Unsolved Mysteries of Neuroscience: The Binding Problem
How all the parts of the brain come together so that you have a unified perception of the world is one of the unsolved mysteries in neuroscience.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is best known for his work on time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia, and neurolaw.
Beyond his 100+ academic publications, he has published many popular books. His bestselling book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the neuroscience "under the hood" of the conscious mind: all the aspects of neural function to which we have no awareness or access. His work of fiction, SUM, is an international bestseller published in 28 languages and turned into two operas. Why the Net Matters examines what the advent of the internet means on the timescale of civilizations. The award-winning Wednesday is Indigo Blue explores the neurological condition of synesthesia, in which the senses are blended.
Eagleman is a TED speaker, a Guggenheim Fellow, a winner of the McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication, a Next Generation Texas Fellow, Vice-Chair on the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Neuroscience & Behaviour, a research fellow in the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Mind Science Foundation, and a board member of The Long Now Foundation. He has served as an academic editor for several scientific journals. He was named Science Educator of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, and was featured as one of the Brightest Idea Guys by Italy's Style magazine. He is founder of the company BrainCheck and the cofounder of the company NeoSensory. He was the scientific advisor for the television drama Perception, and has been profiled on the Colbert Report, NOVA Science Now, the New Yorker, CNN's Next List, and many other venues. He appears regularly on radio and television to discuss literature and science.
The binding problem is when you look at what's happening in the brain, you find there's a division of labor. You have some parts of your brain that care about vision, some about hearing, some about touch. And even within a system, like vision, you have parts that care about colors, parts that care about orientations, parts that care about angles. And how this all comes together so that you have a unified perception of the world is one of the unsolved mysteries in neuroscience.
We’re not aware of that division of labor. Everything seems like it’s perfectly unified to us. So this is still something we’re all working on.
One thing that's very clear to us now, though, is that vision is not like a camera. It’s not like light signals hit your eye and work their way up to the top and they move up some hierarchy and then they get seen. Instead, vision is all about internal activity that's already happening in your head and there's a little bit of data that comes up these cables and modifies or modulates that activity. But, essentially, all you're ever seeing is your internal model of what you believe you're seeing out there.
So this is a very different viewpoint from what is presented in college textbooks on vision. In other words, even the textbooks need to catch up on what we already know about how perception actually works.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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