Friday, November 16, 2012

Einstein's Brain


Snapshots explore Einstein’s unusual brain : Nature

'via Blog this'


Einstein's brain is one of the reasons I love writing science fiction.

OK, strange statement, maybe, but the differences between the luminary physicist's brain and the gray matter of normal people like me is pure inspiration. It makes me wonder what both society and individual lives would look like if the technology for customized brains was available.

The quirks of our brains' layouts and wiring can impact our lives in ways that are so bizarre as to feel like science fiction or fantasy. There are brains that can't see faces. Individuals with lesions or born with unusual wiring within the brain's fusiform gyrus, who cannot recognize faces ever. For them, there is not only a lack of identity associated with faces, but the individual features never make a recognizable whole. It's akin to being able to see individual terrain features on a map, such as the representation of a mountain or forest, but being unable to resolve those components into a coherent landscape, or match it to a section of the physical world.

But alongside those whose brains make it difficult to perceive or conceptualize aspects of the world that most people take for granted, are those with super human talents. Savants who can perform huge calculations quickly and entirely in their heads. Photographic memories and people with almost no artistic training who can reproduce scenes they have only glimpsed before with uncanny accuracy using pencils and paper. Synesthetes whose cross-wired sensory cortices allow them to experience the world in ways that sound alien but wonderful to the rest of us: Sounds that have color, or evoke physical sensations, words that taste, and other variations of linked senses.

And then there is Einstein. A genius with a brain that had unusual features associated with the visual-spatial reasoning areas that are a locus of mathematical ability.

So what would the world be like if we could change our brains at will? What if we could write talents into the living tissue of thought that would allows anyone to master a skill set at the limits of human ability, or perceive the world through the lens of genius. What if we could tweak the pattern recognition filters that construct our awareness of the world to see abstract patterns in events that are invisible to ordinary humans? How about the ability to perfectly recall every day of your life at will, as though reliving it?

What if we could erase traumas like the PTSD syndrome associated with war and childhood abuse?

How perfect could we make our brains. What kind of conflicts, dysfunctions, might arise from adding too many talents. As I've written about before, savant talents are often associated with neurological deficits, some caused by injury, other by genetics and accidents of birth. Our brain is a mass of engineering compromises, and the demands of processing complex social environments and abstract cultural information may have lead to the loss of some talents or mental abilities.

Or, what would happen if advanced technology allowed us to change the brain without limit? Might different configurations of talents and augmented perceptions lead to minds with unique abilities or worldviews? Differing paradigms that lead to conflicts over finite resources needed to realize an array of conflicting potential utopias?

There are so many cool concept possibilities, and such much room for story telling in this kind of idea space.

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