Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Tones: or, an Rx for World Peace

Fascinating popsci piece on synaesthesia over at the BBC.  It turns out that your common garden-variety hearing-colors/seeing-music synaesthete is only the tip of the iceberg. There are people out there who can literally see time, as a multicolored ribbon winding about them in mid-air. There are folks who perceive letters or numbers as personality types, as in “seven is … a maniacal husband who comes home from work and shouts at his wife. Thursday … [is] a young girl who has spent too long kept in the house and wants to break out into the world”.

Wild. And at the same time, why not? Synaesthesia’s a pretty simple phenomenon at its heart; all we’re talking about, basically, is wiring up two parts of the brain that usually aren’t so intimately connected. Let the visual cortex feed on signals from the auditory centers, and voila: sound is perceived as sight.

Of course there’s no reason why the crosswired areas both have to be sensory. Instead of wiring sight to sound or taste, why not wire it to the object-recognition circuitry of the fusiform gyrus, or those nifty little time-series buffers in the right parietal cortex? Why not see time or emotions? Why not smell mathematical theorems?

But to me, the money shot for this article was its passing reference to “mirror touch synaesthesia“, involving our old friends the mirror neurons. As you know, Bob, specific suites of mirror neurons fire not only when we commit a physical act, but also when we see someone else commiting the same act.   But victims of mirror touch synaesthesia go that one better; they literally feel your pain (at least, so long as you’re line-of-sight). If one of these folks happens to be watching as I punch you in the nose, she will feel my knuckles as readily as you do. If I gut you with a flensing knife, he will scream in agony.

Could there be a better prescription for getting along?

The alien animal-rights advocates in Clarke’s Childhood’s End had something similar.  I recall an episode in which, thanks to Overlord technology, the entire audience at a local bullfight got to feel the matador’s spears going in first-hand. I doubt if dearly departed Arthur had a mechanism in mind we didn’t know about mirror neurons back then, and this was after all the same guy who managed to equate technology with magic while still keeping his hard-sf cred but man, if there’s a more effective way of cutting down on interpersonal violence than wiring up each human newborn with a case of induced MTS, I don’t know what it is.

Of course, there will be workarounds. People will learn to close their eyes just before they throw that killer punch. The NRA will fund research into sniper scopes that render targets as abstract little pixel blobs, too amorphous to trigger the empathy response. And of course, ICBMs and cruise missiles never had mirror neurons to start with.

But it’s a nifty piece of background ambience for a novel, I think. And not a bad premise for a short story.

Dibs.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday September 20 2009at 03:09 pm , filed under biology, neuro . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

29 Responses to “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Tones: or, an Rx for World Peace”

  1. It makes one wonder how these folks react to pornography? This might be a wonderful quality for a doctor to possess, not so much for a judge!

  2. That bit about the sniper reminds me of a bit in Robert Silverberg’s Alien Years – the alien overlords can detect the intention to kill/harm them, so one is eventually offed by a kid whose only thoughts when aiming at them through the sniper rifle is of how beautiful they are.

    Then there’s a character in one of Cordwainer Smith’s book who can similarly detect antagonism towards him; he’s taken care of by someone who, whilst in the same room, mentally preprograms himself to perform actions unconsciously.

  3. “UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explained a better understanding of the mirror system could help shed light and treat autism, “which is well-known for not understanding the emotional states of others.” Blakemore added such research could also help research into psychopaths, “where empathy goes wrong and people don’t feel empathy in the normal way.” ”

    Sounds like all it would take for humans to enslave vampires is a few mirror neuron tweaks!

    I’m a little confused on one thing though: if synaesthesia is just a cross wiring of the visual and auditory centers of the brain, does this mean that other areas of the brain can be spliced together/removed to produce a desired effect? You hinted at this above, but is there a limit on what systems are compatible for cross wiring? Aren’t some parts of the brain responsible for more than one function? So, while you may get a desired effect, would it be at the expense of something else important? Like being able to taste equations, but with a cost of pissing your pants.

    I remember a while back on here there was an interesting discussion about putting “zombie” characteristics into people. The extremely quick reaction time to stimulus (Such as a thrown brick, or something) was caused (I think, if I understood correctly) by shorting out the persons’ consciousness and bypassing all visual input straight into the purely reactionary parts of the brain.

    Would all of this (Including the mirror neuron stuff) be achievable with just some well placed electrical shocks from an implant or do you actually need to make a connection between neurons with surgery?

