Where Does Reality End and Imagination Begin? In the Future, We Might Not Know

Reality is whatever your body believes. Virtual reality knows how to hack that.

Jordan Greenhall: So now let's talk about virtual reality. We have this idea that one of the things that our media does, one of the things the way that we perceive the world does, is change the nature of how our psychology works. Our psychology is designed to be adaptive to our environment, and so if I change the way that we're interacting with the environment I change the psychology, and that has durable effects.

VR is kind of a big deal. It represents a radical increase in our capacity to modify the way that we perceive reality. It's highly immersive, it's multi-modal, so in principle it can be visual, auditory, kinesthetic—I mean we could layer other things potentially in, with electrical stimulation and olfactory if we want to—but the idea is that our conscious sense of self-identity, our position in the world, is actually a relatively loosely held construct.

There's been very good experiments on the way that you can actually cause someone’s sense of even where their body is in space to just go away and make them feel like they're 15 feet in front of where they actually are, because we're always doing our best job to integrate the total input of our sensory modalities to make a coherent gestalt of, 'Oh this is world, and this is self.' And what VR does is it provides enough fidelity of information and enough coherence of modality to jack or hack that underlying mechanism whereby we actually create our construct of self and world. That's a serious fucking thing.

If you think about the way a little kid interfaces with a film, a movie; for a little while they're sort of confused about what's real and what's not real when they're observing it, but there's enough difference between sitting in a chair and watching a video and being in the world that eventually you learn to recognize and separate the two. In VR, and as we get better and better at doing it, that distinction goes away.

And this is quite important. The line between what it means to be dreaming and what it means to be awake is going to become very interesting, and it's going to become more and more interesting, because remember VR is just one piece of a generalized consequence of accelerating technology. So it's not just that we're going to be doing VR, we're also going to be radically improving our actuation capacity in the world in general. And so we can imagine circumstances where I might craft an object in VR, and then—say in quasi-real-time—some mechanism is in fact actually 3D printing that object so then I reach out, take off my VR glasses and the thing that I thought I was creating in an entirely imaginary space is actually physically present in my hand. That's going to cause some very interesting changes in the way that we relate to the difference between what reality can do and what imagination can do.

And as I mentioned to you in our sort of conversation before this thing started, as a consequence of all this VR is particularly effective at blowing your mind. And I mean in terms of disrupting your underlying construct about what the nature of reality happens to be. And this is very good news and also extraordinarily bad news. From the extraordinarily bad perspective it means that VR is extremely well-positioned to create a designed reality that you're going to have a very, very hard time rejecting. If you think about the way that propaganda, back in the early 20th century, got good at understanding how human beings parse information to make decisions and getting in underneath our psychological defense mechanisms, VR is 100 million times more capable of engaging in that.

The good news is, is if we do a much, much better job at being—let's call it ethical—at crafting a relationship between our power to affect the world and the way that power affects us, so if we do a much, much better job at being ethical around VR, then it will be the most powerful tool that we have for radically improving the way that we respond to the world, for upgrading our capacity to respond to the world, because it would be a much more embodied and whole system hack for our deep constructs. Does that make sense?

"The line between what it means to be dreaming and what it means to be awake is going to become very interesting," says Jordan Greenhall, CEO of Neurohacker. Virtual reality is perhaps the easiest way to conceive of that concept right now, but it's just one piece in a much larger body of accelerated technology on the horizon. Our sense of reality, how our self fits into our perception of the world, can be easily shaken through sensory input manipulation—and in very low-tech and low-quality ways. So image what a sophisticated approach will bring. VR and its relatives will be able to hack our mind in ways we will be helpless to resist—dream up an object and one day it might be 3D printed in quasi-real-time, straight from your imagination. Of course, there are enormous ethical implications. If we think social media encroaches on our lives now, we are not prepared for a future in which dreaming and waking look eerily similar. How will it change election campaigns, personal relationships, will you responsible for your own addictions and behaviors in this future? How will we establish the first rules of consent—hopefully not the hard way. VR will disrupt our very deepest construct: how we see and react to reality. If we are thoughtful about design and ethics, Greenhall hopes this radically upgrade our potential, rather than downgrade how we relate to one another.


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After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
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Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.