Neuroscientist Imagines 40 Different Versions of the Afterlife
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who has imagined multiple versions of the afterlife, and none of them resemble a devil in a big chair surrounded by flames, or pearly gates that greet you when you a
Originally published March 16, 2009 at 3:59 p.m., updated July 6, 2009 at 8:54 a.m.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who has imagined multiple versions of the afterlife, and none of them resemble a devil in a big chair surrounded by flames, or pearly gates that greet you when you arrive. His novel Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives is full of imaginative vignettes that say as much about life as they do the afterlife.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. If you ask a friend or a person on the street what happens to us after we die, you'll probably get one of a few standard answers. We go to heaven, we go to hell, we go to purgatory, we get reincarnated, we just die and that's the end of it, or we have no idea what's going to happen. The author of the book called "Sum" was not satisfied with four or five standard answers. He's written forty short alternatives about what might happen after we die. These stories propose strange after-death worlds where for instance, we find that God is actually a bickering married couple, or a microbe, or we spend eternity as background characters in other people's dreams. I spoke with author and neuroscientist David Eagleman back in March when he was visiting San Diego. Here's that interview. Now you said this book is really more about life and human nature than it is about death or heaven or hell. Can you explain what you mean by that?
DAVID EAGLEMAN (Neuroscientist and Author): Yeah, these are – as you correctly pointed out, these aren't serious propositions. It's literary fiction and they're really lenses with which to see human nature. So the afterlife in this serves just as a wonderful backdrop to tell stories about the joy and complexity of being here and our struggle to figure things out.
CAVANAUGH: So it's put in the guise of after death but it's really rumination about what it means to be a living human being.
EAGLEMAN: Yeah, that's right. And, as you also pointed out in the introduction, when you ask people about their stories, essentially people have just a few stories that are passed down. You've got the Judeo, Christian, Islamic tradition, you've got some Eastern traditions, then you have atheists who say you die and you rot, and that's about it. And it seems to me that the position we're in is, we don't know much of anything really. I've spent my entire life in science and you get to the end of the pier of science and beyond that is everything else. And so the idea was, hey, why not celebrate the vastness of our ignorance and just start making up stories.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's hear one of the stories in "Sum" right away. In fact, let's hear the one called "Sum." Would you mind reading it for us, David?
EAGLEMAN: It would be my pleasure.
EAGLEMAN: 'Sum. In the afterlife, you relive all your experiences but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order. All the moments that share equality are grouped together. You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for 30 years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet. You take all your pain at once, all 27 intense hours of it. Bones break. Cars crash. Skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it's agony free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn't mean it's always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails, 15 months looking for lost items, 18 months waiting in line, one year reading books. Your eyes hurt and you itch because you can't take a shower until it's your time to take your marathon 200 day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die, one minute realizing your body is falling, 77 hours of confusion, one hour realizing you've forgotten someone's name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong, two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. 14 minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. 15 hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. 67 days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. 51 days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. 18 days staring into the refrigerator. 34 days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there was something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your earthly life and the thought is blissful. A life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.'
CAVANAUGH: That's author David Eagleman reading the story "Sum," from his book called "Sum." Now how did you come up with the idea for this particular story?
EAGLEMAN: I, you know, I just started thinking about all the ways that we spend our time and how if they all came together lumped up like this, it would be awful. It would be unendurable, right? But, yeah, it's an – this one happens to just be sort of a vignette that's just a little lens on human nature on our lives, yeah. Some – As you have noticed from reading it, many of the stories are addressing and extrapolating certain ideas, some of them really deep philosophical ideas, and some of them are just portraits, and this one was just a portrait.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Now it's very interesting to think about breaking your life down in those segments. Now I'm wondering, after having read the book and the 40 stories about the afterlife, was there some sort of, I don't know, existential crisis or something religious in nature that motivated you to write this book?