    I hope this doesn’t sound too dumb! I don’t know as much about biology as I wish I did!

  4. If I recall correctly, there’s an invention in one of the stories in Stanislaus Lem’s _Cyberiad_ that allows people to feel each other’s pain. It was invented to bring about world peace, and it didn’t work well at all.

  5. Oh, Peter. I love your books (Blindsight being my favorite all-time novel), I strongly agree with most of your positions (oh, if only voting rights were limited to non-parents!), and hell, I’m owned by three cats myself … and I’m also an NRA member. Even though I don’t come anywhere near the “God and country” mindset that the NRA projects — hell, I’m an atheist and never really cared much for the “my high school is better than your high school!” nature of patriotism — I’ve *never* gotten the impression that NRA members (or gun rights supporters in general) are sadists who *want* to hurt and kill other people for no good reason. Gun rights are about self-defense, not about aggression. Furthermore, the NRA isn’t (and shouldn’t be seen as a placeholder for) the weapons industry; it’s a political lobby. In the highly unlikely scenario that MTS became reality within the scope of anything resembling our current political situation (considering that, by this stage of technological advance, America and other modern-day political entities would be but a memory), a desire for working personal weaponry would be specifically out of a desire to defend oneself against the inevitable loopholes in MTS (just as there are loopholes in *all* regulations, whether enforced by law or technology).

  6. Hey Peter,

    Sorry to barge in off-topic. After the last meet-up disaster, I’m taking all precautions. I’m headed south…will be in TO near the end of October. Want to resolve that drink debt?

    I’ll e-mail with a schedule as soon as I’ve booked flights. I promise to keep checking messages…even after I leave home. I’ve made my annual re-adjustment to darkness! So, I can also promise not to start passing out as soon as the sun sets.

    Since I’m here…what kind of evolutionary back-story are you planning for this empathy thing? PETA hipster high-status fetus tweak? ‘Cause it seems pretty maladaptive to me. Between the cracked nipples and the Mommy’s formula angst, most of the first-borns.will.starve.to.death…

  7. Uh, Tom? I dunno about the whole lobby vs. industry thing, but as Watts has described this thing, self-defense versus sadism doesn’t really play into it. If the NRA wanted people with induced NTS to EVER be able to shoot ANY human, for self defense or any other reason–and they would–the pixellated sniper scope would be right up their alley. I sorta doubt mirror neurons have a whole lot of circuitry determining the moral justification of lethal force.

  8. Ooh, another question. How would something like this dovetail with intentionally suppressed empathy, like you’ve discussed as a way to make “kill ten to save a thousand” decisions? Surely they’d be incompatible on the individual level. I smell neuroenhancement caste systems!

  9. Octavia Butler has an interesting take on it with Parable of the Sower and “hyperempathy.”

  10. Any one who grew up in the sixties and seventies is well aware of the cross wiring of different parts of the brain, even if they were drug facilitated. And your comment about pixilated images in sniper scopes is something that governments have done in every war. Japs, Krauts, Gooks, and all other derogatory terms become far more acceptable when they happen to be the “enemy”. You don’t have to look any further than the cartoon images of the Japanese and German soldiers during the second world war. These were nothing more than propaganda aimed at making everyone, including the soldier, more comfortable with killing the enemy.

  11. A Discovery documentary broken into pieces on YouTube. If you can get past the goofy comic stuff, it’s enjoyable. Includes:

    • Lady who tastes sounds
    • Born-blind Turkish painter who understands perspective (previously thought impossible)
    • German man who does savantlike math in his head without being autistic
    • Man whose body warms him up in extreme cold that would incapacitate/kill us lesser beings

  12. I still do the numbers thing, actually. Growing up, I remember domestic drama going on between 5 and 7. They were together, but then they split up, and even though they still loved each other, it was too difficult for them to stay together in anything but social situations involving other numbers. (3, for example, made everything easier because he was so gregarious and easy going. His brother 2, not so much.)

    No, really.

    Also, Octavia Butler had dibs before you, with Parable of the Sower.

  13. Mike said:

    It makes one wonder how these folks react to pornography?

    And which of the players they’d empathize with.

    This might be a wonderful quality for a doctor to possess, not so much for a judge!

    Not so much for the doctor, I’d guess, because you’re not feeling the other person’s actual responses. You’re feeling, at best, what you would feel under similar circumstances, which would have very little diagnostic value unless patient and doctor were physiologically identical in the critical area.

    Chris J. said:

    Sounds like all it would take for humans to enslave vampires is a few mirror neuron tweaks!

