Dr David Eagleman is the world’s leading neuroscientist. He’s unlocked how to create new senses for humans – from bat-like echolocation and ‘seeing’ heat to electromagnetism. As his new book shakes up the world of science, he talks to Neil Mackay about how the coming biological revolution will change the nature of humanity forever

DR David Eagleman has just finished his morning “dad chores”, getting his kids ready for their day. He sits down over a coffee and starts to explain how he’s developed superpowers.

Eagleman can walk into a library, run his hand along a shelf and tell you which books were most recently touched just from their heat signature alone. 

He can walk through a parking lot and work out the order in which the cars arrived from the level of warmth pulsing off their engines.
Eagleman can “see” heat. “It’s pretty cool,” he says, with a knowing smile. He’s not the monster from the Predator films, though – he wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider, nor did he drop to Earth from the planet Krypton. 

Eagleman is a witty and very youthful 50-year-old neuroscientist – probably the greatest scientist in his field today – who just happens to be the father of the coming “Biological Revolution”. 

He has a genius for the workings of the brain – and how we can harness the power of the mind in previously unimaginable ways – just as Einstein had a genius for physics or Shakespeare the sonnet.

Eagleman is able to create new senses for humans. His investigations into the “plasticity” of the brain – his discoveries that the lump of jelly in our heads can be trained to do just about anything – have led him to create, among many science fiction-style inventions, the Neosensory Wristband. 

The size of a large FitBit, the wristband allows the wearer to “feel” senses humans don’t have – ultrasonic, infrared, electromagnetic. 

The wristband is simply a first step into the foothills of a scientific Everest. Eagleman is taking the world on the path towards “transhumanity” – where the melding of biology, robotics and computers redefines what it means to be Homo Sapiens.

He has just written Livewired. It is already being hailed as a book which will change the planet. 

It is not hyperbole to imagine it one day taking its place beside Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time, as one of the most important popular scientific books ever written. It has already been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Eagleman, who lives in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, is a professor at Stanford University where he teaches neuroscience. He also directs the Centre for Science and Law. Talking to Eagleman is a dizzying experience – in an instant, he can move from discussing the coming science of mind control, to how we could soon be reading the mummified brains of the long dead. 

When The Herald on Sunday sat down with Eagleman the conversation was often interrupted with the question “are you serious?” to which Eagelman always replied with a deadpan: “Yes, absolutely serious.”

Superpowered brain
AT the heart of Eagleman’s work lies the “plasticity” of the brain. Our brains – unlike the brains of all other animals – are endlessly malleable. Human brains are “livewired” – not hardwired. The human brain isn’t static, it constantly adapts. 

A chick can walk almost as soon as it’s hatched, and it’ll basically remain the same kind of chicken, with the same kind of brain, until it dies. Humans are born relatively useless, but our brains are blank slates and are continually altering and learning new skills until the moment we die. 

“As far as being human, one of the illusions that we live with is that we’re the same person through time. In fact, we’re changing every moment of our lives,” Eagleman says. 

This constant learning and adaption is what makes humans human. It’s why a 90-year-old who was born before the TV age can use a mobile phone. This “plasticity” is what makes us clever; it’s what makes us the planet’s apex predator; it’s what gives us consciousness and art and science. That’s why as a species we’re capable of producing both Mozart and Hitler.

Potato Head theory
KEY to understanding where Eagleman is taking us are experiments which show how the human brain can be completely rewired. If the visual cortex is damaged – the part of the brain which lets us see – the eye can be rewired to the auditory cortex, used for hearing. 

The “hearing” part of the brain will quickly learn to “see”. This can return sight – and points to a “cure” for all sorts of sensory problems, from blindness to deafness.

It is what Eagleman calls the “Mr Potato Head Theory”. The brain is so multi-purpose that like the Potato Head toy you can jack just about anything in anywhere and get it to function. We previously thought that the “sight parts”, “sound parts”, “taste”, “touch” and “smell” parts of the brain could do only one thing: see, hear, taste, touch, smell. Not true. The brain can be rewired to do just about anything.

Experiments with a device called a “Brain Port” rigged a camera to the forehead of a blind person which was linked to a sensory receptor on the tongue. The images coming into the camera were converted into vibrations on the sensor – so the subject “saw” with their tongue. It wasn’t sight as we conventionally know it but an approximation where bright light created more vibrations and darkness no vibrations. But it gave awareness of direction, movement, distance, size and shape.

