It’s Not Brain Surgery – An Introduction
An Examination of Neurochemistry in Speculative Fiction
Wonder what’s going on in that character’s head? Here we’ll dip our toes into the psychology and neurobiology at play in characters and scenarios in speculative fiction.
A long time ago, I went to that terrifying place we call grad school. Specifically, I went to the City University of New York to get my doctorate in cognitive neuroscience, which is how thoughts and behaviors originate in the biology of the brain.
How does this relate to all things geek, or the subjects you’d see in The Unconventional’s offerings? To that, I want to show you a bit of the logic I took away from my academic years.
“When that mythical first cave dweller pointed to a star at night, we can imagine that nobody else in the clan believed him or her. What lights in the sky? The sky was the abode of the gods; everybody knew that” [ 1 ]. Bernard Baars and Nicole Gage wrote that in a cognitive neuroscience textbook. They used it to describe the advent of our particular discipline, that of studying the mind on a deep, chemical, clinical, and practical level.
One of the things I deal with the most is the science behind the senses. That doesn’t mean something like Spider-man’s spider-sense… necessarily. I mean, it’s not as if scientists are going to be able to entirely replicate that classic Marvel trope. Except when they actually do it [ 2 ]. But I deal with memory, learning, calculation, habits, and the like. The brain’s functions encompass all of human activity, consciously or otherwise. That covers everything from figuring out a quadratic equation and remembering your address to lifting a package and keeping your beating unconsciously. Parts of the brain handle each of these tasks and we’ve dedicated a lot of time to understanding them [ 3 ].
Apply that to omniscience, the concept of being all knowing [ 4 ]. Think of all that knowledge, all that awareness, flooding your mind at once.
What you do with a drunken brain cell? (Hold a funeral!)
So what effects do the not-quite-normal things we see in our favorite fiction have on the brain? What effects would a not-quite-normal brain have on an otherwise normal body?
Let’s look at a condition we’ve come to take for granted in science-fiction, fantasy, and even the noir genre. I’m talking about undeath. The source is relatively unimportant: it might be because a character is a vampire, a ghoul, a mummy, or something else entirely. What effect does being dead have on a brain? How about on the senses? If you last a while — as in, well beyond the time a mortal normally spends on this world — what are the implications for your mind?
Who wants to live forever? That would have some complications for your mental health. Blood-drinking? I can’t imagine how that sort of necessity would affect your brain on an emotional and chemical level, but some people out there have the experience. Eating souls gets a little more esoteric, but we might go ahead and find a rough approximation. However, these needs branch off into a whole new set of questions.
The food you eat influences your psyche [ 5 ]. Logically, the sort of results you’d get from magical diets or scientifically implausible ones would change your brain chemistry as well. While some might be tempted to speculate (heh) on the transitive property for blood sugar and vampirism, we must limit that to the realm of the fictional. We lack sufficient data to responsibly engage in topics of specialty diets and their interaction with supernatural conditions.
Mining the Mind for Ore! (For Erebor!)
We will discuss the development of the human brain. You know what this means, of course: we are going to talk about its evolution. That didn’t begin with humanity. We’re going to need to look at our ancestors and other early primates.
Still, brain chemistry doesn’t begin and end with what you’d see as “sentient” creatures. Most vertebrates have a brain, to say nothing of Aplysia (sea slugs) who’ve contributed a lot to the field of neuroscience by virtue of having a nervous system measured in the dozens of neurons. No brain, but a neural network, that works the same way ours does.
‘Is that a demon on your back, or a very persistent microbe?’
I’d be remiss if I didn’t go into one of the most important — and most scientific — aspects of this endeavor: What is possible? What stimuli are driving our responses? I won’t claim that becoming a demonically possessed thrall is likely in anyone’s non-fictive future. Still, I’ll be more than happy to speculate on what that might mean. Turns out having your free will taken away through biological processes is absolutely something that can happen in this world. Toxoplasmosis, caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, has the power to make a mouse seek out a cat to devour it and further spread its brain-altering brethren. Or at least no longer fear cats in general [ 6 ]. Apologies for the brevity; toxoplasmosis is no gentleman, so I’ll give it no formal introductions.
This microscopic horror is terrifying by any measure. But mice aren’t humans: the effects of T. gondii in humans are different from in animals. Most people aren’t affected at all, save for fetuses and the immunocompromised [ 7 ]. Ocular nerves, being attached to the brain, are effectively in this thing’s crosshairs. For that matter, humans aren’t elves. An elf may instead charge an oversized dragon, or ignore marauding bands of orcs, contrary to self-preservation. Certain diseases, parasites, or phenomena which afflict our species might leave visitors from Tolkien’s, Lewis’ or Roddenberry’s backyards unaffected. In the case of a “dancing epidemic,” the elves (and whatever unfortunates are caught in their glamor) might be afflicted by mass hysteria, but not by ergotamine poisoning.
Wait, why are we here?
I’m not talking about my column or even The Unconventional in general. I mean the fandom. I prefaced this article with this idea statements: we should talk about where our minds have been, where they are, where they’re going, and, perhaps, what they should avoid.
I’ll begin with the warnings. There is a herd mentality that should be avoided by the nerd community. It’s been a while since being a geek became popular, and I can’t really put my finger on when that became true. Certainly, it’s been a notable change in society [ 8 ]. It runs the same risk as any clique, however, of becoming an insular community. Gatekeeping. Favoritism. Ostracism. There are hazards just as dangerous for the geeks as contentment and excess were for the Romans.
I’m not going to mention the great scandals of gaming — among the fandom, the press, or the publishers — by name. But there is a serious risk in adopting an adversarial attitude, in painting those outside the tribe, or in a highly similar one, as the Other. The paranoia and anxiety engendered is never worth any sense of belonging. No citing a study. No running for the academic circles. Just an observation from someone who’s seen how ugly the scene can get, for groups and individuals.
