The Resilient Brain

A brain alive with energy

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Alina Grubnyak, Steve Johnson, Robina Weermeijer (CC0).

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Original Air Date: 
October 10, 2020

New experiences actually rewire the brain. So after all we’ve been through this year, you have to wonder — are we different? We consider the "COVID brain" from the perspective of both neuroscience and the arts. Also, we go to Cavendish, Vermont to hear the remarkable story of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker whose traumatic brain injury changed the history of neuroscience.

Phineas Gage
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In 1848 Phineas Gage suffered a gruesome accident. BIasting through rock to build a new railroad in Vermont, an explosion sent a 3-foot, 13-pound iron rod straight through his skull. Remarkably, Gage lived, but brain science changed forever.

Length: 
19:04
Brain activity
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After months of isolation, the COVID-19 lockdown is rewiring your brain. Neuroscientist David Eagleman says our brains are continually in flux, responding to the surrounding world. And the silver lining of coronavirus? It's probably boosting your creativity.

Length: 
14:46
neon brain
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Writers are used to working in isolation. So how are they responding to the COVID-19 lockdown? Ilan Stavans has edited an anthology of international writing to consider the question. Stavans himself says the pandemic has liberated him as a writer.

Length: 
13:54
Show Details 📻
Airdates
October 10, 2020
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Writer and literary scholar
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To the Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Anne Strainchamps (00:23):

In 1976, the most famous Soviet dissident in the world moved to a tiny town in rural Vermont. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel laureate, after years of prison, interrogation, labor camps, internal exile, KGB raids, took his wife and young sons and settled in Cavendish, Vermont, population 1,264-ish. For the people of Cavendish hiding the world's most famous dissident was a big responsibility.

Margo Caulfied (00:59):

Every town needs to have a secret that unites them in that secret, and for our town it was Solzhenitsyn and not giving directions to his home.

Anne Strainchamps (01:21):

Margo Caulfield runs the Cavendish Historical Society.

Margo Caulfied (01:33):

He moved here in 1976 and he left in 1994. He lived 18 of the 20 year he was in exile here, literally bought the house sight unseen. It is an absolutely perfect location, and I often think what a gift the people of Cavendish gave him because he was able to write. Everybody left him alone, and everybody protected his privacy.

Margo Caulfied (02:09):

You know, the kids loved if somebody would stop and say, "How do we get to Solzhenitsyn's?" You're going to be three towns over before you realize the kids were having you on. But that's really how the town felt.

Margo Caulfied (02:23):

I mean, the KGB was here. There's no joke about that. They were dressed in a way that no Vermonter would dress. You know, much nicer looking in the dead of winter. You know you're not from Cavendish.

Margo Caulfied (02:43):

Interestingly, the woman that ran the post office at the time, her family was from a part of Poland. She said some days we were Russian, some days we were Polish. So she spoke Russian, but she could tell. So people would come into the post office and they would speak Russian not realizing that she could understand them.

Margo Caulfied (03:08):

I've heard from a number of people. And then there was that time, remember when the Russian government was sending people, sort of in the glasnost type of thing. They were trying to go around to schools and speak about Russian and so forth. They happened to pick Fremont Union High School, and two of the Solzhenitsyn kids were there who basically stood up and spoke to them in Russian. As we proverbially say, ripped them a new one.

Anne Strainchamps (03:41):

Eventually the Soviet Union collapsed and Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia. But the house in Cavendish is still there. It still belongs to his family, and to this day no one in town will tell you where it is.

Margo Caulfied (04:00):

You know Vermonters are in interesting breed. You do what you need to do, and as long as you pay your taxes and don't cause [inaudible 00:04:09], they just leave you be.

Anne Strainchamps (04:25):

Today on To The Best of Our Knowledge, our subject is, surprise, not Russian defectors or New England small towns. It's resilience. The kind of resilience that lets people survive and even thrive in the face of hardship and sweeping life changes. We're going through a lot of that right now, and here's the good news. You were born with one of the most resilient brains on the planet, biologically engineered to respond and adapt to everything life throws at you. And we know that thanks to something else that happened in Cavendish, a freak accident that changed the history of brain science and the life of a young man. His name was Phineas Gage.

Steve Paulson (05:13):

Can I just take a picture?

Margo Caulfied (05:13):

Sure. Sure.

Anne Strainchamps (05:15):

Steve and I are poking around the museum Margo Caulfield runs. It's a former church turned into a repository of Victorian china and silverware, wooden school desks, mysterious farm implements.

Margo Caulfied (05:31):

This poster was found and we threw it up so people can really read it. On the 13th of September, 1848, Mr. Gage was engaged in blasting a rock in Cavendish, Vermont on the line of the Rutland and Burlington railroad when a premature explosion took place, which forced an iron bar... I like that... completely through his head.

