Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

Illustration by Claudia Claros

Published Monday, November 18th, 2013

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The Thought Box

In the future there are no hover-cars or transporters. People don't beam themselves to work, they just walk there, or drive the car, or take the train. There are no robot-housekeepers or anything like that either. Forget it.

In the future there are no hover-cars or transporters. People don’t beam themselves to work, they just walk there, or drive the car, or take the train. There are no robot-housekeepers or anything like that either. Forget it.


The only thing that still sounds like science-fiction to me is BWA: Brain-Wave Amplification. A few years ago a group of scientists from Argentina found a crystalline substance that responded to wavelengths in the brain and was unprecedentedly sensitive to even the lowest amplitudes, those that the best EEG machines couldn’t pick up. It was able to discern them and to identify their exact origin in the brain, while amplifying them so that they could be interpreted by technicians. For untrained mortals, the result would look like one of those heart-rate monitors in hospital soap operas. Once you learnt to read it, though, it was its own coherent language.


The discovery was good news, because brainwaves are essentially coded information and cracking them perfectly would have been the holy grail of neuroscience. Of course, outside of the scientific community no one cared about this at first. Until they were shown how it could be used, that is.


In the first stage, the new material replaced brain-imaging devices in hospitals, allowing for much more accurate diagnoses. Then it was used in things like brain-powered wheelchairs. All of that was great and exciting, but things really got under way once it was discovered that this substance, when modified correctly, could also store the brainwaves it received. The result was a memory-box.


Immediately, speculations arose. News reporters and self-appointed analysts declared that finally we would each have access to all our memories and every thought. That future generations would never forget anything. That people would be able to learn things in seconds (in fact this had nothing to do with the Argentinean discovery. Copy/pasting information is nothing like learning. But you know what reporters are like).

As it turned out, memory storage never quite caught on. Instead, a far more radical implementation of the technology was discovered. You see, once researchers started analyzing the information from the memory-box, they noticed an unexpected undercurrent accompanying each cluster of brainwaves recorded. They thought it was just noise at first, but after amplifying it again and again they realized that it wasn’t random at all, and in fact represented brain activity in itself.

It seemed risky to take the news to the public just yet so instead they found a subject to experiment on. That subject was me. Or rather, the first subjects were mice, but try as the scientists might, they couldn’t locate those undercurrents with them. And so I was attached to wires and computers. It wasn’t my first time. For years I used to participate in EEG and MRI tests for money. I was a starving video artist, and as clichĂ© as that sounds, I kind of liked it. My friends who showed a bit more forward thinking and obtained degrees in lucrative professions secretly pitied me, probably. But what the hell do they know, I used to tell myself. They had sold their souls for weekends in ski resorts while I shed blood for truth and beauty, or something like that. Oh, to be young and hopeful. At any rate, I had sat in my share of brain scanners. I’m no expert on the technology but I will say this: the clear information on the BWA screen was like nothing I had seen in the other research projects. I saw my own thoughts replayed to me as I was thinking them, in the language of pulses and waveforms. It was uncanny.


But as I said, my thoughts weren’t the only thing that were seen on the screen. So was another undercurrent. Once the scientists interpreted it for me, it became clear that it was a stream of thoughts that I couldn’t say were mine, not quite, but not not-mine either. I could connect to their content, but I couldn’t recall having thought them. They were mostly an analysis of what I was doing at a given moment. It did not take the team very long to recognize what they had come across: my intuition, my System Two, my unconscious.


Of course, the technology was light-years away from going public. For now we were only experimenting. The scientists had me perform different tasks while connected to the BWA machinery. I was asked to look at an image or a word on a screen, for example, while they traced my associations with it. In other trials I had to perform some physical task: grabbing an apple from a table or moving my feet as if I were walking. Though some of the early attempts showed encouraging outcomes, especially the physical tests, the research soon came to a halt. They just weren’t getting the results they were after. Not that they could state directly what they wanted to see; but to be sure, this wasn’t it.


