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A Neuroscientist Tests Humans Perception of Time; A Chef Innovates Food Preparation

Aired August 3, 2013 - 14:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: They are in innovators, game changers, people pushing themselves, moving us all forward. They're the next scientists, musicians, poets, the next makers, dreamers, teachers, and geniuses. They are "THE NEXT LIST."

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Today on "THE NEXT LIST," molecular gastronomist Maro Cantu, how the mind bending dishes he's serving today could change the way we eat tomorrow.

But first, an internationally renowned neuroscientist wrestles with some of the most profound questions of our existence.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is not an area that David doesn't know something about, isn't interested in. He's a true polymath.

GUPTA: What is time, what is consciousness? How does the human brain construct reality?

DAVID EAGLEMAN, PH.D., NEUROSCIENTIST: We dropped people from a 150- foot-tall tower.

GUPTA: And he'll go to almost any length to test his theories.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's definitely an adventure working with him.

GUPTA: So strap in. You're about to meet David Eagleman, a radically original thinker who is going to blow your mind just by explaining how it works.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and this is THE NEXT LIST.

EAGLEMAN: The brain is a massive network made of tens of billions of cells shooting information back and forth many times per second, every single cell, and each one is connected to others in such density that there are hundreds of trillions of connections in there.

I'm David Eagleman, and I'm a neuroscientist.

A neuroscientist studies the brain, and in particular I study the human brain. I'm very interested in the perceptual machinery by which we view the world and how we make decisions, our beliefs, our actions in the world.

My laboratory is at Baylor College of Medicine, which is in the middle of the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest medical center on the planet. I have a number of students here, and we have about 50 different projects on the plate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's a very high-energy person, always is excited about the science we're doing, always looking for new ways to look at problems and ideas.

EAGLEMAN: The main theme is, how do brains construct reality? And so for that, we look at things like time perception and how your brain is putting together your notion of how things are happening in the world.

We all assume that time is just a river that's flowing past. But what I've been working on for the last 12 years is this understanding that it's not just a river that's passably flowing. It's an active construction of the brain.

When I was a child, I was eight years old, and I fell from the roof of a house under construction. And I was watching the brick floor coming towards me, and I was thinking about how this must have been what it was like for Alice in Wonderland to fall down the rabbit hole. But the point is it seemed to have a very long time. I seemed to have lots of clear thoughts. And of course as I grew up and I listened carefully to other people around me, I realized this was very common.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was on my bike going downhill, and my front wheel slipped.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just remember like everything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It felt like it was three, four minutes. It most probably was less because I wouldn't be able to stay underwater for that long.

EAGLEMAN: So that got me very interested because we're trying to figure out how time is represented in the brain, and this is a critical piece of the puzzle. How does it happen that things seem to get stretched out? And does it actually run in slow motion for you? Can you actually see something tumbling through the air, or is it just a retrospective illusion that you thought it was so clear?

There was no study on this, because you can imagine how difficult it is to try to figure out how can you capture a subject right in a life- threatening moment and measure something about them? So we had to home brew our own innovation. And what we did was we dropped people from a 150-foot-tall tower, and they're going in free-fall backwards, and they're caught by a net below going about 70 miles an hour. It goes against every Darwinian instinct that you have to fall backwards like that.

And we built and patented a device that we strapped to their wrist that flashes information at them in such a way that we can measure how fast they're seeing the world. The idea is that as you're falling, if you're actually seeing in slow motion in bullet time, like Neo in "The Matrix," then you would be able to see things that are normally too fast, now they would be slowed down so you could see them just fine.

What we discovered is that even if people think the fall took a much longer time than it actually did, they were not seeing in slow motion. They could not see the information flash at them any faster than in a normal situation. So what we learned is this is essentially a trick of time judgment, of duration judgment, and it's tied into memory. So when you have a very scary situation going on, you have other parts of your brain coming online that write down memories essentially at a higher density.

