Through the Wormhole s04e04 Episode Script

How Do Aliens Think?

Freeman: Do aliens think in ways we could ever understand? Do all forms of intelligence share the same underlying pattern -- a pattern we are only now beginning to see? By studying the nonhumans in our midst, scientists are learning how alien minds function.
Their discovery -- that emotions may be more important than logic, and bodies matter as much as brains.
We may soon know how aliens think.
Space, time, life itself.
The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
we know that the stuff of life is spread throughout the cosmos.
Odds are that aliens are everywhere.
Will alien brains think like ours? Will they have brains at all? Without an alien to study, these seem impossible questions to answer.
But we're not alone on this planet.
If we want to know how aliens think, we can start by looking closely at the alien minds here on earth.
I used to look at my dog and wonder, "What's going on in there?" did she think the way I did? At least my dog seemed part of the same world as me.
Other creatures seemed utterly alien.
Is it possible that all life possesses some form of intelligence, but sometimes so different from our own that we fail to see it? Could a form of alien thought be right under our noses? We believe plants cannot think or feel.
But what if we're wrong? A ground swell of new research suggests plants possess a form of intelligence entirely alien to our own.
Most plants can smell, taste, touch, and perhaps hear, and, according to these two researchers, they may even talk.
Consuelo de Moraes has doctorates in chemistry and biology.
Mark mescher's background is in animal behavior and evolution.
The duo's experiments have proven that plants behave in ways we normally only attribute to creatures with brains.
I think what's alien about the way plants engage their environments for us as animals is that it's just so counterintuitive.
Animals, and particularly humans, we're very visually oriented.
We're very cognitively oriented.
We're these problem solvers that are used to sort of encountering our environments and thinking about them and coming up with ways to solve problems.
And plants are solving problems, but in a very different way of interacting with their environment.
Freeman: Recently, mark and consuelo have used pheromone detecting machines and time-lapse cameras to study a leafless parasitic vine called cuscuta pentagona.
Cuscuta exhibits a host of problem-solving behaviors we don't expect to see in plants.
But this fascinating life form has a dark side.
It may look like an ordinary vine, but in the plant world, it's a vicious serial killer.
De Moraes: Cuscuta is a true parasite, so as opposed to most plants, they don't have roots.
They don't really do photosynthesis, so in order to survive, they must attach to a host plant.
They work like vampires, in a sense.
They will take the resources out of the plant and then grow based on the resources from the host plant so they will not produce anything.
They're true parasites.
Freeman: As a cuscuta vine grows, it probes its surroundings the way we do with our hands when we search for the bathroom light in the middle of the night.
The vine bends and grows until it finds something tasty -- say, a tomato plant.
Then it probes downward until it finds the base of the stem, which it sinks its teeth into.
It wraps itself around the plant and sucks out its vital juices, and strangely enough, cuscuta can smell whether its potential victims are healthy or not.
De Moraes: We accept that animals can find the host based on smell.
We see that all the time, right? It's just we don't think that plants have that ability, and I think that's what's fascinating, because we just have this line that we have drawn that says animals can do this but plants cannot.
Freeman: Plants can also use smell to communicate.
Some use odors to defend themselves against predators and warn each other of danger.
For instance, caterpillars are eating the leaves of this soybean plant.
The plant calls for help by releasing chemicals that attract wasps.
The wasps sting the caterpillars to death.
While this is going on, other plants smell the distress signal and release their own chemicals to ward off attack.
Plants live on a different time scale from humans.
Their actions unfold so slowly, we think nothing is happening at all.
But plants defend themselves, communicate with other plants, recognize injured neighbors by scent, and sniff out meals.
Plants predate the human race.
They may well outlast it, so is it likely that their very alien form of thought and behavior could be found on other worlds? Mescher: The history of evolution on different planets may unfold in very different ways.
I think we would be very likely to find something that was very similar ecologically to what plants do.
I think they're able to take energy from starlight, basically, and convert that into biochemical energy that they can then use.
That's just the base of the food chain, and it seems that that would be the logical place for an ecosystem to start, even on another planet.
