Livewired (2020) | virtual book

Livewired (2020)

The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

by David Eagleman

#reviews #books #neuroscience #psychology #neuroplasticity #senses #perception Mentioned in how to interpret your dreams

Absolutely essential read. Mind-bending and mind-expanding.

The essential concept is Livewiring. It’s a rebranding of brain plasticity that emphasizes its continuity. Our brains change all the time, throughout our lives, hour by hour, minute by minute.

A fascinating example is sighted people learning braille with blindfolds on: with their sense of sight shut off, their brains reallocate the neural resources that would’ve been used for their sense of sight to be used by their sense of touch. (Is this why music sounds so good at night?) This is also why blind people’s other senses are heightened: those other senses, backed up by more brainpower, are higher resolution.

In fact, according to Eagleman, the struggle for neural real estate is so contentious that your sense of vision can’t take a night off. Eagleman theorizes that

dreams are nightly exercises

how to interpret your dreams

#essays #sleep #dreams #subsconscious #psychosis #sanity #science #neuroscience #neuroplasticity #evolution #problem-solving #thinking #freud #william-dement #david-eagleman #cormac-mccarthy Mentioned in The Promise of Sleep (1999), Livewired (2020)

Freud, apparently, thought dreams prevented us from going crazy. According to him, dreams are expressions of the desires and fears we don’t dare face in waking life, facets of ourselves that we repress like a child smothers a ball under the surface of a pool. And, in the dark of night, dreams relieve the pressure by playing out these urges. Were they not allowed these covert outings, but blocked and pushed indefinitely, they would eventually burst through the surface and rupture our psyche. And so dreams are the release valve for the unrelenting force our unconscious exerts to have its will expressed.

This idea intrigued a young William Dement and launched him into a trailblazing career in sleep science. Could he use science to prove Freud’s theory right? REM sleep, which Dement discovered, seemed promising. Studies proved it to be both indispensable and the only part of sleep when dreaming occurred.

And there was the case of a radio personality suffering a mental breakdown during his 201-hour “wakeathon”, in which he broadcasted, without sleep, for a week straight. Why did he start hallucinating and dissociating? Was it just the drugs he took to stay awake, or could it have been the absence of dreams, which would have helped keep his psyche in balance? Dr. Dement’s faith in Freud’s theory finally faltered after accompanying a high school senior’s record-breaking sleepless marathon of eleven days and witnessing nothing much worse than acute fatigue and acute crankiness.

Some scientists have claimed the opposite to Freud’s theory – that dreams not only do nothing but mean nothing. They are a random side-effect of the brain function that produces them, a periodic electric signal that occurs right before and during REM sleep. Our eyes move rapidly and we experience absurd scenarios because electricity is coursing through our neural network like water splashing over rocks. But, as Dement points out, even if the ripples of electricity start out with no intended destination, their traversal is influenced by pathways carved out by our thoughts and behaviors. In the same way that water trickling down the face of a rock follows paths determined by the rock’s shape and texture, our dreams depend on the paths our neurons allow electrical signals to traverse. The meaning of a dream comes from our neural connections, which we wired and rewired continuously throughout our life.

Dreams have things to tell us, whether or not all scientists agree. It is an ordinary thing to dream about things that came up during the day. In his essay The Kekulé Problem, Cormac McCarthy considers the curious phenomenon of problem-solving while sleeping, with particular interest on why solutions are presented mysteriously as images and not in plain language. He offers a clever answer: the brain is old, but language is new. And, just like we prefer to communicate in our native tongue, our brain prefers to express itself through imagery.

But this idea, stirring as it is, might be no more accurate than Freud’s. In his book


, neuroscientist David Eagleman proposes a theory of dreams that suggests a rather different answer to the Kekulé Problem. He proposes that the brain activity responsible for dreams, which targets the parts of the brain typically used for vision, exists to maintain our sense of sight. Without this scheduled strengthening exercise, it could be overtaken by other, neuron-hungry brain processes that don’t depend on light of day to stay active. If this is true, then the answer to the Kekulé Problem is less mysterious. Dreams are visual because their machinery is.

of our visual muscles that exist to strengthen it against invasions from neighboring neural regions.

It is at the cost of this volatility that we gain our brain’s extraordinary adaptability. The fact that our mental capabilities are not genetically pre-programmed means that we rely on the world around us to do the programming. And, as Eagleman illustrates through cases of severely neglected children, there are deadlines for our basic programming. What we are neglected in early life we may be neglected forever.

Another essential concept is the “potato head” model of the brain: plug in any data source and your brain will make sense of it. At first, the data is gibberish, but eventually your brain transforms it into a stream of immediate knowledge. It transforms it into a sense. (Eagleman explores this topic more in another of his books, Incognito.) On this basis, Eagleman’s lab develops skin-stimulating devices that aim to give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. And it’s not as far-fetched as you’d think.