I have been thinking for some time about writing a post about the scientific research that went into Tick, but found that the information (and the many connections to my book series) was an intimidating amount, too much to add into one block. So, I have decided to break them down into more readable chunks so that I can share with you the science behind the science fiction in my debut YA series, Tick. This post commences Part One.
Let’s go back a bit. I honestly can’t say exactly where the inspiration came from for my YA sci-fi series, which is, in short, about Josephine Bristol, a teenage girl desperate to become an artist in a drone-surveyed Los Angeles where neuroscientists permanently “fix” people with brain disorders, a task perhaps not so daunting were she not plagued by a violent mental and emotional dysfunction. I have mentioned in quite a few interviews that my main character’s “tick” — as she calls it — bears resemblance to issues of my own adolescence, although not in the “art imitates life” sort of way that has caused readers to question my husband’s safety (people are worried!). Jo’s tick is rather a dramatized representation of my years suffering from a deep and dark depression and the journey I have taken to finally write a book about it. In my series, the use of these brain-adjusting doctors is a futuristic evolution of psychiatry, and I am in awe of how many readers have noted the possibility that sometime in the near future, neural brain adjustments can become something not only used for medical purposes, but for personal advance as well.
I didn’t just make this concept up. Scientists are in the process of targeting specific neurons in the brain to inhibit or assist the movement of signals between synapses, thus altering certain cognitive functions. The purpose for this research is hoped to be applied in treating brain disorders such as schizophrenia and depression, but it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how easily this technology could be used to “fix” people of minor inflictions, like their compulsion to drop $20 at a fancy coffee shop every day. The science is called optogenetics, and I’ll get to the specifics of it later in this post, but first I want to get into how I even learned about optogenetics in the first place.
Dr. Michio Kaku and my mom
About a year and a half ago, I began telling people about this new weird book I was writing. Not a lot of people, mostly just my husband, my parents, and a couple of good friends. I was very hesitant to admit to people I was writing a story about a girl who has visions of killing people, so I quickly moved the conversation to talk about how a major source of conflict for her was that brain-scanning drones would find evidence of her dysfunction and doctors would fix her, hindering her artistic ability (truth be told, this was symbolic of a personal experience of mine, as this was a side-effect of an anti-depressant cocktail of drugs I was prescribed when I was 19).
At the time, I described the “fixing” as “brain splicing”, a sort of cutting and replacing parts of the brain tissue. It seemed like a decent enough concept for a future technology. Rough, to be sure. Then my mom said, “I think I read something like that in a book by Michio Kaku.” The book was The Future of the Mind, and there actually weren’t any references to splicing, but there was a whole lot about this thing called optogenetics. I have been a fan of Dr. Kaku for years (if you haven’t seen his Science Channel series Sci-Fi Science, I highly suggest you look it up on YouTube), and I immediately got a copy of the book for myself.
I continually credit my mom for enlightening me to that book because it took my “things I didn’t know I didn’t know” bubble and shrunk it ever so slightly, giving me a whole new realm of possibilities of where I could take my book series. It also added a whole lot more to the plot than I ever intended, causing me to need to research the human brain’s functions and the science of memories as though I were writing a dissertation on neurology (do they offer PhDs for students of the internet?).
In any event, the information and knowledge I gained from that book pulled all the loose threads of the Tick subplots into one cohesive concept. The full purpose will take the entirety of the series to reveal to you, dear readers (sorry), but what Dr. Kaku described in this very readable scientific exploration of the brain took my hypothetical and rather speculative perception of how the brain functions and turned it tangible reality, one so deep in the works that it will soon be hard to ignore. It was as though all those hypotheticals I had floating around in my head finally had some basis in reality … and that scared the shit out of me.
of mice and men and brains
I have always been fascinated by the conflict of the brain versus the muse. In Part Two of these blog posts, I’ll delve more into the psychological side of this discussion, but I will say that one of the major things I found fascinating about my research was just how much neurology has evolved in just the last 10-20 years. Scientists are discovering that the brain is even more complicated than they realized, and since it is such a difficult organ to study do to its fragility, it is taking longer than they’d hope to crack the secrets. One would expect that as an artist and a writer who can sense “things unseen”, I would be reluctant to learn that my “muse” is nothing more than a few mis-fired synapses. And perhaps that’s exactly why I am so fascinated by the study of optogenetics.
