Excerpt from Livewired by David Eagleman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Livewired

The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

by David Eagleman

Livewired by David Eagleman X
Livewired by David Eagleman
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2021, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Bintrim
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[Editor's Note: In addition to the excerpt of Livewired below, you might be interested in David Eagleman's TED Talk about how we can leverage the principles of livewiring to feed totally new kinds of data streams into the brain.]

1

THE DELICATE PINK MAGISTERIUM

Imagine this: instead of sending a four-hundred-pound rover vehicle to Mars, we merely shoot over to the planet a single sphere, one that can fit on the end of a pin. Using energy from sources around it, the sphere divides itself into a diversified army of similar spheres. The spheres hang on to each other and sprout features: wheels, lenses, temperature sensors, and a full internal guidance system. You'd be gobsmacked to watch such a system discharge itself.

But you only need to go to any nursery to see this unpacking in action. You'll see wailing babies who began as a single, microscopic, fertilized egg and are now in the process of emancipating themselves into enormous humans, replete with photon detectors, multi-jointed appendages, pressure sensors, blood pumps, and machinery for metabolizing power from all around them.

But this isn't even the best part about humans; there's something more astonishing. Our machinery isn't fully preprogrammed, but instead shapes itself by interacting with the world. As we grow, we constantly rewrite our brain's circuitry to tackle challenges, leverage opportunities, and understand the social structures around us.

Our species has successfully taken over every corner of the globe because we represent the highest expression of a trick that Mother Nature discovered: don't entirely pre-script the brain; instead, just set it up with the basic building blocks and get it into the world. The bawling baby eventually stops crying, looks around, and absorbs the world around it. It molds itself to the surroundings. It soaks up everything from local language to broader culture to global politics. It carries forward the beliefs and biases of those who raise it. Every fond memory it possesses, every lesson it learns, every drop of information it drinks—all these fashion its circuits to develop something that was never preplanned, but instead reflects the world around it.

This book will show how our brains incessantly reconfigure their own wiring, and what that means for our lives and our futures. Along the way, we'll find our story illuminated by many questions: Why did people in the 1980s (and only in the 1980s) see book pages as slightly red? Why is the world's best archer armless? Why do we dream each night, and what does that have to do with the rotation of the planet? What does drug withdrawal have in common with a broken heart? Why is the enemy of memory not time but other memories? How can a blind person learn to see with her tongue or a deaf person learn to hear with his skin? Might we someday be able to read the rough details of someone's life from the microscopic structure etched in their forest of brain cells?

THE CHILD WITH HALF A BRAIN

While Valerie S. was getting ready for work, her three-year-old son, Matthew, collapsed on the floor. He was unarousable. His lips turned blue.

Valerie called her husband in a panic. "Why are you calling me?" he bellowed. "Call the doctor!"

A trip to the emergency room was followed by a long aftermath of appointments. The pediatrician recommended Matthew have his heart checked. The cardiologist outfitted him with a heart monitor, which Matthew kept unplugging. All the visits surfaced nothing in particular. The scare was a one-off event.

Or so they thought. A month later, while he was eating, Matthew's face took on a strange expression. His eyes became intense, his right arm stiffened and straightened up above his head, and he remained unresponsive for about a minute. Again Valerie rushed him to the doctors; again there was no clear diagnosis.

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Excerpted from Livewired by David Eagleman. Copyright 2020 by David Eagleman 2020. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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