Gut Control

For the next sixth months, visitors to the gloriously named Maison d’Ailleurs in Switzerland (a museum of “science fiction, utopia, and extraordinary journeys”) have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be given a deep-tissue massage by a prototype double cyborg.

IMAGE: Enteric Consciousness 2010 by Ken Rinaldo. Photo by Joana Abriel.

The installation, by artist Ken Rinaldo, is, as you might expect, quite complicated. Its title, Enteric Consciousness 2010, refers to the enteric nervous system that lines our guts. This “second brain” is a scaled-down version of the one inside our heads, which relies on its own circuitry of neurotransmitters and receptors in order to control digestion.

A New York Times article on the enteric nervous system quotes scientist Jackie Woods, who explains:

What brains do is control behavior. The brain in your gut has stored within its neural networks a variety of behavioral programs, like a library. The digestive state determines which program your gut calls up from its library and runs.

IMAGE: Enteric Consciousness 2010 by Ken Rinaldo. Photo by Joana Abriel.

Fascinatingly, the neural tissue in your head brain and your gut brain respond quite differently to the same chemical stimuli. According to Gary Wenk, author of Your Brain On Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts And Feelings, the serotonin in unripe bananas prompts the neurons in your intestines to increase muscle activity, causing diarrhoea rather than alleviating depression.

Similarly, Wenk explains that the “morphine-like chemicals” that are produced in your intestines after drinking milk or eating cheese simply serve to regulate gastro-intestinal motility and secretions, although “in newborns, that beta-casomorphin can easily pass out of the immature gut and into the developing brain to produce euphoria.”

IMAGE: Dopamine dipping. Enteric Consciousness 2010 by Ken Rinaldo. Photo by Nicolas Nova.

In Rinaldo’s piece, robotic tongues dip in and out of bowls of melted dark chocolate, drip feeding an artificial stomach with squirts of dopamine. In the brain, this chemical is known to create feelings of enjoyment and even addictive pleasure, while, in the gut, it has an emetic effect and can cause constipation.

As well as interacting with the mood-altering chemicals in food, the enteric nervous system also communicates with the trillions of bacteria that live alongside them in the gut, digesting our food and boosting our immune systems.

These bacteria — represented in Rinaldo’s artificial stomach by a lone species, L. Acidophilus — outnumber the body’s “own” cells by ten to one. They are a cybernetic network: an entirely non-human and non-hereditary adaptive technology, seamlessly and symbiotically incorporated into our bodies to metabolise nutrients, regulate fat storage, and even train the developing immune system.

IMAGE: The “micro-control unit that mediates between the health of the bacteria and the massaging robotic tongue-chair.” Enteric Consciousness 2010 by Ken Rinaldo. Photo by Nicolas Nova.

In addition to a stomach substitute filled with living bacteria, Rinaldo’s piece also includes “a large robotic tongue chair,” which is “covered with red emu leather that gives the appearance of swollen taste buds.” The chair is connected to the bacteria-filled stomach — a cyborg second brain — through a built-in pH meter and micro-controllers. According to Rinaldo’s own description:

If the bacteria within the stomach is healthy and reproducing, then the robotic tongue-chair senses the presence of the viewer/interactant, reclines, and delivers a deluxe 15 minute massage. When the interactant leaves the chair the robot tongue returns to an upright position.

In a final whorl to add to this installation full of feedback loops, the massage helps to reduces stress hormone levels, which in turn, scientists have recently proven, can actively reduce the incidence of intestinal disorders.

IMAGE: Enteric Consciousness 2010 by Ken Rinaldo. Photo by Nicolas Nova (left), and Ken Rinaldo and Amy Youngs (right).

Replace Rinaldo’s artificial stomach with your own, though, and you would become a double cyborg, enmeshed in an integrated ecosystem of human, bacterial, and robotic parts. Your health would be endlessly amplified, without any conscious awareness or effort, as an internal bacterial technology and a mechanical prosthesis communicate and respond to one another, changing their behaviour in order to soothe, support, and shape each other — and your second brain.

[NOTE: This is the very end of the month-long outpouring of cyborg-related posts prompted by Quiet Babylon’s Tim Maly in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the word’s invention. Read them all online at 50 Posts For Cyborgs.]

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