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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Brain-to-Brain: A Thought Experiment

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/30/07 at 11:57 AM

Thought experiments (Gedankenexperiment) have recently been a matter of some contention around here. While I’ve weighed in agains “Wordsworth on the beach,” I have no general objection to thought experiments. In fact, I’ve concocted one myself, though I’ve not published it.

It came to mind at some time after my book on music came out. In that book I’d argued that music establishes a coupling between people that must be understood as a physical connection between brains, thus allowing me to think of interaction through music as a case of coupled oscillation, a physical process discovered in the 17th century by Christian Huygens. So, I began wondering whether or not it would, in principle, be possible to create a still more intimate interaction by linking one brain directly to another through some kind of mega-cable or some kind of high-bandwidth radio broadcast. I decided that, given what we know about the brain, this would not work.

So what? Well its related to just how humans communicate, to intentionality, and it’s another aspect of the argument I made in my recent post on intentional frames and story-telling. It also implies that high-tech fantasies of imparting knowledge by implanting knowledge-containing chips into someone’s brain are just that, fantasies. In principle, it can’t happen. Nor would it be possible to establish a direct brain-to-computer link, at least not without a long period of training.

Here’s my notes on that thought experiment:

My basic point, of course, is the brains coupled through musicking are linked as directly and intimately as computers communicating through a network.  And, like networked computers, networked brains are subject to constraints.  In the human case the effect of those constrains is that the collective computing space can be no larger than the computing space of a single unconstrained brain.  This is true no matter how many brains are so coupled, despite the fact that these coupled brains have many more computing elements (i.e. neurons) than a single brain has.

One problem in understanding this connection as being directly physical, as I see it, is that we tend to think of brains as consisting of a lot of elements. Thus, an effective connection between brains should consist of an element-to-element hook-up, no? Music doesn’t achieve anything remotely like that.

So, let’s take a ploy from science fiction, direct neural coupling.  I’ve seen this ploy used for man-machine communication (by e.g. Samuel Delaney) and surely someone has used it for human-to-human communication (perhaps mediated by a machine hub).  Let’s try to imagine how this might work.

The first problem is simply one of physical technique.  Neurons are very small and very many.  How do we build a connector that can hook up with, say, 10M or 100M distinctly different neurons without destroying the brain?  We use Magic, that’s what we do. That is, we just declare it into existence and not worry about the messy details of actual implementation.

Given our Magic-Mega-Point-to-Point (MMPTP) coupling, how do we match the neurons in one brain to those in another?  For each strand in this cable is going to run from one neuron to another.  If our nervous system were like that of C. elegans, there would be no problem.  For that nervous system is very small and each neuron has a unique identity.  It would be easy to match neurons in different individuals of C. elegans. But human brains are not like that.  Individual neurons do not have individual identities.  There is no way to match the neurons in one brain with those in another. In this respect, neurons are like hairs, and unlike fingers and toes.

So, that’s one problem, how to match the neurons in two brains. About all I can see to do is to match neurons on the basis of location at, say, the millimeter level of granularity. Perhaps we choose 10M or 100M neurons in the corpus callosum and just link them up.

There’s another problem: How does a brain tell whether or not a given neural impulse comes from it or from the other brain? If it can’t make the distinction, how can communication take place?

What, then, happens when we finally couple two people through a MMPTP? The neurons are not going to correspond in a rigorous way and they’re not going know what’s coming from within vs. outside. In that situation I would imagine that each party to the coupling experiences a bunch of noise, that’s what. I haven’t got the foggiest idea how that noise will feel.  Maybe it will just blur things up; but it might also cause massive confusion and bring perception, thought, and action to a crashing halt.  The only thing I’m reasonably sure of is that it won’t yield the intimate and intuitive communion of one mind with another.

However, if this coupling doesn’t bring things to a halt, it’s possible that, in time (weeks? months? years?), the two will work things out.  The brains will reorganize and figure out how to deal with one another.  The self-organizing processes within each brain will learn to deal with activity coming from the other brain and incorporate it into their routines.  [Sort of like musicians from different cultures meeting and jamming and gradually arriving at ways to play together.]

Self-organization is the key.  It’s not only that individual brains are self-organized, built from inside, but that individual brains consist of many regions each of which is self-organized and quasi-autonomous.  Each of these regions is connected to many other regions and is interacting with them continuously, incorporating their activities into its own self-organized patterns.  [Like musicians jamming. Each makes their own decisions and their own sounds, but is listening to all the others and acting on what she hears.]

And, as I said, that’s how brains are built, from the very beginning.  The process is quite different from what I did years ago when I assembled my stereo amplifier from a kit.  When I did that I laid all the part out and assembled the basic subcircuits.  I then connected those together on the chassis and, when it was all connected, plugged it in, turned in on, and hoped for the best. That is, no electricity flowed through any these components until they were all connected. [BTW, it didn’t work at first.  There was a cold solder joint in the power amplifier circuit.  Once I’d fixed that, I was in business.]

Brain development isn’t like that at all.  The individual elements are living cells; they’re operational from birth - actually, neurons are firing away prenatally. And the operation of one neuron affects that of its near and distant neighbors.  If this were not the case, it would be impossible to construct a large and complex brain like those of vertebrates; the components wouldn’t mesh effectively.  So there’s never really a magic moment like that in the life of a stereo amplifier when all the dead elements suddenly become alive.  The closest we’ve got is the moment of birth, when the operational environment for the nervous system becomes dramatically changed, all of it, at once, and forever. And then it keeps on growing and developing, self-organizing (region by region) in interaction with the external world.

But brains remain forever unique.  And that means that our fantasy MMPTP coupler is, in fact, no better than music. Real music, that we can make any time, that we’ve been making since before speech evolved, that’s as direct and intimate as it gets.  The Vulcan Mind Meld is science fiction; music is not.


The connections between the brain and signals coming from outside the organism are the equivalent of a cypher. It seems to be the case that this cypher is unique to each individual since it is created by a intricate process of development that necessarily differs even between identical twins. Now there is a theorem of cryptography that states that such cyphers, the one-time codes of spycraft, are unbreakable in principle. Just as a one-time code can only be defeated by physical cryptography--stealing the code book--no machine can read our thoughts without knowing the connections in our brains in their entirety.

By Jim Harrison on 10/31/07 at 03:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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