One dark October night in Wallonia, two neuroscientists were talking to a vegetable.
Not any old cucumber, Patient 23 had been in a ‘vegetative state’ for five years following a tragic accident.
Comatose and unresponsive, Patient 23 had been declared dead to the world. But the researchers believed otherwise.
Using an fMRI to scan his brain activity, they asked Patient 23 to imagine walking around his house to communicate “no” and playing tennis to communicate “yes.” These would produce distinct brain patterns.
They asked the first question, “Is your father’s name Alexander?”
The man’s premotor cortex lit up. He was thinking about tennis — Yes.
“Is your father’s name Thomas?”
Activity in the parahippocampal gyrus showed he was imagining walking around his house — No.
They continued to ask questions about Patient 23’s life before the accident. Every answer was correct. He had been completely aware of the last five years; Buried alive in his body.
They asked the final question on their list:
“Do you want to die?”
For the first time that evening, there was no clear answer.
A lot of the science we learn in school is wrong.
It’s mostly either oversimplified or partially disproved by the time we hear it.
One myth is that the right brain is creative, and the left brain is logical, right?
The right side of the brain is best at novelty: identifying new problems and solving them, learning new things. Experimentation.
The left side of the brain is concerned with sorting the results and recalling them when needed. Matching them up.
When a student plays an instrument, their right hemisphere is firing all the time. But Miles Davis, the right side would be only simmering gently; the patterns of chords and melodies neatly delivered from the left side.
Even that is a gross simplification.
But it’s clear that by performing a creative task every day, creativity becomes muscle memory.
That’s why experts can see all sorts of patterns that a novice may miss. They just pop out. And those experts can get so used to seeing those patterns that they forget to experiment with them.
Art is experiementation. Science is experimentation remembered.
Now, remember your art.
Recently, a paralyzed man was able to write using his thoughts.
Ten years after the man they called “T5” was utterly paralyzed, researchers planted a robot in the part of his brain that controls movement. That long after losing the use of his body, they weren’t sure his brain would remember how to move at all.
But it did. When the man imagined handwriting the alphabet, his brain started to light up, and the robot living in there began to learn.
Over many months they grew closer, until the robot knew him well enough to read his thoughts.
Eventually, they hooked him up to a screen and told him to copy some words, until he could do that to their satisfaction. Then they asked him what advice he would give to his younger self.
“Be patient. It will get better,” he wrote.
Even when things get unimaginably difficult, when we are trapped and scared and defeated, we can at least take comfort in knowing that things will always change.
And often a lot sooner than we think.
The ‘Golden Age of Media’ is gone for good.
TV isn’t more boring than it used to be. The stories and production are probably better.
But when was the last time you watched TV without getting distracted by your phone?
Is that because TV now is crap? Or because our phones have us better trained than the gogglebox could ever manage?
Recently I was scrolling Instagram for memes and an argument while watching a violent TV show, and I caught myself: spread across the sofa, devouring media with both hands like a fat kid up to his elbows in a pot of peanut butter.
Shovelling those images and sounds into my brain as fast as my weak human senses would allow, wallowing in the hormones milked from my tired little brain.
And I thought, “Fuck this.”
So I went and found a book to read.
But that didn’t last very long before I fell asleep.
It’s impossible to ignore the rise of robots.
They’ve gone from ‘awkward factory joke’ to ‘overlords-in-training’ in a handful of years. And it turns out the breakthrough was teaching them how to make mistakes.
Our brains learn through trial and error. For many years, when a robot produced an error it would simply stop, shake, make weird noises, give up, and perhaps leak a little fluid — like many people.
Teaching robots how to accept and learn from errors instead of grinding to a halt completely changed the game. It even makes them more likable.
And robots are happy to make 1,000 mistakes an hour because they don’t have egos (yet), so you can bet they’re learning fast. Really fast. Here they are, practicing a dance to celebrate their global takeover.
It would be deeply ironic if we wiped ourselves out by teaching robots to do the very thing we haven’t yet mastered: learning from our mistakes.