Dr. David Eagleman's New Dream Project

Calls his quest "the most ambitious scientific undertaking of our generation"

Posted Feb 07, 2012

Dr. David Eagleman

Dr. David Eagleman by Brandon Thibodeaux.

Leading synesthesia researcher Dr. David Eagleman, though sleep-deprived from the recent arrival of new son, Ari, is still ever the Possibilian.

Possibilianism is a philosophy coined at first in private by the brilliant thinker, until of course he announced it on NPR, bought the web page, gave the TEDx talk and found himself the founder of a new movement with thousands of followers. A response to the polarity he noticed in book stores with competing Neo-Atheist and religiously dogmatic titles, he advocates a middle path that seeks to know the answers about our existence and the way things work without being either religion nor the outright rejection of the idea of a greater intelligence. (The initiation rite, he shares, is simply to change your Facebook religious affiliation to "Possibilian".)

The neuroscientist and best-selling author (Wednesday is Indigo Blue, Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, plus the iPad app and ebook Why the Net Matters or Six Ways to Avert the Collapse of Civilization) says he's at work on a dream project, "the most ambitious scientific undertaking of our generation." If it weren't Dr. Eagleman talking, I'd find that grandiose, but I'm on the line with a man known to change the way science does things and the way the wider world thinks.

"I want to replace myself as a scientist," he says, "by building an Artificial Intelligence that is smart enough to read all of the medical literature and generate its own hypotheses." No human can read and distill the 60,000 new neuroscience papers published each year, he points out. "This is not pure fantasy because I'm already starting to work on this...There've been a lot of failed paths with A.I. but after writing Incognito and synthesizing some ideas I think I know the path to get there. And I'm actually currently going out to seek funding for this."

Each researcher now, he says, is as though in miniature, pulling a few puzzle pieces from a box and hoping they might match up. "But the fact is you spend your life pulling out random pieces. Wouldn't it be great if there were a program that pulls all the pieces and sees the larger pattern?"

He's already sped up synesthesia research by four orders of magnitude in the past nine years he's been involved with the topic with the development of his online Synethesia Battery (here: http://synesthete.org) which people from around the world can access from their home computers. They submit their colored alphabets (a custom color bar allows just the right hue for synesthetes, known to be very persnickety about their shades) and even write in their unusual experiences. One of the most interesting? A spatial sequence synesthete from India who sees the hierarchical caste system of his homeland out in space around him.

In the beginning, he remembers, he and researchers like Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen in the UK were putting up fliers around their universities seeking willing synesthetic subjects. That led to early estimates on the prevalence of synesthesia being 1 in 20,000 by Dr. Baron-Cohen at the time. But more recent estimates put it at more like 4 percent of the population having surveyed some 19,000 international synesthetes.

"These are rigorously verified synesthetes and I think that having these large numbers changes things in a useful way," says Dr. Eagleman, who will be publishing new findings from the monstrous data set over the next 12 months. "What we're able to do now is dive into this giant data set, the most gigantic data that's ever been had on synesthesia...and really understand what's going on: the patterns, the differences and the similarities. This is the kind of understanding that can only emerge from very large data sets."

So he's seen our understanding of the prevalence of synesthesia change and he's seen the capacity to get massive data sets change through his online efforts. And by analyzing his large data set, he's found that certain types of synesthesia tend to cluster together. A person with colored letters is likely to also have colored numbers or weekdays, but not likely to have, say, colored emotion or tasted words. Given this finding, Dr. Eagleman published a hypothesis last year that synesthesia may be an umbrella term encompassing several different "synesthesias," which might have different genetic origins.

His next volume is on time perception, inspired by his own experience of the seeming slowing of time as he fell from a roof as a young boy. He's collected over 400 similar stories of people experiencing time in different ways. His process is to come home from the lab brimming with cool bits of inspiration he encountered during the day and write them out in a list. Those that can become verifiable scientific studies end up on their own list. Those we don't have tools in the toolbox for yet become literary fiction.

"It's useful just to cultivate them into a piece of fiction because fiction is a way of understanding the world also."

He writes into the night, now checking on his bright-eyed baby, their first child. Would he like him to have the trait he's studying so vigorously?

"I guess I would because synesthesia tends to be associated with better memory, certainly for numbers and letters and things like that, so there are slight advantages to it... If I had to weigh one or another, I'd say ‘Go for it.' "

Dr. David Eagleman

Dr. David Eagleman by Sharon Steinmann.

Dr. Eagleman's website is www.eagleman.com. He is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law.

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