The brain was a walnut? Leo turned his school book this way and that. But no matter how he looked at it, the cortex looked like the two highly convoluted halves of a giant walnut. Beneath the diagram, the text declared that the left hemisphere was logical and analytical while the right was imaginative and creative. Really? In his book, the two halves looked so similar it never occurred to him that they might be different.
The next day at school, Leo showed his textbook to a friend. George stepped back in horror. “That’s a brain? Mate, I’m never going to eat walnuts again!”
But undaunted, Leo focused on science in school and neuroscience at university. By the time he came to his final year, the student knew that brains were a lot more complex than his school book had suggested. For instance, the text had said that the right hemisphere was imaginative and creative. Yet in many left-handed people that was the logical and analytical side.
Intrigued by this complexity, Leo was lucky enough to spend his final year assisting his professor. The goal was to investigate if weak magnetic fields could improve memory. They found that it did, so reinforcing Leo’s unconscious assumption that thought was a side effect of the brain.
Leo continued his research by studying for a PhD. Still working on memory, he determined the best places to apply magnetic fields and he also worked out the underlying neural circuits. As expected, Leo obtained his doctorate and went on to become a lecturer in neuroscience.
By now, however, a multitude of neural circuits had been found. There was a circuit for love, a circuit for hate, a circuit for speech, and a circuit for vision. There was even, Leo surmised, a circuit for finding circuits. With all these different but interacting neural nets, the neuroscientist started to question the whole idea of cortical localisation. It seemed that any one area of the brain didn’t process only speech or only vision but, as part of several circuits, could be involved in speech, or in vision or just in smelling the roses.
This multiplicity made Leo uncomfortable. Even if all these circuits could be made to work together in some sort of brain-as-a-holograph theory, he couldn’t help thinking of a hundred monkeys trying to type out Shakespeare on a hundred typewriters. Consequently he began to have serious reservations about his, until now, unquestioned assumptions. Perhaps, he considered, thought was not just the offshoot of cortical information processing.
With these doubts going around in his head, he tentatively mentioned them to his professor. The reaction was immediate.
“Nonsense, young man!” The elderly academic vigorously shook his mane of hair. “The brain is a computer and the mind is its software.”
Not wanting to be dismissed to the scientific fringes, Leo didn’t pursue the subject at work but did when he was back at home.
“Consider brain plasticity,” he said to Penny, his wife of six months.
“The brain is made of plastic?” Penny wrote children’s books and was always on the lookout for new ideas.
Leo grinned. “Not made of plastic but, still, is plastic.”
“That’s very Zen,” she said with approval.
“Ah, well, plasticity in neuroscience is when a region of the brain is damaged and another part takes over. Apparently, a new neural circuit forms and that does the processing. But I don’t know!” Leo ran his fingers through his hair. “There are 100 billion neurons in the brain and maybe 100 trillion connections. I just can’t see how you can add up billions and billions of bits of data and get to anything sensible.”
Penny tilted her head. “Maybe all those bits are guided by something?” she suggested. She was into auras.
Leo grunted. Questioning neural nets was bad enough. Throw in auras and he’d need a new passport to stay in the scientific fraternity. But the idea of guiding forces reminded him of Gestalt. Gestaltists, he recalled, had a similar idea, expressed in their famous quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
The neuroscientist turned to Professor Google of Internet University. On a Gestalt website, he saw dozens of visual illusions: straight lines that were bent by a herringbone background, a cube where the nearest corner suddenly became the furthest, or black circles with facing white segments that created the illusion of a white triangle. The effects were so strong that Leo could almost feel a visual force field working on his eyeballs. With his until-now-unquestioned beliefs being questioned, Leo felt as if he was being turned inside out, upside down and zapped in both his hemispheres.
He closed his eyes, no longer knowing what to believe. In his confusion, the idea of a tuning fork came to mind. When vibrating, the fork didn’t make much of a sound. But if its handle were attached to a box then the noise was much louder. His head felt just like that, as if his brain was chaotically resonating to an attachment of ideas.
He continued with his research but he couldn’t help expressing some of his unacceptable ideas. As a result, he became a nobody going nowhere. And then the FlipOuts began.
