In the immortal words of the brilliant Emo Philips: “I used to think the human mind was the most amazing, awe-inspiring thing in all of nature. But then I realized… well, look what’s telling me that.”
This sprang to mind today while I read this article about a pair of conjoined twins who are believed to share sensory information, and possibly even thoughts, through a neural bridge between their brains. Amazing, fascinating stuff. Touching, too. I’m particularly stricken by the musings over whether the twins will become more or less individual as they age.
Our consciousnesses are the most private things we have. Our senses of self are forever insulated from direct inspection by any other living being. Self is a strange thing, lonely and solipsistic. The thought that these twins just might have the completely unique distinction of not being subject to that universal truth of the human experience… wow. It’s amazing.
There might be an alternate universe—or a whole family of them, an entire branch of the multiverse—where I pursued a career studying neurology, the mind, and consciousness. I’m endlessly fascinated by these things, even though I barely understand them. The brain is like some kind of strange, intricate, devious puzzle box. We don’t know how it works, we don’t know how consciousness arises, and yet…those phenomena are us.
Some of Oliver Sacks‘s books have driven home for me the sheer weirdness of the brain. I hadn’t realized just how complex the workings of the brain were, and just how detailed and specific the tasks of various bits of tissue could be, until I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. These books even freaked me out a little bit. To think that my mind could lose all concept of color—not just the sensory phenomenon, but the concept of it—by a bonk on the head… or that I could lose the ability to walk not though physical injury to my muscles or nerves or bones, but because my brain could lose the capability to track the orientation of my body in space… or that I could lose the ability to form new memories… or that I could lose the ability to distinguish between inanimate objects and human beings… Well, it makes me want to wear a helmet 24 hours per day.
The article linked above mentions the weird things that can happen to people with a split corpus callosum. (Imagine, for instance, that your left hand suddenly takes it upon itself to start tearing up money. And you can’t stop it.)
All of these medical and psychiatric case histories just parade around the boundaries of the central question: what is consciousness? What does it mean when we perceive our “self”?
There’s some fantastic science fiction that studies these and much deeper questions. Peter Watts’s phenomenal Blindsight is one such book. True hard SF, a nougaty center of neurological hard SF wrapped inside spaceship hard SF. Even though I probably understood less than 50% of parts of this book, I found it a very compelling and thought-provoking read.