This week our guest is Dr. David Eagleman: renowned Stanford neuroscience professor, author of 8 books, and CEO and co-founder of NeoSensory, a company specializing in creating sensory substitution devices. In this conversation, we'll be exploring his 2020 novel, Livewired, where he examines and redefines the idea of neuroplasticity--the brain’s ability to rewire itself as we experience the world around us. We'll also go in depth on the newest devices from his company, https://neosensory.com/, which use vibrations to help people with health issues and potentially even unlock new senses. If you're curious how to optimize your brain health and want to know more about the future of human senses, this one's for you.
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Host: Steven Parton // Music by: Amine el Filali
brain, people, wristband, world, pick, neo, question, sensory, feel, called, book, species, thinking, acetylcholine, kinds, parts, fingertips, humans, turns, vibrations
David Eagleman, Steven Parton
David Eagleman 00:00
Anything that involves a challenge to the brain is the best thing that you can do for the brain. So anything that's new that you haven't done before a hill that you've not climbed before, that's what you want to always be seeking.
Steven Parton 00:25
Hello, everyone, you're listening to the feedback loop on singularity radio, where we keep you up to date on the latest technological trends and how they're impacting the transformation of consciousness and culture from the individual to society at large. This week, our guest is David Eagleman, a Stanford neuroscience professor, author of eight books, and the CEO and co founder of Neo sensory, a company specializing in creating sensory substitution devices. Many of you might know him from his popular TED Talk, where he revealed a vest that was capable of taking noises and data from the outside world or even from the internet, and translating those noises into vibrations on the body, which could allow people to translate those vibrations into a new sense of sorts. For instance, the initial testing with the vest could take people talking in the external world and translate those noises into vibrations that a deaf person could eventually detect as if the vibrations on the body were a form of Braille. Well, this is just one of the many fascinating reasons that I want to talk to Dr. Eagleman. There's another reason in particular, which is that he recently released his 2020 novel, live wired, where he attempts to redefine and examine the idea of neuro plasticity. In the simplest terms, neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to rewire itself. As we experience the world around us, the brain is constantly changing. It's a simple enough notion to describe, but as you'll hear, the implications of this process are really, truly profound. In fact, it's arguably one of the core reasons why humanity has actually become the dominant species we have become. In spite of the complexity of these topics, I would have to say this conversation is truly an episode for everyone. First off, exploring these fundamental ideas of neuroscience is just utterly fascinating and inspiring. But we also explore the role that these concepts play in things like business in our day to day lives and as experts, and we also touch on the future of sensory technology, the future of humanity is sensing How will very likely have a near term situation where humans begin unlocking extra extra senses. And finally, you'll notice at the end of this episode, we take several questions from our online community of over 30,000 members. And if you would like to ask questions of our future guests, or even potentially be a guest on future episodes, that's something we'll be doing very soon. Be sure to go to su.org slash podcasts, and follow the links to sign up and explore which community membership level is the right one for you. In the meantime, please welcome to the feedback loop. Dr. David Eagleman. So I thought to start, maybe you could just tell us a little bit about your book and why you're so focused on bringing into the language, this idea of live wired instead of neuro plastic.
David Eagleman 03:34
Yeah, great. So the book is called Live Wire. And the idea is, so there's this thing in neuroscience called brain plasticity. And the idea is that this captures how the brain changes. So when you learn something new, when you learn that My name is David, there is a physical change in the structure of your brain. And that's how you can remember it that week, later, a month or year later. But the term was actually introduced a century ago, when people were impressed with plastic manufacturing, which is specifically that you can, you can change, you can mold the shape of something and then it holds on to that shape. And that's why we that's what we find useful about plastic is that holds on to the shape. But really, as a neuroscientist looking into this for years, I realized it's such a bigger concept than that, because you've got 86 billion neurons that are constantly every second of your life, adjusting and changing their the connections between them which number in the trillions are constantly changing their strength and unplugging and seeking and re plugging elsewhere? Every moment your life This stuff is happening and the changes are getting passed on to sort of deeper and deeper structures that hold on to the data. And so I realized it's that our days of being impressed by plastic manufacturing are over and and we need a different template. So So Livewire does the chose I the term I chose because you know, it's It's interesting here in Silicon Valley, of course, what all we ever talked about is hardware and software. And I realized that what we're all carrying around on our shoulders is, is live where it's a different kind of device that we wouldn't even believe is true except that we have an existence proof three pounds of it for every person. And so that's that's why I use the term nowadays live where and live wired.
Steven Parton 05:25
So why this topic amongst all the other things you could do, I mean, you're, I think you've written about eight books. Now you teach a Stanford, you're running a company, why dedicate so much of that, I would imagine rare and limited time to this one topic above all else.
