hey, producing Elon Musk tweet and we see like, oh, well, press these three. That's great. But again, it's we're not seeing the three thousand that produced that didn't really make any sense. It's because it has no idea what it is like to be a human and all the things that you might want to say and all the reasons you wouldn't like.
When you go to write a tweet, you might read something.
Now it's going to come off quite right and modern political climate change things. So it somehow boils down to fear of mortality and all of these human things. At the end of the day, I'll continue with that tweeting experience.
You know, interestingly, the fear of mortality is at the bottom of this, but you've got all these more things like, you know, oh, I want to just in case the chairman of my department reads this, I want that just in case my mom looks at this tweet.
I want to make sure she's here, you know, and so on, so that those are all the things that humans are able to sort of throw into the calculation. I mean, not what it required.
What it requires, though, is having a model of your chairman, having a model of your mother, having a model of, you know, the person you want to go on a date with. You might look at your tweet.
And so all these things, are you running the. A body just like to be them, so in terms of the structure of the brain, again, is maybe going into speculation and I hope you go along with me is OK.
So the brain seems to be intelligent and our systems aren't very currently. So where do you think intelligence arises in the brain? Like what? What is it about the brain?
So if you mean where location wise, it's no single spot, it would be equivalent to asking. I'm looking at New York City. Where is the economy? The answer is you can't point to any where the economy is all about the interaction of all of the pieces and parts of the city. And that's what, you know, intelligence, whatever we mean by that, the brain is interacting from everything going on in the ones in terms of a structure.
So we look humans are much smarter than fish. Maybe not dolphins, but the dolphins are mammals, right? I assert that what we mean by smarter has to do with live wiring. So so what we mean when we say, oh, we're smarter is, oh, we can figure out a new thing and figure out a new pathway to get where we need to go.
And that's because fish are essentially coming to the table with, you know, OK, here's the hardware.
Go swim, mate, eat. But we have the capacity to say, OK, look, I'm going to absorb.
Oh, but I saw someone else do this thing and and I read once that you could do this other thing and so on. So do you think there's is there something and these are mysteries, but like architecturally speaking, what feature of the brain of of the live wire aspect of it that is really useful for intelligence. So like is it the ability of neurons to reconnect? Like, is there something is there any lessons about the human brain you think might be inspiring for us to take into the artificial into the machine learning world?
Yeah, I'm actually just trying to write some up on this now called, you know, if you want to build a robot, start with the stomach.
And what I mean by that, what I mean by that is a robot has to care. It has to have hunger. It has to care about surviving that kind of thing.
Here's an example.
So the penultimate chapter in my book, I titled The Wolf in the Mars Rover. And I look at the simple comparison if you look at a wolf. It gets its leg caught in a trap, what does it do? It gnaws its leg off and then it figures out how to walk on three legs.
No problem. Now, the Mars rover Curiosity got its front wheel stuck in the Martian soil and it died.
This project that cost billions of dollars died because we wouldn't it be terrific if we could build a robot that chewed off its front wheel and figured out how to operate with a slightly different body plan. That's the kind of thing that we want to be able to build and to get there. What we need.
The whole reason the Wolf is able to do that is because it's motor and somatosensory systems are live wires. So it says, oh, you know, it turns out we got a body plan that's different than what I thought a few minutes ago. But I have I have a yen to survive and I care about relevance, which in this case is getting to food, getting back to my pack and so on. So I'm just going to figure out how to operate with rules that didn't work.
OK, I'm kind of getting it to work, but the Mars rover doesn't do that.
It just says, oh, geez, I was preprogrammed for wheels. Now of three, I'm screwed. Yeah. You know, I don't know if you're familiar with a philosopher named Ernest Becker who wrote a book called Denial of Death. And there's a few psychologists, Sheldon Solomon, I think he spoke with him on his podcast, who developed terror management theory, which is like Ernest Becker is a philosopher that basically said that. Mortality, fear of mortality is at the core of it.
Yeah, and so I don't know if it sounds compelling is an idea that we're out. I mean, that all of the civilization of constructed is based on this, but it's a familiar with his work.
Usually, I think I think that, yes, fundamentally the desire to survive is at the core of it. I would agree with that. But but how that expresses itself in your life ends up being the reason you do what you do.
Is I mean, you could list the hundred reasons why you chose to write your tweet this way in that way, and it really has nothing to do with the survival part. It has to do with, you know, trying to impress fellow humans and surprise them and say something. So many things built on top of each other. But it's fascinating to think that in artificial intelligence systems, we want to be able to somehow engineer this drive for survival, for immortality.