    Ooh. Cool idea— except that the whole reason we brought vampires back from extinction was to exploit their pattern-matching savantism, and I bet those mirror-neuron tweaks would fuck up their abilities.

    I’m a little confused on one thing though: if synaesthesia is just a cross wiring of the visual and auditory centers of the brain, does this mean that other areas of the brain can be spliced together/removed to produce a desired effect? You hinted at this above, but is there a limit on what systems are compatible for cross wiring? Aren’t some parts of the brain responsible for more than one function? So, while you may get a desired effect, would it be at the expense of something else important? Like being able to taste equations, but with a cost of pissing your pants.

    I seem to remember a couple of papers a while back reporting that experimental rewiring of visual signals into the auditory cortex did produce a functional, sound-seeing system. The catch was that you had to do it early on, before the brain got too set in its ways. But even that constraint may be looser than we thought; those guys who recently reversed color-blindness in monkeys were told up front by all their neurological buddies that there was absolutely no way that their monkeys would ever gain red-green vision, no matter how well the pigment got established in the cones, because the upstream retinal and visual-processing wiring would have long since “hardened” by then. Lo and behold, the monkeys regained full color vision.

    Would all of this (Including the mirror neuron stuff) be achievable with just some well placed electrical shocks from an implant or do you actually need to make a connection between neurons with surgery?

    I don’t see why you couldn’t do it any number of ways. Direct neural rewiring would be the most straightforward, of course, but there’s no reason you couldn’t have little RF transmitters talking to each other from different parts of the brain— or even through the Internet, for that matter.

    I hope this doesn’t sound too dumb! I don’t know as much about biology as I wish I did!

    You and me both. You wouldn’t believe how fast a PhD in biology stale dates these days.

    Jesse said:

    If I recall correctly, there’s an invention in one of the stories in Stanislaus Lem’s _Cyberiad_ that allows people to feel each other’s pain. It was invented to bring about world peace, and it didn’t work well at all.

    Trurl and Klapaucius, right? I remember those guys from way back in high school, but that was decades ago. The memory has faded.

    Their schemes did go awry a lot, through. That much I remember.

    Tom Tobin said:

    … and I’m also an NRA member.

    So’s Michael Moore, as I recall. Welcome.

    I’ve *never* gotten the impression that NRA members (or gun rights supporters in general) are sadists who *want* to hurt and kill other people for no good reason.

    But then Dmart stepped up with:

    Uh, Tom? I dunno about the whole lobby vs. industry thing, but as Watts has described this thing, self-defense versus sadism doesn’t really play into it.

    …and that pretty much says it. I wasn’t implying that the NRA are sadists at all, merely that they would— for whatever reason— resist measures that reduced the effectiveness of personal weaponry. For once, I was not actually making any kind of value judgment.

    Hey, it had to happen sometime…

    Val said:

    …what kind of evolutionary back-story are you planning for this empathy thing? PETA hipster high-status fetus tweak? ‘Cause it seems pretty maladaptive to me. …

    Not thinking in evolutionary terms at all: just an outright engineering hack.

    Dmart said:

    How would something like this dovetail with intentionally suppressed empathy, like you’ve discussed as a way to make “kill ten to save a thousand” decisions? Surely they’d be incompatible on the individual level.

    Probably wouldn’t even come up. The guys who made those decisions would most likely be cocooned away in safe little cubbies surrounded by Markov chains and tactical overlays; they’d never have to deal with the sight of an actual human face.

    I smell neuroenhancement caste systems!

    Now that I can see as pretty much inevitable. Everybody and their dog would be looking for exemptions on medical or religious grounds, but by and large it’d be the richest applicants who’d be able to afford the effort. And then they could go around punching poor ol’ Alex in the face, knowing Alex would never be able to raise a fist in self-defense.

    Why, it could take off as the Next Big Thing amongst the polo-shirt-wearing frat boys of the next generation: “Prole-punching”…

    Will Sargent said:

    Octavia Butler has an interesting take on it with Parable of the Sower and “hyperempathy.”

    And then Squeak rubbed it in with:

    Also, Octavia Butler had dibs before you, with Parable of the Sower.

    To which my three reactions, in order, would be a) Damn, but I’ve really got to read that woman’s stuff sometime; b) Yeah, but I bet she didn’t come up with a neurological mechanism for it, did she? Huh? Huh?; and c) Now that she’s dead, maybe the rest of us might have a chance to catch up a bit.

