Jan 19, 2008

super powers

I admit it.

I want to be a Jedi.

When I first saw Star Wars when I was 13, I was seized by a fervent desire to learn the ways of the force. Mostly, I wanted to read minds. I'd lie in bed creating these elaborate daydreams of what my life would be like if I could read minds. I'd never have any more awkward conversations, because I'd always know the right thing to say. Nobody would ever have to explain his- or herself if he or she was having a hard time - I'd already know the whole story. The daydreams were so lifelike that sometimes I almost tricked myself in to believing them.

Luckily, in the 9 years since I first saw Star Wars, I've realized that it would actually be terribly inconvenient to read minds as literally as I imagined at 13. Folks think a lot of stuff that they never say, and thank goodness for that - way more than half of what goes through my head is either ridiculous, embarrassing, tangential, or untimely, and I imagine it's the same for everyone else. It's definitely a good thing I can't read minds.

But I still want to be Jedi. Ok, ok, so I can't be. What then? Does my galaxy far far away offer any cool "super powers" that are within my grasp? Hmm...

A few days ago I was talking to a British friend of mine, and I was having my usual problem: I kept nearly adopting his accent. Every single time I spoke, I had to consciously remind myself to stick with my own accent. The incident got me thinking and for the last few days I've more consciously aware than usual of such occurrences. Like tonight at dinner, when the person I was talking to made a gesture, and without even thinking about it I made exactly the same gesture. Yesterday, I was writing on the same piece of paper as somebody else, and I kept accidentally adjusting my handwriting to match hers. And a yesterday night, when I was watching a video clip, and a person on the screen made a weird face - and I mimicked that face exactly. I do it *all the time*.

Lest this sound disturbing, let me assure the reader that I'm not a mindless copycat. These are cases of reaction to what goes on around me. I'm not confused in some pathological way about who I am. I think - and here's the interesting part - that such reactions are integral to mind reading. Maybe a super power (after a fashion) isn't so impossible after all.

Of course, I don't mean that by imitating somebody's hand motion I'm going to literally read their mind, and I'm also quite aware that I'm never going to have any real super power. But I still think this is really cool. It's subtle, but here's what goes on: a person (Sally, let's say) is talking to me. Sally and I are having a very interesting conversation, and by virtue of human nature and the existence of mirror neurons I am literally experiencing the sensations and feelings that she is describing. So it's only natural that when Sally gets to the point in her story where she makes a particular gesture, I follow her. It's as though I'm Sally's puppet.

What I'm describing isn't new or unusual in anyway (here's a well-known essay on the topic), and most people do it. But, what if you can hone that innate skill? Can you learn the language of off-hand gestures and facial expressions? (Do you have to re-learn it for each person?) Theoretically, if I had a very large number of mirror neurons, all of the things that I observed in another person would be neurologically recreated within my own brain. Would I then be able to piece together a person's thoughts from all of the observable ways that he or she expresses his- or herself? Could I "reverse-engineer" a thought?

At some earlier time, I would have said no. This sounds like a behaviorist theory to me - state of mind is entirely reconstructible by observing behavior - and I've always disliked those theories. I mean, there's just no way. How many times in life do we play 2o Questions with somebody who is obviously upset, but not forthcoming about the problem? If the behaviorists were right, everybody would be an open book. And clearly we're not. We can make ourselves as indecipherable as we please.

But I think the difference between behaviorism and this innate "mind reading" is that behaviorism is a relative system of interpretation (very faulty), and innate "mind reading" is absolute. If somebody pokes your finger with a needle while I look on, a part of your brain will light up, and the exact same part of my brain will light up. That's pretty remarkable. Even allowing for the vast range of human temperament and emotion, the fact that an experience, whether real or sympathetic, causes identical response in certain areas of the brain must mean that some thoughts - if thoughts are defined by brain activity (that's a whole other can of worms) - can be "read". I guess we generally only go in for reading ("reverse engineering") the really easy thoughts like "Ow, that hurts", "I'm happy" or "I am sleepy", but importantly, we don't always need to see the cause of those thoughts to recognize them. They have a familiar, nearly-unmistakable constellation of expressions.

So what about other thoughts? If Larry is my friend, and I'm very familiar with his facial/gestural/postural manners of expression, can I learn to interpret his actions (both conscious and unconscious) and translate them in to more complex thoughts?

My guess is that this is somewhat possible. I think it's impossible that we humans display a secret personal "alphabet code" that belies our every thought, if only the code-breaker is quick enough. But I think it's quite likely that we give away a decent amount (as long as we are not consciously trying to avoid doing so), and that serious neurological practice could indeed augment the human ability to read minds.

So, it may not be Jedi-cool, but it's pretty cool :)

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