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The Neurological Reality of the 'Sense8' Sensates

The mind-to-mind communication of the titular mutants of Sense8 actually has a footing in neuroscience, and maybe even a future.
July 26, 2015, 10:48pm
Image: Sense8 still

In one of the sweetest scenes in Sense8, the "sensates" (eight strangers around the world who share a mental connection thanks to their specially evolved brains) sing "What's Up?" by 4 Non Blondes in tandem. The scene spans continents as the characters sing karaoke, in the shower, or through relieved tears, united in the delightful earworm.

A refreshingly original and optimistic premise, the Wachowskis' and J. Michael Straczynski's Sense8's story focuses on eight mentally connected strangers, and was renewed this week.

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What I found fascinating about the show was that the power of a sensate comes from the actual connection between other people, rather than an acquired superpower or an individual, inborn talent. It's definitely science fiction, but there have been several neurological studies on the importance of empathy to humanity, the speed of thought, and how this kind of connection might even have place in future technology. How, like sensates, can and do our minds connect with other people's minds?

First, let's look at what being a sensate entails. One character calls sensates a type of mutant, the next step in human evolution, because of a subtle but definite change in their brains by which they connect with these other sensates. Sensates can communicate across long distances without being detected or listened to. Characters have conversations in two places simultaneously, flipping back and forth between a rainy café in Germany and a sunny temple in India, while a character in Korea vapes with a character in Iceland. To all involved in the conversation, it looks like each are physically in the same place as the others.

In real life, a study in mind-to-mind interface last year only just proved that telepathy across nations is possible, given the right machinery. To get a conscious brain-to-brain interface going: the sender of the message had EEG (electroencephalography) sensors attached to the scalp, while the receiver had a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) headset.

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Study co-author Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leon noted that the difference between this study and past experiments of its kind is that in this one, the study participants were consciously trying to communicate with each other. He's referencing a similar experiment a couple years earlier, where, upon using similar technology, one person was able to move another person's hand in the midst of a video game. This is also a sensate power—sensates can control and take over their fellow sensates' bodies, getting them to do everything from act out a flirtation to unlock handcuffs. But in the particular study, researchers Drs. Rao and Sacco pointed out that their experiment doesn't mean that this couldn't be done against the other person's will, nor could it happen covertly.

The speed of thought is dependent on how thick our nerves are.

Dr. Pascual-Leon's study also took a good 70 minutes for one person's mind to register another person's thought, much more time than our text messages and emails and the sensates' interactions in the show, which are instantaneous. That opens up the question: how fast can thought travel from one person to another, especially when it's unmediated by technology, jumping from brain to brain across countries? Is it possible for it to be comparable to unmediated, in-person interaction?

The speed of thought is dependent on how thick our nerves are—the thickest axons can be 200 times thicker than the thinnest ones—but our brain already contains enough miles of wiring that it could span the space between the Earth and the moon.Reaction times have been measured to be 400-500 milliseconds, with 20-30 milliseconds for an impulse to run between synapses (the spaces between neurons). The space between neurons is 20 nanometers, so if we did that math, it would mean that, roughly, a thought runs .001 millimeters per second. For comparison, the speed of sound is 343.2 meters per second.

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In terms of the possibility of sharing a mental connection with seven other people, Sense8 recalls a Vice article about multiplicity clusters, which examines whether people with multiple personalities are merely neurodiverse clusters rather than individuals wracked with mental disorders. The words, "cluster," and "we are a we" recall the terminology used in Sense8, although a sensate share a mental connection across eight bodies, while a "multiplicity system" contains several people in one body.

But Sense8 is strongest when it looks at how government and power structures can, and do, imprison people for neurological differences. Our country has actually lobotomized people before—the most famous being the VA's use of apparent cure-all lobotomies of WWII veterans to purportedly treat PTSD and other mental disorders such as schizophrenia. The show's most disturbing moments are when characters are forcibly strapped down and imprisoned without rhyme or reason in order to be lobotomized for being sensates.

One character also suggests that sensates are targeted because regular humans—that is, non-sensates—don't understand how sensates, thanks to their unique mutant brains, feel instinctive, intuitive empathy with their fellow sensates. Upon learning about one sensate's tragic past, another sensate tells her he can viscerally feel her pain. Instead of listening to how a person feels, or reading about the problems people face in a far-off nation, a sensate physically feels it. Is it really fair to compare humans with sensates in this regard?

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Well, the answer is less simple than you would think. The study of empathy is relatively new, jump-started by a 2004 study about how the pain-sensitive areas of our brains light up when we see another person's pain. In a Cognitive Neuroscience Society interview with Dr. Tania Singer, one of the scientists behind the landmark paper, Singer noted that before this story, it was believed they would find an "empty brain": a lack of neurological reaction from the person not experiencing pain.

Other studies have found the very specific space in our that brain lights up—the right supramarginal gyrus (rSMG), located near the center of the brain—when we are actively trying to discern what someone else is feeling when their experience is discordant with our own. The same study also suggested that time to reflect made people more likely to become sensitive about what the other person was feeling. So, we do have strong empathy systems, we just aren't able or taught to use them as easily as the sensates do.

But because of this study, Dr. Singer notes that further empathy studies done around the world have suggested that humans have a neurological component for understanding other people's emotions, that we dip into our personal emotional experiences to comprehend another person's emotional state. Further study started identifying what blocks and negatively affects our neurological empathic responses (beyond psychopathy), like fairness or members of or outside of personal groups. CNS asked Dr. Singer what this meant for the average person, and she answered:

Empathy research shows that in principle we are much more connected to others than we consciously are aware of. We represent the feelings and needs of others in terms of our own. We are in constant affective resonance with others.

In other words, human minds are literally interdependent with one another.

Dr. Singer took that thought one step further, saying that the focus of the latest studies have been on whether our empathy abilities could be trained to be more cooperative and pro-social. According to her, the answer is yes.

We might not all have a significant mental connection to other people around the world, and we might not be able to telepathically speak or see or emulate their feelings with a quickness—at least, not for decades more research and technological advancement. But that doesn't mean we can't deepen our connections with one another.