The Birth of Frankenstein’s Monster?

On March 11, 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was one of the first science fiction novels and remains one of the most influential pieces of literature of all time. For many years, scholars have doubted Mary’s account of how she wrote the book. Now, thanks to modern science, we may finally know the truth about her famous “waking dream.”

Mary Shelley’s Waking Dream of Frankenstein?

According to the third edition of Mary’s Frankenstein book, Lord Byron challenged her, her husband Percy Shelley, and a physician named Polidori to each write a ghost story in mid-June 1816 during the so-called Year without a Summer. Byron and Percy, to the best of my knowledge, never followed through on the challenge. Polidori launched the romantic vampire genre with his short story, The Vampyre. Meanwhile, Shelley tossed and turned until she finally found her inspiration for Frankenstein on June 16 “during a sleepless night in her dark room, behind closed shutters ‘with the moonlight struggling to get through.'”

“I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life …” ~ Mary Shelley

Mary claimed that she saw a “bright and shining moon” over Lake Geneva and that she proceeded to write the novel about Frankenstein while in a “waking dream.” However, scholars have long doubted her account, considering it a tall tale designed to sell more books. And indeed, certain entries in Polidori’s diary have cast doubt upon Mary’s version of the events. Did she really see moonlight on June 16 and begin writing her novel shortly afterward? Or was the moon impossible to see that early morning?

Does Mary Shelley’s Story fit the Facts?

Enter Professor Donald Olson, an astronomer from Texas State University. Olson specializes in using astronomical tables and geographic reference points to solve some of the world’s most famous historical mysteries such as “the time, date and location of paintings by Edvard Munch and Vincent van Goghthe Battle of Marathon in 490BC and Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC; and even…a freak Breton tide mentioned in Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale.”

In August 2010, a team led by Professor Olson visited the Switzerland villa where Mary had her vision. They made “extensive topographic measurements of the terrain” and analyzed “weather records for June of 1816.”After a thorough investigation, Olson “determined that a bright, gibbous moon would have cleared the hillside to shine right into Shelley’s bedroom window just before 2 a.m. on June 16.” However, by June 22, it was a “waning crescent, masked by a hillside.”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Thus, it appears that Mary’s version of events is supported by the evidence. Olson believes that Byron made his challenge between June 10-13. A few days later, Mary woke up in the early morning of June 16, between 2am and 3am, and started to write about Frankenstein.

“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night. We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account.” ~ Professor Olson

And the rest, as they say, is history.

A Machine that can Read Minds?

Oneirology is the scientific study of dreams. It’s widely considered a protoscience, or a promising field of study that has yet to be firmly established. New research could change all that though. In fact, it could change a lot of things. What if technology existed that could read dreams? What if these “natural movies” could read entire minds?

What are Natural Movies?

Scientists at UC Berkeley recently created a computer program that can “translate brain wave patterns into a moving image.” They call these images “Natural Movies.”

In order to get these Natural Movies, subjects watched hours of Youtube videos inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. In the process, the MRI recorded the ways in which the subjects’ brains processed the visual imagery. The research team used this information to develop a computer program “that matched features of the videos – like colors, shapes, and movements – with patterns of brain activity.”

Afterward, the program was tested in reverse. The team “fed the computer 18 million one-second YouTube clips that the participants had never seen.” The program then attempted to reconstruct the clips using other YouTube scenes as well as the information provided by the subjects’ brain activity. This video shows some of these results. The movie on the left is a series of Youtube clips. The movie on the right is the reconstructed Natural Movie. The Natural Movie is blurry because it layers “all the YouTube clips that matched the subject’s brain activity pattern.”

“This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.” ~ Jack Gallant, Professor of Psychology

The Future of Natural Movies?

Of course, this research is in its infancy. The UC Berkeley study only measured a small amount of total brain activity. More models will be needed to encompass the entire visual system and more computers will be required to analyze the data. And ultimately, our ability to record and watch inner imagery like dreams, memories, or thoughts will depend on “how close those abstract visual experiences are to the real thing.” Still, it looks promising.

“If you can decode movies people saw, you might be able to decode things in the brain that are movie-like but have no real-world analog, like dreams.” ~ Jack Gallant

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

This research is straight out of a science fiction novel and could end up having enormous ramifications on life as we know it. Natural movies could enable paralyzed individuals to communicate movements through visual thoughts, allowing machines to make those movements a reality. The Pensieve from the Harry Potter series, which enabled one to store and recall memories, could become a reality.

Unfortunately, natural movies could also become a nightmare. It might be used in harmful ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Even the researchers themselves seem a bit nervous about the whole thing.

“It is possible that decoding brain activity could have serious ethical and privacy implications downstream in, say, the 30-year time frame. As an analogy, consider the current debates regarding availability of genetic information. Genetic sequencing is becoming cheaper by the year, and it will soon be possible for everyone to have their own genome sequenced. This raises many issues regarding privacy and the accessibility of individual genetic information. The authors believe strongly that no one should be subjected to any form of brain-reading process involuntarily, covertly, or without complete informed consent. ~ Shinji Nishimoto, An T. Vu, Thomas Naselaris, Yuval Benjamini, Bin Yu & Jack L. Gallant: Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies

Will this research benefit mankind? Or will it lead to a future straight out of Minority Report? Only time will tell.