I mean, because as humans, we're not just about survival. We're aware of the fact that we're going to die, which is a very kind of world where like space aren't, by the way, aren't.
All right, Confucius said. He said each person has two lives. The second one begins when you realize that you have just one.
Yeah, but most people it takes a long time for most people to get there.
I mean, you could argue this kind of thing, which Ernest Becker argues is they it's they they actually figured it out early on. And the terror they felt was like the reason it's been suppressed and the reason most people want to ask them about whether they're afraid of death. They basically say no. They basically say, like, I'm afraid I won't get, like submit the paper before I die. It's like they kind of they see death as a kind of inconvenient deadline for a particular set of like a book you're writing, as opposed to like, what the hell?
This thing ends in a moment.
Like most people I've encountered do not meditate on the idea that, like, right now you could die like right now. Like, it is like in the next five minutes, it could be all over and, you know, meditate on that idea. I think that somehow brings you closer to, like, the core of the motivations and the core of the human condition.
But like I said, it is not. Yeah, there's so many things on top of it. But it is interesting. I mean, as the ancient poet said, death whispers at my ear live for I come.
So it's it is certainly motivating when we think about that. OK, I've got some deadline. I don't know exactly what it is, but I better make stuff happen. It is motivating, but I don't think I mean, I know for just speaking for me personally, that's not what motivates me day to day. It's instead oh I want to get this program up and running before this or I want to make sure my co-author isn't mad at me because I haven't gotten the center.
I don't want to miss this grant deadline or, you know, whatever the thing is. Yeah. This too is to distance in a sense. Nevertheless, it is good to reconnect. But for the A.I. systems, none of that is there, like a neural network does not fear its mortality and that that seems to be somehow fundamentally missing the point.
I think that's missing the point. But I wonder, it's an interesting speculation about whether you can build a missile system that is much closer to being a human without the mortality and survival, peace. But just the thing of relevance, just I care about this right now. If you have a robot role into the room, it's going to be frozen because it doesn't have any reason to go there versus there.
It doesn't have any particular set of things about this is how I navigate my next move because I want something.
Yeah, there's a that's the thing about humans is they seem to generate goals there, like I said, live wired. I mean, it is very flexible in terms of the goals and creative in terms of the goals you generate.
When we enter a room, you show up to a party without a goal usually, and then you figure it out a lot.
Yes, but this goes back to the question about free will, which is when I walk into the party. If you rewound it 10000 times, would I go and talk to that couple over there versus that like I might do this exact same thing every time because I've got some gold stack and I think, OK, well, at this party, I really want to meet these kind of people or I feel awkward or whatever, you know, whatever my goals are, by the way.
So there was something that I meant to mention earlier, if you don't mind going back, which is this when we were talking about PCI. So I don't know if you know this, but what I'm spending 90 percent of my time doing now is running a company.
Do you know about this? Yes. I wasn't sure what the company is involved in. Right. So we can talk about it. Yeah. Yeah. So when it comes to the future of BCI, you know, you can put stuff into the brain invasively. But my interest has been how you can get data streams into the brain noninvasively.
So I run a company called Neo Sensory and what we build is this little wristband. We've built this in many different factors. It yeah, this is it. And it's got these vibratory motors in it. So these things, as I'm speaking, for example, it's, you know, capturing my voice and running algorithms and then turning that into patterns of vibration here.
So people who are deaf, for example, learn to hear through their skin. So the information is getting up to their brain this way and they learn how to hear. So it turns out on day one, people are pretty good, like better than you would expect being able to say, oh, that's weird. It was that was that a dog barking? Was that a baby crying? Was that a doorknocker doorbell? Like, people are pretty good at it, but with time to get better and better.
And what it becomes is a new qualia, in other words, a new subjective internal experience.
So on day one they say, whoa, what was it? Oh, that was the dog barking. But by, you know, three months later, they say, oh, there's dog barking somewhere. Oh, there's the dog. That's fascinating.
And by the way, that's exactly how you learn how to use your ears. So what you, of course, don't remember this, but when you were an infant, all you have are your eardrum vibrating causes, spikes to go down your auditory nerves and your auditory cortex.
Your brain doesn't know what those mean automatically. But what happens is you learn how to hear by looking for correlations. You know, you clap your hands as a baby, you know, you look at your mother's mouth moving and that correlates with what's going on there. And eventually your brain says, ah, I'm just going to summarize this as an internal experience, as a conscious experience. And that's exactly what happens here.
