Can a Digital Reality Be Taken Directly to Your Brain?


A young man in a gray flannel robe sat calmly at a table, in front of an unsightly black box. He was capped like a gauze bandage. A bundle of wires came out of it, coming out from the back of his head. He is waiting for something.

A researchers in a white lab coat walked over to the table and stood silently for a moment. The man stared at the box. For a while, nothing happens. Then the man blinked and was a little exhausted. The researcher asked what happened.

“In just the first second,” he said, “I saw an eye — an eye and a mouth.”

The researcher exchanged the box for something else. This time it was an orange soccer ball. There was a beating, and again it was clear that something had happened inside the man’s head. “How can I explain this?” he said. “Like the previous one, I could see eye — eye and mouth, on the side.”

Strictly speaking, this guy is a cyborg. His fusiform gyri, winding ridges running along the bottom of the brain on each side, has electrodes. His doctors implanted them because they believed they could help trace the cause of the man’s attack. But electrodes also offer a unique opportunity — not just to read signals from the brain but to write them down. A team of neuroscientists, led by Nancy Kanwisher of MIT, is investigating the so-called fusiform face area, which becomes active when a person sees a face. Their question is, what if they turn the bombs on? Intended to activate that area — what can a person see?

You don’t have to be a cyborg to know that you don’t have to trust your false mind. It hides from you, for example, the fact that all your visions are delayed. Turning photons into sight, converting air pressure into sound, aerosolized molecules into odors — which no matter how long it takes your imperfect sensory organs to receive the signal, transfer it to the language of the brain, and pass it on to woody networks of nerve cells that compute future data. The process isn’t immediate, but you don’t know the zillion synaptic zaps going on, the electrochemical fizz that makes up your mind. The truth is it’s stagecraft — and you’re both a director and a listener.

You understand, or think you understand, things that aren’t “really there” all the time — that aren’t anywhere but inside your head. Those are dreams. That’s what psychedelic drugs do. That’s what happens when you imagine your aunt’s face, the smell of your first car, the strawberry flavor.

From this perspective, it is never difficult to get a sensory experience – a vision – in a person’s head. I did this to you in the first few paragraphs of this story. I describe how the cyborg is dressed, you are given a hint of what the room looks like, you are told that the soccer ball is orange. You see it in your mind, or at least some version of it. You hear, in your mind’s ear, the research subject talking to scientists (although in real life they speak Japanese). That’s all good and literary. But it is good to have a more direct route. The brain salty glop that brings sensory information into the mind; you have to use that ability, to build a whole world out there, a simulation that is unrecognizable to reality.

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