January 10-16, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Sci-Fi Made Me Do It

By Annalee Newitz

HUMAN BEINGS are always bragging how cool we are because we plan for the future. That's probably why a team of neuroscientists recently did a study on the anatomy of future thinking. Turns out that pondering an upcoming event like, say, the release of Windows Vista, activates a very specific part of the brain. At least, that's what researchers at Washington University in St. Louis observed when they stuck people in an MRI machine and asked them to think about their next birthdays. The area of the brain for futuristic thought is apparently different from the parts we use to think about the past.

Published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study is the first to detail an anatomical region associated with future-related thoughts. But it's certainly not the first to explore the idea that humans have a special gift for thinking about what's next, despite evidence that other animals obviously have tomorrow in mind when they stock up on food for the winter or build dams.

I often imagine the beginnings of a scientific study as if it were a Hollywood pitch meeting. Scientist A goes to Grant Source B and says, "Hey, I've got an idea for you. It's sort of a mix of Nancy Kanwisher discovering the facial-recognition centers in the brain and Helen Fisher asking subjects to think about people they love while in an MRI. Except it's about the future! We'll ask our subjects to imagine seeing the faces of loved ones next week! It will be the best of neurology and psychology with a time-travel twist!" And Scientist A gets the money for her project or she doesn't.

What makes me want to Hollywoodize this grant-begging scenario is the fact that nobody ever seems to have a clear definition of what makes a project too ridiculous to get funded. I'm not saying that this Washington University study is particularly ridiculous, but it skirts silliness. Researchers asked subjects to imagine a past event, a neutral event and a future event while studying their brains in an MRI.

This technique is used in a lot of reputable brain-function studies, but this particular version is error-prone and imprecise. What if people are thinking two or three things at once? What if they think about something so far into the future that it verges on fantasy rather than merely "planning for next year"? Certainly, there are ways to normalize the results, especially with multiple test subjects, but nevertheless the whole thing is a messy business to say the least. And there seems to be no good way to articulate what makes this study different from something most of us would agree is patently silly, such as trying to find the science fiction center of the brain by asking people to imagine a future full of spaceships and aliens in an MRI machine.

I mean, if we have a "future thought" area of our brains, it certainly seems to follow that we might have a "science fiction center." Perhaps it even overlaps with the future-thought center? Does that mean that science fiction writer Cory Doctorow and futurist Ray Kurzweil have bigger or more active science fiction centers in their brains? Let's image them and find out! It would be like the Washington University study crossed with Philip K. Dick. Want to fund it?

This study could also answer the crucial question of whether a taste for science fiction can be inherited. If it's a structure in the brain, after all, there's some set of genes responsible. Does that mean the human brain underwent an evolutionary mutation sometime in the 16th century, when foundational futurist Thomas More wrote Utopia? Obviously the mutation was spreading at a rapid clip, since Mary Shelley wrote the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, in the early 19th century. Science fiction types are clearly good breeders.

However, it's possible the science fiction part of the brain evolved 50,000 years ago, when early homo sapiens started telling stories about a world full of compound tools, domesticated animals and wheels. Or maybe they just had a penchant for throwing rocks through the air while making "zoom" noises. One possible outcome of this study would be a way for science fiction writers, futurists and their fans to explain their predilections as a fact of biology rather than a cultural preference. We can't help being science fiction lovers and acolytes of the future, you see. We were just born that way. So you can't re-educate us into liking literature or historical tales. Our brains aren't suited for it.

Moreover, science fiction may compel us to do things we can't be blamed for, like playing video games and going to conventions full of people in costumes. Perhaps unhappy futurists can be given drug therapies to reduce the activity in the science fiction region of their brains. That way, they can get back to leading regular lives that include planning only for birthday parties in the future, not intergalactic societies. Yes, I like the direction this research is going. Let's get some funding.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd.

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