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21:02

HemiHive, in Hiding

If you’ve been following my writing for any length of time, you’ll know how fascinated I am by Krista and Tatiana Hogan, of British Columbia. I’ve cited them in Echopraxia’s end notes, described them in online essays; if you caught my talk at Pyrkon last year you might remember me wittering on about them in my rejoinder to Elon Musk’s aspirations for “neural dust”. Longtime readers might even remember their 2012 appearance in this very column.

Not entirely sure who gets the photo credit, but it's someone at the CBC so it's taxpayer-funded.

Not entirely sure who gets the photo credit, but it’s someone at the CBC so it’s taxpayer-funded.

Can you blame me? A pair of conjoined twins, fused at the brain? A unique cable of neurons— a thalamic bridge— wiring those brains together, the same way the corpus callosum connects the cerebral hemispheres in your own head? Two people who can see through each others eyes, feel and taste what the other does, share motor control of their limbs— most remarkably, communicate mind-to-mind without speaking? Is it any wonder that at least one neuroscientist has described the twins as “a new life form”?

If the Hogans don’t capture your imagination, you’re dead inside. I’ve been following those two from almost the day they were born in 2006 (the year Blindsight came out— and man, how that book could have changed if they’d been born just a few years earlier.) I’ve been trying to, anyway.

They don’t make it easy.

Bits and pieces trickle out now and then. Profiles in the New York Times and Macleans. Puff-piece documentaries from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, heavy on saccharine human-interest and cutesy music, light on science. Eleven years on, the public domain will tell you that Krista processes input from three legs and one arm, while Tatiana processes input from three arms and one leg. We know that they’re only halfway to being a true hive mind, because there are still two of them in there; the thalamic bridge carries lower bandwidth than a corpus callosum, and is located down in the basement with the sensory cables. (We can only speculate what kind of singular conscious being we’d be dealing with if the pipe had been fatter, mounted higher in the brain.) We know they share thoughts without speaking, conspire nonverbally to commit practical jokes for example (although not in complete silence; apparently a fair amount of giggling is involved). The twins call it “talking in our heads”. Back in 2013 one of their neurologists opined that “they haven’t yet shown us” whether they share thoughts as well as sensory experience, but neurons fire the same way whether they’re transmitting sensation or abstraction; given all the behavioral evidence I’d say the onus is on the naysayers to prove that thoughts aren’t being transmitted.

We know they’re diabetic and epileptic. We know they’re cognitively delayed. We know that their emotions are always in sync; whatever chemicals provoke joy or grief or anger cruise through that conjoined system without regard for which brain produced them. We know Krista likes ketchup and Tatiana doesn’t. We know— and if we don’t, you can be sure the documentarians at CBC will hammer the point home at least twice more before the next commercial break— that they’re God’s Little Fucking Miracles.

If you look closely at the video footage, you can glean a bit more. The twins never say “we”. I frequently heard one or the other refer to “my sister”, but if they ever referred to each other by name, that never made it into the broadcast edit. They sometimes refer to each other as “I”. They must have a really interesting sense of personal identity, at the very least.

But that’s about it. After eleven years, this is all we get.

We’re told about MRI scans, but we never get to see any actual results from one. (The most recent documentary, from just last year, shows the twins on their way to an MRI only to cut away before they get there; I mean, how do twins conjoined at a seventy-degree angle even fit into one of those machines?) There are plenty of Hogan references in the philosophical literature (for obvious reasons), and even the legal literature (for more obscure ones: one paper delves into how best to punish conjoined twins when only one of them has been convicted of committing a crime). They’re all over popular science and news sites. Some idiot with the Intelligent Design movement has even used the Hogans to try and put lipstick on the long-discredited pig of dualism (i.e., souls).

But actual neurological findings from these twins? Scientific papers? Google Scholar returns a single article, from a 2012 issue of the “University of British Columbia’s Undergraduate Journal of Psychology”— a student publication. Even that piece is mainly a review of craniopagus twins in the medical literature, with a couple of pages squeeing about How Much The Hogan Twins Can Teach Us tacked onto the end. A 2011 NYT article describes research showing that each twin can process visual signals from the other’s eyes, then admits that the results were not published. And that’s it.

Eleven years after the birth of the most neurologically remarkable, philosophically mind-blowing, transhumanistically-relevant being on the planet, we have nothing but pop-sci puff pieces and squishy documentaries to show for it. Are we really supposed to believe that in over a decade no one has done the studies, collected the data, gained any insights about literal brain-to-brain communication, beyond these fuzzy generalities?

I for one don’t buy that for a second. These neuroscientists smiling at us from the screen— Douglas Cochrane, Juliette Hukin— they know what they’ve got. Maybe they’ve discovered something so horrific about the nature of Humanity that they’re afraid to reveal it, for fear of outrage and widespread panic. That would be cool.

More likely, though, they’re just biding their time; sitting on an ever-growing trove of data that will redefine and quantify the very nature of what it is to be a sapient being. They’re just not going to share it with the rest of us until they’ve finished polishing their Nobel acceptance speeches. Maybe I can’t blame them. Maybe I’d even do the same in their place.

Still. The wait is driving me crazy.

And if any of you are on the inside, I’d kill for a glimpse of an MRI.

Reposted bygregorczykm gregorczykm

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