Sunday, August 20, 2006

Postcards from a Post Human (pt 2)

Sorry I haven't blogged again about the crazy emails from the future. The past couple weeks have just been too strange, and it's only now, as things start to settle down, that I even think to take the time to catch up.

As I review my last post, I see that I never got to explain the third email. That was the one that kicked off the week of weirdness.

You'll have to forgive me for not sharing it with you verbatim, but you'll understand my reasons in a moment. I'm happy to give you the gist, though.

Essentially, the email explained a series of steps that I should take to get my "mind into a receptive state" (which is how he - or I, depending on your degree of credulity, put it). After a short primer on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, as well as a brief explanantion of a theory of the role of the frontal lobes of the brain in human cognition, I was instructed where to purchase a device that would help me "think better."

A brief background is necessary here to understand what happened next. It seems that the frontal lobes play a strong role in actually supressing or masking certain brain functions in other parts of the cerebral cortex. In a nutshell, all those talents exhibited by "idiot savants", such as phenomenal memory, mathematical calculations, attention to detail in art and drawing...all of these are present in everyone's brain. However, there are parts of the frontal lobe that actually keep these other areas supressed in a normal brain. Autistic children, many who have smaller or malfunctioning frontal lobes, often exhibit the latent skills present in these other brain areas.

Most autistic children become so absorbed by the detail of what they see and hear that it overwhelms them. Normal human brains supress these capabilities. Why?

The theory is that while it may have served our small prey ancestors well (as it does other prey animals - read Animals In Translation for more on this), the development of the ability to model the outside world and predict events became much more useful. And you can't do that sort of modeling/prediction well if you're too absorbed with how the light from the sun highlights those pretty auburn hairs on that big kitty - the tiger gets to make a big snack of you.

Those "idiot savants" aren't really idiots - they just don't have the ability to turn off those portions of the brain which provide those savant skills. And normal humans don't have the ability to turn them on.

Till now.

Enter Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and it's cousin Direct Current Stimulation. I won't bore you with the details (you can follow the links or google for more), but basically these techniques allow the activation or supression of specific parts of the brain. They are used today by neuroscientists in mapping the brain.

They are also used by early post-humanists to activate or supress parts of the brain to unlock more of the brain's potential.

After purchasing the components described in the email, I was ready to begin.

Well, almost ready.

"Are you fucking out of your mind?!" Pam yelled at me. She, of course, was the one person who was my confidante in this crazy venture. "You're going to shoot a bunch of electricity - through your brain - on the say so of some stupid email?"

We'd been over this. Over and over. Apparently, even though neither of us could explain how someone could pull it off, Pam was still convinced that the emails were some kind of hoax. Some kinds of scam, who's punch line had yet to be revealed. An early April Fool's joke, with me playing the Fool.

"You don't have to watch," I said, as I sat down and carefully adjusted the location of the transducers. "But if you'd like to be helpful, you could help me move this to the right spot - this mirror isn't helping me much."

"Oh no, I'm not touching that thing. You turn yourself into a drooling vegetable, I'm not having my fingerprints on it." Pam threw up her hands and started to walk away.

"Could you at least help me wipe the drool off the floor afterword?" I said as I tried one last time to align the headgear as close to the instructions as I could.

I heard her walk away down the hall, slow down, then stomp back. "Fine. I'll be here to call 911." She threw herself down on the couch next to me. "Idiot."

"That's idiot savant to you," I muttered. "Okay - here goes!"

I pressed the button.

The feeling was hard to describe. Slowly, I started looking around and seeing details I had never noticed before. The dust motes in the ray of light from the window. The reflections of light from the floor. A yellow book jacket, blazing in contrast to the others next to it on the bookshelf.

And sound. The dog outside, barking. A siren, blocks away. The sudden, very loud sound from the person right next to me.

I looked over at Pam, who was yelling at me, but I couldn't understand her. I knew she was saying something, but the meaning was just out of reach, like I knew that language was familiar but I couldn't quite remember what those words meant.

I tried to respond, but I couldn't remember how to speak the words either. I guess some sort of sound came out, because her expression changed and she grabbed me and shouted in my face. Which did not set well with me at all.

I was overwhelmed. I was swamped by the freckles on her face, trying to count every one. The cacaphony sound was so loud, and there were so many different, interesting sounds going on at once. And the reflections of the light from her earrings were like a sharp, physical pain cutting through my head.

I curled up into a ball to try to shut out the sensations, and eventually they faded. It all faded into stillness.

When I opened my eyes, I was in a hospital bed. The lighting was dim, and it appeared to be dark outside the window. Pam was asleep in the stuffed chair in the corner.

I felt fine. I still had extraordinarily vivid images of recollection from the time just before I must have passed out. The dust. The book cover. Pam's freckles.

"Six hundred and thirty-two," I said, apparently out loud because Pam came awake with a start.

"Whaaa?" She cleared her throat. "What did you just say?"

"That's how many freckles you have," said, grinning. "Six hundred and thirty-two. Although a very tiny scar kind of cuts off one of them, but I counted it anyway."

Pam frowned. "Let me get the nurse," Pam said and turned to go out the door.

"No, wait!" She stopped and looked back. "It's okay. Really." I nodded. "I'm okay. In fact, never better." I smiled again when I realized it was true.

"You passed out. You scared the shit out of me." Pam said, still looking dubious as to my state of mind.

"I'm sorry. I must have done something wrong. But I really do feel okay."

She came back over to the side of the bed, an odd expression on her face. "What?" I asked.

She hesitated, then let out a long sigh and handed me a sheet of paper. "It came when you were doing your little experiment." She walked back to the chair and sat down.

She went on. "After all the excitement of the ambulance and shit, they said you seemed to be okay and just needed to come out of it on your own. I got bored just sitting here listening to you snore, so I went out to the lounge and checked my email. That," she gestured at the sheet in my hand, "was in my inbox. I figured you'd want to read it."

I glanced at the sheet. It was from him - me - again. It started out "Don't worry - you didn't hook it up wrong, and you haven't suffered any damage. In fact, just the opposite..."

I looked up at Pam, and she nodded. "When you said you must have hooked it up wrong, it reminded me."

The email went on to explain what had just happened. I had supressed portions of my frontal lobes, as well as Broca's area and other language related functions. At the same time, I had stimulated some of the pure sensory processing areas of my brain. This gave me an incredibly enhanced ability to focus on the detail of what those senses were telling me, without the executive functions and language areas getting in the way, trying to interpret and reinterpret what I was seeing and hearing.

Once the artificial supression was shut-off, the normal functions of those areas of the brain returned. But I had retained the detailed memory of what I had seen.

I could now recite, in order, the title of every book on my bookshelves. It was like I was reading them off from a photograph. When I tried, I could recollect where every item in the study was, from a ball of trash next to the trash can, to a piece of red thread that came from god knows where and was lying on the couch next to where Pam was sitting.

I could remember everything.

The email went on to identify a few more experiments to try, and we decided to wait until the next weekend to do so. I had to go to work, and Pam had things to do as well. And I wasn't ready to tell anyone else about this. Not yet.

Not until yesterday, when everything changed yet again.

(to be continued)


At Monday, August 21, 2006, Blogger Art said...

"I curled up into a ball to try to shut out the sensations, and eventually they faded. It all faded into stillness."....Sounds like you're back at Berkeley again!!!


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