The reason all this matters is because how the brain constructs time is something about which there is very little study. But what becomes clear is this is so fundamental to how we perceive the world that if those mechanisms go awry, we'll have a very fragmented cognition.

GUPTA: Up next, David Eagleman takes us inside the mind of a mass murderer.

And later, chef Homaro Cantu experiments with a miracle berry, a remarkable little fruit that turns sours tooths sweet. Why doctors hope it could also help chemotherapy patients. That story ahead on THE NEXT LIST.


EAGLEMAN: Essentially the lesson of modern neuroscience is that you are inseparable from your brain. So when you see someone commit a very strange, abnormal act like a school shooting or a massacre, we can safely assume that there is something abnormal about that person's brain even before we know exactly what that is.

I'm interested in neuro-law because it's really where the rubber hits the road in neuroscience. It's where we can take all the things we're learning about human behavior and how humans are different and translate that into social policy, how we actually are running the system here.

So we talk about a reasonable man standard, what would any reasonable person have done in this situation? The fact is brains are so different from one another that people are not the same in how they calculate risk and how they make decisions and control impulses and so on. So for example there are people with a psychosis, a deep disconnection with reality. For example, John Hinckley when he shot President Reagan had a delusion that he would win the love of Jodie Foster by doing this. He was not connected with reality.

You have a completely separate issue of people who are psychopaths. They can harm other people without compunction because they just don't have an internal model of what it's like to be somebody else. So a psychopath is somebody like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. There are many other reasons why people can commit crimes. People will get a stroke, people will get a traumatic brain injury. They'll come back from Iraq or Afghanistan and they'll become criminals. Sometimes a brain tumor is involved.

So for example, Charles Whitman, who climbed the University of Texas tower in 1966 and massacred people at random, it turns out that he had a brain tumor. He was killed that day, and in an autopsy they discovered he had a brain tumor. Now that we have noninvasive brain imaging technologies, we will be able to detect this sort of thing much more often. At some point there will be a crime committed like the Virginia Tech shooting or the Columbine shooting or the Aurora movie theater shooting and we will find that the perpetrator had a brain tumor.

I'm not suggesting any of those events were explained by a brain tumor, but at some point that will happen. And then society is going to have to deal with this very difficult question about this relationship between brain and behavior and this question of culpability.

I think we should plot five years around those years, so 1975 to 1985, '85 to '95, just keep sliding that window. As the effect goes away, then that suggests it's just a demographic shift. So I founded the Initiative on Neuroscience Law, which brings together neuroscientists and lawyers and ethicists and judges and computer programmers to figure out how modern neuroscience will affect the legal system, how we think about criminal behavior and criminal punishment and new ideas for rehabilitation.

What's weird is that it's five times higher than we were just three before or after. So it's just a melding of all sorts of different viewpoints to try to see if we could understand better what's happening in the criminal process.

Murder and capital murder, those are the biggies that we really care about.

SARAH ISGUR FLORES, ATTORNEY: The Neuro-Law Initiative is important because we're at this really unusual crossroads I think in our system where we have an enormous number of people in the criminal justice system, and yet we don't know exactly what's causing people to recidivate, to come back into the system, and which factors mean that they go back into society and are productive citizens for the rest of their lives.

EAGLEMAN: My ultimate goal is to make changes to the legal system, and I'm not going to be satisfied until we have changes to policy. I always tell my students, there are a million questions we can ask from this data, but only ask the ones that will lead to social change.

FLORES: Dr. Eagleman is great at getting students to be really excited about what we're doing. You know, working with Dr. Eagleman, people would do almost anything for science.

EAGLEMAN: Francis Crick once said the dangerous man is the man who has only one idea, because then he'll fight and die for it. What you really want is to have 10 ideas because then you're willing to let them go. And I think that's a critical part of doing science is having lots and lots of ideas, most of which turn out to stink, but there are a few gems hidden in the pile there, and that's progress.