Stepping off my soapbox, let’s talk about where we’ve been. It’s tempting to say we’ve been outcasts, especially for those of us who remember the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. But we’ve also been dedicated, cloistered groups — monks of fandom, if you will. The monastery doors are open; the tourists are illuminating manuscripts. And you know what? Good. Regardless that they may not be memorizing hymnals or wearing a tonsure, but they’re monks now, too. I’d say that covers both the past and the present.
That leaves the future, and that’s a hard road to map. But that’s okay, because where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Whether by DeLorean, TARDIS, or a telephone booth outside the Circe K, the future forks in a thousand directions, as varied as fandom itself. From those attending sci-fi conventions and the crowd at the Renaissance Faire to the horror-fiction lovers at the goth club and beyond, fandom has many destinies. Some of our favorite worlds will flourish while others wither. Right now, it’s hard to tell which will stand the test of time. What will speak to us? What will continue to resonate and endure?
I promised to get into why we love what we love. Let bring up the idea of positive reinforcement. “When a type of behaviour is followed by reinforcement there will be an increased future frequency of that type of behaviour” [ 9 ]. In other words, fandom has given a lot of us the positive feedback and social life we crave, so we keep with it. Our shared passions keep bringing us back.
The Nuts and Bolts … err … neurons… err… ‘Wonder of it all!’
Brain physiology. Senses. Stimulus and response. We’re going to get into all of it. We’ll discuss approaches to various issues through conventional means, but also look at bizarre topics that you wouldn’t expect to come up in major research. Even the Pentagon has an official plan in the event of a zombie uprising [ 10 ]. Perhaps it’s time the CDC prepares for telepathy and wetware (they can learn from the CIA!). Asking for a treatment for sleeping spells and love potions might be a bit much, but contingencies are nice.
What we’re talking about is human potential. Could you possess the mental acuity to become a wizard? How about with Bradley Cooper’s pills in Limitless? Would you be able to handle immortality? A long-suffering Jean-Luc Picard might differ. How much control would you have when possessed? What if you were the one doing the possessing? And seriously, what does it feel like to turn into a werewolf or a dragon? The Winchester brothers and Eustace Scrubb are unavailable for commentary.
These possibilities are limited only by reality, and who knows what limits reality has? We’re still developing new ideas, inventions, and philosophies. We’re still discovering new stars, microbes, artifacts, and fascinating, brilliant stories.
Life goes on. Fandom goes on. Science goes on.
And our brains are along for the ride.
- “Boulder-Brain Coral. Colpophyllia natans. For no other reason than to prepare us all to reconsider what we think, about how we think.” National Museum of Natural Historu. si.edu/object/boulder-brain-coral%3Anmnheducation_10009488
- “It’s not unreasonable to fathom that extraordinary humans may have not only greater capacities, but wholly different ways of accessing their minds.” Lassedesignen. Shutterstock. shutterstock.com/image-photo/artificial-intelligence-brain-connected-cables-1328854574
- “Wizards, Warlocks, Occultists. Who’s to say they’re not perceiving energy flows, through a higher sensory perception of forces at play?” T Studio. ShutterStock. “Magical Flowing Castle”. shutterstock.com/image-illustration/magical-flowing-castle-digital-illustration-1874672812
Dr. Robare has served as a panelist and sometime track head for PhilCon, the United States’ oldest continuously running science-fiction conference. She’s raising a new generation of nerds with her family outside of Philadelphia. Becky received a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience in 2010 and now works as a research analyst and medical writer for a medical research non-profit. We’re ecstatic to unveil her series, “It’s Not Brain Surgery”, and her participation on several of our roundtables!
- Baars, Bernard J., and Nicole M. Gage. Cognition, Brain, and Consciousness: Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience. Elsevier, 2014, pp. 10.
- Walsh, Michael. “Scientists Create ‘Spider-Man’ Suit That Gives Wearers Superhero’s ‘Spider Sense’.” New York Daily News, Tribune Publishing, 24 Feb. 2013, nydailynews.com/news/national/spider-man-suit-wearer-superhero-senses-article-1.1271706.
- “Brain Anatomy, Anatomy of the Human Brain.” Mayfield Brain & Spine, Mayfield Clinic, mayfieldclinic.com/pe-anatbrain.htm. Accessed 3 April, 2020.
- Omniscience. (n.d.). Lexicon, Lexicon, lexico.com/en/definition/omniscience. Accessed 11 September, 2011.
- Selhub, Eva. “Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food.” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard University, 26 Mar. 2020, health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626.
- Barford, Eliot. “Parasite Makes Mice Lose Fear of Cats Permanently.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 18 Sept. 2013, nature.com/news/parasite-makes-mice-lose-fear-of-cats-permanently-1.13777.
- “CDC — Toxoplasmosis — Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 5 Sept. 2018, cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/disease.html.
- Gilsdorf, Ethan. “Jocks vs. Nerds, Brawn vs. Brain, Hunks vs. Dweebs.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 25 Sept. 2010, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/geek-pride/201009/jocks-vs-nerds-brawn-vs-brain-hunks-vs-dweebs.
- Michael, Jack L. Concepts and Principles of Behavior Analysis. Kalamazoo, Mich: Western Michigan University, Association for Behavior Analysis International, 2004, pp. 30.
- Bender, Jeremy. “The Pentagon Has an Actual Plan for the Zombie Apocalypse.” Business Insider, Insider Inc, 25 Mar. 2016, businessinsider.com/pentagon-zombie-apocalypse-training-plan-2016-3.