The Morphing Science of Animorphs -The Toast

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animorphsI know that I am not the only Toast reader who was regularly scolded for sitting on the sidelines and reading a book during recess. It is when we enter a lively discussion about the dubious science/historical accuracy/ psychological validity of a beloved book series that I feel most connected to you all. So when Mallory brought up the topic—first through Twitter, and then on this very site—of the scientific basis of Animorphs, I couldn’t resist procrastinating just a little bit more on my dissertation to delve further into the idea.

I spotted one of the first Animorphs books on display at a Scholastic book fair (let’s pause for a moment to revel in the glorious memory of book fairs) and was immediately hooked.  Girls turning into dolphins? Someone had reached deep inside of me, plucked out my dearest fantasy, and bound it in a faux-lenticular Photoshop extravaganza. For a while, I managed to keep up with the series’ near-monthly releases. I experienced the cold panic of Tobias and Jake’s certain death when David moved to town and tried to destroy our fair heroes. I became so engrossed in a new release that I wandered off into a corner with it at Atlantic Book Warehouse and my mother had to page me over the intercom.

I never did manage to finish the series, but I read the majority of the non-ghostwritten books, including the outstanding Hork-Bajir Chronicles (sobbing quietly in my sleeping bag during a family camping trip) and the similarly exceptional Andalite Chronicles.

I hope that you, dear commentators, will fill in any details I have missed. Those of you who are well versed in the cognitive sciences (or philosophy or metaphysics) can also feel free to point out any errors in my reasoning.

In Mallory’s original post, she discussed a number of relevant and legitimate concerns, but I’m going to focus on the questions related to cognition. What exactly is Applegate insinuating about the nature of the mind and brain? The relationship between mind, brain, and body is a theme central to Animorphs. Humans and various aliens morph into other creatures, maintaining (occasionally tenuous) control of these new physical forms with their extant minds and communicating in the “universal mind symbols” of thought-speak (I’m not going to touch that one. Have at it, linguists). Yeerks—the baddies in the series—slither into the brains of others to control them directly, presumably through physiological mechanisms. In a multi-layered mindfuck, a Yeerk can control another individual with morphing capabilities, forcing that individual to morph and presumably wreak havoc or engage in other dastardly deeds. Query: Could an Animorph technically morph into a Yeerk, take a morph-enabled host, and proceed to morph into an entirely different creature? Minds on minds on minds.

This is all very well and good, especially if you are eleven years old and you really just want to get out of playing kickball or fantasize about Tobias and his 90’s bowl cut, ever-so-slightly tousled by his daily trip upside-down into the toilet bowl.  But I am now 25 years of age and have a master’s degree, so it’s time to up the level of scientific scrutiny. What is Animorphs really saying about the relationship between our thoughts and consciousness and the physical stuff that makes up our brains and bodies? Is Applegate a dualist? That is, does she believe that the mind somehow exists independent of or greater than our brain? That our consciousness, or soul, or our very essence, is greater than the sum of our meaty parts? Or is she a materialist: does she believe that our thoughts and sense of self emerge directly from our physical being, and that everything we think and feel is represented in our firing synapses and the interactions between our bodies and the world around us?

Let’s start with what the series gives us to work with. In book 10, The Android, Marco learns what happens to one’s body “ in morph” from his friendly alien compatriot, Ax.

<Ah. I am frightened, too. I don’t really like morphing tiny animals. I keep thinking about all the rest of my mass.>

<Your what?> I asked, not really caring. I was focused on the morphing ahead.

<My mass. When you morph something smaller than yourself, your body mass must go somewhere. So it goes into Zero-space. Zero-space is the space that ships travel through when they are going faster than light. It’s not very likely to happen, but sometimes a ship traveling in Z-space will intersect with a temporarily parked mass.>

This got my total, complete attention.