Freeman: The question is are plants on other worlds any better at thinking than the ones we know? Do alien trees contemplate their branches? Do alien flowers have nightmares about worlds with no sun? Perhaps alien plants have developed the complexity of thought it takes to become self-aware.
This woman would say "No.
" she believes that no life form here on earth or out in space can evolve complex thought until it has the ability to move and to sense the world as it moves through it.
For cognitive scientist saskia nagel, the interplay of sensory input and bodily motion is the foundation upon which consciousness is built.
For instance, I see this cup, I can feel this cup with my fingers, and also, I can sense the weight of this cup if I grab it.
That's sensory input.
Bit at the same time, closely coupled, my eyes move when I look at it, I have to move my arm to grab it, and I have to keep it like this if I want to sense the weight of it, and we think that the coupling of sensory processes and motor processes is what allows us to perceive.
Freeman: Our idea of what it means to be conscious is inextricably tied to our specific human senses -- the ability to see, smell, hear, touch, and taste.
But saskia believes that aliens could develop rich mental lives even if they sense their world in entirely different ways.
To prove it, she's feeding an alien sense into the nervous system of a group of volunteers.
By wearing a device called a feelspace belt, test subjects are learning how to feel the position of magnetic north.
This gives them a perfect sense of direction.
It's just a belt equipped with a number of vibrators.
On the back side, there's a little compass -- a very good one, actually -- and a little computer at the other side down there, and the compass and the computer always tell one element of these vibration elements at the time to vibrate, and it's always that element that points north.
Freeman: Today, saskia and her team have taken three volunteers into a forest.
The volunteers put on blacked-out goggles.
Next, they are spun around until they are disoriented.
Now they have to find their way to saskia, who stands at a fixed position directly north.
Ordinarily, they wouldn't stand a chance, but each volunteer has spent six weeks training with the belt.
They have developed a built-in compass.
Nagel: Actually, it's interesting that they don't feel the tactile stimulation anymore after the training.
It is as if this new sense has always been there, and they really develop a different sense of space.
Freeman: The day when we have solid evidence of how aliens think may be a long way off, but experiments like this give us a way of approximating what it's like in alien heads with an alien way of sensing the world.
They show us the ability to think is not dependent on the senses we know.
Logically, aliens would evolve senses tailored to their own particular environments.
On a planet where light is dim, having a built-in radar system would be more valuable than the sense of sight.
An alien could have a completely different set of senses and still dominate its world.
But how do groups of aliens think? How do they communicate with each other, organize, and form sophisticated societies? The answer may be right under our feet.
Your brain is like a maze of twisting railroad tracks.
As neurons grow, they make trillions of connections, and out of this incredibly complex network arises the miracle of your mind.
But who's to say it works the same way for intelligent life on other planets? What if the neural connections of alien brains are spread across many different bodies? Professor Nigel Franks is looking for an answer by closely studying the dominant form of life on earth -- insects.
So, I've been working on ants professionally now for about 30 years, and every day, we have a successful experiment.
They surprise and delight me, and I think the thing that's absolutely riveted me is now we know that ants are so much more sophisticated than we ever knew them to be.
Freeman: When ants get together, they form a superorganism -- a large, intelligent life form made of small, not especially intelligent parts.
Franks: What's special, I think, is that the way the ants communicate with one another, so the whole colony emerges effectively as a brain-like structure.
Freeman: To see this mass brain in action, Nigel forces the ants to go house hunting.
Franks: Right, so, in this experiment, we've taken one of our ant colonies.
We've been really mean to them, because we've totally destroyed the nest that they've been living in, and what that means is they have to find a new home, and we've offered them a choice of two alternative nest sites.
There's one over here, which is too light and got a very wide entrance, which is two things they don't like, versus this nest that they really should prefer because it's got a beautiful narrow entrance.
It's got plenty of space for them to live in, and this red filter means that the nest is dark, and that's something they prefer, as well, so we would expect them to be able to choose this nest.
And the beauty of this experiment is we should be able to work out exactly how they go about making this kind of decision.
Freeman: Ants are picky shoppers.
When they size up a new home, they carefully consider the height of the ceilings, the floor space, the width of the rooms, and the number of entrances.
