When David Eagleman was a teenager, he got turned on to science by watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Now the Houston neuroscientist is hoping to do the same thing for a new generation with a new PBS series, The Brain, that aims to unlock the inner cosmos within the human body.
A select Houston audience recently got to see snippets from the fascinating six-part series, which debuts Wednesday (October 14) at 9 pm on Houston Public Media TV8. In the series, Eagleman explains the mysteries of the brain in down-to-earth terms that anyone can understand, looking at such topics as why some accidents remain imprinted on our mind while others don't, why a 10-year world champion cupstacker is so good at his strange sport and how computers and mobile devices affect the brain.
Eagleman traveled around the world and parts of Houston seeking answers. In one scene, he measures differences in how adults and teens react to being gawked at in a store window at River Oaks Shopping Center. In another, he travels to Srebrenica, Bosnia, the scene of a mass genocide of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995, to determine the effects of propaganda on the brain.
Before the screening at the Asia Society Texas Center, Eagleman spoke with CultureMap about his two-year odyssey to write, produce and star in the series while he's been running a laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine, launching two start-up companies, writing a companion book to the series and handling a toddler.
"It's been tremendously satisfying for me to be on the other side of this project and to be able to finally launch it into the world," he said. "I'm feeling great about the way it turned out."
CultureMap: How hard was it to get this series on the air?
David Eagleman: I had spoken with about 10 to 12 production companies in the course of a couple of years about doing a show like this. I found it difficult to find a production company that wanted to do something like this with a seriousness of purpose. The advice I got over and over was you can't do a show like Carl Sagan's Cosmos any more because audiences simply don't have that kind of loyalty or attention span. I chose not to believe that.
I finally found a really wonderful production company called Blink Films and they were totally aligned with our vision. And we went to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and they gave us the funding and we made it.
CM: What do you hope to achieve?
DE: To give people a window into themselves. There's this Greek admonition to "Know Thyself" and there are many ways of approaching that, but I think that understanding the machinery under the hood that makes you who you are is a very powerful inroad into that.
CM: What don't we know about the brain?
DE: Almost everything. I wrote an article in Discover magazine back in 2007 titled "10 Unsolved Mysteries Of The Brain" and there were all basic questions: Why do brains sleep and dream? What is intelligence? What is consciousness? All these things, we still don't have the answer now.
CM: So from watching the show, what can you learn?
DE: What I hope (viewers) learn is to take what we know in modern neuroscience and apply it to their own lives and have a better understanding of why they act the way they do, why they believe the things they believe.
CM: How do you make this approachable?
DE: It actually ended up being quite easy. It's just a matter of storytelling. All throughout the series I do experiments looking for things that are happening in the real world. I stop people on the street and ask them to look at something.
In one (segment), I am looking at differences in the teen brain and the adult brain and I put teenagers and adults individually right in a shop window with a sign that says, "Look At Me." And then I measure particular responses of their physiology about how they respond to that. Everything is cast in a narrative journey that you go along with me.
CM: What was it about Cosmos that sticks in our mind this many years later?
DE: It was the most popular science documentary of its time. I think it's because Sagan had a way of turning us all on to the beauty of science in a way that was so simple and clear.
Somehow academics in science have a way to start making things more opaque by using lots of jargon, but it's not the reason that any of us got into academia or why anyone of us as kids loved science. What I want to do with the series is zoom the camera back down and look at the big picture, the things that seduced us into the field in the first place.
CM: You seem to be a person who does make science understandable and easy. How do you do that?
DE: That's very easy actually. I'm always very clear who my audience is and the audience is my 16-year-old self. I always know exactly what I didn't know at that time and what would have really turned me on.