    Anony mouse said:

    …your comment about pixilated images in sniper scopes is something that governments have done in every war. … These were nothing more than propaganda aimed at making everyone, including the soldier, more comfortable with killing the enemy.

    True as far as it goes, but we’re actually focusing on the ramifications of enhanced empathy here. And the use of derogatory and demonising caricatures is, I think, somewhat different from our pixel paradigm. One seeks to generate outright hatred; the other, merely to abstract away the humanity.

    Granted, the bullet resulting from either approach leaves you just as dead…

    Chris in NY said:

    A Discovery documentary broken into pieces on YouTube.

    Cool. Thank you. I’ve seen a couple of these before.

  14. You know, of course, that I will be fully exploiting this for my Von Neumanns.

  15. Also, Octavia Butler had dibs before you, with Parable of the Sower.

    “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” also has it, as does a Robert SIlverberg novel (the name of which escapes me for a moment) in which several couples have a swinger’s get-together where they plug into a thing to feel the experience of someone else making love to their wife.

    What I don’t understand is, are these MTS people physically experiencing the touch so they would not be able to detect if their arm had been touched or not without looking at their arm, or do they just have really good imagination, so they are bringing up a memory of a sensation of touch? If it’s the former, that is uber-freaky!

    When I remember a voice, I am not hearing it, I experience a representation of it, a different experience. If I remembered a voice by actually hearing it as a noise in the room, I would think I had lost my bloody mind.

    Anyone here got sound-visual synaesthesia?

  16. Peter Watts, on September 21st, 2009 at 12:21 pm Said:

    Mike said:

    It makes one wonder how these folks react to pornography?

    And which of the players they’d empathize with.

    Heck, theoretically, all of them at once, wouldn’t it have to be, if it were involuntary and just about physical sensation of the skin being recreated in another brain.

    OMG, if this condition actually caused the firing of the of skin neurons in reaction to seeing touch in someone else, watching porn could cause you to have an orgasm triggered by your visual system alone.

    Wow.

  17. mirror neuron empathy conditioning for all! except me that is…

  18. It seems like terrorism would become relatively effective. You’d be able to walk into a highly populated area then start stabbing yourself. It’d also probably make highway crashes into super blood baths.

  19. The synaesthesia is a fantastic thought. If you can see time, can you hear it? Taste it? Too brilliant! What else could be crosswired, I wonder? Proprioception with hearing? There’d be a constant tone that changes depending on your position. Gymnasts and Alvin Ailey dancers could do wonders with that. Or we could borrow a trick from Grant Morrison’s Marvel Boy and crosswire pain-bearing nerves with auditory centers of the brain. Pain into music FTW!

    but there’s no reason you couldn’t have little RF transmitters talking to each other from different parts of the brain— or even through the Internet, for that matter.

    Yeah, there’s an idea no one would think to abuse 😀

    I seem to remember a couple of papers a while back reporting that experimental rewiring of visual signals into the auditory cortex did produce a functional, sound-seeing system. The catch was that you had to do it early on, before the brain got too set in its ways.

    Shows what they know. Check this out: Daniel Kish trains other blind folks to echolocate with tonge clicks. And they don’t even have to be children!

    Oh, and to jump on the bandwagon of folks who beat you to the mirror neuron thing … V.S. Ramachandran 😀

  20. If it’s a matter of simply seeing someone in pain to have these mirror touch folks feel pain as well, then wouldn’t it be incredibly easy to paralyze an entire mall in pain by having one person faking (skillfully) being in agony? Those who look at him would then double over in actual agony and those that look at *those* people would also feel their pain. Would there be a limit here or would it simply be a matter of everyone having to close their eyes or be in pain forever? (and what if they’re auditory mirror touch synaesthetes and feel pain when they hear it too?)

    And the sniper problem, why would they necessarily feel the victim’s pain there? A head shot is probably one of the least painful ways to go, and it’s not like one could really imagine what that would feel like anyway. Would the sniper just get a splitting headache?

    As for this being applied to pleasure rather than pain (or both if that’s what you’re into) wouldn’t this make voyeurism a million times more fun? And if a man watching porn orgasms and then watches the guy on camera orgasm too, would the viewer get another orgasm right away?

  21. Peter said: the use of derogatory and demonising caricatures is, I think, somewhat different from our pixel paradigm. One seeks to generate outright hatred; the other, merely to abstract away the humanity.

