David Eagleman: A Brainy Approach to Innovation [Entire Talk] | Summary and Q&A

May 31, 2017
Stanford eCorner
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David Eagleman: A Brainy Approach to Innovation [Entire Talk]

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In this video, a scientist discusses the role of science fiction in science and how they overlap in generating possibilities and exploring new ideas. They also delve into the topic of sensors in the body and the potential for building new peripherals to feed information into the brain. The scientist showcases a vest that captures sound and translates it into patterns of vibration on the body, allowing deaf people to "hear" through vibrations. They also explore the potential for developing new senses by feeding different types of information into the body. The discussion then moves towards questions about the differences between senses and the potential for reading and controlling the brain using new technologies. The scientist also talks about their journey from academic research to entrepreneurship, starting multiple companies based on their scientific work. The discussion ends with exploration of the intersection between neuroscience and the legal system, and how understanding the brain can influence criminal justice practices.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the relationship between science fiction and science?

Science fiction and science overlap in the exploration of possibilities and the generation of new ideas. Science fiction often takes existing scientific knowledge and pushes it further to imagine what could be possible in the future. Science, on the other hand, seeks to make those leaps and explore the feasibility of these ideas through research and experimentation.

Q: How do sensors in our body and the brain process information?

The scientist believes that the brain is a general computational device and the sensors in our body, such as those for electromagnetic radiation, air compression waves, and molecules in the air, are plug-and-play receptors. The brain can process and make sense of any information input it receives, regardless of the type of sensor. In the animal kingdom, there are many examples of unique peripheral devices that animals use for sensory purposes. The scientist's lab has even built a vest that captures sound and translates it into patterns of vibration on the body, allowing deaf people to "hear" through vibrations.

Q: Are there senses that we haven't yet characterized?

While there is no conclusive evidence yet, some research suggests that humans may have a sense of direction similar to the sense of north in animals like birds. There is also ongoing exploration into whether humans can develop new senses through the integration of external sensory input. For example, by feeding information about stock market data, weather data, or even Twitter data into the body, individuals without sensory impairment can potentially develop a completely new kind of sense, a "sixth sense".

Q: Does the sound captured by the vest feel like an echo?

The sound captured by the vest and translated into patterns of vibration on the body does have some similarities to hearing an echo. When a baby learns to speak, they babble and hear their own voice through their ears. Similarly, wearing the vest creates a similar experience where individuals feel their own speech through the patterns of vibration on their torso. However, humans are capable of canceling out their own speech and not paying attention to it, much like how individuals who are not deaf do not pay attention to their own voice.

Q: Are there senses that feel completely different from each other?

Despite the differences in how different senses feel to humans, the scientist speculates that the structure of the data coming into the brain is what causes this perceived differentiation. Vision, for example, involves two-dimensional sheets of data, while hearing and touch involve different types of signals. The scientist's hypothesis is that when new kinds of signals are fed into the brain, like stock market data, individuals may experience a completely new kind of sense that does not fit into existing senses like vision or touch.

Q: Can we read other people's minds through neural inputs?

While there has been research on using brain imaging to try to understand what someone is experiencing or thinking, the current technology is limited. For example, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can provide a distorted picture of what someone is seeing based on neural activity, but this is mostly limited to visual cortex activity. The idea of reading someone's mind in terms of their thoughts or emotions is far more complex and difficult to achieve given the current understanding of the brain and the limitations of brain imaging technology.

Q: Can the brain be used for actuation as well as receiving sensory input?

The scientist believes it is possible to use tools and technologies to control motor output through the brain. However, current methods like electroencephalography (EEG) have limitations in terms of the information they can gather. To truly achieve advanced actuation through the brain, better methods will need to be developed to measure individual neurons in real-time and on a large scale. The scientist also speculates on the possibility of detaching artificial limbs from the body but still being able to control them using brain signals.

Q: How do you balance being a scientist and an entrepreneur?

The scientist initially focused on academic research and published numerous publications but realized that only a few people read them. They shifted their focus toward making a tangible impact on the world and started exploring entrepreneurship. They express the importance of finding a balance between staying true to scientific accuracy and making science accessible to the public. The scientist mentions that their books and TV show are entertaining but grounded in scientific evidence. They believe that staying on this middle road is not challenging as long as one is cautious about accuracy and references their claims appropriately.

Q: What are the biggest mysteries in neuroscience?

The scientist acknowledges that although we have considerable knowledge about the brain, there are still many mysteries to be solved. They outline a few specific mysteries, such as understanding consciousness and why we have subjective experiences. The scientist also mentions the mysteries of sleep and dreams, intelligence, and many others. They emphasize that although significant advancements have been made, neuroscience still has a vast amount of uncharted territory and unknowns to explore.

Q: How do you prevent misinformation and misconceptions when communicating science?

The scientist highlights the importance of providing accurate information and references when communicating scientific ideas. They mention that in their books, they provide extensive references to scientific literature to back up their claims. The scientist also teaches a class on public communication of neuroscience in which they emphasize the need for accurate, evidence-based communication. They consider it essential to stay on a middle road that is both accessible to the public and grounded in scientific validity.


Science fiction and science often overlap in exploring possibilities and generating new ideas. The brain is capable of processing different types of sensory input, and there is potential for building new peripherals to expand human sensory capabilities. The mysteries of consciousness, sleep, dreams, and intelligence remain significant areas of exploration in neuroscience. The scientist has transitioned from academic research to entrepreneurship in order to have a more significant impact on the world. They emphasize the importance of finding a balance between accurate scientific communication and making science accessible to the public. Additionally, they are working on various entrepreneurial endeavors, including a company that aims to improve understanding of the brain in the legal system.

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