Steve Paulson (05:57):

I mean, just to put this in perspective, the rod that went through his head was what? Three and a half feet long and nearly two inches in diameter, or an inch and a half in diameter. I mean we're talking a very big rod that shot straight through his head.

Margo Caulfied (06:11):

Right.

Anne Strainchamps (06:12):

What's this?

Margo Caulfied (06:14):

This is a replica of the tamping rod. The real tamping rod would have been longer. So which end do you think went in first?

Steve Paulson (06:24):

I would assume the pointed end, but you're going to tell me not, right?

Margo Caulfied (06:26):

No. It was the pointed end. If it had been the other way, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We would not be having this conversation.

Anne Strainchamps (06:46):

News of the accident traveled all over the world. Phineas Gage became famous as the man who survived having his skull run through with an iron tamping rod. It's not just that Phineas Gage survived the accident that nearly killed him. His case led doctors for the first time to link psychology, behavior, personality, to specific areas in the brain. This small town in Vermont is basically where neuroscience was born.

Steve Paulson (07:15):

So that's the boarding house where he lived, right?

Anne Strainchamps (07:17):

Which one is?

Margo Caulfied (07:17):

Right there. The run down one with the porch is entirely full of trash. You're going to cross the bridge and you're going to come to an underpass. Keep on going.

Steve Paulson (07:35):

Keep on going.

Anne Strainchamps (07:36):

Cavendish has seen better days, but in 1848 things were looking good. Gold was discovered in California. The first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls. Democratic revolutions were happening all over Europe, and even more important-

Margo Caulfied (07:51):

If you look to the right you'll see some train tracks kind of covered in the woods, but there they are.

Anne Strainchamps (07:56):

The railroad was coming to town.

Margo Caulfied (07:58):

It's beautiful.

Steve Paulson (07:59):

Yeah.

Margo Caulfied (07:59):

We don't encourage anybody to walk on the train tracks because this is a working rail line.

Anne Strainchamps (08:11):

Oh, it's still used.

Margo Caulfied (08:11):

Oh, yeah.

Margo Caulfied (08:14):

It was a really big deal what was going on here. People would have really noticed it and been, "Bring on the railroad."

Anne Strainchamps (08:22):

And they definitely would have noticed the attractive young construction foreman.

Margo Caulfied (08:27):

Phineas was 25 years of age. He was in excellent health. He was considered to be of medium build for [inaudible 00:08:35]. He was extremely well-liked by his employees, as well as his employer.

Anne Strainchamps (08:41):

On September 13th, Phineas and his crew were working south of the village, right about here.

Margo Caulfied (08:49):

And if you look down, you'll see the outcropping out there, which is where they would have been blasting. So what they would do is they would come out here. And as you see there are these outcrops here, these big rocks that they had to get out of the way to make it possible for the train to get through these big cuts.

Margo Caulfied (09:08):

So they would bore a hole. They would put the powder in, and they'd put it in deeply as they could. Lay a fuse in, fill it full of sand, and the sand is to really tap it in there because you want that really deep in there because when it would explode it would give you the best bang for the buck, really clear a lot of gravel and rock out of the way.

Margo Caulfied (09:33):

Either he was completely distracted, or the assistant wasn't doing what he was supposed to be doing. But basically the sand didn't get put in. He turned his head, maybe he was talking, and so as soon as that tamping rod, that metal, hit the gunpowder, boom. That caused the explosion, and it went under this left cheek and right out of the top of the head. He was thrown back on the ground and he kind of convulsed a few times. Then he sat up.

Steve Paulson (10:07):

He sat up?

Margo Caulfied (10:08):

He sat up maybe a minute or so. He kind of sat up and he was kind of amazed. So the tamping rod was covered with gray matter and blood. It was kind of a mess.

Steve Paulson (10:21):

With his brain is what you're saying?

Margo Caulfied (10:23):

Yes. Some of his workers tried to clean it off. Today we'd be like, "Don't touch that. That's forensic evidence."

Margo Caulfied (10:29):

They put him on an ox cart, and they followed the same path that we followed coming out here. They took him back into his hotel room.

Anne Strainchamps (10:38):

Wasn't he in excruciating pain?

Margo Caulfied (10:41):

He would have definitely been in pain, but the worst part was he was throwing up, and every time he would throw up brain matter is-

Steve Paulson (10:49):

Would come out of the top of his head, out of the hole in his head.

Margo Caulfied (10:52):

Yes. Yes.

Steve Paulson (10:53):

Wow.

Anne Strainchamps (10:55):

I know. This is pretty graphic. Sorry. But hold on, because Dr. Harlow is on the way.

Margo Caulfied (11:03):

When Harlow gets there.

Steve Paulson (11:04):

Explain who Harlow is. When who gets there?

Margo Caulfied (11:07):

Dr. Harlow who really is the really amazing treating physician that takes care of him throughout all this and documents it, and is why we know this case today. By the time he gets there, it's 6 PM... I don't know how graphic we want to get here...

