Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

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The Art and Science of Collaboration

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Collaborating with another writer is something I’ve done only once.  It was for a Washington Post Magazine cover article about the stock car racing legend Richard Petty, who was making his first run for political office in the fall of 1978.  At the time I was working as a newspaper reporter in Greensboro, N.C., and after work I would drive the 22 miles to Petty’s home with one of the paper’s editorial writers, and we would spend the late afternoons talking with Petty as he drove his customized van along the back roads of Randolph County.  Petty was always dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, cowboy boots and wraparound shades as he knocked on doors, flashed his famous thousand-watt smile and urged people to help elect him to the board of county commissioners.  Naturally, Petty lapped the field.

When it came time to write the article, my collaborator gave me his notes and disappeared.  This delighted me.  I was free to sit alone in my room using his notes and my own to write a draft of the article as I thought it should be written.  My collaborator then made suggestions, some of which I heeded, most of which I ignored.  The article appeared under both of our bylines, with mine before his, an arrangement that struck me as more than a little unfair.  We also split the $750 paycheck down the middle, which struck me as enormously unfair.  Afterwards I felt like the character Nelson Head in the Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Artificial Nigger,” a young yokel who survives a harrowing visit to the big city of Atlanta and vows never to return.  To paraphrase Nelson, my feelings about collaborating with another writer were I’m glad I did it once, but I’ll never do it again.

My vow has remained intact for more than 30 years, but I recently learned about a group called NeuWrite that has forced me to reconsider my abiding disdain for the art of collaborative writing.  The group began to take shape back in 2007 because a Columbia University neuroscience grad student named Carl Schoonover had arrived at a blunt realization.  “Lots of interesting neuroscience research gets reported badly,” he says.  “And most scientists can’t write for shit, myself included, because they don’t teach you how to write in science grad school.  The trick was to find writers.”

So after discussing the idea with his colleagues, Schoonover persuaded Stuart Firestein, the chairman of Columbia’s biology deparment, to introduce him to Ben Marcus, who heads the university’s Master of Fine Arts program in non-fiction writing.  Marcus offered the names of half a dozen of his students who might be interested in collaborating with neuroscience grad students, and Schoonover took each of them to The Hungarian Pastry Shop near campus to pitch his idea.  In early 2008, the group came together for the first time at an informal salon in the home of Firestein and his wife Diana Reiss, a psychology professor at Hunter College.

“I think you need to develop trust for it work,” Schoonover says.  “We scientists are accustomed to collaboration.  It’s built into the scientific process.  But the writers were very reticent, especially at first.”

As the members became more familiar and comfortable with each other, scientists started pairing up with writers and working together.  Eventually the salon atmosphere of the meetings gave way to a classic MFA workshop format – members would bring in a piece of their own writing for the group to discuss; established science writers would be invited to speak; the group would read and discuss examples of high quality science writing.

Schoonover wound up pairing with Abigail Rabinowitz, 32, who has since gotten her MFA and gone to India on a Fulbright grant to study surrogate motherhood in Mumbai.  Rabinowitz had wanted to be a scientist when she was growing up, and the announcement that NeuWrite was forming in early 2008 caught her eye.  “I wanted to find my way back to science through writing,” she says, “and I thought this would be a great way to look at writing from a different perspective and possibly find new stories.”

Schoonover and Rabinowitz’s first collaboration was on an article for Science magazine about a show at the American Museum of Natural History called “Brain: The Inside Story”.  “First, we heard the museum’s directors speak about how they’d planned the show,” Rabinowitz recalls.  “Then Carl and I walked through the show together and shared impressions.  If I wasn’t sure about something, he explained it to me.  Our impressions were very similar, even though we were coming from different backgrounds.  We both felt the show wasn’t organized visually as well as it could have been.”