<A big wad of Marco in Zero-space,> I muttered. <Like hanging your butt out of a car window and waiting for a truck to come along and sideswipe it off.>

If we believe that the Animorphs universe subscribes to the laws of dualism, then the problem is a simple one. Even when Rachel morphs into an ant with a tiny ant brain, her mind still exists, perfectly intact and Amazonian, floating in the ether, controlling her actions, and planting the seeds of feminism in young girls everywhere (Question for discussion: Who is your feminist icon, Rachel or Cassie? Which one did you have a crush on?) Fans of the series will already spot an issue with this solution, however, particularly when it comes to morphs like the ant. Here’s Marco again, this time in book 5, the first time the gang tries out this morph:

<What’s the matter?> Tobias cried.

<I … I … I lost myself,> I said. <I was gone. I was lost. I didn’t even exist.>

<Get out of that morph!> Tobias said.

But I could hear the others now, snapping back into reality. Becoming again. Crying.

<What kind of creatures are these?> It was Ax. He sounded terrified. Terrified. <They have no self! I was lost! There was nothing to hold onto. They are not whole. They are only parts, like cells. Just pieces. What kind of foul creatures are these?>

<Listen. You guys morph back,> Tobias said. <This sucks. This isn’t right.>

<Hive,> Cassie said, sounding shattered. <They are social insects. Part of a colony. A hive. I should have guessed. I should have known. Ax is right. Each of us is only a part. Like a single cell within a human body.>

The fact that the Animorphs had to grapple with “animal instinct” suggests that that they don’t simply control animal bodies with their intact minds. In other words, one doesn’t control an animal body remotely, as if using a video game controller or pulling puppet strings from somewhere in Z-space.

These “animal instincts” are cognitive in nature, and sometimes complex higher-order cognitive processes at that. The instincts associated with dog and dolphin morphs relate directly to the animals’ dispositions (looking back, though, I find it surprising that all of the dolphin minds just wanted to goof off and play. I have to believe that any animal as intelligent as a dolphin is, on average, probably a huge asshole). With morphs like the ant, the shrew, or the flea, the Animorphs experience a lack of personality, independence, and drive. Applegate is suggesting that the physical animal brains impinge upon and transform the Animorphs’ very consciousness, altering who they are and how they respond. Thus, she does not seem to believe that the human mind exists completely independent of the brain.

So, is Applegate a materialist? Does she believe that the essential “Jake-ness” of Jake and “Tobias-ness” of Tobias, their personalities and thoughts and being, are contained in the meat of their human form (and particularly in their human brain)?

Applegate seems to make a distinction between the aforementioned “instincts,” which are automatic and relatively stable, and the stream-of-conscious experience of an intelligent human being. This potentially suggests some level of neural localization—that is, the idea that particular regions of the brain are “responsible” for different cognitive processes.

Neuroscientists know that this is at least somewhat true—when a patient has a lesion (from a stroke or head injury) on a particular part of the brain, she or he may lose a very specific ability, such as the ability to encode new memories, or speak out loud, or identify an object pictured one one’s left side but not one’s right. From neuroimaging studies, we know that certain neural regions become more active than others when a living human performs certain cognitive tasks. Converging evidence from these and other fields of study support neural localization. Perhaps Applegate is proposing that, while in morph, the Animorph’s human cortex (responsible for higher order cognitive processes like planning and decision-making, and for interpreting sensory input and coordinating movements) is grafted on the animal’s hindbrain. The limbic area, containing structures involved in motivation, fear processing, and fight-or-flight responses, is a little trickier to divide neatly. Wherever the division occurs, this theory would involve parts of the human brain in Z-space interfacing with parts of the animal brain through some kind of inter-dimensional connection.

The problem with this cosmic-brain-graft theory is that neural localization only takes us so far. There is no “consciousness region” of the brain (sorry, Francis Crick). The various parts of our brain are in constant conversation; our personalities, thoughts, and reactions emerge as the result of multiple brain regions working together. In reality, we are never, ever, using only 10% of our brain. In fact, even we are spacing out and ostensibly “doing nothing,” a variety of neural networks continue to activate.

