What’s It Like To Be A Blob Of Brain?

Medical experimentation tests our humanity. It also tests the humanity we ascribe to experimental subjects.

A scientific paper shouldn’t get you worked up, but “Human brain organoids assemble functionally integrated bilateral optic vesicles” really hit a nerve. It wasn’t the methodology or data that did it. Not really. It was a photograph. Figure 3A-ii to be precise.

The image is a small blob of brain, grown from induced pluripotent human stem cells, with two tiny black eyes peering out at the world. Little round teddy bear eyes. Innocent. Curious. Expectant. That’s how it seems, anyway. A pitiful disembodied being, fully sentient, trapped in a sterilized container until some unfeeling lab tech comes to perform a dissection.

Why would anyone bring this creature to life, monitor its development, cut it apart, analyze its features, then dump it down the drain with no eulogy?

So that one day the blind may see.

Organoids Ex Nihilo

The experiment was led by microbiologist Jay Gopalakrishnan of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany. As predicted, the team was able to produce functional retinal cells from scratch. The results were published in Cell Stem Cell on August 17.

“Eye development is a complex process,” the researchers explain, “and understanding it could allow underpinning the molecular basis of early retinal diseases.” With that one-sentence justification, the brain blob’s fate was sealed. Over three hundred of them, in fact.

Typically, when retinal organoids develop in vitro, all by themselves, they come out wonky. For one thing, they don’t form a retinal pigment epithelium—the tissue bearing light-sensing rods and cones. However, Gopalakrishnan’s team demonstrated that if these mini-eyeballs develop in interaction with the forebrain of a cerebral organoid, within 60 days you’ll have two symmetrical, basically functional peepers looking back at you.

Imagine being trapped in a glass cage under flashing halogen bulbs for the rest of your life. In order to test the organoids’ photosensitivity, researchers beamed light on them—sometimes for ten minutes in a sitting. Their engineered eyeballs responded as if the creatures were alive.

Horrible as it may seem, the team did answer a few big questions. How can you get retinal tissue to develop properly in an eye organoid? Through chemical interaction with a forebrain organoid. Why should the scientific community give birth to swarms of brain organoids at all? Because they allow you to create proper retinal organoids.

One question the biologists failed to answer: What’s it like to be a blob of brain with two little eyeballs?

An unimaginative answer would be: “Nothing. It feels like nothing.”

Even with the eyes?

“Even with the eyes. They’re just organoids, man.”

It sounds sensible enough. But staring at that little blob with its pleading bug eyes, this response seems sociopathic. It has to feel something, right? I mean, just look at it!

The Vulnerable Other Inside Our Heads

Anthropomorphic projection comes naturally to most human minds. It’s why we see faces in the clouds. It’s the reason a kid gets upset when someone punches her stuffed animal. Empathic projection is at the root of human conscience.

In the case of people bothered by lab-grown brains, some are appalled at the sacrilege, with no concern for the thing’s feelings. Some might fake outrage just to please other people. But I’d wager most feel true sympathy.

You see a creature suffering. Assuming you’re not afflicted with mind-blindness, you imagine what it’s like to be this creature. Its pain becomes your pain. In a real sense, you’re projecting sentience onto an object. Or rather, its mirror image is conjured in your mind to varying degrees of accuracy. If this creature does in fact feel pain, then your theory of mind resonates with reality, and the sympathetic actions you take actually mean something.

An old lady falls down on the sidewalk. She’s crying. You sympathize—meaning you project an experience of pain onto her.

Is it just an illusion or should you help her?

What about a salted snail?

How about a warped kid punching a teddy bear?

An accurate mental projection will produce legitimate sympathy, but sometimes we’re just seeing faces in the clouds.

Facing An Ephemeral Reality

Last October, the journal Nature wrestled hard with this question, asking “Can lab-grown brains become conscious?” The article spotlights a brilliant mad scientist at the University of California, San Diego:

“In Alysson Muotri’s laboratory, hundreds of miniature human brains, the size of sesame seeds, float in Petri dishes, sparking with electricity. ... [The neuroscientist] has connected organoids to walking robots, modified their genomes with Neanderthal genes, launched them into orbit aboard the International Space Station, and used them as models to develop more human-like artificial intelligence systems.”

After concluding there’s no established way to quantify or definitively assess states of consciousness in organoids, embryos, invertebrates, or even comatose humans—including the capacity to feel pain—Nature gives the good doctor the final word:

“For his part, Muotri sees little difference between working on a human organoid or a lab mouse. ‘We work with animal models that are conscious and there are no problems,’ he says. ‘We need to move forward and if it turns out they become conscious, to be honest I don’t see it as a big deal.’”

Toward the other end of the empathic spectrum, we have the transhumanist Anders Sandberg of Oxford University. Speaking to Gizmodo about the troubling use of organoids to humanize mouse brains, he quoted the philosopher Jeremy Bentham: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

With no rigorous methodology to answer this question, we’re left with our imaginations. So how should we, the public, respond to images of brain blobs with tiny eyes?

Do we push regulators to halt any medical experiment that makes us squeamish? Do we draw googly-eyed brains on picket signs and protest outside the labs?

Do we simply accept that medical progress requires some degree of cruelty, whether enacted on brain organoids, human-macaque chimeras, lab mice, lab monkeys, aborted fetuses, or even grown men and women who openly protest?

To some degree, all of us enjoy the benefits of cruelty. Some instances are extreme, such as acts of brutality in the name of national defense. Or laughable, like the Chik-fil-A cows painting “Eat Mor Chikin” on a billboard. Sometimes you just have to squirt mustard on that chicken biscuit and move on.

It’s quite possible a blind man will have his sight restored thanks to Gopalakrishnan’s experiments on brain organoids who have teddy bear eyes. Even if those blobs do suffer, maybe it’s worth it. Maybe it’s time to get over it.

With so much suffering in the world, you have to make priorities. And yet, looking at Figure 3A-ii, I can’t unsee the face in that cellular cloud. It could be that every picture in my head ultimately amounts to nothing. But I’d bet my soul it feels like something to be that tiny blob of brain.

writes about ethnic identity, transhuman hubris, and the eternal spiritual quest. His work has appeared in The Federalist, ColdType, The American Thinker, The National Pulse, This View of Life, The American Spectator, IBCSR: Science on Religion, Disinformation, and elsewhere. Follow him @JOEBOTxyz and www.joebot.xyz.

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