Coben Reveals Secrets to Success

A recent Brainwave program focused on a best-selling author’s approach to writing thrillers. The featured guest was Harlan Coben, the 56-year-old author of 30 novels (seven New York Times No. 1 bestsellers) and a Jersey guy with a shaved head and a keen sense of humor. Matching wits and finding neuroscience angles was David Eagleman, the Stanford University-based author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, and the writer and host of the Emmy-nominated PBS television series The Brain.

The Rubin Museum in New York City advertised the science of suspense as the program’s theme, but the conversation covered any number of areas that a writer of thrillers considers: memory, empathy, manipulation, human nature, and consciousness, to name a few.


Coben explained that he helped jumpstart his thought process for his next book by sitting and observing people in Strawberry Fields in Central Park for three days.

Coben’s stories almost always contain woods and basketball and are set in North Jersey, where he lives (Ridgewood) with his pediatrician wife and two dogs. Growing up in a loud, Jewish home in Livingston, he said storytelling was essential to be heard at the dinner table. Even with four children, he says he still thinks of himself as a 17-year-old who is waiting for his life to begin. He believes that every individual has their own compelling story to tell and, in discussing human nature, said with a twinge of sarcasm, “We think we are uniquely complex, and no one knows what is really going on inside us. At the same time, we all think we are very good at reading the thoughts of others.”

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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

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World Science Festival: What is Color?

“What is Color?” was the dominant question submitted by more than 26,000 curious eleven-year olds around the world in this year’s Flame Challenge, issued by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The Challenge asks scientists to answer the chosen question in a manner understandable and engaging to eleven-year olds (past questions were: What is a Flame? What is Time?), and this year, almost 400 scientists responded. The 2014 winners were announced on Sunday.

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Dreaming of Henry Rollins

The Rubin Museum has officially kicked off its fourth annual Brainwave series, which pairs artists and scientists in conversations about the brain. This year’s theme focuses on dreams, and last night punk rocker turned spoken-word artist Henry Rollins opened up to neuroscientist David Eagleman, Ph.D. about the violence and anxiety that plague him in his sleep.

According to Eagleman, there is an over-misrepresentation of grief and misery in dreams. And, even more fascinating, dream content does not appear to be dependent on personal circumstance and environment. He noted a study by Susan Malcolm-Smith et al. at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, which compared the number of “threat dreams” experienced by the inhabitants of a sleepy town in Wales and to those of a high-crime area of South Africa. Contrary to predictions by the researchers, the number of threat dreams experienced did not significantly differ based on location.

Some lucky sleepers, Rollins included, have the ability to take control of their nightmares, forcing a more amenable outcome or prompting themselves to wake up. This state of mind, said Eagleman, which is somewhere between consciousness and REM sleep, is called lucid dreaming.

Rollins explained that he is sometimes able to get a “do-over” in dreams where he is back in a familiar dream, but this time has the ability to control the outcome. For those not naturally in possession of this ability, lucid dreaming is actually something that can be learned through training, said Eagleman. Upon assuming control of one’s dreams, “most people fly or have sex,” he quipped.

I’ve experienced the “do-over” type of dreaming that Rollins described, turning potential nightmares into more of an Indiana Jones-esque adventure.  But, my most memorable lucid dream, and possibly my first, is from my childhood. I dreamt that I was in the back of a taxi and decided to change the driver’s hair color several times. Maybe not the most exciting action in a dream world of endless possibilities, but at the time I thought it was pretty amazing.

The Brainwave event ended with a disclaimer by Eagleman that science still doesn’t know exactly how we dream and why, but, he said, it’s clear that the awake state and the asleep state find the brain in two completely different modes that are equally active.

To learn more about dreaming, the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series runs through April 20.

–Ann L. Whitman


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