I’ve continued to mull over the different ways that rats’ and zebra finches’ brains work when asleep. The idea of a rat’s brain firing off at a speed much faster than real-time versus a finch dreaming at a slower pace got me wondering, “What is the speed of thought for a given species?” If that question is pared down to the speed at which a neuron works, what controls that speed? Neuron length, diameter, number of branches in a given neuron, number of ion channels that have to reset after the neuron fires? I asked Ben about this in a long-winded attempt at figuring out writing prompts that we could tackle together. The basic idea was to set rules that govern how we write so that we could use that to “mirror” or embody how an animal might think. So, if you’re writing from the perspective of a fast animal, what happens if you limited your sentence length to only five words? For a slow animal, what if each sentence had to be twenty-three words long? Here’s a text-based doodle of what that might look like:
“This is a fast animal. It thinks rapidly to survive. It needs food, water, shelter. Something's always hunting it down.”
“And this slow animal meanders through a grassland sniffing at interesting mosses and accidentally comes upon a fallen apple, whose rotting juices it enjoys. When it looks up to consider the sun’s tilt it feels a ripple of chill upon its pelt and knows to turn home.”
Setting rules before writing has multiple purposes - not the least of which is to provide structure when you’re not sure where to go with a theme as grand as “the brainscape.” But what’s more interesting to me is this idea of “embodiment”—that the way you write can force a reader to think or feel in a certain way. Ben’s excited about this idea too, so one of our next steps is to perhaps consider which animals’ mindscapes we’re most interested in exploring. He suggested writing from the perspectives of single cell organisms up to multicellular organisms, and transitioning from solitary organisms to groups. I think that could be super cool. Does a single-celled creature’s “thought” reflect in language pared down only to single syllable words? Does a group of animals have a hive mind, and thus allow us to play with the second person plural perspective: “We think, therefore we conquer”? One of the goals this week is to hash that out and write something that we can swap with each other.
This past week Geetha and I have been exploring content. One thorny problem that interests us both is how to represent the mind of others, in particular the internal mental states of animals. I am often impressed with the ability of some fiction writers, Kazuo Ishiguro for example, who are able to write first person narratives in the voices of different people. I image that it requires a special combination of empathy, imagination and experience to pull off. Embodying the minds of an animal presents an even more difficult problem. From the little that we know, the sensory world they live in can be quite different from ours, as many species have sensory systems that we do not have or utilize in the same way. Their brain structure can also be quite different. Some animal brains lack an obvious analogue to the structures we believe to be important to components of our behavior. So what is the solution? Communication would be a useful place to start depending on the species as it seems to be the key to understanding the minds of other humans. However, this has been challenging to establish, even in animals like dogs who are relatively adept at communicating with humans or like primates that are so similar to us in appearance, behavior and genetics. Another difficulty is feedback. How do we know we have written an accurate rendition of a dog’s interior world? These problems are not only faced by writers but by neuroscientists as well. “What is it like to be a bat”, published by Thomas Nagel in 1974, is still a relevant critique of an objectivist approach to understanding subjective experience. Geetha and I have discussed ways to leverage what is known about neural processing in animals to inspire our collaboration. One idea is to try to mimic the activity of neural circuits in our writing and editing process. We’ll see how it goes!