They began slowly. One here, one there. But then the numbers escalated. A dozen here, a score there. In no time at all and it was an epidemic. The long arm of the law was invoked but to no avail. In desperation, the authorities turned to the scientists. When the inner circle was unsuccessful, they then turned to the fringes. Coming to Leo, he was allocated a statistician, a psychologist and was told to get to it.
But get to what? Who knew? Leo certainly didn’t and so he spent his first morning in just admiring his prints. These included a fire breathing dragon, a reversible cube, plus the ubiquitous ever-climbing Escher stairs. When he could put it off no longer, he summoned his two right-hand men.
“Welcome,” he said, “to the Department of Good Behaviour.”
“Hi.” Roland, the plump psychologist, grinned.
“G’day, Prof.” Craig, the thin statistician, frowned.
“Call me Leo.” Leo leant back in his chair. “Short for Prof.”
Roland, smiling, said, “Department of Good Behaviour. I like it. Typical bureaucratic double-speak.”
“What d’you mean?” Craig demanded.
“Ah, you know. Like the Department of Health is for illth. Social Security is for the insecure. And…”
“What about Prime Minister and Cabinet. That’s for them, isn’t it?”
Roland rubbed his bald head. “As you see,” he said, “Craig tends to the literal while I tend more to the …”
“I was going to say imaginative.” Roland smiled, unperturbed by Craig’s remark.
While they’d been talking, Leo had been trying to sum them up. So far, neither had flipped. But which, he wondered, would be the first to go? Roland? With his big-bellied laugh, he seemed almost there. But what then of Craig? He was a control-freak type. But who knew? No one. No one could even guess. There were no correlations with diet, with age, with sex or with any of the usual variables.
“So between the literal and imaginative,” Leo asked, “what d’you guys think the problem is?”
Craig cracked his knuckles. “With the loonies?”
“FlipOuts,” Leo corrected.
The thin one shrugged. “Well, we’ve ruled out all the usual social-economic variables. Take them away and it seems to have started with all these new computer gizmos.”
“Which ones in particular?”
Roland tapped one finger. “Direct to the brain olfactory stimuli.”
Craig wrinkled his nose. “The pongs.”
“The 3-D effect.” Craig almost became chatty. “I hope we’ve got the new headbands for doing that. It’ll be great for interpreting graphs.”
Roland tapped a third finger. “This one interests me. The gizmos that make everyone happy to be at work.”
“E-addicts!” The statistician look disgusted. “What they need is cold showers and long jogs.” He glanced at the plump psychologist.
Roland chuckled. “That might stop me from flipping out,” he conceded, “but only because it’d kill me first.”
“So you both think it’s all the electrical stuff?” Leo asked.
Roland shrugged. “It might not be just the one thing but the sum total of stresses in our society. People’re breaking and that’s why they’re wearing dustbin lids for hats and driving cardboard boxes to work.”
“There have always been eccentrics.”
“Yeah, but it’s one thing to wear corks on your akubra. It’s another to wear them on your dustbin lid.”
“Plus there’s the number, the sheer number of FlipOuts.”
Leo nodded. “What’s the main problem in finding the causes?”
“The effect seems to take a few hours to kick in,” Roland replied. “During which time, the FlipOut has done a dozen different things.”
The neuroscientist slid a sheet of paper around on his desk. “Getting down to the nitty-gritty, where should we begin?”
Roland rested his hands on the slight rise of his belly. “I’d like to look into the happiness gizmos.”
Craig scowled at him. “I bet you do.” He turned to Leo. “Are our computers set up to use the new 3-D technique?”
“The headbands that deliver separate input to each hemisphere?”
“Yep, those ones.”
“We’ve got the gizmos but you’ll have to modify the programming for the sort of complex analysis you want to do.”
“Right, that’s where I’ll start and that’s what I’ll investigate.”
“Okay.” Leo leant back in his chair. “So, Roland is going to look at the happy-making devices. Perhaps their effect is to mask any underlying unhappiness and the conflict results in flipping. Craig is going to use the new 3-D and see if that might be the cause.” He tapped the sheet of paper that he’d been sliding around. “Usually, from an information processing point of view, if the two hemispheres are trying to do the same thing then the dominant one inhibits the other. So it might not be worthwhile to spend too much time on that idea, Craig.”
The statistician scratched under his armpit. “I hear you, prof. I’ll do just enough to throw it out.”
