El Rey Invaders

A cat’s-eye view of the world

Back in 1999, the Harvard neuroscientist Garrett B. Stanley decided to see if he could capture the actual brain activity showing what someone was looking at. So he took cats — which have very sharp vision — and tapped into 177 cells in their lateral geniculate nuclei, a part of the brain that integrates sensory input. Then he reconstructed the signals into approximations of what the cats were actually looking at. The results, excerpted above, were eerily precise: The pictures on the top are camera captures of the direction the cats were looking, and the images below are the reconstructions. Nutty, eh? (A PDF of the paper is here.)

So yes, William Gibson, it apparently is possible to jack into someone’s wetware and experience the world from their perspective. Chris McKinstry, a theoretical physicist in Chile, recently blogged about this experiment and said a) that it hasn’t been written about enough, and b) that it’s insanely important:

Now, we know what raw experience looks like inside the brain of another being, and thus entire philosophies of mind that were premised on internal experience forever being private, have been rendered obsolete.

I’m not so sure. This research is supercool, but merely knowing what someone’s visual system is imbibing is a far pass from knowing what they’re actually perceiving — since, as psychologists and philosophers have long realized, two people can look at the same thing yet notice or infer entirely different things, depending on their pre-existing frames of reference and biases. Me, I look at a couple of children sitting on cots in the Houston Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes and killed their friends and family, and what do I see? Grief and shock. Tom Delay looks at them and what does he see? A couple of kids having a ton of “fun.”

Man, I’d love to know what’s going on in his lateral geniculate nucleus.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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