EAGLEMAN: I wouldn't – That's a great question. I wouldn't say it was religious in nature. I would say having spent my life in science, what you really learn is the scientific temperament and that is a creativity for making up new ideas, because that's the way science actually proceeds, and a tolerance for holding multiple ideas in your head at the same time, and not needing to have certainty. And when you go to the bookstore, you see lots of books where somebody's willing to tell a story with certainty and I thought wouldn't it be great to have a book that just celebrates possibility and takes into account the fact that we're children standing on the beach throwing pebbles into the great ocean of truth, as Isaac Newton put it. I mean, Isaac Newton was the apex of his day as a physicist and at the end of his life he said, I don't know anything. I've just been throwing pebbles into the great ocean of truth. And so I wanted to celebrate that vastness.
CAVANAUGH: This is a little personal question but your book kind of opens up the question: Are you religious?
EAGLEMAN: I'm – I'm not religious in the traditional sense and my scientific colleagues like Dawkins and Dennett and Hitchens and Harris, the guys have written books. They're known as the new atheists. They've written all these books like "The God Delusion." And these books are actually very important and very incisive. The problem that I see is they run the risk of throwing out all the interesting stuff with the bathwater. And at least the public perception of these books is that scientists are not able to move around beyond the available data, which is totally false. That's not the scientific temperament at all. What scientists are good at doing is saying, okay, look, I'm not going to believe in a particular story if the weight of evidence doesn't support it, but the fact is a lot of things are beyond the ken of science. We don't – They're beyond the toolbox of science and so we have no way of addressing them. And in those conditions, you have to hold multiple ideas in your head at the same time. So I'm not exactly an atheist. On the other hand, I'm not willing to subscribe to a particular idiosyncratic story for the reason that these guys have pointed out, which is, you know, there are 2,000 religious and everybody believes in theirs with equal fervency. And as Dawkins points out, we – you already know what it's like to be an atheist because all you have to do is look at somebody else's religion and think, well, that's patently ridiculous. And, of course, they're looking at you and thinking the same thing. So there are problems with subscribing to a particular religion. That puts me somewhere in the middle but I find the term agnostic to be weak because people typically mean by that: I don't know whether the guy with the beard on the cloud exists or doesn't exist. So what I am calling myself nowadays is a possibilian and the idea with a possibilian is that you celebrate all the new stories that you could be making up that are predicated on the bedrock of what we already know. I mean, at this point, we know so much about biological algorithms and quantum mechanics and the size of the cosmos, and why not start basing the stories on that and making them up? So the idea is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space, that's what this book is about. And none of the stories are meant to be taken seriously, none of them are serious proposals but what is serious is the exercise of exploring the possibilities.
CAVANAUGH: Now talking about the possibilities that you present in your book, "Sum," there are so many different versions of God in these vignettes. Can you describe some of them for our listeners?
EAGLEMAN: Yeah, so in some of these – Right, as you'd mentioned, in one of them, God is the size of a microbe and doesn't know that we exist because we're on the wrong spatial scale. In another one, God is a married couple and they learn from their human children and one of the things they've begun to learn is divorce and so they're struggling to – with a divorce. In "Sum," God is a committee of cartographers and we are actually here on the Earth as mobile rovers to walk around and suck in planetary data through our eyes and ears and fingertips. And in many stories, there's no God at all so, for example, one, there's no God and everyone ends up in the afterlife and people start battling over their different versions of his nonexistence. And in others, we're actually ten dimensional giant creatures whose job is to uphold the cosmos with this very difficult work. And what we do, every 300 years is, we get a vacation and we project ourselves into these tiny little delicate, three dimensional bodies of humans and we have these vacations on Earth where we don't really care about any big issues, all we care about is, you know, a glimpse of bare flesh and a meeting of the eyes and joy and love and – and so on. So there are, in total, 40 different versions of what might be going on there.
CAVANAUGH: And in one of them, God's favorite book is Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Can you tell us why that is?
EAGLEMAN: Yeah, so, right. In this story I wrote called "Mary," when you get to the afterlife, you discover that Mary Shelley is enthroned and she's protected by a covey of angels and it's because God, when he reads "Frankenstein," is so touched by the fact that someone else really thought about the issue of creation and what it would mean to bring animation to the unanimated and – and what happens is, at nighttime God climbs up on his roof and clutches the book in his mighty hands…
CAVANAUGH: I like that one.