It may be safe to say that most everyone knows at least one person in their close group of friends and family who suffers from a severe mental illness: bipolar disorder, severe depression, addiction, PTSD, etc. I have an uncle who is schizophrenic. These illnesses are far more common than we’d like to believe, and yet the patients are treated less like medical victims and more like societal anomalies. For a long time, ailments of the brain were seen as oddities that could be cured with the power of positive thinking, because to a lot of people the brain was not seen as something with wires and electrical flow. Thankfully, that mindset is rapidly changing and we are beginning to understand that some brains are simply wired incorrectly, and to fix the ailment requires some adjustment.
It’s an understandable endeavor. Curing brain disorders is an admirable feat. Many people are plagued by mental illness and wish to live a more comfortable and productive life. Yet with every medical advancement, there will be people who want to take advantage of it. This is where the brain adjusters in Tick came from.
As I said earlier, optogenetics is currently in its infancy and the studies are being performed on mice, not humans. Mice brains have long since been good stand-ins for human brains since they are very similar to ours but a lot simpler, and it’s always a big jump to go from Mickey to Walt, but that’s not the point. It will be tested on humans sometime in the near future, and from there is where we open the portal into “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” Optogenetic light therapy is performed by taking a light-sensitive cell from a certain kind of algae, inserting it into particular brain cells via a virus, and then stimulating those altered cells with a fiber optic cable embedded into deep brain tissue (these are laymen’s terms here, people; this is complicated stuff). The light-sensitive cells react to the blue light, and can essentially turn on or off the signal firing capabilities of individual neurons. In practice, those suffering with PTSD can have a light emitting device implanted into a certain part of their brain and the light will turn off the signals which connect memories with negative emotions. Scientists still have to finish mapping the brain so they know exactly where and how those signals travel so they can pin-point the correct neurons, but, where there is a will there is a way.
Hey kid, Do you need a ‘fix’?
Using optogenetics as a cure for mental illness is an incredible concept, one with numerous possibilities. I am, however, wary of abuse of this science. We may begin “fixing” people who really are deserving of such technology, but there is bound to be a number of people with the money and the connections to walk into an optogenetic laboratory and demand to have their social anxieties removed. Or, a wife who wants to control her husband’s wandering attractions. Or a parent who wants to enhance their child’s learning capabilities. And what about sexual predators, murders, or cyber criminals? Would their punishment be optrode rehabilitation to adjust them of their criminal tendencies? And what about precautionary adjustments? Will doctors prescribe light stimulation to a developing child because they express early signs of violent behavior? And what about those who can’t afford to go to a fancy neurologist? Will it be just like today’s home-garage liposuction labs where people have procedures performed on them by unqualified amateurs for the sake of a low price?
And what about government exploitation of the technology? I can’t tell you how many programs I’ve watched on the Science and Discovery Channels which deal with new technology explored by law enforcement for the sake of capturing criminals before they commit the crime. We see it in science fiction all the time, and we see it happening now. Key words are scanned over the internet for people plotting terrorist activities (and there are multitudes of conspiracies about other things the government may or may not be doing, but I won’t get into that now). But if it were possible to scan the brains of everyday civilians to determine if their wiring resembles that of a criminal, could it become a law to sentence those people to be “fixed” before rejoining society?
These are all issues I have tackled in Tick, and will continue to explore in the remaining two books of the series. I have always been fascinated and equally frustrated by sci-fi set far in the future where these sorts of population-controlling techniques are already in place. I want to discover what would cause a society to get to that point. In Jo’s world (the world of my main character), people are already being snatched off the sidewalk for being suspected as cyber terrorists. In her world, it is unseemly to have a brain which is defective or disordered, and it is even impossible to get certain jobs without undergoing adjustment to make certain the individual is suitable for the position. And in Jo’s world, she is an anomaly hiding in the shadows, desperate to stay clear of the scanning drones and brain adjusters because she knows full well that if they find her tick they will fix her. Problem is, she fears even more the loss of her artistic muse.
Which makes me wonder … Is creativity the result of a normal brain or an abnormal one? Is there any truth to the concept of an “insane genius”? Are creative people more inclined to suffer from mental disorders, or is it the other way around? In Part Two of The Science of Sci-Fi, Tick Style, this is exactly what I will attempt to uncover, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, tell me your thoughts on the concept of brain adjustment and the possibilities for the future. How do you feel about optogenetics?