George Orwell’s 1984 through a neuroscience lens*

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I first read George Orwell’s 1984 while in hospital for a minor operation in my early teens. It horrified me at the time, and it continues to exert a powerful hold on my imagination. It is justly celebrated as possibly the most important political novel of the 20th Century, having influenced generations of anti-authoritarian campaigners of every type and stripe. 

The book seems forever relevant: in the past decade alone, 1984 has had two dramatic spikes in sales: one, in 2013, after the revelations regarding widespread surveillance programmes on US citizens by the National Security Agency, and the other surge in 2017, after Kellyanne Conway gave the world the very Orwellian phrase of 'alternative facts’. As of today’s date (12 Dec 2020), it is in the top 200 on Amazon.com, with more than 30,000 ratings (averaging 4.7 out of 5).

One recent critic correctly and reasonably suggests ‘…Orwell’s writings have had a significant cultural influence, one that went quickly global once it got going in the mid- to late 1940s. (“Some apes, it seems, are more equal than others,” quips Charlton Heston’s character in the first of the Planet of the Apes films, a mere eighteen years after Orwell’s death). Orwell has become one of those writers whose influence is so great it extends to people who have never read his books.’

1984 describes a world which appears beyond our experience, where the individual is entirely subordinated to the state. This is a world where independence of thought and action (‘thoughtcrimes’) are illegal. Great Britain is renamed as Airstrip One, a province of Oceania (an entity comprising Britain, Ireland, North and South America, southern Africa and the further-flung Anglophone countries of Australia and New Zealand). Oceania is perpetually at war either with Eurasia or Eastasia, depending on the shifting alliances of the moment.

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Re-reading the book today is still an unsettling experience. The grey and rain-swept London cityscape, the ever-present hunger, the continual observation and monitoring of the population, the continuous indoctrination and propagandising, the power cuts, the damp cold seeping into everyone and everything. Winston Smith, the grey semi-hero of the book, succumbs to the temptation of independent thought and action. He becomes the lover of Julia, a fellow party member, committing “sexcrime”. He records his thoughts, including his philosophy of freedom (“…the freedom to say two plus two make four”), thereby committing “thoughtcrime”.

Eventually and necessarily, he is caught, imprisoned, and questioned and interrogated at length, and tortured, by O’Brien, a party apparatchik (who wryly comments by-the-by that ‘They got me a long time ago’).

Smith’s torture takes place over three episodes. He is not tortured to extract information about his subversions. He is tortured to confess to the crimes committed within the privacy of his own mind – but the confession is not the object of the torture. He is also tortured to induce him to recant of his beliefs, and to induce compliance with the wishes of the Party. But the mere verbal recantation of his beliefs and surface behavioural compliance is not the object of the torture. Frankly, Smith’s memories and past behaviours are of little account or interest to the Party. Much more important is that Winston should become remade in the core of his being so that the will of the Party, and his own will, are one. This ambition, to remake and remould the person in the image of the party, to go far beyond mere surface compliance, is what makes the central message of the book so terrifying and shocking. Presumptive rights of cognitive privacy are at naught: you will think and behave as expected, because you can conceive of no other way of existing.

Orwell had a deep and acute knowledge of the purposes of torture arising from the show trials of the 1930s USSR – of what Stalin referred to in one memo authorising torture as ‘physical methods of influence’. It was not enough that a confession be extracted under duress – for any thug with a truncheon could extract this. Much more important that the individual would welcome the executioner’s bullet as a just retribution for the crimes that they had committed against the State, the Motherland and Koba (as Stalin was sometimes affectionately known).

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Big Brother fulfils a similar role within the Party and State mythology of 1984. We see echoes of this in the purposes of the torture to which Smith is subjected by O’Brien. Smith is subjected to routine, pain-inducing torture first:

“Without any warning except a slight movement of O’Brien’s hand, a wave of pain flooded his body. It was a frightening pain, because he could not see what was happening, and he had the feeling that some mortal injury was being done to him. He did not know whether the thing was really happening, or whether the effect was electrically produced; but his body was being wrenched out of shape, the joints were being slowly torn apart. Although the pain had brought out the sweat on his forehead, the worst of all was the fear that his backbone was about to snap. He set his teeth and breathed hard through his nose, trying to keep silent as long as possible. ‘You are afraid’, said O’Brien, watching his face, ‘that in another moment something is going to break. Your especial fear is that it will be your backbone. You have a vivid mental picture of the vertebrae snapping apart and the spinal fluid dripping out of them. That is what you are thinking, is it not, Winston?’”

