Michael Hardy in Texas Monthly:
In 2000, 43 years after going totally blind at the age of three in a freak accident, a California man named Mike May had his sight restored in one eye by a pioneering stem cell procedure, coupled with a cornea transplant. A camera was on hand to record him seeing for the first time in his adult life, but the result was disappointing—despite a fully functional eye, all May could see was a blur of shapes and colors.
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, recounts May’s story in his new, six-part television series The Brain, which premieres this evening on PBS. According to Eagleman, May’s brain had never learned to interpret the visual signals that are usually sent by our eyes; when those signals suddenly resumed, the data seemed random and meaningless. Blind, May was an expert downhill skier; sighted, he couldn’t tell his children apart. The lesson is that reality isn’t something we passively observe but rather something that our brain continually fabricates out of the myriad signals streaming in from our sensory organs. As Eagleman puts it, “What we experience isn’t what’s really out there, but a beautifully rendered simulation.”
The Brain is Eagleman’s attempt to unravel one of science’s greatest mysteries: how consciousness emerges from the three-pound lump of pink tissue inside our skulls. Rather than organize the documentary according to the parts of the brain—a division that makes little sense, Eagleman said, because nearly all parts are involved in nearly every brain function—Eagleman devotes each episode to a philosophical query like “What is Reality?” or “What Makes Me?”