“Good.” Leo gazed at the prints on the wall. “You remember the Gestalt Psychologists had a principle that stated that perception organises according to a principle of similarity. I’m wondering if there’s something in the new gadgetry that causes similar/dissimilar conflict.”
“Gestalt!” Craig looked shocked. “That holistic nonsense! Gimme a break!”
“Don’t worry, I won’t spend too long on it.”
“Well, if the planning is over,” Craig rose, “I think I’ll get started.”
“Me, too.” With a smile and a nod, Roland followed. Alone again, the neuroscientist went to the window. Big mistake. Outside, a woman was petting a computer. The machine, wearing a red bow, was being pulled along on a dog’s leash. Not long ago, people would’ve stared. Now they just flowed around her. Any one of them might be next. As it was, she was completely harmless. As were all FlipOuts – so far.
The flip brigade arrived, coaxed the woman inside an ambulance and trundled off. A week’s rest and she’d be back to normal. For how long? Who could say? Some flipped again within a week, some stayed sane. Why? Anyone’s guess. They couldn’t remember what had caused them to flip and so they didn’t know what to do or what to avoid.
A couple of days later, Leo sat in front of his computer, his chin in his hands. He’d become increasingly fascinated by visual illusions, especially the simple line drawing ones. They reminded him of something else. He’d been racking his brains in trying to think of what. But so far, the association had eluded him.
He focused on the Herringbone Illusion. Short black lines sloping down met short white lines sloping up and together they caused straight lines to appear bent. Wondering if it might appear different from a different point of view, the neuroscientist bent down and peered between his legs. The straight lines still appeared bent. Not as much as him, perhaps, but still bent. He straightened up and happened to glance out of his office window. Craig was looking in and smirking. He probably thought his boss had flipped.
Leo actually wondered if his unusual behaviour was, in fact, the signal for flipping. He’d go first and the laugh-at-anything Roland would go next. Craig would remain, ruling over everyone with an iron fist, plus cold showers and jogging. Great thing to look forward to. The neuroscientist twirled his chair on its pedestal. Food production and distribution systems were now being affected. This was no time to be disturbed by trivia. He must concentrate on the problem.
Leo again sat at his computer and, closing the web page with the visual illusions, began to type. The next afternoon, he was to give a talk. He only wished he had something solid to report on. Fat chance of that. Writing slowly, he continued to peck away on the lecture at home. On the other side of the table, Penny was illustrating a story about a possum that rummaged through their food bin every night. The music from Scheherazade was playing softly on the radio. Everything was peaceful – except for Leo’s two cortical hemispheres that seemed to be thumping together like mad castanets.
Massaging his fingers, the neuroscientist sighed. “This is what I’m thinking. One, the mind isn’t the result of cortical information processing. Two, the mind is the organising principle of the Gestaltists. Three…” He pressed his knuckles. “There is no three. That’s where I’m stuck.”
Penny put down her brush. “This is something that I’ve read. Take this music, for example. If you turn off the radio, the music is still there even if we don’t hear it. If you damage the radio, then what we hear is distorted even though the music itself is unaffected.”
“So the music is transmitted and the radio is just a receiver.”
Leo opened his mouth but no words came out. He tried again. “Are you saying…? So, you’re saying that the brain is merely a receiver? That consciousness is always there?”
“I’m saying it and I believe it. But it’s not my idea. People interested in auras, well, they talk about vibrations all the time.” Penny frowned in concentration. “The idea is that just as you tune a radio to a particular frequency, so a particular brain resonates to a particular frequency of consciousness.”
“Wow, that’s deep stuff.” From anyone else, Leo would’ve dismissed such talk. But this was Penny, his wife. Somewhat reluctantly, he searched in Google Scholar. He was surprised to find thousands of articles written by scientists and philosophers. The neuroscientist put his head in his hands. As he glanced through the articles, he realised that none of this was new. He’d seen these ideas before but they were so counter to what his professor had believed that he, too, had ignored them.
Leo returned to the computer and the preparation of his talk. He chuckled to himself. If he was on the fringes now then, by the end of it, he’d be in a different solar system. He scratched his head. This new perspective was good yet, so far, he still couldn’t see how it would apply to FlipOuts. But never mind that, this talk was an invitation that Leo couldn’t refuse. It was too good an opportunity to get back at his critics. Not that his facts were any stronger but his status certainly was.
