Cognitive Estrangement, Science Fiction, and Michael Crichton's Sphere

illustration of the human brain
How long does it take you to recognize what something is? Have you ever flown in a plane and looked at the ground below and not grokked the vision below? Then you kept looking and realized--yes, that's a river, that's a road, those are cars!

Now imagine that you are in a foreign environment--maybe even an alien planet. You look and look but you don't know what you're looking at. The sky's not blue. The grass isn't green. Heck, the grass isn't even grass. You hear odd things--grinding things, beeps, growls, weird stuff. Nothing makes sense. But you stick around. You begin to make connections. At some point, everything will make sense to you. Though you will always have the memory of not understanding the foreignness of everything. In Science Fiction, cognitive estrangement contains both these elements--the not understanding and the understanding.

Cognitive estrangement amplifies the recognition experience. Recognition is the experience of comprehending a given subject of study. If you've ever had to read something twice or more to get it, then you understand the challenge of comprehension. We don't always recognize the material put in front of us at first, even if the material is standard issue information. Misrecognition is partially a result of how our memories interact with our cognitive function, partially based on focus, and partially based on native intelligence. Humans don't always store memories completely. What we remember is packed away in groups of neurons that, when triggered, fire in the same patterns that the experience was recorded.

Alien Systems

Now, cognitive estrangement in science fiction plays on the incomprehensibility of alien systems, whether in language, architecture, biology, chemistry, logic, psychology, design, art, technology, and on and on. If humans that advanced without contact with each other for thousands of years can become alien to each other, how much more would aliens and their artifacts appear foreign to humans? What if the aliens we come in contact with communicate using sub-vocalizations rather like elephants? What if they see in the ultraviolet spectrum? These differences would place humans in a constant position of cognitive estrangement, perpetually unable to experience the world as the aliens and so constituting a permanent barrier to understanding the other.

Human Traditions

We currently go to museums to marvel at four-thousand-year-old Greek pottery or scrolls from the near east written at the dawn of recorded history. We do our best with a theory of mind for the people that created these artifacts. Knowing that human faculties and human intelligence have been consistent for over 40,000 years gives us confidence that other than experiencing life in different social, cultural, technological, and material realities, the experience of human consciousness is a constant. We are aware of our surroundings. We reflect on the meaning of events. We plan. We make tools. We love. We hate. We treasure things and people and find meaning in surrounding ourselves with the things we love and pushing away the things we hate. There's no estrangement with this understanding of what our life is. Even if we come up against language barriers or cultural differences, there's a limit to our cognitive estrangement from one human tradition to the next. We're human after all. 

Aliens and Cognitive Estrangement

a human comes into contact with Michael Crichton's Sphere

Tales involving cognitive estrangement will be used as standard assigned reading if and when humans encounter sentient alien species and need to send delegates to meet with them. If this idea sounds vaguely familiar, it should. In Michael Crichton's Spherethe protagonist is the author of a defense contracted handbook for encountering intelligent lifeforms from other worlds. When the sphere is discovered, who else is brought in to make first contact but the guy that wrote the book on it?

Darko Suvin and Cognitive Estrangement

The origin of cognitive estrangement goes back to Darko Suvin, former Editor in Chief of Science Fiction Studies back in the '70s. Suvin came up with the cognitive estrangement term as a way of describing how some Sci-fi operates, giving the reader the experience of not understanding the world they're in. The reader is dropped into a completely foreign world and then slowly begins to understand it.

What Does Cognitive Estrangement Achieve?

Cognitive estrangement achieves two purposes. First, it approximates the experience of meeting aliens, encountering alien stuff, or traveling "beyond the beyond," leaving the Earth and perhaps our solar system and seeing what's out there. Second, it gives us the chance to consider our misunderstanding of other human groups objectively. However, it would be a mistake to leave off consideration of the importance of the first use of the literature of cognitive estrangement. The universe has trillions of galaxies, after all. We've only been in one of those galaxies, our own, and know that life exists in it. So, why shouldn't intelligent life exist in every galaxy? Indeed, we can't confidently say that other sentient species aren't in our own galaxy. 

We're not currently aware of sentient lifeforms from beyond our own world, but we are aware of humans on our planet that we don't understand, others that we don't want to understand, and still others that we've tried to eliminate.

Aliens on the Horizon

Sphere - Michael Crichton

We should only hope that if aliens do appear on our horizon, they've solved their own internecine problems and are rather clear-eyed in regard to races they perceive as alien, that the systems they've devised for ending strife among themselves might be used to promote human peace. This is where Michael Crichton's Sphere is so perfectly conceived. The sphere is either a pandora's box or an ultimate gift, capable of turning to reality the thoughts of those who come into contact with it. So, it's a test. Aliens distribute the gift to races alien to them and then clear out, letting the sphere determine what level of mental and psychological ability the species they've contacted are at. Those groups that experience the lowest levels of cognitive estrangement, able to make sense of their own thoughts and equally able to understand the systems of groups that are far different from them, prove themselves ready to interact with the citizens of other galaxies. Those that do not, well, we don't have to talk about them.

Cognitive Estrangement and Human Community

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Cognitive estrangement is a human experience. It's the experience of living in human community. None of us ever know what anyone else is thinking or feeling. Thankfully, the terror created by not knowing what the other is thinking in Sphere isn't part of our reality, the paranoia of wondering who will think of something to endanger everyone and what that endangerment will be. Still, if we want to live successfully in our community, we have to lean into not understanding long and hard enough to push past it to make the cognitive leap of understanding others. Science fiction cognitively estranges us from our own world so that we can learn how to improve our interactions with others. Sure, science fiction is interested in other worlds, but the other worlds always reflect our own world--the world that is always with us--the world we don't always see clearly enough.

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