Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
August 2015

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 ideas.

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 intuition.

What does modern neuroscience say about this issue? Can we separate mind and brain?

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 patient thinks,

"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 Documentary."

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

James Maxey

The Anubis Gates

Tim Powers



TED-ED animation on Rene Descartes

Mind and Life: Biology, Phenomonology, and the Sciences of Mind, by Evan Thompson

Capgras Syndrome, in a TED talk by V.S. Ramachandran

Oliver Sacks

Ted Chiang


I am a Strange Loop

Douglas Hofstadter

Read more by Randall Hayes

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