Steve Paulson (11:24):

Go for it.

Margo Caulfied (11:24):

Go for it. So he not only had an opening at the top, you've got this bleeding coming from the other end. Basically Harlow sort of followed the trajectory by taking one finger going up, and one finger going down till they met in the middle.

Steve Paulson (11:45):

Wait, you're saying he could put his fingers through his head and touch his fingers. God.

Margo Caulfied (11:52):

Yeah. You know we don't know how many times Harlow was like, "Do you feel this?" I hate to even-

Anne Strainchamps (12:00):

I'm just thinking no sterile gloves either.

Margo Caulfied (12:03):

At least Harlow, he actually in his training practiced what was called aseptic technique, where you actually washed your hands somewhat. Like Gage was very sick. It wasn't long before fortunately he lapsed into a coma. His family was called. They came down. They built a coffin. The family had made up their mind. They had his clothes picked out, the coffin made. They were good to go, and they weren't really thrilled that Harlow was going to go ahead and say, "No. No, I can handle this." Which Harlow did.

Anne Strainchamps (12:39):

It was a long and gruesome recovery. I'll spare you the details. But Gage did eventually heal. He lost one eye, and he had a permanent hole in his skull covered by a thin layer of skin. He was a medical marvel.

Anne Strainchamps (12:55):

But he wasn't the same.

Margo Caulfied (12:59):

This is when Harlow really begins to document the changes in him.

Anne Strainchamps (13:04):

Before the accident, Phineas was a favorite with the railroad company. Now they reported he was fitful, volatile, disrespectful. He indulged, their words, in the grossest profanity.

Margo Caulfied (13:18):

People with the type of injury he had will often have rage, and I'm sure he was difficult.

Anne Strainchamps (13:25):

Even his friends said Gage is no longer Gage. His mother wrote to relatives asking for help. Margo says all that fits the pattern of traumatic brain injury.

Margo Caulfied (13:36):

Based on my own experience with people that have had similar types of injury, you can talk to them and they sound completely cogent. Then you talk to them another time and you're like, "What planet are they on?" They can become extremely angry. But because they have these period where they seem completely fine and normal, people really get angry with them and believe that somehow or other they've got total control over their faculties when they don't. This is the horror of traumatic brain injury. Some families just cannot handle a patient like that.

Anne Strainchamps (14:13):

Harlow, on the other hand, was fascinated by the changes. There was a long-running debate at the time about whether different regions in the brain govern different behaviors, and here was a case of severe damage to the frontal lobe followed by a dramatic personality shift. It seemed like a no-brainer.

Margo Caulfied (14:30):

It laid the path where you see the first real brain surgery done in 1885 the way that we think of it today. But it opened up a whole new horizon that you can sustain a brain injury. You can survive it. You can touch the brain, which means you can do surgery. It's huge. It's really, really huge.

Anne Strainchamps (14:53):

Meanwhile, this new version of Phineas Gage had physically recovered. He was strong, still a young man, and he needed a job. For a while he made money exhibiting himself around New England as a curiosity.

Margo Caulfied (15:07):

He would literally go in, and you got to see the bar. He's bend down and you could watch his brain pulse, sort of like watching a baby before the fontanelles close.

Anne Strainchamps (15:16):

But he didn't want to be some sideshow freak. Then somehow he was offered a job as a long-distance stagecoach driver on the Valparaiso-Santiago Route in Chile. It was a hundred mile route, 13 hours, handling a coach and six horses, plus passengers. The terrain was rough. There were revolutionaries in the hills. He did it for seven years.

Margo Caulfied (15:44):

He was constantly surrounded by different languages because this is a port of call. You had English speaking. You had Spanish. You had Portuguese. You had all these different languages, so he was hearing this. He had to memorize the route.

Anne Strainchamps (15:56):

It doesn't sound like a job for a guy who was supposedly anti-social, volatile, incapable of focusing on anything for very long, and emotionally unpredictable. So how did he do it?

Margo Caulfied (16:08):

One of the things that we know that helps you hold on, because your brain is always sending you these new neurons. Today we talk about neuroplasticity and how you use that to recorrect the pathways, or people talk about rewiring the brain. So you can see where just the lifestyle he had of constant new things are constantly giving him new experiences. So those new neurons which are firing have something to stay around for.

Anne Strainchamps (16:35):

In 1860, Phineas Gage began to have epileptic seizures. His health failed and he went home to his mother. He died that May, 12 years after the iron rod entered his skull.

Anne Strainchamps (16:53):

Today, Phineas Gage's case is legendary. Entire books have been written about it. It's a staple of introductory classes in psychology, neuroscience, philosophy. But over the years, it's been interpreted differently.

Anne Strainchamps (17:11):

For a long time, people focused on and maybe even exaggerated his personality changes. There are stories that he lived rough in Chile, that he was a brawling, foul-mouthed drifter, that he drank himself to death. Today, he seems more like a model of rehabilitation and recovery.