    I take your point, but the demonizing caracitures are also aimed at abstracting away humanity. After all, how many people actually thought that all Germans looked like mindless brutes and that all Japanese wore coke bottle glasses and had buck teeth (Not the Craw, the Craw!!!!). It was more an easy way to live with yourself after pulling the trigger.

  22. To which my three reactions, in order, would be

    a) Damn, but I’ve really got to read that woman’s stuff sometime;

    Fuck yeah. Something tells me you’d appreciate Doro. In some ways, he makes vampires look cuddly.

    b) Yeah, but I bet she didn’t come up with a neurological mechanism for it, did she? Huh? Huh?

    Well, it’s a congenital condition brought on by her mother’s drug abuse in the book. I’ll have to dig up the book to see if she mentions mirror touch synaesthesia.

    c) Now that she’s dead, maybe the rest of us might have a chance to catch up a bit.

    The really nasty thing about Butler’s books is how empathic everyone is. Everyone understands the feelings and motivations of the people around them. The really nasty thing is, that just helps the ones in power to manipulate people better, to keep other people subservient.

    Fledgling, her book about vampires was distinctly uncomfortable; the protagonist’s saliva makes slaves of her victims, and both she and her victims are aware of the essential unfairness and cruelty she’s inflicted — but it doesn’t change anything.

  23. Freyr says: As for this being applied to pleasure rather than pain (or both if that’s what you’re into) wouldn’t this make voyeurism a million times more fun? And if a man watching porn orgasms and then watches the guy on camera orgasm too, would the viewer get another orgasm right away?

    OH HO HOHO HO! If this mirror thing spread like a virus, imagine how incredibly difficult it would be to get a porn film made?

    Anyone being filmed causes the director and crew to experience the sensations, and although x percent of orgasm in porn appears fake, some of it is real, so everyone in the studio watching the filming is going to climax every damn time one of the actors/actresses does.

    hahaha, so unless you want the world’s soggiest and most exhausted film crew, the crew would have to set the cameras rolling, close their eyes, with the actors under instructions to keep to their marks so they don’t move out of shot, because the cameraman isn’t watching.

    Also, if this spread to the population in general? There would be no such thing as not having simultaneous orgasms with the lights on.

    Prostitutes would be wrung dry!

    Teenagers would cause traffic jams as a prank by ejaculating by the side of the road in view of drivers! (That might cause an accident or two without such a plague, now that I think about it.)

    YOU COULD KILL SOMEONE BY CLIMAXING IN THEIR LINE OF SIGHT WHILE THEY WERE OPERATING DANGEROUS MACHINERY. They’d die happy, but it’d still be murder.

    I am enjoying this concept way too much.

  24. I don’t think that Octavia Butler used the words “mirror touch synaesthesia,” but I want to chime in with agreement that her “hyperempathy” matches this condition really, really well… better than the other Corsican-brother literary analogues that people are coming up with.

  25. Dmart and Peter: Okay, point granted; guess I read more into that than was warranted. (Although combat ConTacs that could flip over to a pixelated mode would probably yield faster reaction times.) :p

  26. Damon Knight had a more complex version in “Rule Golden”: you only felt pain that you inflicted yourself, and killing people was usually fatal. There’s a scene where the protagonist refuses to help an alien in some way and immediately collapses with excruciating leg cramps. The alien was in pain all along, but the protagonist only felt it once he became responsible. The story ends with the entire world reduced to anarchy – governments can’t survive without violence.

  27. Hi everybody,
    this is an amazing documentary about synaesthesia:
    “Daniel Tammet – The Boy With The Incredible Brain”.

    YouTube version (5 parts):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbASOcqc1Ss

    GoogleVideo version:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4913196365903075662&ei=pQjCSpz0Ap-i2wKb8uXpBg&q=daniel+tammet#

  28. Jesus offers: this is an amazing documentary about synaesthesia:
    “Daniel Tammet – The Boy With The Incredible Brain”.

    Pi-reciting nerds! Very interesting stuff! You know, my (mild) synaesthesia isn’t helpful in the least. Try describing for the record store clerk how the song you’re looking for moved through the air and what color it was. Utterly hopeless. It also renders nearly anything sung by Phil Collins after a certain year as the same pleasant song.

    Was Mr. Tammet an inspiration for Blindsight?

  29. Never heard of the dude until Jesus posted.

    Also, although this relates to a different post, I’m geekily warmed by the knowledge that someone else remembers that episode of Johnny Quest. Even at the age of 9 I wondered how the villain could send that final transmission through the eye at the very end, when the eye had been quite obviously ripped free of its power source.