Whoopi Goldberg, David Eagleman, and the Brain

Karma is the Sanskrit word for action and is a fundamental concept in Buddhism that refers to our actions as having a direct effect on our future conditions. But what is it about our brains that sucker us into making decisions we know are not grounded in reality? “We’re not fixed. From cradle to grave, we are works in progress,” says neuroscientist David Eagleman. Last week at New York City’s Rubin Museum, Eagleman was joined by actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg for an entertaining discussion on whether “fate and destiny should be deciding factors in human behavior.”

Photo credit: Lyn Hughes/Courtesy of the Rubin Museum

Photo credit: Lyn Hughes/Courtesy of the Rubin Museum

The conversation began when Goldberg prompted Eagleman to explain the reasoning behind our tendency to make certain decisions, even ones that we know will have unfavorable outcomes. His response: time travel. What humans seem to do better than most species is “time travel”—as in simulating futures and reminiscing on the past. This inability to honestly face the present can sometimes hinder our decision-making process, he said; but one’s ability to visualize the future outcome of any one decision can also result in making smarter choices.

Eagleman directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine and is recognized for his work on time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia, and neurolaw. Earlier this month, on October 14, PBS aired a new television show starring Eagleman titled, “The Brain.” The six-episode series focuses on the inner workings of the brain, how it applies to personal experiences, and what drives us towards certain actions and behaviors. “There are a hundred billion neurons in the human brain, and each one of these is sending tens or hundreds of electrical pulses to thousands of other neurons every second of your life; and somehow, all of this activity produces your sense of reality,” he said.

When Goldberg asked about his thoughts on the “tangibility” of karma, Eagleman likened it to “a bird’s-eye view on how the world actually works.” Normally, we make our decisions out of greed or impulse…but the sense of karma is that every decision and action has its consequence, said Eagleman. He went on to explain that a child predominantly follows his or her impulses because the most slowly developed part of the brain is the prefrontal cortex, which doesn’t reach full development until around the age of twenty-one. This area of the brain, located in the frontal lobe, is necessary for long-term thinking, abstract reasoning, overriding impulses, and decision making.

What makes humans special when compared to other species, he said, is not the size of the brain but the size of the prefrontal cortex. Even though we bear the gift of foresight, the mental “battle” of resisting temptation will always present itself. “It’s like a neural parliament in there, with different political parties,” Eagleman said. When Goldberg asked how he overcomes his own battles with temptation (the example used was a plate of warm, chocolate chip cookies), he introduced a helpful strategy for good decision-making called “The Ulysses Contract.”

The contract refers to Homer’s epic tale and the pact that Ulysses made with his men to overcome the lure of the Sirens and their music, Eagleman explained. Despite his desire to hear the Sirens’ song, Ulysses knew that doing so would sabotage their journey home; so he took several precautions to ensure that neither he nor his men would fall victim to this trap. “It’s the Ulysses of sound mind in the present doing something so that Ulysses of the future—who’s going to act crazy—can’t do it,” he said. “It’s a contract between your present-future self…So there are lots of ways that people can do this, and it helps decision-making a lot.”

Like Ulysses’ journey home, the conversation between Goldberg and Eagleman wound in various directions but never once lost the attention of the audience. They also explored the idea of connectedness, and the future effect of technology on society, and our sense of identity. Goldberg voiced concern about our dependency on cell phones and the internet, while Eagleman called himself a “cyber-optimist” for the vast potential we now have at our fingertips. The next episode of “The Brain” airs tomorrow night at 10 p.m. EST and is titled, “Who Is In Control?” Be sure to tune in to learn more about the wonders of the human brain.

The Rubin Museum is a Brain Awareness Week partner and hosts a series of on-stage conversations and films called “Brainwave.” Be sure to stay tuned for upcoming events!

– Seimi Rurup

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