Steve Paulson (17:28):

Even well after the accident, after he'd been healed, a lot of medical authorities just didn't believe it. It had to be verified.

Margo Caulfied (17:36):

It did. And, of course, the final verification came from Harlow who continually persevered and was able to obtain his skull. He brought it back and held it up to the mathematical society and said, "Here you go, folks."

Steve Paulson (17:48):

Wait, this is his skull. So this was well after he died.

Margo Caulfied (17:51):

Yes. Oh, no, they got that while he was still [crosstalk 00:17:53]. No, no, no.

Margo Caulfied (17:57):

But after he died, Harlow never let this go.

Steve Paulson (18:01):

What about for you? What does this story mean to you?

Margo Caulfied (18:04):

I am fascinated. What he overcame to survive for as long as he did. The resiliency piece of his story fascinated me, which is also a big part of the Solzhenitsyn story, is resiliency. I think it's just hard-wired into our DNA. Everybody right now is so worried about COVID and what the long term is. Are we all going to be deranged humans? Well, you know, that's just not true. [inaudible 00:18:30] is in our DNA. We're wired to do some pretty horrific stuff, but we also are extraordinarily resilient. So I'm not worried about it.

Anne Strainchamps (18:43):

Before we left, Margo showed us a photograph of Phineas. It's one of only two taken after the accident. You can see the scar on his cheek and the missing eye. But he's young, vital, handsome, well-dressed. Call it portrait of human resilience. Thanks to Margo Caulfield, Director of the Cavendish Historical Society in Cavendish, Vermont, for sharing his story.

Anne Strainchamps (19:19):

Neuroscience has come a long way since Phineas Gage. But the more people study the brain, the more parts they find in it. At this point, it kind of seems like inside your head there's not just one person, there's a whole team.

David Eagleman (19:35):

Each cell in your brain is as complicated as the state of Wisconsin. Every cell in your brain has the entire human genome in it. It is [inaudible 00:19:54] millions of proteins around in an extremely complicated biochemical cascade. Each neuron in your head is mindbogglingly complex, and you've got 86 billion of these. So what we're talking about is an entire cosmos in there.

David Eagleman (20:10):

So when we say something, just, "Oh, you're just a bunch of neurons," we're sort of sweeping all that under the rug, and then saying, "Well, that sounds silly that you're a bunch of neurons." But, in fact, you're a whole cosmos of your inner life in there.

David Eagleman (20:34):

So in theory you could read out somebody's brain, I mean I think this is a long way off, maybe 300 years or something, but in theory every experience you had is getting mapped and stored into your brain. All of these things represent your view, your history, in the world.

Anne Strainchamps (21:03):

Neuroscientist David Eagleman on the new frontiers of brain science, next.

Anne Strainchamps (21:10):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (21:24):

I don't know about you, but I'm starting to forget what daily life was like before the pandemic. I mean, we've all been through so much and it's changed us, literally. Your brain is not the same now as it was before COVID, and David Eagleman says that's actually a good thing.

Anne Strainchamps (21:43):

Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Stanford. He's also a novelist. He was the science advisor for the HBO series Westworld, and he told Steve Paulson our brains are far more plastic and resilient than we realize. He calls it livewired, which is also the title of his new book.

David Eagleman (22:01):

Every moment of your life your brain is re-wiring. You've got 86 billion neurons and about a fraction of a quadrillion connections between those. What I think is hard to appreciate is that every moment of your life these vast seas of connections are constantly changing. They're changing their strength. They're unconnecting and reconnecting elsewhere. It's why you are a slightly different person than you were a week ago or a year ago. Every memory that you make, when you learn for example that my name is David, there's a physical change in the structure of you brain. That's what it means to remember something.

Steve Paulson (22:38):

So are these just tiny little changes that are happening constantly? Or can significant rewiring go on, I don't know, over the course of a week for instance?

David Eagleman (22:50):

Yeah. It's both. So there's tiny changes happening all the time. Of course, there are times when we have bigger changes going on. Actually right now during COVID is a time when everyone has lots of changes going on, because suddenly we find ourselves kicked off the hamster wheel. In other words, we were optimized to doing whatever we were doing before, and now we're having to really rethink things, and relearn things, and be creative about things. So this is, by the way, the only silver lining to this lockdown, is the fact that we're getting a lot of brain plasticity out of it.

Steve Paulson (23:26):

I mean that's fascinating. You're saying there is such a thing as COVID brain. Our brains are probably different now, maybe substantially different, because of the pandemic.

David Eagleman (23:36):

Yeah, that's right. I hadn't heard the expression COVID brain, but what is happening to those of us who have not caught the illness is a sort of beneficial COVID brain. We get to really challenge ourselves with novelty, and this is the most important thing for the brain. You know, there are these studies that actually have been running for a few decades now.

