Tag Archive: Possibilianism

Neuroscientist David Eagleman explores the processes and skills of the subconscious mind, which our conscious selves rarely consider as he explains.

Only a tiny fraction of the brain is dedicated to conscious behavior. The rest works feverishly behind the scenes regulating everything from breathing to mate selection. In fact, neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine argues that the unconscious workings of the brain are so crucial to everyday functioning that their influence often trumps conscious thought. To prove it, he explores little-known historical episodes, the latest psychological research, and enduring medical mysteries, revealing the bizarre and often inexplicable mechanisms underlying daily life.

Eagleman’s theory is epitomized by the deathbed confession of the 19th-century mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who developed fundamental equations unifying electricity and magnetism. Maxwell declared that “something within him” had made the discoveries; he actually had no idea how he’d achieved his great insights. It is easy to take credit after an idea strikes you, but in fact, neurons in your brain secretly perform an enormous amount of work before inspiration hits. The brain, Eagleman argues, runs its show incognito. Or, as Pink Floyd put it, “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

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When David Eagleman was eight years old, he fell off a roof and kept on falling. Or so it seemed at the time. His family was living outside Albuquerque, in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. There were only a few other houses around, scattered among the bunchgrass and the cholla cactus, and a new construction site was the Eagleman boys’ idea of a perfect playground. David and his older brother, Joel, had ridden their dirt bikes to a half-finished adobe house about a quarter of a mile away. When they’d explored the rooms below, David scrambled up a wooden ladder to the roof. He stood there for a few minutes taking in the view—west across desert and subdivision to the city rising in the distance—then walked over the newly laid tar paper to a ledge above the living room. “It looked stiff,” he told me recently. “So I stepped onto the edge of it.”

In the years since, Eagleman has collected hundreds of stories like his, and they almost all share the same quality: in life-threatening situations, time seems to slow down. He remembers the feeling clearly, he says. His body stumbles forward as the tar paper tears free at his feet. His hands stretch toward the ledge, but it’s out of reach. The brick floor floats upward—some shiny nails are scattered across it—as his body rotates weightlessly above the ground. It’s a moment of absolute calm and eerie mental acuity. But the thing he remembers best is the thought that struck him in midair: this must be how Alice felt when she was tumbling down the rabbit hole.

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David Eagleman, is interested in the possibilities that ‘grey areas’ hold. A Possibilian, he argues, is one who is interested and comfortable with our present position of vast ignorance and one who can celebrate uncertainty.

In a world where we are supposed to have all the answers, all the time, David preaches the virtues of being unsure, and shows how and why it is possible to enjoy a clear-thinking, dogma-free awe for the mysteries around us.


That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all, with or without a soul, whatever a soul might be.

Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman. You can find him in Houston mapping the brain’s circuitry and teaching classes at the Baylor College of Medicine. But Eagleman really lives in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.

Eagleman the scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the body and the soul. But Eagleman the writer knows that the machines can’t answer those questions.

So while he reports on the questions he can answer in scientific journals, he also ponders the what-ifs in books. His latest is Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a playful series of short philosophical imaginings of life after death. And, if things work out the way Eagleman hopes, he will fulfill his childhood dream of becoming the Carl Sagan of the brain, explaining the billions and billions of neurons in our head to a curious public. Like Sagan, the youthful Eagleman has both scientific expertise and a gift for translating complex ideas into everyday language.

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Neuroscientist and best-selling author David Eagleman introduces the concept of Possibilianism, a new philosophy that simultaneously embraces a scientific toolbox while exploring new, unconsidered uncertainties about the world around us.

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