21 September 2011

Twin Town

Water tanks at the Arsenale
Venice, September 2011
Canadian author Peter Watts, who we have mentioned once or twice here at Booming Back, has an interview in Scientific American today on the subject of consciousness and, um, experimentation on conjoined twins.

SA is running a series of articles wherein they ask scientists and other scientific folk about things they would love to see investigated but don't think is possible at the moment. Entitled "Too Hard For Science?", I think they envisioned the series to explore the outer edges of quantum physics, sentient AI, widespread climate engineering and the like, and less so experimentation on children (though interestingly enough that's exactly what Steven Pinker would like to do given half a chance - what is it about linguists and child experimentation?).

Watts writes:
“One thing we have discovered is that consciousness involves synchrony — groups of neurons firing in sync throughout different provinces of the brain,” he says. “Something else we’ve known for some time is that when you split the brain down the middle — force the hemispheres to talk the long way around, via the lower brain, instead of using the fat high-bandwidth pipe of the corpus callosum — you end up with not one conscious entity but two, and those two entities develop different tastes, opinions, even different religious beliefs.”

“What this seems to point to is that consciousness is a function of latency — it depends upon the synchronous firing of far-flung groups of neurons, and if it takes too long for signals to cross those gaps, consciousness fragments. ‘I’ decoheres into ‘we,’” Watts says.

“Fortunately, there are developmental accidents that could potentially offer enormous insights into this phenomenon,” Watts says — that is to say, conjoined twins fused at the brain.

“We’ve already learned a lot from such cases opportunistically,” he explains. “For example, the Hogan twins out in British Columbia appear to have distinct personalities, yet can tap into each others’ sensory systems — they are fused at the thalamus, a structure that acts, among other things, as a sensory relay. Suppose they were fused at the neocortex instead? Would they still be individuals — would the signal lag across the depth of two skulls prove too great for a coherent self? Or would we be dealing with a single integrated person wired into two bodies, with two sets of sense organs and twice the normal complement of human processing power?”

While Watts has already explored this theme somewhat in print (In Blindsight he speculates on a medically-induced multiple personality condition that allows parallel processing), his article brought to mind China Miéville's latest book "Embassytown", wherein genetically engineered twins are raised to communicate synchronistically with an alien culture whose language is based on dual voices, and the challenges that arise when separated personalities are in charge of the shared communication. But whereas Miéville's book is mainly concerned with the nature of language and communication, Watts explores the concept of consciousness itself through a very dark lens indeed.

Just as well Scientific American hasn't actually allowed him to go near any children, when asked by SA what the problem with experimenting on conjoined twins would be he replied somewhat tongue-in-cheek (hopefully), “I have no idea. Really. I can’t see any down side to this at all. I’m actually kind of amazed it hasn’t already been done”.

And he wonders why US Border Guards lost the plot with him.

All of which is basically just a blatant excuse to post a photographic exercise in pareidolia, the way in which we seem neurological hardwired to see human faces in random objects, using a set of particularly evil looking water tanks that I found sitting in the back of the Chinese Pavilion at the Arsenale, the huge 14th century naval shipyards in Venice that now host part of the Biennale. They give me the creeps just looking at them.

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