David Eagleman 05:41
Yeah, I'll tell you, it's because I think this is the most fundamental principle in neurosciences, how you have a system that changes itself, based on experience, and relevance and so on. And this is the thing that has set our species apart, Mother Nature essentially has, has taken a gamble with us that that she hasn't fully with other species, which is, you know, Hey, why don't you drop the brain into the world half baked, and let the world wired up, instead of trying to pre program everything so if you're, you know, if you're born as a, as a horse, you know, you're essentially the same horse in every generation, you you come kind of pre programmed with things, eat made, run, whatever. But humans, we have these incredibly long infant seas, where we drop into the world and have to learn everything around us the advantages by the time you're, you know, a kid, by the time you're eight or nine years old, you can learn pretty much, you know, most things that humans have discovered before us, and then you springboard off from that. And that is why when you look at the innovation curve of our species, it's on this exponential, that's why we've taken over every corner of the planet, we've gotten off the planet, we've invented, you know, vaccines and internet and everything else. And so, you know, and I just want to mention, the reason I say it's a gamble is because what Mother Nature expects is okay, this brain is going to drop into an environment that gets all the proper, you know, input, the love and touch and education and so on. And it turns out, we you know, we have these tragic stories where children end up not in these environments, and and they their brains don't develop correctly. So you know, children, just as an example, in Romanian orphanages who, you know, after the fall of two ceska, there were 10s of 1000s of kids in these orphanages because their parents had been executed. And so there were too many for the staff. And the staff said, well, let's just go ahead and not touch them and not talk to them. Because if we do, there'll be too clingy. And as a result, all these kids grow up with major cognitive deficits, which is one of these tragic things that teaches us that brains, you know, they need a particular kind of input in order to become what they can become.
Steven Parton 08:04
Yeah. And have you been concerned at all with the current input that the brain is receiving because of the modern era? One thing I'm particularly interested in is how our technological landscape, the cities of millions of people, how this is so different from our evolutionary Lee adaptive environment? And what kind of maladaptation is might result from that?
David Eagleman 08:27
Yeah, I'll tell you, I'm actually quite optimistic about it. So so for example, the the fact that kids grow up with the internet now having the entirety of humankind's knowledge at their fingertips is incredible, I have a very strong prediction that the next generation is going to grow up to be much smarter than we are, because they just have the access to all this when they want it. And it turns out from a, from a live wiring point of view, the brain does its best changes, when it is curious about something that maps on to the neurotransmitters that are present. So you know, if you care about something, and I tell you the answer, it'll stick in a way that if I tell you, you know, 10, you know, important dates in Ukrainian history is not going to stick because you don't care perhaps. So anyway, you know, I grew up having a lot of Justin case, knowledge where the teacher would teach me things just in case I ever needed to know them. But my children, for example, get a lot of just in time knowledge. As soon as they're curious about something. They ask Alexa, they ask Google Home, they get the answer right then, and it sticks. And I can see it because I asked them a month later about that thing. They said, Oh yeah, this is the answer. And it's because it the answer came in the context of their curiosity.
Steven Parton 09:45
Do you think you talk about how, using the colonization of America as a metaphor how if you don't send resources to a part of the brain that it will kind of be conquered and that real estate will be taken over by other parts of the brain? Do you think maybe, for instance, parts of the hippocampus, let's say might be losing real estate because now computer hard drives remember things that our brains don't need to remember? Like, is there any kind of deep thing happening like that, that you're concerned about on a deeper level?
David Eagleman 10:19
Oh, yeah, great question. But I'm actually not concerned about it. Again, I'm optimistic it's because what we've built is essentially an xo brain, so that we can store a lot of things externally. And thank God for that because there's let me give an example. I don't know how you are Steven, I'm older than you are, it looks like and I you know, memorized all my friends phone numbers growing up. Now I don't memorize any phone numbers, thank God, like what a waste of neural space. And so you know, and in the same way that you can do lots of calculations and computations now, where when I was growing up, I had to write all these things out by hand. I mean, who, who wants to do that stuff, there's so much more important stuff that the brain can do. That all falls under the category, let's say of creativity, which is to say, taking in massive amounts of information, and then figuring out how to bend and break and blend that information to come up with new stuff. That's what you want to be doing with your resources rather than memorizing stuff like maps or phone numbers or calculations.
Steven Parton 11:22
Yeah, sorry, their states of mind or activities, then that increase the brain scalability? Like does like the flow state, maybe like socializing, anything like that?