They will reject nests that have hygiene problems, such as the remains of a previous tenant.
[ Screams ] Franks: If an ant likes a particular nest, it goes home to the colony and finds a receptive nest mate, and it leads it back to that nest site.
Basically, the leading ant teaches a single following ant the route to the new nest site, then, if it likes it, as well, go home and recruit yet more.
So 1 ant becomes 2 becomes 4 becomes 8 becomes 16, and when they build a sufficient number of their nest mates in the new nest site, they achieve what we call a quorum threshold, and that's the decision point that makes them commit to that particular nest site, and then they'll start carrying their nest mates there rather than leading them.
Freeman: Recently, computer scientist James Marshall used Nigel's findings to create a sophisticated model of ant decision-making.
Then something remarkable happened.
James came upon another computer simulation that looked very much like the one he was working on.
A colleague came to join my department from Princeton, where he'd been working on modeling primate decision-making circuits in the brain just around the same time I started making these computer and math models of ant colonies making decisions, and we went to each other's talks, and we were both really excited because we could see that each was basically looking at the same kind of system.
Although one was an ant colony and one was a primate brain, they were both basically working in the same way to make decisions.
Freeman: James realized that individual ants in a superorganism behave like the neurons in a single primate brain.
Marshall: So, I think ants collectively process information in a very interesting way.
No individual ant needs to know all the details about its environment, but by having a little bit of information and aggregating it together at the colony level, the colony can be well informed about the decision it's making, even if individual ants are less well informed, and that's analogous to neurons in the brain.
No individual neuron really knows anything, but you stick a load of them together, and collectively, the brain does know something.
Freeman: So, given enough time, could ant colonies become conscious? Are they already conscious? Franks: Well, I think one of the great differences between the way we solve problems and the way ants solve problems is the ants actually have to mingle with the problem to begin to solve it.
And the great difference we have is that we can often play virtual-reality games in our heads to think about alternative scenarios and how we might solve the problem and what the consequences of that might be.
So, what we do is stand back and think about things, whereas the ants really roll up their sleeves and get on with it.
Freeman: Ant colonies can accomplish goals far beyond the capabilities of their individual members.
But they can only think about things that are directly in front of them.
They lack self awareness and the ability to imagine.
Perhaps alien insects have these abilities.
On earth, they do not.
So, is there a nonhuman intelligence on earth that rivals us for thoughtfulness and innovation? This man says yes.
He's studying a creature that may hold the secret to alien thought and the mystery of consciousness.
Human brains are not the largest on earth, but they are the most complex.
Our brains don't just think.
They also are self-aware.
They are conscious.
Is consciousness unique to the human brain or could a creature with radically different brain architecture also be self-aware? The answers may lurk behind these unblinking eyes.
Octopuses are invertebrates.
They don't have spinal cords, yet they exhibit a level of intelligence we usually associate only with mammals.
They appear to be thoughtful, clever, even calculating, but they are utterly unlike us.
Octopuses are truly the closest thing to an alien life form of any degree of intelligence on the planet earth.
Freeman: Neuroscientist David edelman studies the brain of the octopus, or more precisely, brains.
It has more than one.
In the common octopus, we have half a billion neurons, or nerve cells, more than half of which are in the arms, and those arms, in fact, are really, really interesting because you can almost characterize them as having their own miniature brain.
Freeman: The multiple brains of the octopus act as a distributed processing system -- the arms feeding data to the head like a network of computer nodes feed data to a central hub.
If one of the nodes is cut off, it can still function.
Edelman: If you cut off an octopus's arm, that arm is actually able to execute a series of movements that are very, very coordinated, which is really intriguing, and you do not see that at all in any vertebrate.
[ Arm murmuring ] Freeman: How do you work out what a creature with an alien brain is thinking? David's solution was to adapt intelligence tests made for mice and rats to octopuses.
So, what you see here is a Barnes maze, which was originally designed for looking at memory and learning and actual visual navigation in rodents, and what we're doing here is we're checking the octopus's capability for visual navigation, and so what you see here is this fairly simple maze with 18 holes, but only one hole is a true hole that leads to an escape.
The escape is into a container of its own seawater.
