Brain to brain communication and the (new) materiality of thought

Brain-to-brain communication is probably something you’ve encountered in the news in the last year or so. We’ve seen things such as monkeys controlling robotic arms with their thoughts, paralyzed humans moving themselves with the aid of an exoskeleton, and recently experiments in communication between two people and linking rat brains together to create an organic computer. Given the plasticity of the brain, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that such adaptations are possible. If the brain can turn sounds or marks on a page into concepts, then why not this? It is easy enough, as we have often done, to differentiate between the activities of the brain and thought, to imagine thought as being something more than the sum of electrochemical signals. No doubt that imagination has largely relied upon a faith in our divine creation or some other belief in our ontological exceptionality. And visa versa: our ability to think is evidence of our exceptionality. However, there are other, less self-aggrandizing explanations that suggest thought is more than what happens in the brain but only because thinking relies on one’s situation in a larger cognitive ecology.

Coincidentally, Levi Bryant wrote on a related matter yesterday. As he observes, “As Kant taught, thought is spontaneity:  the power of rendering present without requiring the detour of the presence of the thing.  Such is the secret of the famous synthetic a priori propositions:  they expand knowledge without the presence of the thing.  We broach, for example, new domains of mathematics through the power of thought alone.  No doubt this is why we only find prodigies in maths, music, and certain mathematical games like chess.  Experience is not required, just the patient unfolding of the thought.” And as he continues, it is our traditional reliance on such beliefs that leads to “a loathing of materialism throughout the history of philosophy.” On the one had, we have this desire for thought to be adequate to the things in the world, to be able to know the Truth, with the idea that such equivalence would lead to power. And yet that desire is susceptible to a sudden reversal where rather than the world being subject to thought, thought becomes subject to the world. As such, fully realized (or maybe I should say fully fantasized) brain-to-brain communication doesn’t become telepathy, where you and I can know each other’s thoughts; it obviates the need for thinking altogether. Of course we don’t get that either. Instead, as Levi points out, we get a series of experts relying on one another: “Everywhere we just encounter citation.”

This strikes me as a Latourian observation: the strength of knowledge lies in the construction of its associations. Here rather than trying to make a priori interiorized thinking equivalent to the world (or fearing the world dominating our minds), thoughts become a part of the world, real forces that can be followed through symbolic behaviors, physical actions, mechanical processes, computer networks, and the actions of brains, what Edwin Hutchins (and others in cognitive science) refer to as a “cognitive ecology:” a concept that goes back to the 60s and 70s in ecological psychology, ecology of the mind, cultural-historical activity theory, second-order cybernetics, and so on.

In imagining where we need to go next, Hutchins writes

Increased attention to real-world activity will change our notions of what are the canonical instances of cognitive process and which are special cases of more general phenomena. For example, private disembodied thinking is undoubtedly an important kind of thinking, but perhaps it receives more attention than it should. This mode of thinking is common among academics and can sometimes be induced in experimental subjects, but it is relatively rare in the global cognitive ecology. It is also deceptive. Far from being free from the influences of culture, private reflection is a deeply cultural practice that draws on and is enacted in coordination with rich cultural resources. The focus of intellectual attention is already shifting to the relations among action, interaction, and conceptualization. Perception, action, and thought will be understood to be inextricably integrated, each with the others. Human cognitive activity will increasingly be seen to be profoundly situated, social, embodied, and richly multimodal. The products of interaction accumulate not only in the brain but throughout the cognitive ecology.

These are matters that are relevant to more than neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers. When Hutchins notes the deceptive nature of our faith in, and valorization of, “private disembodied thinking,” that deception does not only effect academic investigations into cognition. It also shapes our communities, our understanding of rhetorical practice (i.e. of communication), and, crucially from my perspective, our pedagogies. It’s not only that we expect people to learn in this private, disembodied way but that we also set out to train students in this ability. But private disembodied thinking is neither private nor disembodied. There is no a priori thought that does not rely upon existing cultural practices and resources, that is not situated in an ecology.

To be sure, I find some of the more speculative implications of “brain-to-brain communication” and organic computing disturbing. I’ve read my share of dystopian science fiction. But we shouldn’t fear the concept that thought itself is material and can pass along a network of nonhuman actors and return to us. As I see it, the capacity for the freedom of thought and the agency to act upon thoughts that we might fear we’ve always already lost is not threatened by a new materialist, ecological approach. A new materialist cognitive ecology probably would allow for the possibility of overdetermining forces, of mind control if you like, but mostly it would demonstrate how difficult (and materially expensive) that would be. To the contrary, it mostly illuminates the necessary work of conscious thought, not as a disembodied spirit forever and tragically separate from a world it can never truly access, but as an integral actor in an ecology.

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