David Eagleman 11:33
Yeah, actually. That's what the flow state because that represents something that you've overtrained on, you know, which is very useful. There's lots of things you want to be well trained on. But anything that involves a challenge to the brain is the best thing that you can do for the brain. So anything that's new that you haven't done before a hill that you've not climbed before, that's what you want to always be seeking. And it's important for us as we're going through our lifetimes, it's it's actually also really, really important for people when they retire. Most people, when they retire, their lives shrink. And they do less than less, including social. And that's really terrible for their brains. So what you want to do when you retire is stayed just as active, you know, seek novelty, see challenges all the time. You know, people always ask me, Well, what about you know, should I do something like Sudoku? Sure, do Sudoku. But as soon as you get good at it, drop it and do the next thing that you're not good at? That's the point. So yeah, in fact, there was this study about this. It's actually a long, ongoing study about nuns, who have all agreed to donate their brains upon their death. And it turns out that some fraction of these nuns had Alzheimer's disease, but nobody knew it when they were alive. They didn't show the cognitive symptoms. And this is because they lived in convents till the day they died. So they had social lives, they had chores, responsibilities, they were playing games, they were having arguments with the other sisters, they were doing all kinds of stuff that brains do, and constantly challenging their brains. And so even though their brains physically were generating with Alzheimer's, they were building new roadways and bridges in there, thanks to plasticity, live wiring.
Steven Parton 13:20
Wow. So just by staying active, mentally, it actually was able to fight against the physical degeneration.
David Eagleman 13:30
Exactly. It was just building building new pathways and saying, oh, okay, I need to do this, I'll build this here. And so you know, this was a big discovery that now in the Alzheimer's field matters a lot, which is, probably the best thing you can do is stay active, and it doesn't it doesn't necessarily avoid Alzheimers disease, it avoids the cognitive symptoms that come with it. Yeah.
Steven Parton 13:52
And what about the balance here, like, I'm a big advocate of embracing chaos of challenging yourself, you know, going into novelty, but your metaphor and colonization also got me thinking that I should repeat behaviors that are important to me so that those bits of real estate don't get taken over? Is there a key to balancing enriching your brain with new experiences, while also kind of strengthening the parts of yourself that you want to keep?
David Eagleman 14:19
Yeah, you know, all animals in the animal kingdom have this trade off between exploitation and exploration exploitation is doing the things that you already know how to do and you want to be good at and exploration is looking at the new stuff. So all animals tend to have like an 8020 balance where they exploit things they already know how to do and then they're seeking these novel things. And you know, and the reason the animals do this is because the world changes so if you you know, always look under the Red Rocks for the the worms that you eat, you know, the world might change, it might be a drought, whatever, and then you should be looking under the blue rock. So animals always explore this way, but I think that's a pretty good notion for the brain as well. And in fact, you know, in my last book called The Runaway species talked about this issue that we're always humans always want to find themselves in this middle zone between novelty and familiarity and one of the things that was interesting about the pandemic that hit in 2020 was you know, these massive fluctuations were suddenly everything was new, nothing was routine anymore. And and that was really tough on people. And then so people figured out okay, what do I need to do to make this so that, you know, I really can have routine in my life, but then it became too routine. And then you know, it started all the days started blending together. So people really had to work in 2020 to figure out how do I find that middle point between novelty and familiarity?
Steven Parton 15:44
Yeah, I was gonna say my big problem was telling people everything is so routine or early right now. I don't feel inspired. I don't feel productive. Like maybe you can speak to that. But like my inspiration, I love to work in coffee shops. Yeah, I just have the the noise and cacophony all around me. And it for some reason makes me focus and feel more creative. Is that is that something to do with live wireless, since like, my brain is trying to grasp all of this, these sensations around me and because of that, I can channel that into something.
David Eagleman 16:14
You know, by the way, I'm exactly the same way. All of my books, I've written the coffee shops, mostly I hop actually. But the you know, it's funny, I don't think that has so much to do with live wiring as just the fact that we, you know, we are exploratory animals, and there's always the, the what ifs the captcha, you run into a friend once in a while, and you hear some natural conversation once in a while. And, and also, we're extraordinarily social as a species were one of the most social species around, you know, there's this notion of Darwinian competition, survival of the fittest, and so on. But that doesn't actually explain human behavior. in its entirety. It's, you know, we're an extremely altruistic social species, as well as as being competitive. And so it's this has been, obviously one of the hardest parts of the pandemic is being alone in our homes when we are so programmed. So much of our brain circuitry is about other humans. And and suddenly, we didn't have that.
Steven Parton 17:17
Yeah, is it? This is something I feel like I read from suppose Katie's book behave. And I'm obsessed with that book. And it's a lot information. So I'm not sure if I'm getting this correctly. Exactly. But is it true that like new experiences to the brain, release calcium instead of sodium as a way to, like, help the new experience compete with the older, more established experiences?