The weird part is that you can feed data into the brain, not through the ears, but through any channel that gets there. As long as the information gets through, your brain figures out what to do with it. That's fascinating. And like expanding the set of sensors and could be could be arbitrarily could it could expand arbitrarily, which is fascinating.
Well, exactly. And by the way, the reason I use the skin, you know, there's all kinds of cool stuff going on in the real world class. But the fact is your eyes are overtaxed and your ears are overtaxed and you need to be able to see and hear other stuff be covered with the skin, which is this incredible computational material with which you can feed information.
And we don't use our skin for much of anything nowadays. My joke in the lab is that I say we don't call this the waste for nothing because originally built as the vest and, you know, you passing all this information that way. And what I'm doing here with with the deaf community is is what's called sensory substitution, where I'm capturing sound and I'm just replacing the ears with the skin. And that works. One of the things I talk about, Livewire, is sensory expansion.
So what if you took something like your your visual system, which picks up on a very thin slice of the electromagnetic spectrum and you could see infrared or ultra.
So we took that up, infrared and ultraviolet detectors. And, you know, I can feel what's going on. So just as an example, the first night I built the one of my engineers built that the infrared detector, I was walking in the dark between two houses and suddenly I felt all this infrared radiation.
It's like, where does it come from? And I just followed my wrist and I found a an infrared camera night vision camera that was like, you know, immediately, oh, there's that thing there. I would have never seen it.
But now it's just part of my reality and nothing. Yeah. And then, of course, what I'm really interested in is sensory addition.
What did you pick up on stuff that isn't even part of what we normally pick up on, like, you know, like the magnetic field of the Earth or Twitter or stock market or things like that, or the, I don't know, some weird stuff like the moods of other people or something like that.
Sure. Now what you need is a way to measure measure. So as long as there's a machine that can measure it, it's the easiest trivial to feed this in here. And you come to be it comes to be part of your reality.
It's like you have another sensor and that that kind of thing is without doing like if you look in your like without I forgot how you put it, but it was eloquent, you know, without getting cutting into the brain basically.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So this this cost at the moment. Three hundred ninety nine dollars. I tell you it's not going to kill you if you just put it on and when you're done you take it off. Yeah. Yeah. And so and the name of the company by the way is neo sensory for new senses because the whole idea is beautiful.
You can as I said, you know, you come to the table with certain plug and play devices and then that's it. Like I can pick up on this little bit of electromagnetic radiation. I can pick up on on this little frequency band for hearing and so on.
But but but I'm stuck there and there's no reason we have to be stuck there.
We can expand our unveiled by adding new senses. Yeah. Involved. Oh, I'm sorry. The umwelt is the slice of reality that you pick up on.
So each animal has its own hell of a word. Yeah, exactly.
I'm sorry for to define it for it's it's such an important concept, which is to say for example, if you are a tick, you pick up on bitter gas, you pick up on odor and you pick up on temperature. That's it. That's how you construct your reality is with those two senses.
If you are a blind echolocating bat, you're picking up on air compression waves coming back, you know, echolocation. If you are the black go Snapfish. You're picking up on changes in the electrical field around you with electro reception. That's how they swim around and tell there's a rock there and so on.
But that's that's all they pick up on. That's their velt. It's that's they're the signals they get from the world from which to construct their reality. And they could be totally different.
Nouvelles And so our human umwelt is, you know, we've got little bits that we can pick up on.
One of the things I like to do with my students is talk about imagine that you are a bloodhound dog, right? You are a bloodhound dog with a huge snout with two. Million scent receptors in it and your whole world is about smelling. You've got slits in your big nostrils there and so on. Do you have a dog, you know, used to be used to so, you know, you walk your dog around and your dog is smelling everything.
The whole world is full of signals that you do not pick up on it. So imagine if you were that dog and you looked at your human master and thought, my God, what is it like to have the pitiful little nose of a human?
How could you not know that there's a cat 100 yards away or that your friend was here six hours ago?
And so the idea is because we're stuck in our own world, because we have a little bit of noses, we think, OK, well, yeah, we're seeing reality. But but you can have very different sorts of realities depending on the peripheral plug and play devices you're equipped with.
It's fascinating to think that, like, if we're being honest, probably our own fault is, you know, some infinitely tiny percent of the possibilities of how you can sense, quote unquote, reality, even if you could.
I mean, there's a guy named Don Donald Hoffman who basically basically says we're really far away from reality in terms of our ability to sense anything like we were very we're almost like we're floating out there. That's almost completely detached to the actual physical reality. It's fascinating that we can have extra sensors that could help us get a little bit a little bit closer.