O’Brien’s torture machine has a dial that runs all the way up to 100. The pain that he has just visited upon Smith was with the dial set to 40. O’Brien then threatens Smith, and tells him that if he lies, if he attempts to prevaricate, or if he even falls below his usual level of intelligence, that he will cry out with pain, and the pain will be instant. They then converse, and they converse about many topics, including what the Party and O’Brien believe to be Smith’s delusions.

One of the most famous quotations from 1984 is Winston writing in his diary “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four”. O’Brien then shows the four fingers of one hand to Smith and says to him, “how many fingers?”. Smith says “four”, O’Brien replies with a massive injection of pain. He asks him again “how many fingers?”; Smith again replies “four” and the needle spins in the dial all the way up to 60 this time. And in desperation he still says four, but eventually he says five. But O’Brien is very canny; he realises and knows Smith is lying; and tells him he is lying. Smith says “Four! Five! Four! Anything you like, only stop it, stop the pain!”.

Electroconvulsive Shock

A new form of torture occurs next, a kind of electroconvulsive shock (ECS), where two soft pads are placed against his temples. O’Brien reassures Smith that this procedure will not hurt. Smith experiences what feels like an explosion, a blinding flash of light and he felt, and despite his prone position, feels as if he has been knocked flat out onto his back. O’Brien speaks to him and says:

“Just now, I held up the fingers of my hand to you. You saw five fingers, do you remember that?”, “Yes”. O’Brien held up the fingers of his left hand with the thumb concealed. “There are five fingers there, do you see five fingers?”, “Yes”. And he did see them, for a fleeting instant, before the scenery of his mind changed. He saw five fingers and there was no deformity, then everything was normal again, and the old fear, the hatred, and the bewilderment came crowding back again. But there had been a moment “….when two and two could’ve been three as easily as five, if that was what was needed.”  O’Brien then goes on to say: “You see now….that it is at any rate possible…”.

The ECS induced both a transient perceptual distortion and a central cognitive distortion. A perceptual distortion in the sense that Smith saw five fingers where only four were present, but a cognitive distortion too, because his knowledge of the anatomy of the hand, his consistent, persistent knowledge of the anatomy of the hand, tells him that there are only four fingers, but he believes, for a short while at least, that the hand does indeed have five fingers. It has five fingers without any mutation, any oddness, any strangeness about the extra finger being present. Smith experiences the perception of pentadactyly  in another person, the presence of a non-existent supernumerary finger, but nonetheless he does experience it, and he experiences it as entirely normal.

Are such perceptual and cognitive distortions possible?

The short answer is that yes, they are. Professor Vincent Walsh at University College London is a world leader in the use of a technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. TMS involves the application to discrete areas of the brain of a very high intensity magnetic field (30,000 times the strength of the earth’s magnetic field). It has long been known that, a moving magnetic field will induce an electric current in a nearby conducting body. The application of TMS to the brain causes a surge in electrical activity in the part of the brain to which it is applied. Orwell suggests that Smith experiences a blinding flash of light. Curiously, if TMS is applied to the rear of the skull over the visual cortex, it can induce “phosphenes” – perceptions of light that can appear as flashes, blurs or simple geometrical patterns. They are reliable and easy to induce, and perceptually are quite remarkable to experience.

TMS can be applied to other brain areas, and it can induce a variety of perceptual or other distortions, depending on the type of stimulation that is used, and the positioning of the high-intensity magnets. Walsh and his co-workers have explored a wide variety of phenomena associated with brain stimulation induced by TMS. TMS applied to one brain region (the right occipital face area) causes deficits in the perception of face but not non-face stimuli (objects or bodies). Participants in these experiments are asked to make judgements as to whether the picture that is flashed on a visual array on a computer screen is either a face, an object or a body. And they find that your ability to tell a face from a non-face object is lost when this brain area is stimulated.

Intriguingly, Walsh and his co-workers have applied TMS to differing parts of the parietal cortex. This is the uppermost part of the brain to the left and right of the vertex of the skull. Stimulation of the differing parts of the parietal cortex can cause deficits in the perception of quantity. A simple experiment might involve asking participants to make a judgement regarding quantities (for example, is 12.07 greater or less than 15.02?). They have not yet done experiments on the perception of pentadactyly in others – but I hope they will. Orwell showed some prescience in his predictions about future neurotechnologies from his vision of 1984 from his 1948 perch.

A final thought: don’t forget to read the appendix to 1984. Most people don’t read it, and this is mistake, as it changes everything that went before. Ostensibly a dull piece on newspeak,. The appendix contains a message of hope, for it is written with the events of the novel described as having occurred some decades in the past, with the totalitarian regime of Oceania, Ingsoc and all the rest consigned to the dustbin of history. There is a message of hope buried here that is all too easily missed.

(All quotations from 1984 are from my 1984 paperback edition by Penguin Books)

*This is a reworked version of a very popular previous post on my blog.

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