Cognitive Astrobiology

So here’s a cool combination of fields: neuroscience and astrobiology. Let’s call it “cognitive astrobiology.”

What is cognitive astrobiology? It can take several forms. The first is figuring out how to communicate with extraterrestrial life. The SETI Institute, devoted to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has a resident psychologist on board, Douglas Vakoch, whose job it is to figure out what kinds of messages we should be broadcasting into space. And SETI has in the past funded research into dolphin communication, as detailed in psychologist Diana Reiss’s book The Dolphin in the Mirror, because what hope do we have of communicating with an extraterrestrial intelligence if we can’t even communicate with dolphins? I’m reminded of this scene from The Simpsons:


WIRED magazine just ran a piece about the difficulty of communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence, in light of this weekend’s premier of Ender’s Game. SETI’s assumption in the past has been that if we communicate in the “language of mathematics,” which we presume to be universal, an intelligent alien should be able to understand that the signal they’re getting is from another intelligent species (us). But some anthropologists and psychologists have pointed out that even mathematics and science are contingent upon how we have evolved to sense and interpret our surroundings. Another species might “objectively” describe the world in ways very foreign to us.

A picture of the metal plaques attached to Pioneers 10 and 11. This image was designed by Carl Sagan in an attempt to communicate to extraterrestrials information about the origins of the spacecraft.

Another form cognitive astrobiology can take is studying the effects of space travel on human psychology. Think of Counselor Troi from Star Trek (resident psychologist/therapist/empath aboard the Enterprise). Douglas Vakoch of SETI is again at the forefront of this sort of research. He has edited a book titled Psychology of Space Exploration (made available by NASA for free as a PDF). One important line of research into the psychological effects of space travel was borne out of the increasing diversity of contemporary astronaut crews: whereas space missions of the Cold War era were made up of men of the same nationality, contemporary missions are made up of both men and women from different countries. What effects does this diversity have on group cohesion in space? Though we might expect that diversity could lead to conflict, research detailed in Vakoch’s book indicates that people in a simulation of a two-day orbital flight actually form close bonds after living together in close quarters. Other research indicates that the mere act of looking at the Earth from space increases wellbeing.

Another topic that cognitive astrobiologists might study is the effect of spaceflight on the nervous system. What are the effects of low gravity on neural function, not just in the central nervous systems but also in the autonomic and somatic nervous systems? To study this question, NASA has been launching jellyfish into space since the early 1990s. The point of this was to study the effects of microgravity-induced weightlessness on lifelong development of an organism.

The reason NASA chose jellyfish is because they orient themselves using gravity, just like humans. The results of the study weren’t encouraging: while spacefaring jellyfish seem morphologically similar to earth-bound jellyfish, they ended up developing motor problems, particularly pulsing and movement abnormalities. Researchers concluded that this deficit was either due to abnormal development of graviceptors or of the neuromuscular system, or a problem in how graviceptors and the neuromuscular system interact. This suggests that humans who spend too much time in space will face similar problems, especially if they are born there (which might be necessary if we engage in very long-term spaceflights).

And then of course there is the possibility that SETI picks up a signal from an intelligent species elsewhere in the universe and we send out a mission to make first contact. Surely we’d include a cognitive scientist on the mission to learn something about how this other species perceives, reasons, and communicates? Their “nervous system” (if we can even assume that they’d have anything analogous to a nervous system) would presumably be wildly different from that of organisms found on our planet. But studying them would certainly give cognitive scientists a much more objective understanding of how intelligence arises in general, not just in the squishy, carbon-based organisms we find on Earth. It would also teach us more about the evolutionary role of intelligence: as far as we can tell, there’s no reason intelligent life should have evolved on Earth, and yet it did. Not just in humans, but in species like dolphins and elephants that split from us evolutionarily nearly 100 million years ago. Might we find similar convergent evolution of intelligence elsewhere? Who knows.

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