David Eagleman 17:45
No, it's not. It's not calcium and sodium, it's acetylcholine is what happens. So. So what happens is, anytime there's reward or punishment, you get this release of acetylcholine, there are actually many different neurotransmitters that are involved in these things. Dopamine is another one that's released when something is is rewarding, and matters and so on. But let's take acetylcholine as our main example. Yeah, when you're doing something that leads to an unexpected result, you get this release of very specific spots in the brain that says, hey, you know what, changed your internal model of what you think is going on out there, because something just happened. That is a little different than than we thought. And when you're a kid, your brain is just soaked in acetylcholine, and everything is changing. But it's kind of like, I put this when you're a kid, it's like a Polaroid photograph, where everything is coming into focus at once, as you're learning stuff. But as you get older, it becomes more like an impressionist painting where just little dots change here and there. Because you know, you've got a pretty established model of the world. And now you're just making updates to it.
Steven Parton 18:54
interesting is that so how does the brain kind of handle that then, I guess, is that the key way, like the live wired process, I guess, handles, making sure that the old mature memories and synapses don't just completely stop anything new from forming?
David Eagleman 19:14
Yeah, so. So I have a whole chapter about this in the book, because I think this is a really important area. It turns out what people figured out when they started doing artificial neural networks, is that the enemy of memory is not time. It's other memories, which is to say, as you as you try to teach neural network more and more stuff, you start getting memory mud. And so what I realized is that the brain has to have a way of passing things off. You know, once somebody gets established, like, Oh, I see there's this pattern here. Then if that's, if that's consistent, and verifiable, and then it gets passed to deeper and deeper parts of the system. And so now the way that I think about the whole system is that it's what's called a paste layer model. So for example, when you think about Cities, Stuart brand has this wonderful, you know, version of cities in different pace layers, which is to say something like fashion changes quickly, something like what businesses are in the buildings like the restaurants that are that changes, but a little bit more slowly, the buildings themselves change even more slowly the governance of the city, the laws of the city that changes even more slowly, the nature of the city as in where the trees are in the rocks, whenever that changes even more slowly. So when you try to understand a city, you need to understand these changes the different timescales, some things are changing fast, and things are changing slow, and they all interact with one another. So I've taken that model and applied it to the brain, which is to say, you've got some things that brain that react very quickly and say, oh, okay, great, I'm gonna make a change here bump up, and you have things all the way that are all the way to the level of genetic changes that have been much more slowly. Specifically, there's this field of epigenetics, which you know, shows how, even though your genome stays the same, the genes that you express or repress, those are, those can actually change based on your experience. So you have live wiring all the way down at these different levels. Anyway, without the details, that's the that's the way that you store memories is they work their way down and down and down in the system. As they get more verified, and you see it more, it becomes a deeper part of what's going on.
Steven Parton 21:27
So is that maybe where like, repetition has its benefits? You talk about how, for example, when people see experts, maybe like an athlete, they you you instinctually think, oh, they must be calculating so many more things than I am and doing all this thinking when in fact, they're not thinking at all they've they've made it instinctual. And they've kind of gotten out of their own way. Is that, is that kind of it? Or is it that iteration that repeating of memories, what kind of helps us move through the pace layers to build that instinctual expertise? Yeah,
David Eagleman 22:01
that's exactly right, exactly. Right. So the expert at soccer, or baseball or whatever has automatized all these behaviors, they've burned it down into the circuitry so that now it's like hardware rather than software. So you know, the first time I'm playing a new sport that haven't played before my brain is on fire with activities. I'm trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do next and where my elbows are and what I mean know how to run and so on. But, but yeah, an expert, it's just part of their hardware, they just run it smoothly. And that is exactly right. Because they've put the 10,000 hours into it. They have burned that all the way down.
Steven Parton 22:38
Knowing these kinds of things that you know about expertise and the Livewire and the brain Do you do anything differently in your day to day life to kind of life hack or I guess optimize your functionality as an animal?
David Eagleman 22:54
I did That's very interesting. I think I do a lot of things without almost to the point of not even recognizing them anymore. But sure, I actually I'll tell you one thing I was just thinking about that I do that isn't so much about live wiring, but it's about understanding that the brain is made up of lots of different drives you have all these different neural networks that are geared to care about different things. And as a result, you sometimes think look I'm the kind of person who you know when I'm faced with some temptation I won't screw this up but then you always screw it up when you're actually faced with the temptation so so something that I've done in my life is what's called the Ulysses contract which is you know, when you're thinking in you know, a long term view of yourself and so on, you actually can set things up so that you can't break the rules when you get into a situation where you're tempted to mess up. So this is a hack that I use all the time and actually this is going to be one of my next books because I just find it so useful and important. It's so simple and yet it doesn't get implemented that much
Steven Parton 24:05
as it should Yeah, that's one of my favorite mental techniques I think about the same thing just does that carry over into your world as a business owner at all I don't know if you like have employees or maybe as a teacher but like knowing that let me let me kind of restart I suppose. Given that our world is very routine, specially with like a nine to five job and we tend to hyper specialized people into doing the same task over and over as maybe a business owner as a teacher or just your general view of the economy. Are we running into issues here by having people be so repetitive and not doing more new tasks, challenging tasks to kind of help Livewire their brain?
