Eliezer Sternberg, M.D., is a resident neurologist at Yale–New Haven Hospital. With a background in neuroscience and philosophy, he studies how brain research can shed light on the mysteries of consciousness and decision making. He is the author of multiple books, including Are You a Machine? and My Brain Made Me Do It, and for the purposes of this interview, NeuroLogic, which is about brain activation and what propels us to do things.
The following is my interview with Dr. Sternberg about Neurologic:
Armen: There was much mentioned in your book about the relevance and impact of mirroring as it relates to empathy, and how autistic or emotionally damaged individuals would lack this ability or desire to mirror as strongly. With it either being a default response mechanism or genetic disorder, is there value to either disadvantaged group practicing mirroring methods on a regular basis? Related to this, what parts of the brain are “off-limits” to present-day alteration/correction, if any?
Dr. Eliezer Sternberg: I should start by saying that mirror neurons are a source of controversy, and the so called “broken mirror theory” of autism is especially controversial. That being said, I certainly believe in the power of practice. Neurons can grow and adapt and the power of brain plasticity frequently surprises us. No part of the brain is off-limits, in that sense, but rehearsing a behavior may not be enough to overcome defiicits caused by significant brain damage or certain inherited conditions.
Armen: In the same way that you discuss many examples of where the brain fills in gaps of understanding in your patients, or in your research, CMU Professor John H. Miller of my previous interview(and in his book) alluded to the possibility that neurons connect in a decentralized fashion, adapting to the connections available. Do you view the building blocks of brains like members of a group showing up to a meeting and doing what they can with whoever is there at the time?
Dr. Eliezer Sternberg: I do. Neurons are cogs in the enormously complex machine that is the brain. They will process whatever information they receive. When, as often happens in life, they receive incomplete information, they will make the best of it, filling the gaps when necessary. The same goes when individual neurons are missing, as in brain damage. The remaining cells adapt, grow, and change to fill the void.
Armen: As they came up in the book, your descriptions of the disorders made them look like clear logical breakdowns in the mind, rather than involving people who would be described with some negative/condescending terms. In relation to this way of seeing all as able to be explained, how close does your somatic marker system feel that we are to viewing the brain as an opened black box?
Dr. Eliezer Sternberg: I specifically chose to discuss certain disorders that have been subjected to extensive research and have insightful theories and discoveries surrounding them. With that level of scrutiny, we can often find a logical basis behind the symptoms, as if the patient’s behavior is a form of thoughtful compensation for an underlying brain defect. However, the black box is not completely open. There is so much left to learn, so many conditions we haven’t even begun to understand. We have work to do.
Armen: Connected to how you described them, I see dreams as having one purpose of mitigating the day’s worries/fears/risks in a safe context where everything flows seemingly smoothly, due to a dormant PFC. If dream time is such a safe environment, would those who are most in control and self-assured during the day have the least cognitive dissonance between their sleeping and waking hours, or is this a non-issue due to lack of cognition during sleep?
Dr. Eliezer Sternberg: Nobody has discovered a discrete pattern to explain our dreams, but it is certainly true that our daily thoughts, fears, and desires influence the content of dreams. So, there may be a correlation between between having mild or controlled emotions during the day and having relatively uneventful dreams. Then again, a person who is that way because he suppresses his emotions during the day might find his dreams delving into them at night. There’s really no way to know, and there is certainly a component of randomness that is the wild card in dreaming.
Armen: Would you say that what we call life is an illusion, albeit a persistent one that seems to be coherent and believable?
Dr. Eliezer Sternberg: Not at all. Life is a real, multifaceted conscious experience. It’s true that we each have different perspectives, we sense the world through complex neurobiological means, and it’s even true that our brains might trick us from time to time — but that takes nothing away from the reality or beauty of life. It’s just part of being human.
Appreciations to Dr. Sternberg for taking part.