Homing pigeon human
WITH this knowledge of how the brain can be rewired, and hacked, to do just about anything, Eagleman realised it was possible to create new senses for humans. That set him on the path to the Neosensory wristband. Eagleman isn’t alone in this field – other scientists are working on similar projects. 

German inventors created the feelSpace Belt, which allows the wearer to experience the magnetic field, just as birds like homing pigeons do, meaning they’re constantly aware of magnetic north and so can navigate with far more precision than “ordinary” humans.

Now let’s add in the developing concept of “neural dust” – or “smart dust” – which involves the ingestion of microscopic sensors that interface with the brain. Again, this is science in development, not science fiction. 

With simple everyday Bluetooth, which creates wireless connections, a device like the Neosensory Wristband or the feelSpace Belt wouldn’t have to vibrate or pulse on your wrist or round your belly to give you the sensation of a new sense – that new sense could be received directly into those microscopic receptors in the brain, and experienced just like sight or sound. In the future, people could “see” ultraviolet light – and have insect-like vision.

This ability to “remotely relay” senses was proved in one experiment where a brain-interface was set up which allowed a monkey to make a robot walk on the other side of the world simply by thinking about moving its own body. Imagine the applications in war, space travel, or underwater exploration.

‘Feel’ the planet
EAGLEMAN, though, isn’t content with just harnessing existing senses that humans don’t have – like infrared, electromagnetism, or the echolocation of a bat. He wants to create brand new senses – senses which exist nowhere in nature. He’s looking at technology which will allow humans to “feel” data streams, like the movement of the stock market. 

He says a CEO could “feel” the output of their factory or office. All of us could “feel” Twitter – tapping into the consciousness of the planet.
It’s one of those moments when the only response is: “Are you serious, Dr Eagleman?”

He replies: “God, yes, I mean this is going to happen in the next five years. Oh yeah, I mean, we’re already doing it now – we’re doing a number of experiments right now.”

The skin, Eagleman says, “is the largest organ of the body … it’s a really good way to push information into the brain”, but it doesn’t do much more than keep our insides inside and allow us to experience “touch”. 

Harness this great floppy covering of ours with sensors, hooked up to data streams and the brain – and bingo, the human mind can “feel” information we otherwise take in through reading or listening. 
Trying to imagine what these new sense would be like – “feeling Twitter” – is impossible, just like trying to imagine a new colour. We’ll only have words for these senses once we experience them.

Real Dr Octopus
BUT transhumanism is coming – rest assured of that. “As we get a better understanding of what’s happening inside this inner sanctum of the skull, it allows us to build new senses, new bodies,” says Eagleman.

One way to think about this coming “sensory leap” is how humans use current physical technology that already gives us powers beyond our capabilities. Humans weren’t built to fly, but a pilot, encased in a plane, moves their body and the machine as one – rolling, pitching, altering altitude.

The brain and the body didn’t rebel against this unnatural state of affairs when flight was invented, we just adapted. 

Eagleman isn’t kidding when he suggests that we could, if we wanted, one day soon to develop a “Dr Octopus” style human. We could jack extra arms and legs into the human body, Bluetooth them to the cerebral cortex, and the brain is so cunningly adaptable that it would work out how to operate new limbs relatively quickly. The brain can, he says, learn skills “it didn’t evolve for”.

Robot avatars 
WE will even be able to have functioning avatars of ourselves online and in the physical world. It will change forever what it means to live inside this “meat robot”, as Eagleman describes the human body. 

“By the end of our lifetime I think it’ll be quite trivial to run an external body – for all of us to have a robot helper, maid or cook, and you’re just running it on the side.”

Does he mean it’s being run by our minds? “Yes, exactly,” he says. The plasticity of the brain means we’d find it relatively easy to go about our daily lives while we also ‘think’ orders to robotic and digital helpers. It’s a form of mind control? Yes, is Eagleman’s answer.

“It would be trivial,” he explains. “It would be just as difficult as controlling my arm or leg. It’s exactly the same thing – just now you’d be using Bluetooth instead of muscle fibres.”

No free will?
THE brain, Eagleman says, is an imprinting machine. The mind is like a clay tablet – if you push an experience into it an indelible impression is left. It raises big questions around free will and responsibility. If someone suffers appalling abuse in childhood and goes on to commit some dreadful act as an adult, are they really to blame? Or is it down to what’s imprinted in their mind?

“You don’t chose the genes you are born with and you don’t chose your experiences as a child,” Eagleman says. “These are the things that shape you and make you what you are. We like to think about everyone making their own choices. When we think of criminals we think of a guy who walks into a room and choses to do this terrible thing – so let’s make him suffer, punish him. But the fact is, we don’t chose the features that make us who we are – certainly not as children. So the issue of freewill is hotly debated in neuroscience.