GUPTA: Coming up, from edible menus to sour foods engineered to taste sweet, how Chef Homaro Cantu is reimagining the way we eat. The story is just ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. Now let's meet molecular gastronomists Homaro Cantu, the futuristic chef behind two of Chicago's hottest restaurants. With his lasers and centrifuges, this modern day Willy Wonka is reimagining the very concept of food.

HOMARO CANTU, CHEF: My name is Homaro Cantu and I am a molecular gastronomist. I own Moto, iNG. and Cantu Designs in Chicago.

A molecular gastronomist is really just someone who explores the world of science and food. We're always trying to raise your expectations as to what this food could be. We use a lot of different tools, centrifuges, lasers. We're actually starting to work with some superconductors. If you look at the limitations of creating new products, you're only limited by the technology you have to work with.

The real thrill with the food experiments that we do is creating something that's impossible, creating something that just shouldn't be. I built a lab in my restaurant because we really wanted to take experimentation to the next level and just bring it right in front of the guests.

We have three moving parts here. We have Cantu Designs, which is really the hub of innovation. We can implement those ideas at Moto Restaurant, and then see if they're more applicable to the mainstream and iNG restaurant, which tends to be a much more fast, casual establishment.

What's very different about Moto and iNG as opposed to other restaurants in similar price categories is we're always looking for a bigger idea. We don't want to make just crazy food to be crazy. For example, we serve an edible menu here. We have almost since day one. And that's because serving edible menus makes a lot of sense. Every month about 20 tons of paper are wasted in restaurant menus alone, and so by that rationale, if you ate your menu and it was made with organic local products, you could eliminate that paper waste. It looks like a sushi roll and tastes like a sushi roll, but it's your menu.

We just have to be putting ourselves in the position of taking a bigger risk because our customers expect that. They want to see something really new. They're looking for their hair to be blown back 10 ways, and that's a very difficult challenge.

We like to do a fun thing with what we define seasonal products. We have a biosphere, and we have some seafood products going into that biosphere. We have some sea beans, we have some saltine crackers, a little bit of crab meat. Next we have sea foam, so that's sort of reminiscent of going to the ocean. Then finally we have some smoke apple puree. The next thing we're going to do is take this biosphere and place it on top of that apple puree to form a watertight seal. We're going to take this gas right here, which is nine times heavier than air, which is going to enable use to pull off this trick of creating a weather within this biosphere. It's really cool to watch. At the table you basically pull that off and then this inner gas starts falling and then the smoke just sort of goes right over the food. We clear this and then the diner just starts shoveling stuff in their mouths that's really tasty. That's our seafood biosphere.

I like to compare what we do to, like, the iPhone. A tremendous amount of engineering and thought goes into that product, but when you see it at the table you're not really thinking about that. This food just sort of works. The stressful part that I put pressure on my staff is what are we going to create today, and then how is it going to become the bigger player in the global picture?


GUPTA: For many on THE NEXT LIST, innovation is equal parts inspiration and luck. For chef Cantu, one of his wildest innovations came about when he stumbled upon the miracle berry. This remarkable little berry actually contains a protein called miraculin. It makes sour foods taste sweet. And processed into a tablet it opens the door to endless new food experiences.

CANTU: What we're doing here is we're making something that we can actually serve at one of the restaurants but it's easy for the home cook. We're going to do two sauces with some waffles. And these waffles are sugar free. The sauces are completely sugar free and they're actually really easy to make.

So the first one is going to be a caramel apple sauce, and all we're going to use for that is apple cider vinegar, some cornstarch, and water. What we do is just take some apple cider vinegar and we crank that up. You're going to take a little bit of cornstarch and some of the apple cider vinegar and you make a little slurry in there.

Over about 10 minutes of cooking it on slow and low, it will thicken into something that looks just like apple caramel sauce. It's very vinegary, so when you eat the miracle berry, it tastes as sweet as apple caramel, very cool.

So the benefits with something like that is there is no sugar. And you can't really fool a kid. They want sweetness. And in this case we're going to pair it up with some waffles. You like miracle berry? Yes? How about you, Gracie? You like them. Good job. You're hired.