But you also see these visual landmarks, and the idea behind this is to follow the animal as it learns the location of the various landmarks in relation to the one true escape hole.
Freeman: The octopus has no problem finding its way out.
Trials have shown that when the markers are moved, it will head towards what it believes to be the exit sign, even if it's no longer above the escape hole.
Clearly, the animal plans, acts, and remembers.
It's thinking at a high level of complexity, but is it conscious? Edelman: I define consciousness as the stitching together of all of the diverse sensory input that's coming into my brain -- visual input, sense of touch combined with auditory, what I hear -- and the remembrance of all of that stuff stitched together as a unitary whole.
Freeman: So a creature with multiple brains could be conscious, but being conscious is not the same thing as being self-aware, and right now, we have no way of measuring either consciousness or self awareness.
Edelman: If somebody were to ask me whether my dog is conscious, as a pet owner and a dog lover, I would say, "Well, of course.
"She seems to be aware of her world.
"She seems to respond in ways that look remarkably familiar to me.
" but as a scientist, I have to demand evidence of consciousness in nonhuman animals who cannot report to me their internal conscious states.
Freeman: The octopus's thoughts are a mystery and may forever remain a mystery.
We may never know if it is self-aware or if it can contemplate its world.
Can you think without words? Is there such a thing as thought without words? Well, you know, I might be in the minority, but I happen to think that you probably can.
I think that there can be visual thoughts.
It's very hard for us as humans to imagine that because, of course, every time we think, language breaks in.
What will alien languages be like? Would theirs and ours have anything in common? The evolution of language on earth may hold the answers to whether humans and aliens can one day communicate or be hopelessly separated by our uncommon tongues.
Human evolution has been going on for roughly 5 million years, and that's just a blip in the 13.
5 billion-year history of creation.
Chances are we are not the smartest creatures in the universe.
If we met aliens far more advanced than us, could we communicate? Would we speak the same language? What would language be like for a species a million years older than us? Professor Simon Kirby sees language as a living thing that evolves over time.
The sheer variety of languages on earth, are mirrors of how we think and how thought may change in the future.
Right now, we're doing something pretty extraordinary.
I'm breathing out slowly while at the same time moving my tongue, jaw, and lips in an incredibly fast ballet of movement.
I can use this skill to take a thought that's in my head and transfer it into yours.
Freeman: Simon wants to know why this happens.
Kirby: How did we end up having a language with a particular kind of structure that allows us to talk about anything? It turns out, surprisingly, that we can get a clue to the answer by looking at a simple game like broken telephone.
In the game of broken telephone, a sentence evolves as it's passed from player to player, but it doesn't evolve biologically.
Rather, it evolves through a process of cultural evolution.
So, the original sentence was, "The survival of certain words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.
" and what you guys turned it into was, "Longer existence is not longer existence.
" [ laughter ] Freeman: The sentence seems to have mutated from sense to nonsense.
But Simon argues what's significant is the sentence became shorter and easier to learn.
That is how language evolves.
So, the broken telephone game acts as a kind of miniature version of cultural evolution.
So what's happening is that each player in the game is hearing a sentence and mapping it somehow into their brains briefly and then trying to reproduce it again.
Because that process is imperfect, the sentence can evolve over time, so the sentence we get at the end is different from the one at the start, and what's happened is that that sentence has adapted in some way to the brains of the people playing the game.
Freeman: Proving this scientifically is difficult because language doesn't leave a fossil record behind to study.
Simon tackles this problem by creating alien languages word by word, then watching them adapt to human brains.
So, we wanted to see if we could re-create the cultural evolution of language in the lab, whether we could study something that take hundreds of years and see it happen in basically an afternoon.
So what we did is we set up an experiment where we teach a volunteer an alien language that we've made up and then test them on it.
So in the setup, we have a bunch of alien fruits that have names, but every name is different.
And this language is essentially impossible to learn.
Okay, Adam, so, now I'm gonna ask you to try and identify some of these alien fruits for me.
That one.
Freeman: Virtually no one is able to remember the words correctly.
Okay, I'm afraid you actually got none of those correct, so sorry about that.
But that's okay.