David Eagleman (23:56):

For example there's one with nuns who live in a convent their whole life, and they agreed to donate their brains upon their death. And so at autopsy what the researchers discovered was that some fraction of these nuns had Alzheimer's disease, but nobody knew it when they were alive. The reason, it turns out, is because they were constantly challenging themself. They lived with a bunch of other sisters in these convents. They had responsibilities. They had chores. They dealt with each other all the time, which is by the way one of the most challenging things for the brain, is other people, in a good way.

David Eagleman (24:32):

So what happened is till the day they died they were cognitively active. Even though their brains were physically getting chewed up by the disease, they were constantly building new roadways, from A to B, and C to D, and so on. As a result, they didn't have the cognitive deficits that typically go with Alzheimer's.

David Eagleman (24:54):

The contrasting situation is when somebody retires, and their lives shrink, and they sit on a couch and watch Jerry Springer, and they don't have many friends anymore. That turns out to be really the worst thing you can do for your brain.

Steve Paulson (25:08):

Okay. So there's a silver living here to coronavirus. But on the other hand, so many people are having so much trouble right now. I'll just tell you, just from personal experience, for at least the first few months of the lockdown I had a really hard time really focusing my attention. For whatever reason I could not read a long challenging book, for months.

David Eagleman (25:30):

This is what happened with absolutely everybody. My friends couldn't even listen to an hour-long podcast or things like that. So I started thinking about that, especially during those first couple of weeks of lockdown which were very worrisome to everybody. What I realized is that our ability to think forward in large windows maps on exactly to Maslow's hierarchy of needs

David Eagleman (25:53):

If you remember Maslow said, look, you need to take care of things at the lowest level first. You need to get food and shelter and water and so on. Then once you have that you move up the pyramid and at the very top is self-actualization as a person. What I realized is when you are worried about food and water, specifically how am I going to get food into my fridge for my family, how am I going to get toilet paper for my bathroom, this sort of things, which everyone was worried about at the beginning, then you can't think very far forward.

Steve Paulson (26:24):

So I want to come back to this idea of brain plasticity. You say there is a constant battle going on inside our brains between different sets of neurons. They're sort of constantly fighting with each other over who gets control over certain parts of the brain. Can you explain what's going on?

David Eagleman (26:44):

In the last 20 years I have really started to understand the brain in this way, where there is a competition at all levels going on, all the way down to the individual neurons. In fact, if you look at a forest, if you walk through a forest, it all looks so serene and beautiful. But in fact, it's the exact same thing happening there. All the plants and trees and shrubs are in competition with each other. They're all competing for sunlight. They're all fighting with each other to stay alive.

David Eagleman (27:13):

That's actually exactly what's going on with neurons. What I realized is that if you take this perspective it explains a lot of stuff. Just as an example, any time a part of the brain is going unused it gets taken over very rapidly by other parts of the brain.

Steve Paulson (27:29):

Really? What would be an example of that?

David Eagleman (27:31):

So an example is if somebody goes blind. The area of the brain that we call the visual cortex, it's at the back of the brain, and we always think of that as, "Oh, that's the part of your brain where you're doing all the vision, all the seeing." But if you go blind, in fact if we even just blindfold you tightly and stick you in a scanner for a little while, we'll start to see that other areas like touch and hearing, start encroaching on that area that we think of as the visual cortex. And for somebody who is born blind, that whole area at the back of the brain is used for completely different things, like I said, touch, hearing, memorizing vocabulary words, all these sorts of things.

Steve Paulson (28:11):

You have this sort of fascinating bit of speculation that maybe the reason that we dream is to make sure that we have visual imagery in the brain. Otherwise basically the world is going dark 12 hours a day, and we might actually lose the ability to see if we didn't dream?

David Eagleman (28:29):

Exactly right. So what I started really thinking about was this issue about as the planet rotates in the darkness... We have electricity now, but in evolutionary time, 99.9% of it, we didn't have that, so you really were in the dark. I thought, "Gosh, your hearing and your touch, and all these things, those work just fine in the dark. But your vision is disadvantaged." The visual cortex is going to get taken over just by dint of the planet's rotation.

David Eagleman (28:58):

So dreaming appears to be a way of keeping the visual cortex defended every night. The way that happens is with very specific circuitry. Every 90 minutes you have these neurons in the midbrain start popping off and they drive activity just into the visual cortex. But the point is, it appears to just be a defensive activation where it says, "Okay. Look. It's nighttime. You're sleeping. We've got to keep this thing active so it doesn't get taken over by its neighbors."

Steve Paulson (29:27):

So in other words, if there was another planet that did not spin every day and have half of its day in darkness then the creatures on that planet would not dream?

David Eagleman (29:38):

Exactly right. We dreamers might be a rare species in the universe.