EAGLEMAN: …and reads it and stares into the sky because he empathizes with Victor Frankenstein who builds this creature that ends up pursuing him and chasing him across the Arctic ice. And God feels like, as he watches his humans develop – I'll just read two sentences from it. As God watches the – his humans develop and they begin to battle with each other and he realizes he can't stop them, 'and all throughout, the voices of man reached him with pleas for help, entreaties for aid against one another. He plugged his ears and howled against the cries of pillaged villages, the prayers of exsanguinating soldiers, the supplications from Auschwitz. This is why he now locks himself in his room and at night sneaks out onto the roof with "Frankenstein," reading again and again how Dr. Victor Frankenstein is taunted by his merciless monster across the Arctic ice. And God consoles himself with the thought that all creation necessarily ends in this, creators powerless, fleeing from the things they have wrought.'
CAVANAUGH: This is author and neuroscientist David Eagleman, reading from his book called "Sum." And it intrigued me to know, David, that you originally wrote 76 little vignettes about the afterlife and they were whittled down to 40. And you've been writing them for a long time, haven't you?
CAVANAUGH: Since when?
EAGLEMAN: Since nine years ago.
CAVANAUGH: Grad school?
EAGLEMAN: Yeah, that's right. Near the end of grad school, I started writing these in earnest and, yeah, I came up with 76 of them total. For this book, I decided I was just going to pick the 40 – I was going to maximally trim the fat and just pick the 40 that gave the best mental stretch along different dimensions. So that's how I chose these. And the other ones, I had originally considered doing a sequel that I was going to call "Sum More," but I decided I'm not going to do that because that turns it into a schtick instead of a piece of literature. So I'm going to leave this as is. But I am working on my next fiction book and some of the ideas from that are finding their way into the next thing.
CAVANAUGH: Now I'm intrigued, David, because, you know, a lot of people going to grad school find themselves quite busy…
CAVANAUGH: …going to grad school. And so where did you find time to actually write these stories?
EAGLEMAN: I'll just mention that I now run a neuroscience laboratory with sixteen people and that's much worse than grad school. I'm twice as busy as I ever was in grad school. I write these at nighttime so when I'm done with my manuscripts and my papers and my ideas and whatever, then I sit down and work on these stories. And it turns out, by the way, that writing short is really hard. It's easier than writing long (sic). So each one of these stories was polished over and over and over, so, yeah, I do it at nighttime.
CAVANAUGH: Now I'm hoping you'll read another story for us. The one called "Mirrors."
EAGLEMAN: Okay, "Mirrors."
CAVANAUGH: And there we go.
EAGLEMAN: Okay. 'When you think you've died, you haven't actually died. Death is a two-stage process, and where you wake up after your last breath is something of a purgatory. You don't feel dead. You don't look dead. And, in fact, you're not dead…yet. Perhaps you thought the afterlife would be something like a soft white light or a glistening ocean or floating in music. But the afterlife more closely resembles the feeling of standing up too quickly. For a confused moment, you forget who you are, where you are, all the personal details of your life, and it only gets stranger from here.' And I'll just skip over a little bit of this to say, 'What happens is, everything starts getting stripped away from you until all that you have left is the core of you, your naked consciousness, bare as a baby. To understand the meaning of this afterlife, you must remember that everyone is multi-faceted and since you always lived inside your own head, you were much better at seeing the truth about others than you ever were at seeing yourself. So you navigated your life with the help of others who held up mirrors for you. People praised your good qualities and criticized your bad habits, and these perspectives, often surprising to you, helped you to guide your life. So poorly did you know yourself that you were always surprised at how you looked in photographs or how you sounded on voice mail. In this way, much of your existence took place in the eyes, ears and fingertips of others and now that you've left the earth, you are stored in scattered heads around the globe. Here in this purgatory, all the people with whom you've ever come in contact are gathered. The scattered bits of you are collected, pooled and unified. The mirrors are held up in front of you. Without the benefit of filtration, you see yourself clearly for the first time. And that is what finally kills you.'
