The brain brought to life

Professor Bruce Hood (University of Bristol) views the first two episodes of 'The Brain With David Eagleman'.

I've only watched the first two episodes of The Brain with David Eagleman but if the remaining episodes are anyway near the same quality, then this should go down as a landmark series. Full disclosure - I have known and admired David’s work for some time as he is a talented scientist and writer, but what makes The Brain so outstanding is the way that he has so effortlessly translated his accessible style and passion to the screen.

Students of psychology will recognise many of the familiar landmarks in the history of cognitive neuropsychology: neurons, brain imaging, patient HM, false memories. But even though these are classic undergraduate textbook examples, Eagleman brings them to life in a compelling way that is as satisfying for the seasoned student as well as for the naive. He does this best, as he does in his writing, by the use of thought experiments and visual metaphors, guiding his audience through difficult conceptual terrain such as self-identity, consciousness and moral responsibility.

What makes this series so good (apart from the high production values) is that Eagleman immerses himself in the documentary, relating his own experiences and expertise where relevant. And he's not averse to poking a bit of fun at himself. In one segment, as he describes how brain plasticity can accommodate loss of function with aging, Eagleman is under the bonnet of a car engine, applying wrenches, sockets, pliers that he tosses nonchalantly over his shoulder as he describes how the brain can re-purpose tools to solve problems. I was wondering if he were to hit a passer-by, whether that would be a convenient segue way into a discussion of head injury and local lesions.

Over and above the fun, Eagleman invites the audience to consider deep philosophical issues in a way that evokes wonder and awe. Eagleman combines the passion of Sagan, the depth of Wittgenstein with a little bit of Mythbusters thrown in. When you watch The Brain, an hour flies by before you realise it. There again, David is the perfect host to explain why that may seem so.

If I have a criticism then maybe it is a shade too North American in style, even though it was co-produced with the BBC: but then, this was probably the intended major audience. It is really a shame that The Brain was scheduled to the less populated BBC Four, as I think the series is worthy of a prime slot for the general public.

- Reviewed by Bruce Hood, PhD (Cantab), FRI, FBPsS, FRSB, FAPS
Chair of Developmental Psychology in Society, University of Bristol.
Founder of Speakezee.org

 

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