Now Adam will write down what he thinks the words were, and then this new set of words will be taught to the next volunteer.
This volunteer would write down her version of the words, and then those words will be taught to the next person.
Kirby: So, towards the end of the experiment, participants that are coming in and learning the language after it has, if you like, washed through the brains of some of our earlier participants, suddenly seem to do better.
In fact, towards the end of the experiment, our volunteers can name all the fruit that we show them, even ones they've never seen before.
Well done.
That's all of them correct.
And what's happened here is that the language has evolved.
It has evolved structure, and it turns out that the mistakes people make will tend to be the kinds of things that other participants can learn, so every mistake one generation makes makes the language easier to learn for the next generation.
Freeman: So, communicating with an ancient alien race may not be so difficult after all.
If language evolution follows similar patterns on other worlds, an alien tongue could be easy to learn.
But don't expect the aliens to be smart.
If we look at how humans work today, we store information online.
We share information online on these massive networks, and we basically find out any information we want instantly, so perhaps an alien civilization would have gone further down this road.
I can imagine evolution taking us in a direction where less and less is needed of our brains, as it were -- of our biology -- because more and more of that is taken on by the cultural system that we're building around us, so perhaps we will get more and more stupid biologically and more and more smart culturally over time.
Freeman: Clever or not, aliens would need language to have civilization.
But would they need speech? Why bother to talk if you can share your thoughts directly via mental telepathy? How might aliens communicate? We speak.
Language lets us transmit our thoughts into other people's brains.
But language might not come in the form of speech.
What if complex life evolved on a planet where communication by sound was impossible? A different way of transmitting information might evolve.
What if aliens are telepathic? It's already happening here on earth.
Today, this man's thoughts will be detected and transmitted by a machine.
It's part of a revolutionary project led by university of California at irvine neuroscientist Mike d'zmura.
We call it a brain-computer interface.
We use e.
To measure the faint signals generated by the brain when a person thinks.
Our goal is to analyze the e.
Signals to determine what it is the person is thinking.
We can then send the phrases to some other person using any number of means, including e-mail or text messaging.
Freeman: Mike is testing whether this man can use the brain waves generated when he imagines two different syllables as a form of telepathic morse code.
D'zmura: They're two syllables presented at the beginning of trials.
These are either "Wo" Or "Fi.
" if our subject hears "Fi," Then he thinks "Fi.
" fi.
[ Beeping ] If he hears "Wo," Then he thinks "Wo.
" wo.
[ Beeping ] "Fi" Could be used to communicate the short element of morse code, "Di.
" "Wo" Can be used to communicate the long element of morse code, "Dah.
" Freeman: The meta-morse-code tests have been stunningly successful, with an accuracy rate near 100%.
This synthetic telepathy technology exploits an error correction mechanism in the brain.
When the brain sends a command to the motor cortex, it also creates an internal impression known as an efference copy of what the resulting movement would look and feel like.
[ Groans ] Mike and his collaborators realized that if they could read these efference copies in the brain, synthetic telepathy could advance to the next stage, transmitting thoughts not just in morse code, but in common phrases.
Finding and isolating an efference copy in the electrical jumble of the mind is no easy thing.
The exact location of neural activity is difficult to discern because the scalp, skull, and cerebral fluid surrounding the brain scatter its electric signals before they reach the electrodes of an e.
The real problem is the signal-to-noise ratio.
At the moment, I am speaking to you right now.
You are listening, and this is generating activity in your brain.
Let's suppose that this brain activity is what we would like to detect.
This is the signal.
Well, if it were the only thing going on in your brain, it wouldn't be so hard.
However, there are many things that your brain is doing simultaneously.
It's controlling your heartbeat.
[ Drum beats ] It's controlling the rate of breathing.
[ Saxophone plays ] We are constantly scanning our external environments.
[ Guitar plays ] It generates thoughts that rise up into consciousness.
[ Accordion plays ] Now, suppose that all of these things are going on simultaneously behind the skull.
[ All instruments play ] This is similar to all of the sources of noise in a recording studio behind a thick plate of glass.
[ Fading ] Pretty soon, it's gonna be impossible to hear the signal.