Exactly. And by the way, this has been the the fruits of science is real. For example, you know, you open your eyes and there's the world around you. Right. But of course, depending on how you calculate it, it's less than a tenth trillion of the electromagnetic spectrum that we call visible light. The reason I say it depends because, you know, it's actually infinite in all directions.
Yeah. And so that's exactly that. And then science allows you to actually look into the rest of it.
Exactly. Sort of understanding how big the world is out there. And the same with the world of really small in the world of really large exactness beyond our ability to sense.
And so the reason I think this kind of thing matters is because we now have an opportunity for the first time in human history to say, OK, well, I'm just going to include other things in my own world.
So I'm going to include infrared radiation and have a direct perceptual experience of that.
And so I'm very you know, I mean, so, you know, I've given up my lab and I run this company 90 percent of my time. Now that's what I'm doing. I still teach at Stanford and I'm, you know, teaching courses and stuff like that. But this is like this is your your passion. The fire is on this. Yeah.
I feel like the most important thing that's happening right now.
I mean, obviously, I think that because that's what I'm devoting my time in my life to. But I mean, it's a brilliant set of ideas. It certainly is like it it's a step in in a very vibrant future.
I would say, like, the possibilities are endless. Exactly.
So if you ask what I think about neural link, I think it's amazing what those guys are doing and working on. But I think it's not practical for almost everybody. For example, for people who are deaf, they buy this. And, you know, every day we're getting tons of emails and tweets or whatever from people saying, wow, I picked up on this.
I had no idea that was a I didn't even know that was happening out there. And they're coming to hear this. By the way, this is, you know, less than a tenth of the price of a hearing aid and like 250 times less than a cochlear implant. That's amazing.
People love hearing about what, you know, brilliant folks like yourself could recommend in terms of books. Of course, you're an author of many books. So I'll in the introduction mention all the books you've written. People should definitely read. I have wired. I've gotten a chance to read some of it. It's amazing.
But is there three books, technical fiction, philosophical, that had an impact on you when you were younger or today, and books, perhaps some of which you would want to recommend that others read?
You know, as an undergraduate, I majored in British and American literature. That was my major because I love literature.
I grew up with literature. My father had these extensive bookshelves. And so I grew up in the mountains in New Mexico. And so that was mostly I spent my time reading books. But, you know, I love.
You know, Faulkner, Hemingway, I love many South American authors, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, I would actually recommend Invisible Cities. I just I loved that book by Italo Calvino. Sorry, it's a book of fiction.
Anthony Dorje wrote a book called Old The Light We Cannot See, which actually was inspired by Incognito, by exactly what we were talking about earlier, about how you can only see a little bit of the what we call visible light in the electromagnetic radiation.
I wrote about this in Incognito and then he reviewed Incognito for the Washington. Oh, no, that's awesome. That he wrote the book has nothing to do with that. But that's where the title comes from.
Yeah. Although we cannot see is about the rest of the spectrum. But the that's an absolutely gorgeous book.
That's a book of fiction. Yes. A book of fiction. What's what's it about.
Takes place in World War Two about these two young people, one of whom is blind and you know, anything else.
So when you mention Hemingway, I mean, or man or men, see what what what's your favorite snows of Kilimanjaro?
A collection of short stories I love.
As far as not as far as non-fiction goes. I grew up with Cosmos, both watching the PBS series that really the book. And that influenced me a huge amount in terms of what I do. I from the time I was a kid, I felt like I want to be Carl Sagan. Like I just that's what I loved. And in the end, I just you know, I studied space physics for a while as an undergrad. But then I in my last semester discovered neuroscience last semester.
And I just thought, wow, I'm hooked on that.
So the Carl Sagan of the brain is the aspiration.
Yeah. I mean, you're doing you're doing an incredible job of it. So you open the book Livewire with a quote by Heidegger, Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.
Well, what do you mean or what? I'll tell you what I meant by that. I'll tell you.
So he had his own reason why he was writing that.
But I meant this in terms of brain plasticity, in terms of library, which is this issue that I mentioned before about this this cone, the Space-Time cone that we are in, which is that when you dropped into the world. You had all this different potential, you could have been a great surfer or a great chess player, or you could have been thousands of different men when you grew up.
But what you did is things that were not your choice and your choices along the way. You know, you ended up navigating a particular path and now you're exactly who you are. Used to have lots of potential. But the day you die, you will be exactly lack's you will be one person.
