Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Reprogramming brains by force

Several authors have posited a kind of brain reprogramming through normal sensory input. In Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, the human brain stem can be reprogrammed via the Sumerian language spoken aloud. In David Langford's short story BLIT, a human brain can be crashed like a computer by certain images. It's an interesting concept, and in each of those examples, it involves some of the most complex sensory tasks we humans engage in - visual pattern recognition and language processing. My guess is that complexity played a part in the formation of the concept. Nobody was about to suggest that you could reprogram a human brain with a particular smell, taste or touch.

Obviously it's just a story piece or a worldbuilding concept, but I don't believe anything similar would be possible in real life. It would be like trying to reprogram your computer through the webcam and microphone. Maybe you could sort of do it, but it would exploit a flaw that exposes the normal reprogramming mode the computer was explicitly designed for. The brain was not designed to be reprogrammed like that. The brain was designed to learn the world, make sense of the patterns it finds there (vision and language, in particular) and to control our bodies by conscious will.

The only way to "reprogram" a brain would be to forcibly break neural connections that were built and reinforced over years, then form new ones in their place. That would, as a side-effect, destroy the personality and memory of the person, even if it were only partial, and force a new version to emerge in its place, if at all. While small-scale reprogramming might be possible, doing so on a large scale would be like pulling apart a car to build a motorcycle. It's not going to be the same vehicle afterwards.

Mokalus of Borg

PS - And much smaller.
PPS - Which is not what you want in a brain.

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