Steve Paulson (29:42):

Can I just say this is a very unromantic view of dreaming? Unlike dreams as sort of this window onto the unconscious, onto our souls, you're saying, "Oh yeah, it's just keeping the visual cortex active."

David Eagleman (29:57):

You know I sometimes seek romance, but mostly I'm just seeking truth. What we did by the way is we looked at all these species. For example, 25 species of primates where there's data about how plastic their brains are and how much dream sleep, REM sleep, rapid eye movement sleep, they get at nighttime.

David Eagleman (30:18):

There's a perfect correlation there, which is to say the more plastic, the more REM sleep you need. And by the way, REM sleep happens most in infants because that's when their brains are really, really plastic and need to defend the visual cortex the most.

Steve Paulson (30:34):

So I want to come back to your idea of the brain being livewired and how much it can change based on the circumstances or what the brain needs. There are some remarkable stories, for instance, of people who are missing half a brain, one of their hemispheres. Either they weren't born with it, or it was removed surgically, and often they can live reasonably normal lives.

David Eagleman (30:59):

Yeah. Absolutely. As long as the hemispherectomy, in other words the removal of one hemisphere of the brain, as long as that's done before, let's say, seven years old, the child is just fine. I've interviewed and talked with several young adults who had hemispherectomies when they were younger and you really wouldn't know it, except often what they have is a slight limp on the other side of their body from where their hemisphere was removed.

David Eagleman (31:24):

So what does this mean? What this means is that you can take out half of the brain and the functions that would have been taken care of by that half just rewire onto the remaining half of the brain.

Steve Paulson (31:37):

What are some of the most remarkable examples you've seen of senses that have kind of become rewired? People develop some new kind of sensor, some unusual sense because they're missing the normal sense that we would have?

David Eagleman (31:52):

Yes. Yes. So what got me really interested is could we create new senses for humans? In other words, could you feed in some kind of data stream and would you develop an entirely new sense?

David Eagleman (32:06):

So many years ago in my lab, I started pursuing this. This is called sensory substitution. What we started with is doing this with individuals who are deaf. Because of whatever problem going on in their inner ear, they're not receiving any sound information. So what we did is we built a vest that covered in vibratory motors, kind of like the buzzer on your cellphone. The vest capture sound and turns the sound into patterns of vibration on the vest. The motors are arranged from low to high frequency, which is how your inner ear is arranged also.

David Eagleman (32:41):

So we're essentially taking the inner ear and transferring it to the skin of the torso. And that worked. It turns out that people who are deaf can understand what is happening in the auditory world by getting the information through their skin, which is in modern life almost completely unused. But it's this incredible computational material that you can pass a lot of data through.

Steve Paulson (33:02):

Why is the skin so good at that?

David Eagleman (33:05):

It's because it's developed to be very sensitive in case a fly lands on you, or there's something crawling on you, or things like that. So it's actually got a pretty good bandwidth where you can pass a lot of data into it. Everybody is working on, "Hey, how can we pass more information into somebody's eyes by having, let's say, glasses with a heads-up display?" Or they wear an earbud and you're passing extra information in that way. But the fact is, your eyes and your ears, you really need for other things, and the skin is available.

Steve Paulson (33:34):

So I'm just sort of trying to imagine what the future might hold for us. I mean, it's one thing if someone is deaf and can't hear and you have this kind of device that helps them navigate in the auditory world. But it sounds like there would be all kinds of possibilities to really augment, to jack up, our sensory experience. I mean we have perfectly good senses, but they could be better, or they could be different. They could be new. I mean, you're talking about potentially an entirely new world here.

David Eagleman (34:05):

Exactly right. And so the next thing that I got really interested in was sensory expansion. In other words, could you expand what you're seeing into the infrared or the ultraviolet? So we've built that.

David Eagleman (34:17):

Just as an example, the first night that one of my engineers hooked up the infrared wrist band I was walking around in the dark between two houses and suddenly I felt a bunch of buzzing on my wrist. I thought, "What is that? What am I getting all this infrared light?" So I followed my wrist straight to a nighttime security camera, which is surrounded with infrared LEDs so it's lighting up the scene in a different part of the light frequency band. Normally that's completely invisible to us, but it was just obvious to me that it was there. You can walk around and you can feel as you walk past a car, you can know if it just recently parked or if it was parked there a long time ago, because the engine is hot. We walked by two seats and you can tell, "Oh somebody sat there recently, and somebody didn't sit on this chair." You get all this temperature information from the world, which is just an incredible new thing to tap into there.

David Eagleman (35:07):

Then beyond sensory expansion, is sensory addition. What if you add a completely new sense? So things like a direct perceptual experience of the stock market, or of Twitter data, or if the drone you're flying. So you're feeling [inaudible 00:35:23], orientation and heading all on your skin. It's like you've extended your skin up there to the drone. This is one of the experiments that we've done.