David Eagleman 24:50
Yeah, you know, it's funny you mentioned this because right in my company, Neo sensory, you know, so I tend to always throw new tasks onto the plate like, Hey, guys, we want to try this complete, crazy new thing. Let's try this blah, blah, blah, blah. It's interesting to me that some people are always on board for that. They say, well, that's cool. Let's try that. And some people really react and digging their heels there. So what's clear? I mean, first of all, there are a million differences between people, which we don't usually sort of talk about and recognize, but but one of them is that some people love seeking novelty, and other people really like to get a job and do their one thing until retirement. And so but yes, I try to inject novelty. During during the pandemic, it's been so challenging to do that. Obviously, we like every business has tried this dumb thing of, hey, let's get together for lunch online. Let's do this. But But none of it is really that great, because you're still there in your slippers. And you know, yeah, it's not that different.
Steven Parton 25:52
sac is speaking to your company. Let's Let's continue down that road. Now. I think you your big thing that I think a lot of people might know you for is the vest that you showed at TED talk that vibrated in response to the environment. But I believe you've converted that to a wristband, correct? Yes. Yeah. Tell us a little bit more about that, and how that's coming along?
David Eagleman 26:14
Yeah, you bet. So just in case anybody doesn't know, one of the things like made in my lab was originally Yes, a vest with vibratory motors in it. And we can do lots of things for that. But let's say, for deaf people, we capture sound, and we turn that into patterns of vibration on the skin. And deaf people can come to understand what is happening in the auditory world, by feeding that information up through their skin, which of course climbs up to their spinal cord and up into their brain, and they can come to understand it by you know, you watch a dog's mouth moves, and you feel the bark and you start realizing or your lip reading somebody and you feel the inflammation on your skin. And your brain starts putting that together. What happened is, immediately after my TED Talk, a number of venture capitalists came up said, Hey, we want to fund this as a company. So it was an interesting turn for me in life, cuz I used to be just an academic, and now I'm an entrepreneur. And so I started this company, and one of the things we did is shrink this down to a wristband with vibratory motors in demand. And, yeah, so our first market was for people who are deaf, and we have it on risks all over the world. And it's just been very wonderful and inspiring to hear people's stories about the things that they can, you know, the auditory world that they're picking up on now, in all kinds of ways. So that was the first thing we actually just launched a product for. Tinnitus, which is ringing in the ears, just a 15% of the population has that it can be very versiv. And there's been a study on this and neuroscience has gone on for six years now about what's called by modal stimulation, which is if you play sounds at the same time that you're feeling something, this reduces the immersiveness of tinnitus. And it's because it essentially teaches your brain what is actually an external sound. Because when you hear an external sound, you're getting verification of it on your wristband. versus when your brain is generating the internal sound of you know, the ringing in your ears, your brain says though, I guess that must be not a real sound, and I'm not getting any verification confirmation on my wrist. So anyway, that has been tremendously successful. We just launched that recently. And we're about to put something out for high frequency hearing loss, which is as people get older, they lose their high frequencies. So we're doing listening in real time for these high frequency parts of speech. And we put that in the wristband. Okay, so that's all the stuff we're doing with the wristband. But we also have 70 other projects going on with feeding other kinds of information in so you know, whatever, anything from infrared light to electromagnetic fields to stock market, Twitter data, things like this, these are all the kinds of information we're feeding into the wristband. And try these. And the reason we have so many projects is because we've opened this up to the developer community. So we have, you know, an open API and SDK is for every platform. And we have contests all the time. And people submit super cool ideas from all over the world. And that's if any, I just without talking about this too much. If anybody's interested just go to Neo sensory comm slash developers and you can see many of the projects that are underway with this.