It was decided to go deeper into my mind, as the team put it; to search for emotional responses. A senior researcher from the lab warned the scientist in charge of the project not to take that step. He believed the results might be devastating in a way that couldn’t be undone. I was not present in their meeting, naturally, but I later overheard two lab assistants discussing it. Apparently there was concern that the experiment might expose repressed thoughts and fears, the unveiling of which could trigger a psychotic break or induce a catatonic state in me. The other side of the argument was that the professor was an asshole who just couldn’t bear the thought of any discovery being made without his name on it.


As for my consent, as I said, I needed the money. Being a guinea-pig paid much more than did the other two jobs I had taken on, and my video art was not bringing in the cash, despite being called “promising” by a renowned art critic. I admit I was also particularly happy to take part in this specific project. It set off my imagination, and as curious as I was to find out what lies within the human psyche, I was even more excited about it being my own psyche. As I was told repeatedly, I was the perfect subject. I was loyal and financially dependent on them, for one. But I was also an artist; who knows what they might find inside my head.


After several weeks of waiting while the experiment was being planned, I finally returned to the lab. Everyone was excited. They brought cake. I was ceremonially seated on the chair and attached to the wires. One of the head researchers crouched next to me and explained the procedure. I was to be shown pictures of loved ones, she said, while the team recorded my unconscious response. Then I would be fed some favorite dishes and some hated dishes. Finally I would be shown some of my art, with the machine all the while registering my brainwaves and their underlying currents.


The first stage didn’t go very well. My recorded response, I was told soon after, was quite mundane. Just like the first investigation into my undercurrents, my thoughts about my friends and family were coldly analytical. Apparently I told myself who was represented in each picture and reminded myself of recent interaction with them. The second stage was even worse. My brain broke down the elements of the food, but did little else. My analyses were rather acute, I was told. I responded to different aspects of the stimuli and conjured many memories and pieces of information about each. But this, the researchers concluded with disappointment, was not the unconscious, only sharp sensory recognition. All hope was placed in the final stage of the experiment.


My own art, the researcher bent down again to explain, was my most intricate form of self expression and as such had the potential to provide useable data on perception of self and identity and on the brain’s work in the creative process. I was the perfect specimen, she said, because my art did not deal in realism. My work is abstract and therefore presumably involves the most basic underlying operations of the brain. This was the best way to finally uncover my unconscious.
The machinery was checked one last time, the lights were dimmed, the projector was loaded with my videos. The researcher gave me a reassuring smile and pressed the button on her remote control.


Nothing happened.

Well, some things happened. The video played, I watched it, the machines hummed quietly in the background. They were registering my brainwaves, which showed heightened activity in several areas that involve the visual faculties. My unconscious was recorded, too. It showed thoughts I remembered having while creating the video. Decisions about color choice, music, editing. Underlying thoughts about what might appeal to a viewer, what might make grammatical sense. The technician checked and rechecked the results. They were clear and well-recorded; no noise. All the data was there. But where was creativity, authenticity? Where were my inner desires and fears in their rawest form, ready to be processed by the conscious brain? Science had dug inside my mind, only to find tilt directions.

Some trials later the funding was cut and the research project came to an end. Since it never reached publication, I don’t think many people know about the experiment beside the dozen that took part in it. The scientists went on to different projects; the technology, its possibilities exhausted, was eventually abandoned.


As for me, I’ve not been up to much in the few months since the experiment ended. I quit my jobs in the sense that I stopped showing up. I’ve thrown away all copies of every piece I ever made, as well as the newspaper clipping about them being promising. I read in some old French book that it is better to look outside of oneself for meaning, and that in any case, only actions matter. I drew some encouragement from that for a while, until I remembered that if there’s nothing inside my soul there’s nothing inside that writer’s soul either, so what does he know? Now I sit and write letters to imaginary past generations, yet unburdened with my knowledge.

What else is there left?

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