For decades now, I have been haunted by the grainy, black-and-white x-ray of a human skull.
It is alive but empty, with a cavernous fluid-filled space where the brain should be. A thin layer of brain tissue lines that cavity like an amniotic sac. The image hails from a 1980 review article in Science: Roger Lewin, the author, reports that the patient in question had “virtually no brain”. But that’s not what scared me; hydrocephalus is nothing new, and it takes more to creep out this ex-biologist than a picture of Ventricles Gone Wild.
What scared me was the fact that this virtually brain-free patient had an IQ of 126.
He had a first-class honors degree in mathematics. He presented normally along all social and cognitive axes. He didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with him until he went to the doctor for some unrelated malady, only to be referred to a specialist because his head seemed a bit too large.
It happens occasionally. Someone grows up to become a construction worker or a schoolteacher, before learning that they should have been a rutabaga instead. Lewin’s paper reports that one out of ten hydrocephalus cases are so extreme that cerebrospinal fluid fills 95% of the cranium. Anyone whose brain fits into the remaining 5% should be nothing short of vegetative; yet apparently, fully half have IQs over 100. (Why, here’s another example from 2007; and yet another.) Let’s call them VNBs, or “Virtual No-Brainers”.
The paper is titled “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?”, and it seems to contradict pretty much everything we think we know about neurobiology. This Forsdyke guy over in Biological Theory argues that such cases open the possibility that the brain might utilize some kind of extracorporeal storage, which sounds awfully woo both to me and to the anonymous neuroskeptic over at Discovery.com; but even Neuroskeptic, while dismissing Forsdyke’s wilder speculations, doesn’t really argue with the neurological facts on the ground. (I myself haven’t yet had a chance to more than glance at the Forsdyke paper, which might warrant its own post if it turns out to be sufficiently substantive. If not, I’ll probably just pretend it is and incorporate it into Omniscience.)
On a somewhat less peer-reviewed note, VNBs also get routinely trotted out by religious nut jobs who cite them as evidence that a God-given soul must be doing all those things the uppity scientists keep attributing to the brain. Every now and then I see them linking to an off-hand reference I made way back in 2007 (apparently rifters.com is the only place to find Lewin’s paper online without having to pay a wall) and I roll my eyes.
And yet, 126 IQ. Virtually no brain. In my darkest moments of doubt, I wondered if they might be right.
So on and off for the past twenty years, I’ve lain awake at night wondering how a brain the size of a poodle’s could kick my ass at advanced mathematics. I’ve wondered if these miracle freaks might actually have the same brain mass as the rest of us, but squeezed into a smaller, high-density volume by the pressure of all that cerebrospinal fluid (apparently the answer is: no). While I was writing Blindsight— having learned that cortical modules in the brains of autistic savants are relatively underconnected, forcing each to become more efficient— I wondered if some kind of network-isolation effect might be in play.
Now, it turns out the answer to that is: Maybe.
Three decades after Lewin’s paper, we have “Revisiting hydrocephalus as a model to study brain resilience” by de Oliveira et al. (actually published in 2012, although I didn’t read it until last spring). It’s a “Mini Review Article”: only four pages, no new methodologies or original findings— just a bit of background, a hypothesis, a brief “Discussion” and a conclusion calling for further research. In fact, it’s not so much a review as a challenge to the neuro community to get off its ass and study this fascinating phenomenon— so that soon, hopefully, there’ll be enough new research out there warrant a real review.
The authors advocate research into “Computational models such as the small-world and scale-free network”— networks whose nodes are clustered into highly-interconnected “cliques”, while the cliques themselves are more sparsely connected one to another. De Oliveira et al suggest that they hold the secret to the resilience of the hydrocephalic brain. Such networks result in “higher dynamical complexity, lower wiring costs, and resilience to tissue insults.” This also seems reminiscent of those isolated hyper-efficient modules of autistic savants, which is unlikely to be a coincidence: networks from social to genetic to neural have all been described as “small-world”. (You might wonder— as I did— why de Oliveira et al. would credit such networks for the normal intelligence of some hydrocephalics when the same configuration is presumably ubiquitous in vegetative and normal brains as well. I can only assume they meant to suggest that small-world networking is especially well-developed among high-functioning hydrocephalics.) (In all honesty, it’s not the best-written paper I’ve ever read. Which seems to be kind of a trend on the ‘crawl lately.)
The point, though, is that under the right conditions, brain damage may paradoxically result in brain enhancement. Small-world, scale-free networking— focused, intensified, overclocked— might turbocharge a fragment of a brain into acting like the whole thing.
Can you imagine what would happen if we applied that trick to a normal brain?
If you’ve read Echopraxia, you’ll remember the Bicameral Order: the way they used tailored cancer genes to build extra connections in their brains, the way they linked whole brains together into a hive mind that could rewrite the laws of physics in an afternoon. It was mostly bullshit, of course: neurological speculation, stretched eight unpredictable decades into the future for the sake of a story.
But maybe the reality is simpler than the fiction. Maybe you don’t have to tweak genes or interface brains with computers to make the next great leap in cognitive evolution. Right now, right here in the real world, the cognitive function of brain tissue can be boosted— without engineering, without augmentation— by literal orders of magnitude. All it takes, apparently, is the right kind of stress. And if the neuroscience community heeds de Oliveira et al‘s clarion call, we may soon know how to apply that stress to order. The singularity might be a lot closer than we think.
Also a lot squishier.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if things turned out to be that easy?