Steven Parton 29:23
I was gonna say 70 projects, I didn't know how onpoint I was when I asked you if you inject novelty into your company, lot of projects to have on hand. I know I think at one point I forget who you were talking to but I listened to a conversation with you and it was perhaps on Impact Theory. And you were talking about people adding to the the buzz I believe in adding things like infrared and stuff. And I think you said something about, like seeing what cars were driven most recently from the infrared picking up Can you talk a bit about that? You know, I'm talking about? Yeah, yeah,
David Eagleman 30:02
sure, yeah, we, we hit up mid wave infrared to the band. So we are picking up on, you know, heat signatures. And it's this incredible world that's right there that's totally available that we never can tell. So I was wearing this, I happened to go to the library with my kids. And, you know, first of all, walking through the parking lot, yeah, as I was passing cars, I could feel which engine blocks were hot and which were not. And you know, so I could tell right away who parked in the last, you know, 25 minutes or who hadn't. Now, you might think that's totally useless. But it is a piece of information that's sitting out there, that's just, you know, normally visible just to go into the library, there are two seats, two empty seats there, I could tell somebody had been sitting in one and not the other, you know, sometime last half hour. And then I can even tell which books had been picked up, there was sort of a display thing where there were several books laid out. And just by passing my wrist over it, I can tell Oh, someone has recently picked this up because of the heat signature still stays there. And yeah, anyway, the point is, there's so much information in the world that's just sitting there. But we as homosapiens, don't have mid wave infrared detection normally, and so we just don't see it. I also had worn a near infrared band at a different point. And I walked out, I was going to somebody's house, I was walking between some houses, and suddenly I felt all this infrared, I thought, where the heck is that coming from? And I and I just followed my wrist. And there was a night vision camera, which is surrounded with infrared LEDs. But of course, totally, it's totally invisible to us normal circumstances. But it was totally obvious to me wearing the wristband. So I just I'm absolutely obsessed with the electromagnetic spectrum and all the stuff that's out there that we don't see but can have have direct access to.
Steven Parton 31:58
Now what blows my mind is technically, if you were this long enough, you would this would become an instinctual thing, right? Where you would, you would start to actually make decisions subconsciously, based on what you're picking up from your wristband, correct?
David Eagleman 32:15
Yeah, you got it. That's exactly right. Because all the senses that we currently have, you know, our eyes, ears, our nose, fingertips mouth. That's just we just take that for granted. Oh, yeah, I'm about oh, I heard something over there. I saw something over there. But these are just, you know, these weird devices, like, you know, like, our ears are captured. You know, they're just devices for capturing air compression waves and converting that into spikes inside the brain, where your eyes are these spheres in your head that capture photons, and they convert them into spikes in your brain and your fingertips are very multi dimensional. They pick up pain and itch and temperature and stretch and all that stuff. And just feed it in. But yes, exactly. As you said, we become used to it, we develop what's called a quality where we have a private, internal subjective experience of it. We say, Oh, yeah, that sounds like this that looks like this, it feels like this. And it's exactly the same thing when we pick up on new kinds of senses. And one of the things that, you know, I expected but it nonetheless blew my mind was when I spoke with customers who were wearing the Neo sensory wristband, who were deaf and had been wearing it for, you know, three to six months. I said, Okay, look, when a dog barks, you know, what is your experience? Do you do you look at your wrist and you're like, Oh, wait, I just heard a buzzer on my wrist. What does that mean? And they said, No, I just hear it. And I said, Well, what do you mean? Like, do you have any cognitive translation? Like they said, No, I just I know, there's a dog that just barked. And that's exactly our experience with our ears. There's, you know, if you're somebody who studies the ears, you'll see that it's this incredibly complicated pathway that happens. You know, first you hit the eardrum, and then there's three little bones in the middle ear that convert that vibration on the eardrum to this inner membrane, and then that goes through this fluid filled chamber and vibrate. I mean, it's this incredibly complicated thing. And yet, you just feel like you're hearing my voice. And you don't, by the way, of course, say, oh, Eagleman is now saying some high frequency and low frequency is the middle for instead you just hear my voice. And it's exactly the same thing when you pass the information in through a different channel.
Steven Parton 34:17
And so this, this makes me think of the term Velt, right, which is like the world of sensory experiences. And honestly, this feels like as you're talking about this stuff, it makes me feel like humans are gonna start developing these superpowers like we're going to be creating our sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth sense. And you're going to have people who are walking around the world. attune to these things. Do you see a future? Do you see a near future where we start actually picking up senses like this and it becomes a normal thing, maybe from wristbands like this.
David Eagleman 34:50
That's, that's the future I'm working on. I mean, that's exactly what Neo sensory is about Neo sensory Of course, meaning new sense. Yeah. The that is the thing I'm obsessed with is understanding how our biology actually constrains our experience of reality. And, and we can now build machines to pick up on all kinds of stuff. So why not put that straight into the brain, the brain, this is a longer thing. But I'll just summarize, you know, essentially my last 20 years of research on this is that the brain is a general purpose compute device. So whatever information it gets, just figures out how to use it and optimize it. So I mentioned about the eyes and the ears and the fingertips and all that, it's just spikes in the dark, that's all they're passing up to the brain is just little electrical, electrical and chemical signals. And your brain says, Okay, here's how I can use these and optimize these. And obviously, it finds information from your fingertips more useful than information from your knee or something like that. And that's why devotes more real estate to your fingertips. But anyway, it turns out that no matter what spikes you feed in, it'll figure out if it's useful, and so if I'm picking up on infrared, or stock market, or whatever, or drones or factory or whatever, if it's useful, if it's relevant to me as a human, the brain will start devoting real estate to it. So yeah, that is exactly the goal.