David Eagleman (35:33):

So we have many, many experiments that are ongoing right now where we're looking at what happens if you have a completely new sense, and can your brain come to have a new experience of it?

Anne Strainchamps (35:52):

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University and the author of Livewired, the Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain. That was Steve Paulson talking with him.

Anne Strainchamps (36:10):

So if the brain is in constant flux and always responding to the changing world around us maybe someday we'll look back at this time and talk about the COVID creativity boom. The pandemic, a cure for writer's block? Next.

Anne Strainchamps (36:31):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (36:48):

This hour we're talking about the resilient brain, and about how humans as a species are wired to respond to trauma. I think we're all wondering how this collective experience with COVID-19 will change us, not just this year or the year after, but for decades to come.

llan Stavans (37:17):

My impression is that this will be a cataclysmic event that will populate the collective imagination for many, many years to come. It will leave scars that centuries from now people will still refer to. It will manifest itself in movies, in music, in theater, and dance, and sculpture, and television. And, of course, in literature. It is very deep and at the same time it's externally embracing us all.

Anne Strainchamps (37:47):

Ilan Stavans is a cultural critic and literary scholar. A few months ago he put out a call to writers around the world asking them to share what they've been thinking and writing about the pandemic. He's just published an anthology of COVID-related writing called And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again. The title is from the last line of Dante's Inferno when the poet finally emerges from hell.

Anne Strainchamps (38:17):

Charles Monroe-Kane who says social isolation is his personal definition of hell asks Stavans how he thinks everybody's doing.

llan Stavans (38:26):

What strikes me about pandemic is that is comes just as we were having this ferocious debate on globalism. Does it matter? Should it last? Is it better to become more patriotic, more nationalistic? To close the borders? To build big walls? To cut away from our neighbors? To be only for ourselves?

llan Stavans (38:48):

And ironically it is the pandemic that has made us truly, truly global. We're all experiencing the same ways, having the same fears, and similar dreams, and similar dreams, and similar reactions to nature and silence. So there is this quality in the anthology that makes it very clear where each of the writers is coming from in terms of culture, but also that there's something that goes beyond culture and that brings us all together.

Charles Monroe-Kane (39:18):

It's true. I have a lot of friends in New York, and things got really in New York. But I used to live in Prague, in Amsterdam, and have a lot of friends there. Everyone, they were doing their best. It makes me think about one of the people in your book, the American poet Jane Hirshfield. She has poem about saving an ant. Could you read that poem?

llan Stavans (39:38):

Of course, it's one of my favorite poems. Jane Hirshfield is an American writer, and she wrote this poem in Mill Valley, California. She dates it on March 7, of course, of 2020.

llan Stavans (39:50):

The title of the poem is Today When I Could Do Nothing. It goes like this: Today when I could do nothing I saved an ant. It must have come in with the morning paper, still being delivered to those who sheltered in place. A morning paper is still an essential service. I am not an essential service. I have coffee and books, time, a garden, silence enough to fill cisterns. It must have first walked the morning paper as if loosened ink taking the shape of an ant.

llan Stavans (40:30):

Then across the laptop computer, warm, then onto the back of a cushion. Small black ant, alone, crossing a navy cushion, moving steadily because that is what it could do. Set outside in the sun it could have found again its nest. What then did I save? It did not look as if it was frightened. Even while walking my hand which moved it through swiftness and air.

llan Stavans (41:05):

Ant, alone, without companions, whose ant-heart I could not fathom. How is your life, I wanted to ask. I lifted it, took it outside. This first day when I could do nothing, contribute nothing, beyond staying distant from my own kind, I did this.

Charles Monroe-Kane (41:34):

It's beautiful. Actually hearing you read it, I was choked up. I totally get it. You have another poem that I love called Quarantine by the Irish poet Eavan Boland. I think we should point out here that she is no longer with us. She has died since she wrote the poem. Do you know if she was sick when she submitted this poem to you?

llan Stavans (41:55):

Eavan Boland, really an astonishing Irish poet, taught for many years at Stanford. When Stanford decided to send everybody home, she went back to Dublin and was ready to start teaching remotely from there when she suffered a fatal heart attack. It was at the beginning of the pandemic. It felt as if the pandemic had pushed her to this end. I had seen her in Stanford very, very briefly just a couple of months before. I had sent her a request to use this poem in the book, and it felt when I read the news the next day as if the world was really becoming smaller and poorer and colder because to me she was one of the most important voices of her generation.