Probably most neuroscientists feel that we don’t have free will because it’s not clear where that comes from.”

Hearing the dead?
THE way the brain “livewires” itself – the way it constantly adapts by imprinting our ever-changing experiences literally onto our grey matter – means that memories are laid down like pathways. The more you do a certain act – say, driving your car – then the deeper and more defined the physical neural pathway becomes.

In another of those “are you serious” moments, Eagleman explains how one day we’ll be able to “read the brains of the dead”. “I totally think we’ll get there as every single thing you experienced and learned is all reflected in the structure of your brain,” he says. Metaphorically, the brain is a book. Right now, “we don’t know how to read that book.

It’s a totally foreign language. Pick up the book of your brain, and it’s just a forest of neurons, and who the heck knows what that says”.
He adds: “But once we find the Rosetta Stone, we’ll be able to look at a brain and say okay, this is who this person was. I think the technology required is so enormous and detailed that it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetimes but it’s going to happen.”

How long? “A hundred years, maybe,” he says. Then we could open the skull of someone like Otzi the Iceman preserved frozen in the Alps around 3000BC and read his experiences from the whorls and curls of his brain.

Man to Superman
EAGLEMAN’S work is setting humanity off on a new industrial revolution – we’ve had fire, agriculture, steel, gunpowder, medicine, steam, electricity, nuclear power, and now we’re in the digital age. But this coming biological revolution will completely redefine the nature of humankind in a way that no previous technology has done.

There’s a clear risk of “speciation” – where the rich develop into something bigger, better, stronger, faster, smarter than current humans, and the rest of us get left behind.

Eagleman puts his hopes of equality in the mobile phone revolution. “We’re all walking around with these rectangles in our pockets with the entirety of humankind’s knowledge on them,” he says. If such an incredible technology is now cheaply available to most of the world – and so ubiquitous it’s no longer remarkable – then “livewiring” brain-tech can also be taken up by the majority. “If the technology is inexpensive, it goes everywhere,” he says. “I’m jazzed by that.”

End of evolution
THERE’S a big and mind-boggling question hanging over all of this: are we on the verge then of eliminating evolution? “We’ve already done that,” Eagleman says.

“We’ve completely bypassed evolution by natural selection – [what] applies to other species doesn’t apply to us clearly anymore.” We don’t need to wait for Eagleman to perfect the science of giving us all new senses, the simple act of saving the life of a sick baby in hospital already sidesteps Mother Nature. There’s no going back either.

“This stuff is now inevitable,” says Eagleman. There’s no more chance of arresting this biological revolution than there was stopping the digital revolution as it happened in the late 1990s.

Living machines
THERE is an astonishing coda to Eagleman’s work. It’s not just that we can teach the brain to experience new senses and interface with machines – we can also teach machines to be “brainlike” too.

He envisions machines which are “plastic” like brains – adaptable and “livewired” like our minds – that know how to change. Imagine a “livewired” house that realises there are more people than usual inside and so “grows” extra bathrooms and taps to accommodate the additional guests. Or a Martian rover that loses a wheel and simply reconfigures its “body” to fix the problem.

This is his next project. “Nobody has ever built a livewired machine,” he says. “We’ve existence of proof – which is our own brains – but we don’t have a single example of that in the technology we’ve built because we’ve gone down the particular road of building out of metals, plastics and wires.” 

We aren’t just on the cusp of transhumanity, then, of humans melding with machines, we’re also on the cusp of “the living machine”. Now imagine that concept taken onto a global scale with the “internet of things” – all those digitally-linked smart devices in homes, factories, offices and hospitals.

Is Eagleman fearful of what’s brewing in his laboratory? Not at all, he’s optimistic.

He sees the future for his two children – aged just nine and five – as one with so many more opportunities than he, or any of the rest of us, had. A world of limitless horizons and endless access to knowledge and experience through the mastery of technology and the unravelling of the secrets of the brain.

“My father was a psychiatrist,” he says – a fact that makes sense of his passions. “He said the job of a parent is to open doors for a child. That’s it – that’s the job: to make sure a child gets exposed to everything and finds what resonates with them.”

As the father of the coming biological revolution, Eagleman is opening doors for all of us to step through. Crossing the threshold may well represent the moment humanity moves from childhood to adulthood.

Once we take that step, though, we’ll have to make some very grown-up decisions about what we do next.