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The science and technology of Sensory Deception

-August 06, 2013

The concept of sensory saturation comes from something we’ve all experienced: panic. When you’re in an emergency situation, your awareness focuses on right now; no more than a second ahead or behind. If we could keep the here and now but remove the panic, you’d find yourself in the state of mind of intelligent nonlinguistic animals. Mammals and birds make decisions based on past experience, but they don’t have the processing power to contemplate or reflect on those experiences.


My second novel, The Sensory Deception, comes out on August 6 from 47North Publishing.

The majority of processes that produce reflective thought and self-awareness occur in the forebrain, just behind your forehead. The rest of your brain processes data from the senses and supplies automatic commands to the body. In the normal course of things, those data are transmitted to the forebrain for consideration. The sensory saturation threshold is that point where the brain is inundated with so much sensory information that there is insufficient processing power to channel information to the forebrain.

Just as panic overloads the brain with neurotransmitters that put the brain in the here-and-now, an overload of sensory information requires so much processing that the brain is flooded with different neurotransmitters that put it in essentially the same state but without the urgency of panic.

I thought of sensory saturation when I read an article about a polar bear who washed up on an Iceland beach after swimming over 200 miles and was shot by police. I wondered what it would take to create virtual reality technology that could give people the firsthand experiences of animals. Then I started the “What if” process.

What if a team of environmentalist techies built virtual reality technology based on sensory saturation? What if people’s experiences in animal realities altered their feelings about environmental issues? What if it was so successful that the techies could recruit an environmental army? Trouble would ensueand that’s where novelists spike the metaphorical ball in the figurative end zone.

My brand of science fiction, scientific fiction, really, requires that the science be accurate. When you read one of my novels, the premise will be based on cutting-edge science; I work through dozens of revisions to make the science accessible.

So I started researching this notion of sensory saturation and found neuroscience experiments that demonstrate how VR alters people’s feelings, even their politics.

But it’s a novel, right? As Stephen King says, “It’s about the story and characters, it’s always about the story and characters.”

What if they couldn’t quite achieve sensory saturation with hardware and software alone? What if they needed a pharmacological boost? What if, to really alter people’s feelings, you had to deceive their senses? Well, such deception requires a villain! Now we’re onto something.

Who’s your favorite villain? Heath Ledger’s Joker. But he’s a little too black-and-white for me; I like my bad guys sympathetic. We should understand what drives them, so I based Chopper Vittori, at least partially, on the 10-year-old version of myself: a migraine-tortured loner with disdain for humanity and delusions of grandeur. (Yes, I still get migraines. No, I no longer disdain humanity. Delusions? You judge, I’ll deny.)

I based the leader, Farley Rutherford, on the great Canadian naturalist, Farley Mowat and the finest leader I ever worked for, Paul Grannis who led the D-Zero experiment at Fermilab.

The venture capitalist, Gloria Baradaran, is a classic Silicon Valley VC but a bit naïve. I got her character and beauty and the germ for her background from my friend Dorinda.

Finally, electrical engineer Ringo Hayes. He’s in the cube around the corner. Complete with caffeine addiction, hobbies that other people think are weird, and a deep affection for how things work. You know him. You might be him.

But what about the killer app, the ultimate nature experience? I’ve always loved Herman Melville and Jules Verne. Ahh, but the rub, what would you have to go through to develop the technology? To record all that experiential data, you’d need to attach sensors to a big bull sperm whale. . .

Today The Sensory Deception, my second novel, is being released by 47North, Amazon Publishing’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror imprint. I hope you like it.

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