The science of Sense8 may tread a little closer to the "fiction" side of science fiction, but a surprising amount of it is based in actual scientific research. While the metaphysical plays a strong hand in the show's narrative, the scientific phenomena referenced in Sense8 have long been studied by scientists and psychologists alike.
After finishing #Sense8 Season 2, you may find your mind buzzing with Sensate-related questions, such as: How are the Sensates able to communicate with each other and see dead people? How do beta blockers work? And on a more basic level, what is a Sensate?
Let's delve deep into the real science of Sense8 and see just how those Sensate brains work:
What Is A Sensate?
Are Homo Sensoriums real? Sadly, no. The term is entirely fictional, as is a Sensate. In reality, the word "sensate" is used as either a verb or an adjective, and not a noun. It can be used interchangeably with the word "sense", or as a way to describe something that is detected through the senses. For example, "Kala realized she could sensate the cool snow on her arms", or, "Will was creeped out by the sensate sounds of the church." Nevertheless, it's clear to see how the term inspired the show writers.
But while Homo Sensorium may not exist, the science that inspired Sense8 isn't all that far from fictional. Sense8 Season 2 helped to clear up a lot of questions regarding the origins and inner-workings of the Sensorium mind; but many of the answers to those questions were actually revealed in the very first episode of Season 1.
What Is DMT?
Drugs have been a long-running theme throughout both Sense8 and the Wachowskis' other narratives— remember those blue and red pills in The Matrix? Before Sense8's Riley Blue was made aware of her own Sensate abilities, she was introduced to a similarly perplexing, life-changing experience: a drug called DMT.
In the very first episode of Sense8 Season One, Nyx describes DMT to Riley:
"It's a simple molecule present in all living things. Scientists talk about it being part of an eco-biological synaptic network. When people take it, they see their birth, their death, worlds beyond this one. They talk of truth connection transcendence."
After smoking DMT at Nyx's apartment, Riley has her first experience connecting with another Sensate in her cluster: Will. It would appear that DMT is what triggered Riley's Sensate abilities. So what is DMT, and how does it connect to the Sensates?
DMT, or Dimethyltryptamine, is a psychedelic drug found in a variety of plants. While it's been used in the Ayahuasca ceremonies of Amazonian shamans for eons, it's also used recreationally. Nyx's description of DMT is pretty accurate. When ingested, it produces short but very intense hallucinogenic experiences not unlike what Riley encountered.
Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico has focused the majority of his research on DMT, coining the drug "the spirit molecule." He even wrote a book on the subject, and believes the chemical is released from the brain both when we dream and when we die. Many of Strassman's theories on the psychedelic effect of DMT coincide with what is shown in Sense8, and not just in terms of Riley's DMT trip in Episode 1. In fact, the Sensates' awakening to their own abilities is incredibly similar to the psychedelic experience itself.
As each Sensate begins to discover their true self, the line between reality and hallucination becomes less and less clear. They're essentially pioneering uncharted territory in their own psyche, which is confusing, bewildering and exciting all at once. As they learn to let go and accept the journey they're on, they gradually become more lucid and accepting of this new state. In order to truly master their powers, they must abandon the urge to rationalize and thus resist the process, and instead learn to instinctively feel their way through the experience.
How Do Sensates Communicate?
We can assume that DMT plays a large part in how the Sensates are able to connect and see each other. But how exactly do the Sensates talk to each other and fight together? Are the Sensates psychic? Again, this relates back to DMT.
Psychedelic researchers like Strassman and famed psychonaut Terrence McKenna claim to have interacted with other beings during psychedelic episodes. Using McKenna's theory that hallucinogenic substances can be used as communication tools, it would come as no surprise that DMT is what allows the Sensates to experience a type of telepathic astral travel.
Speaking of astral travel, this could also explain Wolfgang and Lila's ability to physically remain in one place whilst interacting with each other at the same time: by astrally projecting their non-physical body. While astral projection has no scientific basis, it's reported to be a common occurrence in psychedelic experiences.
Another important concept Nyx introduced to Riley in that first episode was Limbic Resonance. He described it as "a language older than our species." It's the act of sharing emotions with other beings without the use of verbal communication. This idea relates to the empathetic limbic system, a part of the brain that influences the endocrine system — which is exactly where the pineal gland lives. There's that DMT connection again — don't forget Nyx's mention of an "eco-biological synaptic network."
Sense8 Season 2 delved further into the way the Sensate brain works, and this limbic resonance was shown to be a function of the Sensates' "Psycellium": the mental connection between all Sensates.
While fictional, Psycellium obviously took inspiration from a similar word: Mycelium. This is the term used to describe a network of fungi. An essential part of any ecosystem, mycelium serves to recycle waste found in soil and turn it into useful nutrients for the plants growing above. This network works a lot like the human brain, sending pulses of information across the vast web. It's basically the internet for plants.
The Sensates' Psycellium network operates exactly the same way. Think of each cluster as a small group of closely-connected fungi, connected to thousands of other fungi underneath a giant forest. As the Old Man of Hoy says:
"Sapiens invented Google in the 1990s. We've had it since the Neolithic."
But how are the Sensates able to see dead Sensates? Well, this could be explained by both DMT and limbic resonance. Strassman's research claims that the brain releases a rush of DMT when it dies. Assuming a Sensate experiences this intense rush upon death, they could leave a permanent impression of themselves behind— or as Will says, a "memory".
This is where the limbic system comes back into play. The limbic system is said to be responsible for long-term memories. It's possible that the memory of a Sensate is left behind in the collective unconscious shared by Sensates. This could explain how living Sensates are able to see dead Sensates.
What Are Beta Blockers?
Sense8 Season 2 started off in a dark place, with Will injecting heroin to fend off Whispers just as Angelica had done before him. Later on, he manages to get his hands on a supply of something more reliable: beta blockers, commonly used by more experienced Sensates to avoid "Cannibal". But what exactly are beta blockers, and how do they work?
In Sense8, beta blockers are said to have the opposite effect of DMT, shutting off a Sensate's abilities. In real life, they do indeed have opposite effects— DMT elevates your blood pressure, while beta blockers are often taken to lower blood pressure. Beta blockers could theoretically affect the way the brain reacts to DMT, and Strassman's research has found some beta blockers to lessen the psychological effect of DMT.
Of course, it's very likely that the beta blockers in Sense8 are actually a reference to a Yu-Gi-Oh! card: Psi-Blocker (also a term for the beta blockers in Sense8). The exact Japanese translation for this card is "Psychic Blocker," and it allows the player to temporarily stop the effects of a chosen card. It certainly seems like an apt choice for Sense8's little black pills!
What are your thoughts on the science of Sense8?