CAVANAUGH: That's – all right, David Eagleman reading from his book called "Sum." And that one, I found, really sort of disturbing and creepy. Was that your intent?
EAGLEMAN: No, I mean, I – Most of this book I actually consider to be very optimistic. That story is something of an exception. I thought it was funny, the idea that if you could actually see yourself as others see you, you would be terribly surprised, right? And you know what this is like, you watch someone else at a party who has a particular habit and you think, does that person know what everyone is thinking about them? So this story, even though that sounded grim, it was actually meant to be funny, this idea that if we all got to see ourselves as others see us, it would be a shocking surprise.
CAVANAUGH: And you have one more paragraph that you want to share with us from a story called "Absolution."
EAGLEMAN: Oh, "Adhesion?"
CAVANAUGH: "Adhesion," I'm sorry.
EAGLEMAN: Oh, yeah. Okay, I can just – right, I can make this one short. In "Adhes – I'll read the very first bit and then the last. 'We are the product of large beings that camp out on asteroids and call themselves collectors. The collectors run billions of experiments on the time scales of universes, subtly tuning the galaxy parameters this way and that, making bangs bigger and lesser, dialing fundamental physical constants a hair's breadth at a time. They're continually sharpening pencils and squinting into telescopes. When the collectors have solved a problem that was formerly mysterious to them, they destroy that universe and recycle the materials into their next experiment. Our life on Earth represents an experiment in which they are trying to figure out what makes people stick together. Why do some relationships work well while others fail? This is completely mysterious to them. When the theoreticians could not see a pattern, they proposed this problem as an interesting question to explore and so our universe was born.' So in this story, they conduct these experiments where they're pushing men and women past each other, where they brush past too briefly on a bus step or in a library or they're put together, they're forced together or they try to sabotage adhesion or they try to fight it and so on. 'So when you die, you are brought before a panel of collectors. They debrief you and struggle to understand your motivations. Why did you decide to break off this relationship? What did you appreciate about that relationship? What was wrong with so-and-so who seemed to have everything you wanted? After trying and failing to understand you, they send you back to see if another round of experimentation makes it any clearer to them. It is for this reason only that our universe still exists. The collectors are past deadline and over budget but they are having a hard time bringing the study to a conclusion. They are mesmerized. The brightest among them cannot quantify it.'
CAVANAUGH: That's from the book called "Sum." And the author is David Eagleman. Now, David, you know, you're obviously so interested in literature, I'm wondering why it is you finally decided on your science as your career?
EAGLEMAN: Ah, that's a great question. Yeah, as an undergraduate, I majored in British and American Literature and I expected to be a writer. But I got sucked into the tractor beam of neuroscience because it was so fascinating to me. And I found that in all of my free time, I was going to the library and checking out all the books on the brain. And at some point, someone suggested to me, hey, you know, you can actually have a career where you study the brain and try to figure out how it works. And that blew my mind, and it still does. And I am the happiest guy in the world that that's how I spend 90% of my life, is really trying to figure out this last frontier of the brain and figure out who we are. And in some sense, good science and good art are exactly the same thing. It's all about trying to brush through all the details and pick out the essence of who we are. And so in some sense, writing this book and going to the lab and studying the brain are exactly the same pursuit.
CAVANAUGH: Now this morning you read for us but that's not the end of your reading. I mean, you're going on to a kind of a concert with avant garde musician Brian Eno. He loves the book and he's setting up a forum for it. Tell us about that.
EAGLEMAN: That's right. Somehow the book made its way into Brian Eno's hand. Brian Eno is – essentially, he's Britain's most famous musician. He's considered a real musical genius there. He produces U2 and he has all these great albums. He got the book, he loved it. He got in touch with me and he said that he wants to compose ten pieces of music to ten of these stories and he and I are going out to the Sydney Opera House in June and we're going to be onstage and I'm going to read the stories and he's going to play these compositions for the book.
