hide logo

Melissa M. Littlefield

Short Biography
Melissa M. Littlefield is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is also affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Technology. Her books and co-edited collections include: The Lying Brain: Lie Detection in Science and Science Fiction (2011), Instrumental Intimacy: EEG Wearables and Neuroscientific Control (2018), The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain (2012), and The Art of Identification: Forensics, Surveillance, Identity (forthcoming 2021). She has been the co-editor of Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science & Technology since 2013.

Panel Abstract
Amplification and Access – Mechanical Brain Wave Imaginaries in the X-Men and Flash Gordon

Over the past decade, human electroencephalography (EEG) has gradually moved out of the laboratory and into various wearables: hats, headbands, and even costumes. But what are these devices recording and for what purpose? According to NeuroSky’s website, their EEG wearable devices measure “Brain waves. Not thoughts.” This distinction between brain waves and thoughts ostensibly makes EEG wearables appear objective: data in, data out, with no messy translation from thought in between. However, there is a more complex story behind the brain wave discourses upon which these devices rely. Indeed, and as I explore in this presentation, brain waves are an invention—part of a larger imaginary—that constructs the brain’s electrical activity as accessible and modifiable. In this presentation, I analyze one very small slice of this imaginary: representations of accessible brain waves from mid-century American popular culture. “The Brain Machine,” which appears in Flash Gordon (1955) and Cerebro, popularized by the X-Men (1964) are exemplary EEG-styled helmets. Their presentation in popular culture reveals discourses of mechanical access and amplification alongside arguments for brain waves as thought, as markers of individuation, and as opportunities for control or connection. In order to better situate these examples, I first discuss a longer history of twentieth-century references to brain waves, which notably shift into mechanically mediated phenomena after the news of Hans Berger’s pioneering EEG work spread in the popular and scientific media of the 1930s.

Melissa M. Littlefield speaks in Panel II: Sensing Technology Narratives – Imaginaries of Intervening and Accessing by Nicole Schimkus, Alice Soiné, and Daniel Stoecker.