Different ways to see the world

I was watching a really remarkable video the other day – of a talk given by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor at TED. The talk contains a harrowing – and at the same time funny – account of when she suffered a haemorrhage in the left side of her brain which then slowly shut down leaving the right side to run the show.

Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems.

As a consequence of the stroke Jill experienced some really remarkable effects (even if they were scary at the same time). Her perception of the world was fundamentally changed.

About the same time I found this video I was listening on the radio to a deaf Italian Tomato Lichy who is trying with his wife to have a second deaf child by IVF. The couple are both deaf, as is their child. Unable to conceive naturally, they want to have IVF but only pick deaf embryos for implanting. They believe that deafness isn’t a disability but a gift which leads to a rich world with its own language, culture and traditions. It goes without saying that they face an uphill battle to have their wishes accepted and I have to confess I have quite a bit of difficulty with the position personally myself.

But as biotechnology and genetics gathers pace it begs the question whether we might not face a future where people are free to choose the senses they want, or the way their neural pathways process data, so they can experience the world in a way different from the one we call normal (and which already many, many people don’t share.) After all, red is only red because of the way the human brain processes light signals – there is no such thing in the world as “red”. People who suffer from synesthesia already know how malleable colour is – they can hear it.

Wired recently carried an article about the way in which scientists are now reconsidering autism in the light of new evidence. There is another remarkable video referred to where Amada Baggs, a 27-year-old autistic woman, describes the “language” she uses to interact with the world. In times gone past in all likelihood she would have been dismissed as lacking intelligence, but the internet and affordable computing power has given her the chance to show the world quite the opposite.

Could people start to opt for this kind of experience if the science of biological choice makes it possible? Maybe not very likely, but what about those people with gifts which normal-ability people would already regard as remarkable.

Stephen Wiltshire is the 33-year-old autistic “savant” who appeared on television recently and drew an accurate 13ft panorama of London after only a short helicopter ride as a prompt. Might not people choose this gift if it was on offer?

Perhaps the next phase of evolution will be made up by a splintering of what it means to be a normal human being as choice and technology open up limitless possibilities. And, given Man’s less than impressive record with difference, that would mean more than a few challenges along the way.

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