Steven Parton 36:10
So without maybe giving away your your future, IP and products here are the are there specific ones that you think are coming down the line that you're especially excited about, like things you think are realistically possible? And then in the near term?
David Eagleman 36:24
Yeah, it's interesting. from a business point of view, we've proved I mean, most, essentially, all these things are realistic and possible. And we've we've already implemented them. from a business point of view, it's interesting to see where there's a clear market path, which is to say most of these things, like do you want to, you know, buy a wristband, so you can detect infrared, the issue is, it's not clear that it's useful. or pick up on whatever. But you know, one of the things that I'm about to be working on a little bit more from a business point of view is with with drone pilots, it turns out, we can feed in the pitch, yaw, roll orientation, and heading of a drone, if somebody is piling around, this is super useful, because it's like they're stretching their skin up there, and they're one with the drone there, they're feeling the drone. And this helps drone pilots really perform much better. And so, you know, as the drone market explodes, I think there's gonna be a use for this. But many of the things that we've invented, serve as sort of cool proofs of principle that we want to use. But it's not clear that there's a market for it yet. I personally think that in the electromagnetic spectrum, there's probably 12 Nobel Prizes hidden in there, which is to say, you know, if we start where I start, like, if I were tapped into some particular wavelength, and just walking around all the time, and feeling it, you'd probably make a lot of discoveries. Now, I just want to clarify this, you know, we have machines that can measure in many of these ranges, you know, we've got these hyperspectral cameras that measure lots range. But that's different than walking around and experiencing the world and just, you know, being in nature and asking questions, and being in public and asking questions about it. Because we'll pick things up, I'll just give you a one second example, which is some, some colleagues of mine run a satellite company where they view the ocean in the microwave range, because you can see ships and so on. But what they discovered totally accidentally, it's just by looking at water in the microwave range, you can tell whether it's drinkable or polluted. And nobody knew that. But they just they just realized, because they're humans looking around. They're like, Oh, look at the difference here. So that's what I mean, when I say there's so many things to discover just by walking around and seeing the world and other ranges.
Steven Parton 38:39
Yeah, well, clean water seems kinda like a big deal. So the big one seems like a good be a positive a positive potential there. would you would you consider yourself a transhumanist? Then I'm sure you're familiar with the term. Yeah,
David Eagleman 38:53
totally, totally. And I mean, there's a sense in which we've been transhumanist for a very long time, right? I mean, you know, we've left evolution by natural selection so far in the dust, you know, because we're a carrying species, and we take care of kids with diseases and whatever, but we do this with ourselves, that we replace hearts, we replace all kinds of things. You know, it's not too long before there's going to be prosthetic parts to the brain. As in Oh, your hippocampus is degrading with Alzheimers. Okay, well, here's an artificial prosthetic and hippocampus and so on. So yes, we're already well down that road of transhumanism.
Steven Parton 39:28
All right, absolutely. Well, we we let the community know ahead of time that you were going to be coming on. So they asked us some questions. Would you be down for just a few short guys? You bet. Awesome. Thank you. So one of the ones. This is going to be a bit more meta, I suppose. But we had farhaan, Malik, Fabio novo and Jane wood, Safi all pretty much asked the same question, which is what is your leaning theory on consciousness and its origins for instance, is the brain a receiver transmitter? Or both? Do you put any stock and things like the holonomic quantum theory of the brain?
David Eagleman 40:06
Yeah, great question. I mean, this is the question at the center of neurosciences. How the heck do you put together a bunch of pieces and parts and get conscious get private subjective experience? For anyone who hasn't thought about this question? Yeah, there's just if I take 86 billion Tinker toys and I put them together in some clever way like At what point do I add a new Tinker toy and say Ah, now it is experiencing the the beauty of a sunset and the taste of feta cheese and the redness of red and the pain of pain and so on. So um, so we don't know this is really just a massively unsolved questions. So you know, I would say probably the majority of neuroscientists are trying to think about this in terms of what we know in physics in other words, how do you put together a thing and you've got these loops upon loops in it? And how do these loops build models which build models and models? And you know, maybe conscious comes out of that so that's I would say the majority direction neuroscience there's a lot to be mined there still some people suggest book we know about quantum mechanics and physics maybe it's a quantum system somehow and it's absolutely a possibility some people have suggested look maybe consciousness is a fundamental quality of the universe in the in the same way that you know whatever photons have spin up and spin down and you know, you've got these things maybe consciousness is something and if you put together some number of molecules you have a little consciousness if you put together a whole bunch of molecules in the human you have a lot of consciousness you know it's it's a funny position we're in as a field because there's just so much that's unknown that any of these are let's say possibility so sciences table has to always remain wide and we you know, we have room to keep different hypotheses on the table and the game over the coming years is to really figure out how to do good experiments to to get things off the table and narrow it down.