Feeling reasonably confident, Leo entered the conference room. His old professor made the introductions, although he gave the impression of sucking lemons. The intro over, Leo rose and prepared to deliver heresy. Before he spoke, however, he scanned the meeting room. In the semi-circle closest to him sat the staff. Behind them were the postgrads. In the outer limits were the undergraduates. Beyond them was the graffiti on the walls: the universal trivia of timetables, cartoons, and visual illusions. He’d forgotten that they adorned these hallowed walls.
He smiled on seeing the herringbone illusion. Printed on computer paper, the effect wasn’t very strong. Next to it were various graphs. At a sudden thought, Leo’s gaze switched back to the herringbone and returned to the graphs. Then it hit him. The herringbone illusion wasn’t there as part of the visual illusions, it was a graph. It was a bar graph, comparing men and women in different age groups. The men were represented by a column with short lines sloping down, the women with short lines sloping up. So, that was why the herringbone illusion had seemed so familiar. He’d seen plenty of those graphs in his research.
Then a thunderbolt hit Leo. It zigzagged through his cortex, ricocheted off his eyeballs and backtracked through his neurons. Ideas that had been separate now fused into a unity. He’d started with the doubt that cortical information processing was the creator of thoughts. Next, he’d gone on to consider the Gestalt idea that illusions implied that the mind imposed organisation on incoming information. Finally, he’d come to accept that the brain was a receiver and, like a radio, tuned in to a particular frequency of consciousness. In other words, the brain was a resonator! Hadn’t his head actually felt like a chaotic resonator when first bombarded with new ideas?
His jaw hanging down to his knees, the neuroscientist tried to speak. “Illusions?” he croaked. “Who’s studying illusions?”
“What’s that?” a retired professor croaked back. “You’re having delusions?”
More insight struck and Leo stumbled toward a chair. From a distance, a far off distance, he heard cries of, “He’s flipped. He’s a FlipOut. Call the flip brigade.”
In a daze, he pulled out his phone and feverishly pressed buttons. As the line buzzed, he prayed that it wasn’t too late. The line connected and Roland’s face showed on the tiny screen.
“Yes, mate?” he said.
“Craig,” Leo gasped, “is he still programming the headband gizmo to create 3-D?”
“He’s going to check out it on some simple bar charts now.”
“Stop him immediately!”
“Yeah, sure. Why?”
“Go now! I’ll explain later!”
“Go! Go! Go!”
“Oh, all right.” With Roland humouring him, Leo impatiently paced the room. The others gave him distance while waiting for the flip brigade to arrive. After too long a delay, the neuroscientist knew that he’d been too late. He wasn’t at all surprised when Roland returned, his face haggard. “How did you know?” he asked.
“What’s he doing?”
“Crooning to his terminal.”
“Listen carefully. Close the computer and don’t try the electronic headband.”
“Right.” This time, there was no argument. Roland returned. “It’s off,” he said. “How did you know?”
“Think of the normal brain as a receiver. But when the 3-D headband sends one frequency to the right hemisphere and another to the left then each half of the brain is receptive to a different consciousness. Throw in the weak herringbone illusion created by bar graphs and the confusion is compounded. Two minds in one body then causes the flipping. Most office people look at charts during the day and an increasing number have been using the new 3-D. That’s why there’s been such an increase in FlipOuts.”
The flip brigade burst into the room. Leo’s old professor looked from him to them and then waved them down. “It’s all right. I think we’ve just solved the FlipOut problem.”
Leo nodded. It would take time to work out the details but he was pretty sure that, at last, they were on the right path. Turning away from the academics, he then rang his wife. She deserved at least half of the recognition for the solution.
Food for thought
This story has 2 related themes:
1.Is there localisation in the brain or are neural circuits so intertwined that they can only be represented by a holographic model?
2.Whatever way information may flow through the brain, does the processing create thought/mind/consciousness or does the brain act like a radio to tune into a narrow band of consciousness?
About the Author
Barry was brought up in England but moved to Australia after completing a PhD. After a few years, he became a 70s dropout, concentrating on tai chi and meditation. He started writing poetry around 1974 then moved into writing stories and plays.
Currently, he lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland where he combines writing with woodwork. He started trying to get published in 2008 and since then he has had 20+ short stories published.
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