#274 – The Secret Lives of The Brain with David Eagleman, PhD


David Eagleman PhD holds joint appointments in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Dr. Eagleman’s areas of research include time perception, vision, synesthesia, and the intersection of neuroscience with the legal system. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action, and is the Founder and Director of Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. Dr. Eagleman has written several neuroscience books, including Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Pantheon, 2011), Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (co-authored with Richard Cytowic, MIT Press), and the upcoming Live-Wired: How the Brain Rewrites its own Circuitry (Oxford University Press, 2012). He has also written an internationally bestselling book of literary fiction, Sum, which has been translated into 22 languages and was named a Best Book of the Year by Barnes and Noble, New Scientist, and the Chicago Tribune. Dr. Eagleman has written for the New York Times, Discover Magazine, Slate, Wired, and New Scientist, and he appears regularly on National Public Radio and BBC to discuss both science and literature. He was also the subject of a profile featured in a 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.



  1. John Knight
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    Hi Dr. Dave,

    Cool interview, I particularly liked hearing the rabies explanation, as it’s something I’ve often thought, but hearing it come from someone with more authority was very gratifying. I think it gives credence to the Jungian topographic model of the psyche, updated from Freud’s, that has the typical triangle/iceberg motif, but also surrounded by a circle, representing the body. I think it also gives credence the Jungian concept that consciousness is really more of an extension of the unconscious, and not the other way around.

    However, I was somewhat concerned at the start of the show with his use of the term ‘subconscious’. As you’re probably aware, it was Freud who was the first major objector to this term and it has traditionally been avoided in academic settings, with the general public keeping the term going. Freud dubbed the term ‘inaccurate and misleading’, going on to say that when someone uses the term, he wasn’t sure whether they were speaking topographically or qualitatively, and in all likely hood, those who employ the term probably aren’t sure about the subject on which they are speaking.

    However, I keep seeing the term used *occasionally* in modern text books, and was wondering whether the Psychodynamic field’s objection to the term has since become irrelevant, and if these days, the two terms are now treated as synonymous despite the semantic inaccuracy of ‘subconscious’?

    Or for a much simpler scenario, would it be much more likely that it’s just a slip of the tongue on David’s part, particularly after dealing with the public? 😉

    You mentioned at the end of the show that you would have been interested in exploring some of the weirder phenomena (like automatic writing and so on), particularly in the case of multiple personalities in the unconscious (I can’t think of a better term right now). I was wondering if you’ve read Jung’s earlier works in dealing with “so called occult phenomena” in Collected Works 1, if I remember correctly. This was also the time of some of the freakier stuff in Memories, Dreams, Reflections! 😉

  2. K.
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Love this comment — good questions.
    Glad for the use of “subconscious”, however. There is something to it, and if it isn’t “P.C.” to bring it up in the academic setting, I’d like to see that rule book (no offense intended).

    Your thoughts are good, and I wish I could view the response!

    Best to all,


  3. John Knight
    Posted October 4, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Oooh, sorry on the delay K, big chunks of uni study.

    Firstly, I should say I’m not usually one for pedantry in terminology and especially not one for trends. For instance, we’re not supposed to say ‘subjects’ any more, we’re supposed to say ‘participants’. While I stick to this in my reports, I really couldn’t care less about such fads, and I really can’t stand PC-ness and other similar movements that really just get in the way and up all of our noses! 😉

    However…. ‘subconscious’ is a particularly tricky one, and one of the few points where I feel one shouldn’t take the easy way out and just run with it.

    The reason being is that it tends evoke a concept in people’s minds that is very nearly the opposite of an ‘unconscious’. If you look at Freud’s objections for instance, the problem isn’t so much to do with inaccuracy (just about every person in any field has to deal with inaccurate terminology on a daily basis, but you can usually get around it), but the *misleading* side of it. The public tend to think of this ‘subconscious’ as a sort of secondary thing tacked on the back of consciousness; whereas you really have a greater unconscious, with consciousness being a smaller part of the psyche that grows from the unconscious.

    To use an astronomical example, a psychologist speaking of a subconscious is a bit like an astronomer talking about the Sun rotating around the Earth – it’s all sort of backwards. However, in terms of terminology being misleading and being a stumbling block, perhaps there’s a better analogy in religion.

    Say you’re looking at religious beliefs in regards to life after death, and examining resurrection and reincarnation. Now the uninitiated often mistake these two and perhaps regard them as synonymous, but in reality they’re two entirely different concepts with extremely different effects, practicalities, and so on.

    Anyone with even a hint of training in psycholinguistics can tell you that language shapes thought, and that words have connotations, and in terms of shaping thought, in Psychology we need patients to understand themselves more than any other field.

    If someone were studying to become either a Hindu or a Christian for instance, they could only get so far until their teacher would have to tell them the correct terminology (either reincarnation or resurrection in this case), or the belief systems would be confusing from the start.

    In the case of ‘subconscious’, if you have a quick google around or simply listen to ideas about it from the public, the things attributed to it are often so at odds with an unconscious that you have little choice but to break with those connotations. In terms of actual academia, while the unconscious has clear definitions in numerous disciplines, while a ‘subconscious’ has no clear definition (I could probably say a subconscious is governed by a pink elephant and be no more incorrect than someone who actually sounds convincing) – in fact the largest body of literature for a subconscious lies not in psychology but with new age writings.

    That’s not to say it came from the new age people, however; it’s an English translation of the word ‘subconscient’ – a rudimentary idea put forward by Pierre Janet in the 19th century (pre-Freud, pre-Psychoanalysis, etc.). However, this idea always tended to carry the idea of a kind of double-consciousness; almost another layer underneath of consciousness, so to speak. It was largely this that Freud, Jung, and so many others saw as incompatible, and as Mr Eagleman quite rightly noted, it’s a completely different language down there and a totally different structure!

    I’ve taken up waaaaaaay too much space here and I do apologise. I can’t cite a ‘rulebook’ (although there may be something in APA guidelines), but I can cite the source material. Check out Freud’s papers, ‘The Unconscious’ (1915), and ‘The Question of Lay Analysis’ (1927), and Carl Jung has quite a lot on the subject in Collected Works 8: ‘The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche’.


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