In 1963, a Spanish-born neuroscientist, Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado, stopped a charging bull with a remote control. Delgado – a kind of neuro-torero – implanted a radio-controlled electrode inside the bull’s brain (in the caudate nucleus area) and, in so doing, set a historical precedent of connecting a living brain to a machine.
The brain-machine interfaces have come a long way since those days. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil – if all goes as expected, with the help of the Brazilian scientist-physician Miguel Nicolelis – will open with a kick-off by a paralyzed man wearing a brain-controlled exoskeleton.
But, as is always the case with technology and science, we are running a little ahead of ourselves. While, as a civilization, we are essentially (in a historical sense) on the verge of Cyborg-dom, we are yet to fully plumb our own Humanity. And for that, we need not brain-machine interfaces but brain-to-brain/mind-to-mind interfaces.
So far our attempts to understand each other have been indirect and sloppy. With nothing but language, empathy, and arts in our toolbox we’ve been mostly lost-in-translation. Is direct inter-personal contact with each other even a possibility? What would it feel like? What would it mean? Would the inter-personal suddenly become intra-personal? Would a Collective of Us experience itself as a We or an I? After all 100 billion stand-alone neurons inside your skull do experience themselves – in all their multitude – as a Oneness that You Currently Are.
This is exactly what’s been playing on my mind. So, one recent morning I came up with a thought experiment and wrote it down. Here it is – exactly 179 sentences of it…
1. I don’t know why I decided to number my sentences this way.
2. I suspect it’s got something to do with my uneasy relationship with Roman numerals.
3. But that’s not what this piece of writing is about.
4. This is about you and I, the Neural Tribe.
5. At this point in time, there are two titles in my mind for this project:
6. “Making a Neural Connection” or “A Meeting of Avatars.”
7. I’d ask you right now what you think but I can’t.
8. Because we – you and I – all of us, in fact, live separate lives.
9. Separate or separated? – that’s really the question that I intend to address with this act of writing.
10. And now you know…
11. It’s 4:42 am – in fact when I started writing this sentence it was just 4:41am.
12. But then the clock ticked and the time has changed to 4:42am.
13. I liked 4:41am better.
14. And now it’s 4:43am…
15. Knowing this you can deduce many things about me and this moment right now.
16. You can calculate my average thinking and typing speed.
17. You can make hypotheses about my sleep patterns.
18. You can allow yourself to wonder about how much of what’s written in the world begins with insomnia.
19. It’s 4:44am right now and I like this number: four forty four.
20. As I sit alone in this dark room in front of the computer, the chirping of the birds outside somehow helps me feel that it is not all that irrational to be awake at this strange hour of the day: I am not alone in my wakefulness…
21. So, this is how we communicate and stay connected – with words.
22. Separated by the walls of our lives we touch each other through communication.
23. And when the connection is finally made, we – if only briefly – become sort of one.
24. After all, what is understanding if not a collapse of separateness?!
25. When we understand, when we connect, when we bridge the gaps between any two of us, we merge our subjectivities.
26. We start as two – me here, you there.
27. We walk the bridge of words across the chasm of our separateness.
28. And we either walk past each other in misunderstanding or we connect.
29. When we connect, when minds meet, we become functionally one.
30. We become a Functional Oneness.
31. This act of writing is a series of thought experiments and neuro-trivia.
32. So, let us finally get started.
33. Did you know that there is no such thing as brain?
34. Indeed, a brain is not just this one singular thing.
35. A brain is actually a collection of 100 billion stand-alone neurons, each separated from the other by the so-called synaptic gap.
36. Each of these neurons – for all intents and purposes – is its own micro-organism with its own metabolic requirements.
37. So, a brain is not really one continuous, seamless entity but a legion of tiny little entities.
38. To call a collection of stand-alone neurons a brain is like calling a group of individuals a crowd.
39. Sure, a group of individuals can act with the functional oneness of a crowd.
40. But at the end of the day all these individuals are still by themselves, living their own separate existences…
41. This brings us to a very important question: are you one or are you many?
42. If your brain consisted of only one neuron, then the answer would be simple.
43. You’d say “I am one,” meaning “I am this one conscious, feeling, sensing neuron.”
44. But the brain – as we just established – isn’t just one neuron but a galaxy of stand-alone neurons, each separated from the other by the so-called synaptic gap.
45. So, which neuron are you?
46. It’s a pesky question, I know.
47. For the time being, don’t worry about it.
48. As they say, put a pin into it for the moment and set it aside.
49. In other words, keep the issue open.
50. It’s 5:08am by the way right now…
51. By now, surely, you have noticed the curious format of this writing.
52. Every ten numbered sentences there is a break, an extra space.
53. You might be curious: “Why is that?”
54. There is a metaphor in this: each batch of sentences is a unit of thought of sorts.
55. But notice again how these tentative units of semantic wholeness are made up of separate, stand-alone parts.
56. Indeed, each sentence in and of itself is made up of tiny little quanta (groupings) of letters that make up the words that make up the sentences that make up the thoughts that, in turn, make up the connection of understanding between us.