Steven Parton 42:03
And fair enough I didn't think we're going to get you to answer the the mind body problem and the hard problem of consciousness they're so understandable. Let's see we also have from drew but Kumar and machine astronaut What are your thoughts on brain computer interfaces? And what roles Do you think they'll play in terms of live wiring the brain?
David Eagleman 42:24
Yeah, I mean I think at the at the highest level there are two ways to think about there's invasive and non invasive so invasive is let's say what you know neural link is doing where you drill a hole in the skull use you so some electrodes in there and you know this idea of putting electrodes in the brain this has been going on since the 60s just for clarity neural link is making it you know, just a better wireless denser experience by by threading it in there, but it's the same idea that's been around for a long time. The the so here's what I think neural link is going to absolutely find a great market for this stuff in clinical scenarios for various sorts of things epilepsy and so on depression perhaps. But sort of the mythology that people are interested in is Hey, will everybody go and get a hole in their head and get this sewn in and be able to you know, interface with your phone faster than typing with two thumbs? I actually I'm not too sanguine on that I don't think that's going to happen anytime in the next few decades and the reason is, you know, do I want to interface with iPhone faster? Yes, do I want to get a hole in my head? Probably not. So it's just not it's not worth it. That's why I have put my own you know, chips on on non invasive brain computer interfaces so that's for example we're building in Neo sensory with our you know devices that can push information in through the skin there of course lots of good monitoring devices you know from a ton of eg wearable companies to various other things where you can sense all kinds of things through the skin about yeah you look at the biomolecules are coming out and you say oh this stress whatever you can measure galvanic skin response you can measure you know any smartwatch now measures heart rate heart rate variability So anyway, I'm you know, I think there's so much to be done here. I'm very interested in this topic of picking up on invisible states of our bodies, and then feeling those so for example, we use the Neo sensory wristband to put in information about Hey, what is my brain doing in terms of eg or what is my heart rate, heart rate variability or galvanic skin response, like what if I can feel this thing that my body is doing but I'm not normally aware of it. And one of the things we've done is we've hooked up a smartwatch so that you can detect what the smartwatch is measuring. You can feel that, but we pass information, not via Bluetooth or something you might expect but instead via the Internet, and the reason we do that is so that somebody else can wear the smartwatch and you can feel their physiology. So for exams Like while my wife is wearing the smartwatch, I'm feeling her physiology. And I can call her even if I'm on the other side of the nation and say, hey, how do you feel stressed out? Is everything okay? Now, you know, whether this will be useful for relationships or not, we have no idea. But it's just there's so much to try with all of the stuff about how to pick up on the information from our bodies.
Steven Parton 45:22
I love that. And on that note, one question here was from Meena Shah, and she was wondering if you've explored any possibilities with your vest with the wristband. For people with autism?
David Eagleman 45:37
Yeah, yeah. So it turns out one of the developers, it's this team of two students at USC, actually, they are interested in can we pick up vocal signals on the emotion of this person you're talking to. So they using machine learning pick up on whether the person you're talking to you is angry, or sad, or happy or whatever. And then the wristband buzzes to tell you that. And the reason of course, is because children with autism often have a difficult time picking up on basic social cues like that, and then modulating their own responses appropriately. And so this is a very simple way to you know, just wear the wristband and essentially get told, oh, I see this person is really angry, I shouldn't be aware of that are being really happy or sad. And so they've just spun off a company called valence vibrations. And yeah, it's great. This is exactly what we have always wanted to see is people taking the wristband and you know, generating a new pathway with it.
Steven Parton 46:41
I love it. I love I love the potential with these these Neo sensors, as you call them, I'm ready to sign up as your guinea pig. You've got me sold. But let's respect your time here, like I said, but before we end, I do want to give you the chance to maybe reiterate how people can get involved have any projects, you're working on websites, etc. Anything at all you want to do to let people know how to get involved with your work and what you're excited about.
David Eagleman 47:08
Great, thanks. Yeah, I mean, the main thing is Neo sensory Comm. We have a blog where we post all kinds of, you know, projects that we're working on. And yeah, anybody you know, all our SDKs are all open source. Anyone who wants to try saying, look, I can detect such and such information using this machine or this sensor or whatever. And I want to try, what would it be like if I could directly experience that and walk around in the world that way, please go and try that. We're super excited to have the whole community be a part of this.
Steven Parton 47:41
Wonderful, and we'll add that link in the episode description to make it easy for everybody. David, Dr. Eagleman, thank you so much, man, I really appreciate you taking the time amongst all the stuff you're working on these days.
David Eagleman 47:52
Great, such a pleasure. Thanks for having me here.
Steven Parton 47:55
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