Avoiding the O.J. on the Mind/Body "Problem"
For this first column, I thought I'd do a bit of introduction before leaping off into
the void. My name is Randall Hayes. I'm a neuroscientist by training, a teacher
by vocation, an entrepreneur by nature, and a long time SF fan, by way of my
older brother's comic book collection. I met Ed Schubert at a public discussion
series I've been running for the past couple of years called Greensboro Science
Cafe. Piedmont Laureate James Maxey had stopped by to talk about how much he
loved science, but how little research he actually does on most of his stories, how
much of his "science" is, for reasons of narrative convenience, sort of . . .
metaphorical. His statements resonated with much of my experience as a
reader/watcher of SF. As a teacher, I think using analogies to explain unfamiliar
or complicated things is useful. Still, the whole point of science is to learn
something new, to be productively wrong, to fail our way to progress, one
exhilarating / frustrating / deeply weird surprise after another. Narrative
convenience must be balanced with the how the process of science actually works.
It was a great discussion, fun for all involved.
After the session was over, Ed said he was interested in taking this magazine in
some new directions. I pitched him a column on real scientific problems that, in
my humble opinion, are not being sufficiently explored in today's SF, or are being
explored in overly traditional ways, not taking into account the current state of the
scientific art. And here we are! (Thanks, Ed).
Every month, I'll choose an issue that interests me - or that interests you, if you
write in to suggest one. I'll do a quick survey of what's out there, comparing SF
and the research literature, based on my own knowledge, internet databases, and
consultations with other experts. Then, based on what I find, I'll suggest some
ideas for authors to use in writing innovative stories, and some resources for
learning more about them. Got the rules of the game? Good. Let's play.
Wikipedia has over fifty examples of novels where people can either upload their
minds into computers or transfer their minds into new brains. Their list does not
include one of my personal favorites in the body-hopping genre - The Anubis
Gates, by Tim Powers - and it does not include any of hundreds of examples from
other media, some that almost no one would call SF. Even Gilligan's Island did a
body-switching episode, back in the day, by simply having the actors lip-synch to
one another's recorded voices. My favorite media resource, tvtropes.org, goes so
far as to call it an obligatory joke (an O.J.) , something that almost every series
will do eventually if it lasts long enough for the writers to run out of their own
We can thank the French philosopher Rene Descartes for generating this highly
infectious meme. According to the book Mind and Life, the ancient Greeks
thought of both body and soul as components of life, as separate from nonliving
things like rocks and machines. Likewise, Eastern philosophies referred explicitly
to a bodymind. Descartes was the one who separated the two, lumping biological
bodies in with machines and equating the mind with the soul, which could go on
to heaven after death. This separation between body and mind has been a solid
part of Western culture - including much of Western science - ever since. Our
metaphor of the brain as a computer - of our minds as software running on the
hardware of our brain - is largely an unconscious translation of Descarte's
What does modern neuroscience say about this issue? Can we separate mind and
The first evidence we had came from the medical specialty of neurology, which
showed that if you damage the brain, you damage the mind. Strokes, tumors, and
bullet wounds all showed that functions of perception and even personality could
be altered selectively, depending on where the damage was localized in the brain.
In other words, neurology says NO: the mind and brain are the same thing.
Individual functions are separable from one another, but structure and function are
not separable. The slicing and dicing of the mind into different functions that
overlap and compete for resources is fertile ground for SF.
One great example is Capgras Syndrome, in which a stroke or other damage has
cut the axons that connect the logical functions to the emotional circuitry. The
"I recognize this person, who I love. I do not feel love for this
person. Therefore, this is not my loved one. It must be a robot, or an
alien, impersonating my loved one."
Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was my first view into
this fascinating world, but in the roughly 20 years since then, the popular literature
on neurological case-studies has exploded (not to mention the peer-reviewed
medical literature available through PubMed). There's no shortage of totally
responsible bodymind weirdness to be explored in fiction. One good example,
which I use with my students, is Ted Chiang's "Liking What You See: a
So our modern mythology of the mind as software running on the hardware of the
brain, as though the brain were literally a digital computer, is deeply flawed.
Today, scientists like me are quite sure that Descartes was wrong, that our
biological wetware embodies our minds. The circuitry actually changes as we
learn by growing new connections. So a quick Dollhouse-style digital
mindwipe/rewrite doesn't make much sense, scientifically.
However, in his book I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter describes in a
pretty moving way the conversations he has with his dead wife. Humans have
"mirror neurons," which allow us to copy individual behaviors of other humans.
This is useful in the short term, because it enables us to learn through observation
as well as through trial and error. Hofstadter takes this concept further, to suggest
that over the years he knew his wife, his memories of her coalesced into a mental
model, a copy of her personality that he carries around in his own brain. At first it
was fuzzy and not very useful for predicting her behavior, but as he learned more
about her, the model grew in detail and sophistication. After her death, he
continued to interact intensively with that internal model, asking its advice on
raising their children and generally treating it as though it were a person, keeping
those memories alive and vivid. This is a very different conception of transferring
a mind from one body to another, and one that seems quite doable, although it's
much slower than sticking someone into a scanner and pushing "copy." Slow
might open up some interesting narrative possibilities.
Thanks for reading through this first column. Over the course of the next few
months, we will definitely hit neuroscience multiple times (because that's what I
do), but we will also wander into other areas. If you have a suggestion for a
scientific concept that you've been dying to see a scientifically accurate story
about, send an e-mail.
Greensboro Science Café
The Anubis Gates
TED-ED animation on Rene Descartes
Mind and Life: Biology, Phenomonology, and the Sciences of Mind, by Evan
Capgras Syndrome, in a TED talk by V.S. Ramachandran
I am a Strange Loop
Read more by Randall Hayes