57. The objective separateness of stand-alone symbols blurs itself together into a functional oneness of communication.
58. And so it is with the billions of neurons inside your skull: while all of them (according to the Neuron Theory of Santiago Ramon y Cajal) are objectively separate, subjectively you feel yourself as one brain, as one mind, as one soul.
59. How marvelous!
60. This is what is meant by “all is one, one is all.”
61. So, anatomically speaking, you are a plurality (of neurons) that experiences itself as a oneness (of consciousness).
62. And now let’s do some morbid play with that!
63. Imagine that we took your brain – all of the six or so billions of your stand-alone neurons – out of your skull and put them on a tray like a big ol’ mess of spaghetti.
64. So, here you would be: your empty skull on one side of the table and your brain – that is, your neurons – on the other side of the table.
65. I know this is all schematic and simplistic and you are wondering if it would be even possible… but let us make all the assumptions that we need to make in order to continue with this experiment: let us assume that – technicalities aside – it is possible.
66. With this in mind, my question to you is this: where on the table are you?
67. Are you in the empty skull or are you in the “brain”?
68. Yes, I am being a bit rhetorical: of course, you are not in the empty skull – the skull is just the casing, a bony house in which your “brain” lives.
69. So, obviously, you are not in the skull – that’s easy.
70. Here’s what’s a bit harder: where are you in the “brain”?
71. Indeed, say I come up to the side of the table with your brain on a tray.
72. I am looking at a big ol’ spaghetti mess of neurons – remember, no two touch.
73. Remember: all of these neurons – as intertwined as they might be – are separate.
74. Remember: each of these neurons is its own entity, like people in a crowd.
75. So, here I am looking for you…
76. Which neuron are you?
77. This one or that one?
78. Are you all of these individual neurons?
79. Or are you in the synaptic gaps – in the empty spaces between the neurons where the communication between the neurons happens?
81. Don’t worry about this for now, just, as they say, “put a pin into it” and leave the question open.
82. Imagine this: we take all of the neural noodles that make up this tangled mess that you are and we widen the synaptic gaps by, say, a foot.
83. So, what we have now is a disconnected collection of neurons, a crowd whose neural members are so far apart that the crowd can no longer maintain internal communication and, thus, cannot function as one.
84. What have we proven with this? – The importance of staying close enough to be inter-connected.
85. A flash-mob of neurons is not a flash-mob unless it’s closely-knit.
86. But here’s a twist: while we were busy dispersing this neural crowd and then putting it back together, we made a mistake: before neuron named Mike stood next to neuron named Mary but now, after we disbanded the crowd and then brought it together, neuron Mike found himself next to neuron named Jennifer while neuron Mary is now holding chemical hands with neuron named Jack.
87. Question is: can this neural flash-mob still dance?
88. Of course – as long as the newly acquainted neural couples can communicate to coordinate their activity.
89. What this means is that you are not any one of your neural dancers.
90. You – the consciousness that is reading this – are the neural Dance itself.
91. Let us continue: we are very close to a rather exciting possibility.
92. But we need another thought experiment to make the connection.
93. Say, an assistant that we hired, now takes my brain out of my skull and puts on a tray next to the tray with your brain.
94. So, here we are, two living, thinking, functioning “brains” next to each other, closer than we have ever been, with no bony walls between us.
95. And next happens this: our highly-skilled assistant takes one of the ends of my neural noodles and moves it over into the tray with your “brain,” insinuating it inside your spaghetti-mess of neurons in such a way that my neural noodle is now part of your neural collective.
97. We are connected – not through words, but through wires, not through communication, but directly.
98. “Wait a second,” you might rush to object, “But how can this be?!”
99. Let’s go over this again, step by step, to make sure we didn’t over-fantasize…
100. Your brain isn’t just one thing.
101. Your brain is a big ol’ mess of stand-alone neurons.
102. Neurons are like noodles – living, information-processing noodles.
103. Just like the noodles in a bowl, while intertwined into a big ol’ mess, all noodles are nevertheless separate and stand-alone.
104. Now imagine two bowls of spaghetti side by side.
105. You take the end of the spaghetti from bowl A and fling it over into the bowl B in such a manner that the noodle in question “starts” in one bowl and “ends” in the other bowl.
106. What you’ve got now is a connection: the brain-bowl A is connected to the brain-bowl B.
107. The two (brains) became one (brain).
108. A duality is collapsed.
109. Oneness is achieved – literally, not metaphorically.
110. As an English speaker, when you meet another English speaker, you can linguistically relate, right?
112. A shared language is a potential bond that binds two respective minds into a union (oneness) of understanding.
113. Neurons are neither English nor Chinese.
114. Neurons speak Electralese and Chemicalese.
115. It is reasonable to assume that if one of my neurons ran into one of your neurons, they’d probably be able to communicate.
116. After all, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, we’ve been able to transplant entire organs into each other.
117. Sure, there might be some translation issues but it wouldn’t be a thought experiment if we didn’t allow ourselves a seemingly reasonable assumption that all of that can be, in principle, worked out.
118. So, let’s get back to wherever it is that we are: here we are – two “brains” – connected with a neural wire.
119. Are we still “we”?
120. It’s 6:10am by the way: the pale orange of the sunrise is diffusing through a whitish-bluish sky of this June morning.