One network in particular has even been associated quite robustly with the stream-of-consciousness style of thinking. And these networks develop slowly over the span of childhood and adolescence; you couldn’t attach two previously unacquainted brain parts and expect them to work together. (You CAN do F’d-up things like transplant mouse cortex onto kitten cortex, but it takes a bit longer than the two-hour morphing window). Plus, the morphing technology was designed with the Andalite brain in mind, and yet it transfers seamlessly to humans, a completely alien species (Evo-devo people: do Andalites and humans have a common ancestor? Further research reveals several bird-like species in the Andalite home world as well. Where is my Inter-Planetary Bering Strait Crossing Theory?).

Among the Animorph’s many animal morphs are several pretty intelligent species. The dog and the dolphin have been mentioned. Marco’s battle morph is a gorilla, which is capable of complex social interaction and possibly even language. A gorilla has a nice big squiggly neocortex, much like a human. In my mind, there is very little question that great apes possess something like self-awareness and consciousness. We do know that gorillas, and several other animals, recognize themselves in a mirror—which for whatever reason has become a benchmark for possessing consciousness. All this is to say that not only would we have to consider what parts of the Animorph brain are linked up to the animal, but also that some part of the animal brain has to be turned OFF. I have to give major props to the Andalites for developing such a sophisticated and sensitive technology.

This idea of turning OFF the animal consciousness seems to be one of the essential differences between the Yeerk’s biological ability and the Andalite’s technology (Something else to consider: did the Andalites harness the Yeerk’s biological ability to develop the benevolent mind control involved in morphing?). The technological off-switch is the second most important difference between the Yeerks and the Andalites; the first being, of course, that Yeerks are parasites who control the actual primary body of a creature, whereas Andalites essentially clone a creature and then hack into their brain.

I believe Applegate is implying that no clones were harmed in the making of the Animorphs. Somehow, the little blue box confers the ability to morph into the complete body of an animal (or human!), but with its sentience completely erased. In cognitive science, this sort of body-without-sentience is called a zombie (seriously). And here’s the thing: as the old thought experiment goes, if a zombie is physiologically indistinguishable from a non-zombie version of the same creature, the only possible explanation is that consciousness is dictated by a non-material phenomenon. In other words, where there’s a zombie, there’s dualism.

Unless of course:

  1. The Andalite technology isn’t quite so benevolent, and the poor innocent minds are being suppressed, Yeerk-style, and watching in horror while the Animorphs innocently believe they are fighting for neural freedom.

  2. If you captured someone in flagrante de-morph-o and sliced open their head, their brain would be somehow physically different. For all of the gross body horror Applegate gives us, this possibility is never mentioned, to my knowledge.

  3. It’s all just a Ketran world-building video game, laws of physics be damned.

  4. There is more freaky shit going on in Z-space, involving some sort of metaphysical space-time connection that our puny human brains cannot fathom. Which, okay, not to get all hard sci-fi on you right now, *pushes sweaty glasses up the bridge of nose* but that would be a total cop-out.

Alas, dear readers, I fear that I have no straight answer. Using the limited powers of my own brain-meat (I’m a materialist; in my book, the burden of proof is on the anti-physicalists), I fail to place Applegate solidly in one camp or the other. Based on our working knowledge of the human brain—which, granted, is still quite limited—I feel fairly confident that it would be impossible to Frankenstein together the morpher’s stream-of-conscious experience and the morphee’s instincts and brain-body interface. You can’t have your controlling-the-actions-of-a-new-body cake and eat it too. At the same time, however, morphing is a technology, not a superpower. The implication is that the Andalites worked within the physical laws of the universe to engineer it.  Then again, this is a universe in which the characters once time-traveled to the Cretaceous period and got eaten by dinosaurs.

So, now it’s your turn. What do you think? Try out a few of these theories. Your mileage may vary… unless you use a Z-space transponder. Hey-ohh! *Raises hand in the air for a triumphant high five*

Lauren Sherman is a doctoral student in developmental psychology. She studies adolescent social and neural development, particularly in the context of digital media. She also sings opera, reads genre fiction, and tweets.

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