So, yes, there's a huge opportunity here for sugar companies, food companies, research and development companies in food, to just rethink all of their products and start, really, a whole new economy of sweetened products that have no sugar, sugar additives, or sugar substitutes.

Suck on it like a cough drop. There you go. Go ahead and eat your lemon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is it sweet or sour?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sweet. CANTU: All right, so our overnight sourdough waffles are done, and we're going to sit down and eat. We have carrot cake and caramel apple sauce.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How are the sauces?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It tastes caramel cakey.

CANTU: That's a very good observation.

GUPTA: Chef Cantu's kids are crazy about the berry. But would this work with people the same way?

CANTU: The risk in what I do day to day is very important. If we're not risking anything, we're probably not innovating.

GUPTA: Earlier this year Cantu launched an experimental dinner soup he calls flavor tripping on ice.

CANTU: It's the result of over seven years of hard work, research, and development, my time, and a whole lot of lawyer time. Originally iNG was going to be an alt-flavor tripping experience right from the very beginning, and that probably would have sunk the restaurant telling people right when they sat down, by the way, everything on this menu you see isn't going to taste like what you think it's going to taste like. It's going to taste like that in the beginning, but then while you're eating it, it's just going to change flavors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is that a lemon? It doesn't taste lemony, it tastes sweeter.

CANTU: And really, we had to learn ourselves, because we had no idea what the hell we were doing. We knew this experience was explosive, but how do you do that in a restaurant?

In the center of the plate is a char-char. That's actual blue cheddar cheese. On the far side is 100 percent apple. The graham crackers in the bottom are really the only thing that constitutes any sugar whatsoever. A fresh apple has been sliced on the side. It seems a little strange, but once you eat the miracle tablet, it tastes like apple pie with cheddar cheese on top. So that's our cheese plate.

What's going on over there at first glance just kind of seems kind of playful and fun, but there is a whole world in gastronomy that we're opening the doors to that's really kind of mind-blowing.

GUPTA: Cantu became aware of the berry when he was asked to create a way to preserve it for a friend suffering from cancer.

CANTU: I was asked to create a flavor strip for a chemo patient because they can only taste rubbery and metallic things. So I basically shipped out these printed food strips with miraculin on them, and it worked for this chemo patient. They could taste food again. And over the past seven years, I've given it to over 1,000 patients.

GUPTA: What Cantu began as a favor for a friend is now undergoing clinical trials at Mt. Sinai Medical Center Miami Beach. Recently Dr. Mike Cusnir presented the preliminary results to what he calls a small but promising study.

DR. MIKE CUSNIR, MOUNT SINAI COMPREHENSIVE CANCER CENTER: The results of the study appear to be beneficial. And 48 percent of the patients reported an improvement in their taste and 14 percent of the patients that underwent study with miracle fruit had an improvement in their weight.

GUPTA: Dr. Cusnir is also studying how the miracle berry might help glucose or blood sugar levels in healthy patients.

CANTU: We have a problem food addiction in our country. Diets don't work and people who go on diets go on and off. You never heard anybody ever say, boy, I really enjoyed being on that diet. That was awesome. That just doesn't happen.

We're trying to take the other approach. We want to give you food products like this waffle that tastes better than the real thing just because of the way it's made. And, you know, you swear you're ingesting tons of calories from sugar, but there's nothing there.

The big goal here is to redefine what we have at the grocery store level. I think that what we do in restaurants is great, it's fun, it's exciting. We get to test it out on our guests. But if we could take that to the next level, maybe in a school lunch program or maybe in a homeless shelter, or just somewhere else, I think that would be a huge win.

GUPTA: Homaro Cantu and David Eagleman, they're two very different innovators. But in challenging our perceptions of reality in how we experience time to the foods that we eat, both are blazing trails to a healthier, and perhaps more informed future. And that's what earns them a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks so much for watching. Hope to see you back here next week.