CAVANAUGH: How exciting.
EAGLEMAN: Yeah, it's a super, super exciting opportunity.
CAVANAUGH: Now you mentioned before that you do have another book that you've been working on. In fact, it's coming out in a couple of weeks. It's called "Synesthesia?"
EAGLEMAN: Yeah, exactly. It actually just came out yesterday.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, well…
EAGLEMAN: To my surprise. Yeah. It's Synesthesia. The title of the book is "Wednesday's Indigo Blue." And synesthesia is a mixture of the senses where somebody might, for example, hear music and it causes them to physically see colors. It's as though their senses are blended. Or you might taste something in your mouth and it feels like you're touching something with your fingertips. Or you might consider a day of the week, like Wednesday, and it triggers the experience of indigo blue, let's say. It used to be thought that synesthesia was extremely rare but we now know that it's somewhere between one to four percent of the population. It's tremendously common and it turns out to be a great inroad for us to understand how normal brains are wired up and how brains construct reality. So that book, "Wednesday's Indigo Blue" just yesterday hit the shelves.
CAVANAUGH: I want to tell you we do have a caller on the line who wants to talk to you a little bit about the vignettes and the book "Sum." Manuel is in Encanto. Manuel, good morning.
MANUEL (Caller, Encanto): Yes, hello. The idea of tackling the vastness of the topic with short vignettes must have been compared against treating it with just one single focus on one of the stories to explore its vastness. How did you develop that strategy?
EAGLEMAN: Well, thanks for that question. The key of the book is that it's 40 stories that are mutually exclusive and that's really the heart of the meta message, which is that we don't have any idea – I mean, you know, there's so much that we don't know, the uncharted waters beyond the pier of science. And, by the way, this is not to say that we won't figure out more, each generation, with science. Science is the greatest tool that we have. But in our brief twinkling of a 21st century lifetime, we're not going to figure stuff out. So the idea was instead of writing a single story like every other book in the bookstore that says, here's the story, the idea was to write 40 stories that contradict each other to illustrate the bigger point, that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
CAVANAUGH: Now, David, I would imagine in writing them you couldn't help yourself but have perhaps one or two favorite outcomes for an afterlife. What are your favorites?
EAGLEMAN: You know, the truth is, I consider these all equally hilarious and improbable and I don't actually – but, yeah, I don't actually have one that I think would be great. And, actually, the truth is that a lot of these sort of take some aspect of maybe what we might think the afterlife could be about and extrapolates it ad absurdum. So here's an example. In one of the stories called "Prism," the idea is that God realizes that he hadn't thought the afterlife through all the way and there's a problem about age and he doesn't know what age to make people in the afterlife because if you make this grandmother old then her granddaughter will recognize her but her first lover won't recognize her, and so on. And so God decides to split everybody up into all their possible ages and what you discover when you get to the afterlife and you're split like a beam of light through a prism…
CAVANAUGH: Like a prism, yeah.
EAGLEMAN: Yeah, you discover that the different ages of you all start drifting apart. You don't have much in common with each other. So, so many of these stories are extrapolations that it turns out you wouldn't actually want to be there.
CAVANAUGH: Now you were toying with the idea of going to film school earlier in your academic career. Do you see any of these stories actually being translatable to film?
EAGLEMAN: You know, I'm in discussion with a few people about a few possibilities here. The interesting part to me is, I'm already on to writing my next piece of fiction and I love the idea of creating something and putting it out in the world and if a filmmaker wants to grab it and run with it, I just think that's fantastic. So what I'm doing is just having preliminary conversations with people but if someone wants to make a film, I'm going to sort of let them do the running with the ball.
CAVANAUGH: That sounds fair enough. I got to tell you, one of my favorites is the one where our creators are actually very, very stupid…
CAVANAUGH: …and they keep asking us what the answer is. I love that one. We – Unfortunately, we have to go, though, now. I've been speaking with author and neuroscientist David Eagleman about his book called "Sum." And thank you, David, so much for talking with us.
EAGLEMAN: Thank you.