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Jumping to conclusions 

Brain scientist David Eagleman explores afterlives and climbs the bestseller chart

As a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, David Eagleman spends his days studying mysteries of the human brain: how we perceive time, the way our senses work, the factors that affect decision-making. He's attracted attention for his unconventional experiments, including one in which subjects jumped off a 150-foot tower, freefalling into a net, to determine whether high-adrenaline events would warp the way they experienced time.

But once Eagleman hangs up his lab coat, he writes not only about his science, but about the mysteries beyond its reach. His first book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, explores brief, mind-bending scenarios for what lies beyond the grave. It's a mystery the 37-year-old says he's been exploring for nine years.

"It turns out there are a lot of things that are beyond the tools of science," he says. "There are no experiments to be had there."

And for Eagleman, that's where fiction where art begins.

"The way science actually proceeds is with people making all kinds of wild and imaginative and creative leaps, and then working backwards to see if they can justify those leaps," he says. "And, essentially, that's what good art is also. It's making wild, imaginative, creative leaps."

In his book, a brilliantly conceived adrenalin rush of ideas, Eagleman takes some outrageous jumps. In his various visions of the afterlife, the dead become actors in other people's dreams; God is a fan of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein; heaven is a lounge with leather couches where you watch the world on big TVs; our bodies expand into nine dimensions to keep the universe from collapsing; or life events are reshuffled so that you sleep 30 years, feel pain for 27 hours and stare into the refrigerator for 18 days.

"Of course, none of the stories are meant to be real hypotheses," Eagleman says. "They're not serious proposals, but what is serious is the exercise of mentally stretching into every direction.

"One of the important parts of the stories is that they're mutually exclusive, unlike every other book on spirituality or religion, which says, 'This is the answer.' My book is exactly not that. It gives 40 answers that can't co-exist to illustrate the larger point, which is that it's OK to have lots of possibilities."

In fact, when it comes to beliefs, Eagleman calls himself a "possibilian." And one of the other eight (!) books he has in the works will be titled Why I Am a Possibilian.

"That's my new movement, which has a membership of one right now," he says with a laugh.

Actually, he may have at least two more members his parents, who have lived in Colorado Springs for most of the past decade. His mother, Cirel Egelman, recently dropped by the Independent office to promote his international book tour, which he'll begin at Denver's Tattered Cover and then continue at Poor Richard's Book Store here.

She says she's heard regularly from David (who changed his last name when, as family genealogist, he discovered alternative spellings) since the book came out Feb. 10. A recent call, however, puzzled her.

"I answered the phone and all he said was: '47.'" After letting her mull it over, he gave her an explanation: "It was the ranking of his book on Amazon," she says.

Eagleman now is looking ahead to his other books, which he says are in various stages. The book closest to completion is Wednesday is Indigo Blue, due out in April. It details a perceptual condition called "synesthesia," where the senses are blended.

"So you might hear music and it causes you to see colors, for example," he says.

Five additional books will cover brain-related topics, and then there's Kalypso, a magic realist novel that unfolds in Houston Medical Center.

"If I can just pull it all together, it's going to be awesome," he says. "But right now I feel like I'm holding together a wet paper bag of groceries."

One project he has decided to scratch is a Sum follow-up, though he kept 36 stories that didn't make the book.

"I was thinking maybe I'd write a sequel, but that would make it a schtick instead of a piece of literature, which is not what I want," he says laughing. "Those are just going to stay with me, and people can read them after I die."

Maybe some stories find their own afterlives.

jill@csindy.com

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