[ All instruments playing ] great problem that we face in signal processing.
Freeman: So far, Mike's software is able to identify words in the subject's brain about half the time.
But advances in synthetic telepathy are coming quickly.
Someday, we may be able to project our thoughts through the ether, and if we can do it, it could be standard equipment for an alien species.
I can easily imagine that there are other species out there who may actually be better at signaling things through interfaces such as e.
So I can imagine, for instance, a species whose motor areas are not buried behind an extraneous piece of brain, but rather on the surface.
Freeman: This alien species could learn to pool its thoughts, much as ant colonies form superorganisms, but with vastly more brainpower augmented by machines.
The thinking power of this alien meta brain could dwarf anything we can imagine.
But could a society that communicates by thought endure? If you think you get too many texts and e-mails now, what happens when people don't even have to go to the trouble of typing? On earth, instant communication seems to cause as many problems as it solves, perhaps because our messages are loaded with emotion.
We presume that isn't an issue for mentally advanced aliens.
Surely, they are logical, machinelike beings beyond emotion.
But this woman believes with her heart and her mind that thinking and feeling are two sides of the same coin.
Like us, aliens may need emotions.
Science fiction often depicts advanced alien species as cold, emotionless beings of pure intellect -- basically, computers with legs.
According to this line of reasoning, emotions are primitive urges that merely cloud our thinking.
But would a mentally superior species necessarily be devoid of feelings? Or could aliens have a heart? Psychologist Lisa Barrett's groundbreaking research reveals that language, memory, and even rational thought all depend upon emotion.
Barrett: When you feel angry, you experience this as very different from when you're having a memory or when you're thinking something or when you're perceiving something like a beautiful flower.
Those seem to you to be very, very different kinds of experiences, but at the level of the brain, there are common networks that are active during all of those events.
Freeman: The notion that our emotional and rational minds are entirely separate dates black to Plato, who saw emotions as savage, brutish instincts.
[ Groans ] Charles Darwin argued that emotions are evolutionary holdovers from animals which no longer serve any useful purpose, like our vestigial tailbones.
Humans of the future, or any alien species far along the evolutionary trail, will not be burdened with feelings.
But according to Lisa, you can't separate reason from emotion.
In her lab at northeastern university, Lisa studies how emotions shape thought.
She does this by altering people's core affect -- the basic state of mind that underlies complex emotions, and she does this without their knowing it.
Barrett: So, subjects come into the laboratory, and using specialized equipment, we present different images to the left and the right eye.
To one eye, we will present flashing images -- let's say mondrian-type image of artwork -- embedded in visual noise.
To the other eye, we present a static image of either a neutral face, a smiling face, or a scowling face.
Freeman: When one of your eyes is shown a flashing image and the other eye is shown a still image, you are only conscious of seeing the flashing image, but the still image nonetheless reaches your subconscious mind.
By measuring skin conduction, heart rate, breathing, and vascular resistance, Lisa detects her subjects' unconscious responses to the hidden faces and then measures how this affects their thinking.
She's found that people exposed to the static smiling face are more likely to find the mondrian-type image beautiful.
But when the hidden face is frowning, they don't like the picture.
It's not the case that we're impassively viewing things in the world and then having reactions to them.
Our affective feelings are actually influencing what we see and how we make judgments about what we see.
Freeman: Whether we know it or not, emotions determine how we think and what we pay attention to.
Your affect helps you to allocate your attention, for example, towards me and ignore all the other sources of information that you could potentially be paying attention to.
Affect also helps you to sharpen your perception of the thing you're paying attention to.
Freeman: If emotions are essential to consciousness and self-awareness, then aliens will certainly have them.
They will use them the same way we do -- to realize their goals Yay! to define their personalities [ Grunts ] to make sense of their world.
The true nature of alien thought would probably defy our speculations.
It may well be beyond our understanding, but by studying the minds of the aliens here on earth, we have learned much about ourselves and the gift of having brains that can think, feel, and communicate.
One day, when we finally engage with alien minds, we will find out whether consciousness, emotion, and imagination are unique to us or spread throughout the stars.
Right now, we have no way of knowing.
All we can do is imagine.