Next came the hard part.  “So we sat down together with a computer,” Rabinowitz continues.  “We both had a lot of notes, and we outlined the piece together.  I had a vision for the introduction when you walk into a kind of spaghetti forest that represents the brain.  Carl also thought it was a good way into the piece.  Then we moved through the show, and that became the article’s structure.  I typed while we were both speaking – not trying to hone language, just trying to get basic ideas in order.  Then I wrote the first draft until the halfway point and e-mailed the draft to Carl, who then edited what I’d written – not structure, but word choice and one factual error and some added information.  Then he wrote the second half.  He sent it back to me and I edited what he’d written.  We both killed the other’s darlings.”

More and more refined drafts went back and forth a half dozen times.  Changes were tracked on each draft, and the collaborators spoke frequently by phone.  The finished product possesses two things you don’t always find in science writing: accurate, easily comprehensible information related in a style that’s brisk and clear.

The pair’s next collaboration was an article for the New York Times about the emerging field of optogenetics, which uses flashes of light to control electrical activity in specially engineered neurons.  The technique is beginning to yield insight into such human disorders as Parkinson’s disease and anxiety.

Rabinowitz now feels that collaboration, though painful, is worth the trouble.  “Ultimately I think it produced better writing than I could have done myself,” she says.  “Carl knows what he’s talking about.  If he liked something I wrote, I got the joy of recognition.  But it can be frustrating too.  I wouldn’t want to write this way with most people I know, because it’s hard and there has to be a good reason to do it.  If you’re writing with somebody else, you need to communicate very well.”

For Greg Wayne, a grad student in theoretical neuroscience and a member of NeuWrite, this hasn’t been his first exposure to collaborative writing.  Wayne and his brother, a novelist, had worked together on humor sketches, a form that’s “incredibly amenable” to collaboration, he says.  “With humor, there’s a joke every line, and that can be edited immediately.  Is this funny?  Does that work?  But if you have long, discursive writing, sitting at the same keyboard is much more difficult.  I think novel writing would be just about impossible.”

Wayne collaborated with the writer Alex Pasternack on an article for Science magazine about a panel on artificial intelligence at the World Science Festival – replete with robot demonstrations, including Watson, the “Jeopardy!” champion.  The experience left Wayne convinced that there are times when two minds can produce better science writing than one.  “For the article we divided up responsibility based on what we know best,” Wayne says.  “Alex, as a writer, was going to look at social issues, how the public views artificial intelligence, how people think about a Stanley Kubrick sci-fi movie.  As a scientist I would focus on the nuts and bolts of how the robots work.  In the end, neither one of us alone would have been capable of writing what we wrote together.”

Tim Requarth studied Spanish literature as an undergrad and wrote a book about his father’s dementia before entering Columbia’s neuroscience program.  Requarth, who recently wrote a review here at The Millions of the neuroscientist David Eagleman’s best-seller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, teamed up with Schoonover to help run NeuWrite.  “I was a logical person to step in because I’ve had a foot in both words – science and writing,” says Requarth, who has collaborated on articles for Science and Scientific American with Meehan Crist, who has just finished writing a book called Everything After, about traumatic brain injury.  “One thing we’ve all discovered is that it works better if one person writes the first draft.  Meehan and I discuss the ideas and arrive at a sketch, details to include, how to start.  Then I sit down and write.  Then Meehan does a first-pass edit, and we pass it back and forth until we’re both happy with it.  When someone reads your rough draft, it’s like letting them see you half-dressed.  It’s about arriving at a level of intellectual comfort – or having faith in the process.  In a successful collaboration, both people feel like they did less than half the work.”

Requarth is now working to start a second NeuWrite group that will branch beyond the neuroscience field and beyond the Columbia campus.  He’s recruiting students from other science disciplines at NYU and CUNY, as well as journalists.  Another group is beginning to form in Boston.

Schoonover is optimistic that the group’s tenets will spread.  “We’re trying to make the argument to science editors that the best way to guarantee accuracy and avoid hype is by having a scientist involved in every step of the crafting of articles,” he says.  “Once we show that this collaboration between writers and scientists works with NeuWrite, we’d love to see it become routine.  We’re sowing the seeds for expansion.”

