Is abstract thought possible without language? David Cronenberg’s first full-length feature, the silent (save for voiceovers) STEREO, explores this very question with telepathist test subjects isolated on the brutalist commuter campus of the University of Toronto, Scarborough.
As Steven Pinker put it in The Stuff of Thought, “We know that human thoughts are stored in memory* in a form that is far more abstract than sentences…” So how would this abstraction manifest itself without words, tapping into what Pinker calls a “huge infrastructure of abstract mental computation”?
Psychology has a long tradition of lesion studies, or removal or destruction of part of the brain. Subjects, typically rats, are tested on some metric before and after they’ve had such a procedure. This may appear brutal, but without this, scientists are left to work backwards and infer behavioral changes from neuronal structure when humans have sustained such injuries. (Severe head trauma, for example, isn’t nearly as precise and directed as a lab scalpel on an anesthetized rat. And of course, no human test subject would allow their brains to be damaged in the name of science…but then again, there’s a long and sad history of psychosurgery and lobotomy. Interested readers can read Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets).
Famously, Dr Oliver Sacks examined visual agnosia in his book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. The condition is a failure to recognize visually-presented objects, whether it’s close family members or being able to spot the distinction between, say, a poker chip and a Scrabble tile. It’s a result of damage to the posterior occipital lobe, a completely different neural region from the centre that controls blindness.
In Stereo, test subjects’ larynx’s are removed and they’re left to communicate with one another using merely their thoughts as a means of heightening telepathic sensations. The language / thought question is an interesting one, and one researchers figure heightened “telepathic bonding” will help answer. They’re also keen on learning more about the communal experiental space of a telepath and whose thoughts would dominate in this new form of human interaction.
All these questions derive from one mysterious Dr. Stringfellow, the unseen prime mover at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry (forget Brazilians, nothing says sex appeal like Canucks).
Shot in B&W with obvious nods to Bergman, Stereo is a talky, stark film that’s worth a look for a brief hint at the kinds of themes Cronenberg touched on in subsequent films such as Scanners, The Fly** and Videodrome.
*** (out of 5)
*please read Bringing new life to Patient HM, the man who couldn’t make memories.
**check out our Really Awful Podcast discussion of The Fly.