121. I am wanting a second cup of coffee.
122. And you know all of this without my having to say a word because we are now connected with a neural wire which makes us one, not two.
123. Of course, skeptics would rush to object: “What if you connected a motor neuron from brain A to a speech neuron in brain B? These neurons wouldn’t be able to communicate! They don’t “know” each other!”
124. First off, there are no motor neurons or speech neurons.
125. There are neurons that specialize in this or that just like there are no accountants or mechanics but there are just people that crunch numbers or fix cars for a living.
126. Neurons are neurons.
127. They are smart, they can re-specialize.
128. And as for “they don’t ‘know’ each other” – no worries!
129. They can make the connection, they can get to know each other, they do it all the time, within the bony confines of your own abode.
130. So, let us not get hung up on the technicalities.
131. Let us respect the liberating parameters of a thought experiment.
132. Let us add another variable to this intriguing mix.
133. Let us imagine – while listening to John Lennon’s “Imagine” – that we have all taken a certain kind of neurotrophic pill that allows us to grow a really, really long neuron, say, a 10-mile-long neuron (we’ll call this neuron “the Lennon neuron” or “L-neuron,” for short)
134. We chemically and/or mechanically guide this L-neuron to spool out through a Phowa-like hole on top of our skulls (Phowa is a Buddhist meditation on the transference of consciousness).
135. And then we sit down into a huge circle – all 7 or so billion of us, humans – and we let our Lennon neurons meet in the middle in one big spaghetti-mess of connections.
136. So, what do we have now?
137. Humankind connected.
138. A neural crowd acting as one.
139. A Neural Tribe pow-wow – beyond language, beyond difference, beyond the illusion of separateness.
140. Chances are you’ve seen James Cameron’s 2009 movie “Avatar.”
141. Remember those plug-in wires that would allow Na’vi people on planet Pandora to hook into each other and into their fellow species.
142. There is nothing naïve about this vision.
143. As I see it, interpersonal neural connectivity is a surgical challenge, not a philosophical challenge.
144. The legions of neurons inside the bony cages of our skulls have bridged a far longer gap between us all – with the help of communication.
145. Brains-plugged-into-brains have only synaptic gaps to cross.
146. We have evolutionarily learned to walk the ten-thousand-words-long road of language.
147. I have no doubt that sooner or later we can learn how to take the neural short-cut.
148. I am convinced that long before we realize that we can already technically connect, the only thing that will give us pause is the fear of true connection with each other.
149. Oneness is a Pandora’s box of understanding.
150. Where do you go from here, Avatar?
151. What will you keep from this reading, Avatar?
152. What are you feeling now, all alone, all-one, inside the bony condo of your skull, Avatar?
153. It’s 6:48am where I am now and it’s time I choose a title for this bit of writing.
154. I am going to call it “A Meeting of the Neural Avatars.”
155. What’s an avatar?
156. It’s Sanskrit for a manifestation of the divine, but that’s a metaphor.
157. Literally, avatar means “the one who crosses over from above” (ava means “down,” tarati means “crosses over” from Proto-Indo-European root verb tere, to cross over).
158. And it is in this secular meaning that I am addressing you as an Avatar, as the one who crosses over the divide, as the one who descends from the illusory clouds of separateness, as the one who communicates and connects.
159. But who are you, Avatar?
160. Let us start from the beginning (but not from the very beginning because there is no such time when a “now of what is” emerged from a “never-of-nothingness”).
161. There was the primordial bio-soup, life emerged, and here we are: neural Brahmins riding on top of our multicellular elephants.
162. Let me clarify: we are the Metazoans, the multicellular animals.
163. We are Cellular Pluralities that act like One.
164. We are Cellular Communities that feel like One.
165. Each of us is a mini-world of Cellular Tribes, with the Neural Tribes in charge.
166. The neurons inside your skull – collectively – are the Neural Tribe that is in charge of the rest of your cellular collective.
167. Like Brahmin priests of the old days we ride on top of the cellular elephants of our own bodies.
168. The lowly cells, we – the Neurons – have risen from the soil of the Earth and are comfortably ensconced in the loft-spaces of our skulls, looking down on each other, like the elephant-riding Brahmins passing each other on the dusty road without a hello.
169. So, let us notice each other in a Namaste of neural recognition.
170. I was blind for so long.
171. But I finally see you, Avatar!
172. Question is: do you see You yet?
173. A neuron is a neuron is a neuron – whichever life-form it’s in.
174. The Neural tribe reaches way beyond the humankind.
175. Any animal neuron – in a fish, in a rat, in a worm – is one of us, just like us, but trapped in its own evolutionary house.
176. So, come back down from the elephant of your ego, Neuro-Brahmin.
177. We are all a caste of Avatars.
178. Notice You everywhere.
179. Tat tvam asi (तत् त्वम् असि or तत्त्वमसि) which in Sanskrit means: “You are that!” (And so am I!)
[A Meeting of Neural Avatars]
For more on the idea of Neural Tribe I refer you to Chapter 11 of my latest book, Reinventing the Meal.