(Image: Christmas DNA from pagedooley’s photostream)

Tuesday New Release Day: Bolaño, Vonnegut, Mamet, Eagleman


This week, New Directions offers up a collection that may offer some context to the Roberto Bolaño oeuvre. As the catalog copy suggests, “Between Parentheses collects most of the newspaper columns and articles Bolaño wrote during the last five years of his life, as well as the texts of some of his speeches and talks and a few scattered prologues.” Also out: Library of America does Kurt Vonnegut with Novels & Stories, 1963-1973; The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, a political tome by playwright David Mamet; and Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman, the scientist and polymath who was recently profiled in the New Yorker.

Mind Control: David Eagleman’s Incognito

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In the final chapter of his latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman muses on the ultimate dethronement of humankind, the “fall from the center of ourselves.” Just as Galileo plucked the Earth from the center of the solar system, and Darwin relegated us to one twig among many on the evolutionary tree, a century of modern neuroscience has confirmed Freud’s intuition that the vast majority of brain activity occurs at levels of which the conscious “I” is scarcely even aware—much less in control of.  What we call the conscious mind, Eagleman argues, is far from center stage, and the more we try to find out who—or what—is actually in control of our brain, the more we find out there is, as Gertrude Stein said, “no there there.”

Before he considers the broader implications of our fall from grace, Eagleman spends the first half of the book revealing—through experiments, anecdotes, puzzles, optical illusions, and current events—the extent of the neural wizardry operating behind the conscious curtain of the “I.” It is this wizardry, he suggests, that constructs the cognitive illusion we confidently declare reality. Eagleman, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, is an agile guide; he is someone who cares about the craft of writing. His bestselling work of fiction, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a series of imaginative (if somewhat gimmicky) thought experiments about the possible nature(s) of God, was widely praised when it appeared in 2009. In his latest book, he proves himself, once again. Eagleman presents difficult neuroscience concepts in an energetic, casual voice with plenty of analogies and examples to ensure that what could easily be an overwhelming catalog of facts remains engaging and accessible.

Eagleman uses everyday experiences, familiar to each of us, which reveal the hidden machinations of the brain working in unexpected ways. Even an intuitively effortless act such as seeing, he shows us, is not a passive process of observation, but rather the product of a vast subsurface machinery (by some measures, nearly one-third of the human brain is devoted to vision) that uses an arsenal of assumptions to interpret the ambiguous barrage of shapes and colors that constitute any visual scene. Most readers will fail to appreciate any of these processes until we are shown how often—and how profoundly—we get it totally wrong. For example, the resolution of our peripheral vision is so shockingly poor that if you ask a friend to hold a handful of colored highlighters out to his side while you stare at his nose, you may have the vague sensation of a rainbow in the distance, but might be surprised to discover that you’re unable to name or order any of the colors. Since the brain constantly darts our eyes around so that the high-resolution central vision focuses on whatever it is we are interested in—and therefore anything we are paying attention to appears in sharp focus—the brain assumes the entire visual world is in focus. We think we see what we do not.

What optical illusions really point out is that all of vision is, in a sense, an illusion.

One striking optical illusion, in which a dot on the page disappears as you slowly move the book away from your face, demonstrates that a huge region of vision is in fact missing—due to a quirk of anatomy, we have a sizable blind spot. And yet,  no one noticed this blind spot until its chance discovery in the 17th century because the brain fills in the missing information. It is constantly inventing a patch of reality. The lesson of examples such as these, Eagleman points out, is that “you’re not perceiving what’s out there. You are perceiving whatever your brain tells you.” Whether you are in control of your eyes or your eyes are in control of you is the central, unsettling question posed by these chapters.

The extent to which forces that elude introspection influence not only your perceptions but also your behavior is detailed with increasingly bizarre examples. We find out that a stripper earns higher tips when she is at the most fertile point in her menstrual cycle. People are more likely to marry other people whose names begin with the same letter as their own. Those who are born on February 2nd (2/2) are statistically more likely to live in places like Twin Lakes, Wisconsin; those born on March 3rd in Three Forks, Montana; and those born on June 6th in Six Mile, South Carolina. What these interesting but difficult-to-interpret quirks of human nature reveal is that choices which you happily assign to volition—to free will—may in fact be determined by the alien logic of brain processes inaccessible to the conscious “I.”