Yeah. So on that in that context, I mean, first of all, it's just the beautiful it's a humbling picture, but it's a beautiful one because it's all the possible trajectories and you pick one, you walk down that road and the Robert Frost poem. But on that topic, let me ask the the biggest and the most ridiculous question. So in this livewire brain, when we choose all these different trajectories, end up with one. What's the meaning of it all?
What's is there is there a Y here?
What's the meaning of life?
David Eagleman, I mean, this is the question that everyone has attacked from their own life.
Our point of view, by which I mean culturally, if you grew up in a religious society, you have one way of attacking that question. I grew up in a secular scientific society of a different way of attacking that question. Obviously, I don't know. There's no abstain on that question.
I mean, I think one of the fundamental things, I guess, in that in all those possible trajectories is you're always asking me that's the act of asking what the heck is this thing for? Is equivalent to or at least runs in parallel to all the choices that you're making, because it's kind of that's the underlying question. Well, that's right.
And by the way, you know, this is the interesting thing about human psychology. You've got all these layers of things at which we can ask questions. And so if you keep asking yourself the question about what is the optimal way for me to be spending my time, what should I be doing?
What charity should I get involved with?
If you're asking those big questions that that steers you appropriately, if you're the type person who never asks, hey, is there something better I could be doing with my time, then presumably you won't optimize whatever it is that is important to you.
So you've I think just in your eyes, in your work, there's a passion that just is obvious and it's inspiring, is contagious.
What if you were to give advice to a young person today in the crazy chaos that we live today about life, about how to. How to how to discover their passion. Is there some words that you could give? First of all, I would say the main thing for a young person is stay adaptable and this is back to this issue of why covid is useful for us, because it forces us off our tracks. The fact is, the jobs that will exist 20 years from now, we don't even have names for we can't even imagine the jobs that exist.
And so when young people that I know go into college and they say, hey, what should I majoring in college is and should be less and less vocational, as in, oh, I'm going to learn how to do this and then I'm going to do that the rest of my career. The world just isn't that way anymore with the exponential speed of things.
So the important thing is learning how to learn, learning how to be live wired and adaptable. That's really key. And what I tell, what I advise young people that I talk to them is. You know what, you digest that, that's what gives you the raw storehouse of things that you can remix and be creative with and so eat broadly and widely.
And obviously, this is the wonderful thing about the Internet world we live in now, as you kind of can't help it, you're constantly well, you go down some Mohle of Wikipedia and you think, oh, I didn't even realize that was a thing. I didn't know that existed. And so I embrace that. Embrace that. Yeah, exactly. And when I tell people is just always do a gut check about OK, I'm reading this paper and.
Yeah but this paper.
Wow. That really I really cared about. That's why I tell them just keep a real sniff out for that. And when you find those things keep going down those paths. Yeah, don't be afraid, I mean, that's one of the the challenges and the downsides of having so many beautiful options is that sometimes people are a little bit afraid to really commit. But that's very true. If there's something that just sparks. Yeah. Your interest and passion, just run with it.
I mean, that's it goes back to the Haidara quote. I mean, we only get this one life and that trajectory, it doesn't last forever. So just if something sparks your imagination, your passion is wrong with it.
Yeah, exactly. And I don't think there's a more beautiful way to end it. There is a huge honor to finally meet you. Your work is inspiring so many people I've talked to, so many people who are passionate about neuroscience, about the brain, even outside that I read your book. So I hope I hope you keep doing so. I think you're already there with Carl Sagan. I hope you continue growing. Um, yeah. It was on a talking today.
Thanks so much.
It looks wonderful. Thanks for listening to this conversation with David Eagleman and thank you to our sponsors, Athletic Greens Better Help and Kashyap click the sponsor links in the description to get a discount and to support this podcast. If you enjoy this thing, subscribe on YouTube review starting up a podcast, follow on Spotify, support on Patrón or connect with me on Twitter, Allex Friedman. And now let me leave you with some words from David Eagleman in his book, Some 40 Tales from the Afterlives.
Imagine for a moment that were nothing but the product of billions of years of molecules coming together and ratcheting up through natural selection. There were composed only of high waves of fluids and chemicals sliding along roadways with billions of dancing cells that trillions of synaptic connections hum in parallel that this vast agalloch fabric of microcystin circuitry runs algorithms and dreamt of a modern science that these neural programs give rise to our decision making, love's desires, fears and aspirations. To me, understanding this would be a numinous experience better than anything ever proposed in any holy text.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.