Charles Monroe-Kane (42:47):

Do you mind reading her poem?

llan Stavans (42:50):

Of course, with pleasure. It would be an honor. It's called Quarantine.

llan Stavans (42:56):

In the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people, a man set out from the workhouse with his wife. He was walking, they were both walking, north.

llan Stavans (43:13):

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up. He lifted her and put her on his back. He walked like that west and west and north until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

llan Stavans (43:33):

In the morning, they were both found dead. Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history. But her feet were held against his breastbone. The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

llan Stavans (43:53):

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold. There is no place here for the inexact praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body. There is only time for this merciless inventory.

llan Stavans (44:10):

Their death together in the winter of 1847. Also what they suffered. How they lived. And what there is between a man and woman. And in which darkness it can best be proved.

llan Stavans (44:28):

It's a beautiful poem.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:29):

Do you know what? It's kind of perfect. It's a perfect poem. I read it to my wife, and I was wondering when I read it, because of the gender I put myself in the role of the man carrying the woman. But knowing my relationship with my wife, honestly, I'm the woman being carried. And, boy, that really hit home for how the pandemic was for me.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:53):

It must have hit home for you when she passed. What was that like finding out?

llan Stavans (44:57):

It was very painful because it's very painful, Charles, when you know somebody and you admire them and then you know that their narrative is now over. There are no more poems that are going to come out from that person, that there's no more statement that is going to be made.

llan Stavans (45:18):

When I read the news of Eavan's death there was one particular line of this poem that spoke to me so loudly. And that is the moment where it says that the last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her. It's just a little touch of his skin that is now turned by a poet into a gift, and a gift to send both of them into the next world. It is a beautiful poem about death, and it is a beautiful poem about love. But it's a restrained poem. It's a poem that doesn't want to overindulge in emotions. It wants to simply show that in a pandemic you sometimes have to escape.

llan Stavans (46:00):

This happens 150, 170 years ago. The poem is written in 2008, but it refers to 1847. And yet you feel as if that couple could be just living right now, as somebody holding, embracing their father, or their mother, or their sister, or their daughter for the last time before they are sent to a hospital, or before they see them for the last time before they die.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:28):

You know, we've been talking about a lot of writers, and if you don't mind I'd like to turn on you for a minute. How has this pandemic effected you?

llan Stavans (46:37):

This pandemic in a bizarre way, Charles, has set me free. I have the impression that I have been so attuned to what is happening around me and because of the moment in life in which I find myself, my children already placed in their own life, deciding what they do with themself. With my wife here, and at a moment coming close to 60 where I feel I have written, or I have produced most of what I was set to do, and not yet ready to say goodbye. I have all of a sudden the feeling that the pandemic has visited me and told me, "All right. What is happening after now is a surplus. From here on, you don't have to be tied to the past. You have done what was expected from you, and now you can invent. Now you can improvise. Now you can be a kind of jazzy writer that even surprises himself by doing things that were never expected or planned."

llan Stavans (47:41):

In some ways I am thankful to the pandemic, to COVID. It has brought a kind of freedom that I am hoping to use in terms of mileage from this moment on.

Charles Monroe-Kane (47:54):

I don't want to push you on that because it sounds kind of beautiful. You're liberated and free, but there are a lot of people out there, a lot of people out there who this effected them, it was hell. And it still is hell. They're hungry. They're dying. How do you as a creative person also rub up against a person in Palestine who this is not a liberating experience for them?

llan Stavans (48:17):

Sure. And a person in Mexico City. And a person not too far from here in Brooklyn. Or in the Bronx who because she is a person of color this has effected her in ways that are unfair and they're structurally racist.

llan Stavans (48:34):

Yes. Writers carry on their shoulders the burden of an entire culture, but writers also have to take a distance. I am very attuned to the moment in which we are living. I feel very empathetic and very connected, and feel that my responsibility is to give voice to others, like this book that is allowing people to see what is happening in different parts of the world.

llan Stavans (48:59):

But at the same time I cannot not ignore that there is also something deep that is happening in me, and that is maybe happening in other people too. That the pandemic is inviting us to see the world under a different lens, with a different veil so to speak.

Charles Monroe-Kane (49:14):

The problem, of course, is that this creativity which is happening, it's amazing, all around us, it's coming out of trauma. Right? That's what happening, that the brain gets rewired as a response to trauma. It reminds me of this argument that if you want to be a jazz great, you've got to do heroin. And great poetry only came out of World War I. Is that really how this works, that out of struggle, out of pain, this creativity comes? Can't it come out of sunshine and love?

llan Stavans (49:42):

I think that creativity always comes out of pain, always comes out of trauma. I think that's something that maybe the pandemic has elevated, but there is in many writers... I don't know, many of them will define it in many different ways... the feeling that what we are in, what our brain is in, is a race against death, against oblivion. And what we do here and now through words, through paintings, through whatever strategies we have, is fight that oblivion. Fight that absence that ultimately we're all going to be about.

Anne Strainchamps (50:17):

Ilan Stavans is the editor of the anthology And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again. That was Charles Monroe-Kane talking with him.

Anne Strainchamps (50:34):

To The Best of Our Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin at Wisconsin Public Radio by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Reichers. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hartdke. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Stay well and join us again next time.

Speaker 8 (51:04):

PRX.

Last modified: 
November 16, 2020