But does any of this this matter? Is anything in your life going to change if modern neuroscience strips you of the illusion of free will? Isn’t it just fine to go through the course of the day believing what you see, or ignoring the possibility that arbitrary numbers might influence where you choose to live? Unless you are a philosopher, these issues might seem irrelevant, but Eagleman’s book serves as a clarion call to institutions of law and policy, arguing that they need to be based upon a deeper understanding of ourselves.

As director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor University, Eagleman has a thoughtful and considered take on issues of cultural and political power, and his chapter on neuroscience and the law proves to be the strongest in the book. While today’s courts rarely allow such technologies as brain scans into the courtroom, judges may soon deem such scans relevant to arguments about a defendant’s mental state. Many detractors worry moving blame to biology will result in dangerous criminals being exculpated—the “It wasn’t me, it was my brain” defense. Yet the shift is already in motion outside of the courtroom. Most of us believe that diseases such as depression, schizophrenia, and epilepsy have a neurological basis, and that factors such as genes make some of us more susceptible to risky behavioral patterns, such as drug addiction. Similarly, most of us intuitively feel that an Alzheimer’s patient that shoplifts is somehow less guilty of the crime, or that a mentally disabled person who murders should not be sent to prison. How is a legal system that rests on volition and culpability going to address this shifting locus of responsibility?

Eagleman attacks the question head-on:

The heart of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology and to what extent was it him?” The question no longer makes sense because we now understand those to be the same thing. There is no meaningful distinction between his biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable.

He seeks not to revise the definition of blameworthiness but to remove the concept from jurisprudence altogether. It is true that the more we understand about brain circuitry, the more concepts like indulgence, discipline, and motivation can be explained by biology. It’s also true that if there is a measurable brain problem—such as the case in which a man committed murders due to neurological changes brought on by a brain tumor—the defendant is viewed as less blameworthy. However, a system of jurisprudence in which blame is based upon the state of current technology is not on stable footing; rather than adjusting the definition of blame to suit shifting technology, perhaps we should eschew blame altogether. “Blameworthiness,” Eagleman writes, “is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.” Instead, he hopes that we can leverage findings in neuroscience to better structure the way we punish, ultimately replacing the notion of retribution with either rehabilitation when possible or humane incapacitation when not.

Almost all of the ideas in Eagleman’s book are well-articulated and entertaining, elucidated with the intelligent, casual tone of an enthusiastic university lecturer. However, it’s important to note that, like a lecture, Eagleman’s book does not constitute—nor claim to constitute—original thinking. He has curated examples from the world of modern neuroscience in support of ideas already explored by writers such as Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hoftstadter, or biologists such as Gerald Edelman, packaging them into a highly accessible and energetic work of popular science. Eagleman’s book is rooted firmly in the tradition of scientist-as-explainer, along the lines of Brian Greene’s efforts to bring string theory to a lay audience in The Elegant Universe, or Daniel Levitin’s elucidation of the neuroscience of music in This Is Your Brain On Music.

While we are left, at the end of the book, with the disturbing sensation of wondering who, exactly, it is we are looking at when we look in the mirror, Eagleman assures us that this latest act of dethronement does not leave us disconsolately adrift. Just as astronomy’s revolution invited us to contemplate the gorgeous, vast expanses of the universe, a better understanding of the human brain “tends to open up something bigger than us, ideas more wonderful than we had originally imagined.” Neuroscience can’t weigh in yet on whether or not we house an extrabiological soul, but even if how mind emerges from brain is one day completely described by the laws of classical physics, the threads of causality will be so tangled as to only offer partial insight. So while it is disquieting to ponder the fact that the conscious mind, unaware of the incomprehensible dynamics of multiple neural subsystems blithely chugging away, may be left merely to superimpose meaning on our actions and choices, there is indeed beauty and comfort in knowing that we contain the unknowable.

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