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Highbrows
Highbrows.
Image from Steve Bowers

They say the Highbrow clade started out as a joke. If that's true then it's a gag that's been running for almost 10,000 years.

Introduction

With their huge heads and strange customs, the Highbrows are often thought to be no more than a long-running joke. Though most acknowledge that they have remarkable mental abilities even by Superior standards, the colossal size their brains had to reach to develop these abilities can seem absurdly inefficient, especially when computronium implants have been readily available for millennia. What these detractors miss is that being a Highbrow is about more than just sheer brainpower, it is a way of exploring human potential using the unique properties of biological substrates. If the Highbrows did indeed begin as a joke, then it is one that has persisted for thousands of years, a testament both to the success of the original design and the enduring appeal of their clade memetics.

Physiology and appearance

The most distinctive feature of the Highbrows is their large head, designed to house a brain roughly ten times larger in volume than the human norm. Their bodies have been optimised to support this vast mass of neural tissue, which is structured very differently from a nearbaseline human's brain, or even that of a Superior. A second massive layer of brain tissue grows out from the longitudinal fissure, separating into two outer layers that fully enclose the inner hemispheres and grow down into the spine, which has been expanded into a hollow tube to accommodate it. This structure acts as a second cortex, connected to the first one by a dense layer of axons, while the limbic system and cerebellum now grow within the spine as there is no room for them within the skull. Each area of the inner cortex is linked to corresponding areas in the outer cortex, which provide analysis and feedback of those processes back to the interior.

Meeting the oxygen and energy requirements of such a large brain required radical changes to the respiratory, pulmonary and digestive systems to handle these increased demands. Highbrow lungs employ the countercurrent exchange system used by Superiors, allowing for a unidirectional airflow and greater absorption of oxygen compared to the Nearbaseline norm. This is achieved through a broader nose with larger nostrils to increase the volume of air intake and avian-style 'air sacs' that allow them to absorb oxygen when breathing out as well as when breathing in. The heart is nearly twice the size that it would be in a Nearbaseline, increasing stroke volume and pushing blood up through the Highbrow's tall skull without increasing its pulse rate. By contrast, the digestive system has been shortened and simplified, requiring the Highbrows to drink nutrient-rich fluids that can be absorbed as easily as possible, especially as their bodies can only store limited amounts of fatty tissue.

Other organs like the liver, kidneys and spleen have been reduced in size and complexity to reduce their energy consumption. Musculature has been streamlined and optimised, resulting in Nearbaseline-equivalent strength with smaller, more efficient tissues. Highbrow blood carries higher levels of hemoglobin to match the increased oxygen intake of the lungs, while being circulated at higher pressure to provide greater nutrient density in the same volume of fluid. The bones of the skull and vertebral column have been fused into a single unit in order to support the weight of the brain, preventing any movement in the back and neck. Instead, the bottom of the vertebral column has a convex shape that sits in a concavity in the pelvis, allowing the upper body to turn and tilt as one.

Due to their large skulls, Highbrow infants cannot fully develop within their mother's womb. Instead, the embryonic membrane thickens into an egg-like sack with a tough external coating, much like the mermaid's purse of a shark. This sack is ejected from the mother's body after the first six months of pregnancy, but remains connected to her via the umbilical cord, which sustains the infant as it develops over the next eighteen months. Tendrils emerging from the top of the sack can be used to hang it around the mother's waist or neck, and if the umbilical cord is severed, the sack's yolk can temporarily provide the child with oxygen and nutrition until it can be transferred to an exowomb.

These basic characteristics are shared by almost all Highbrows, though as with any other clade, many variations exist that make trade-offs for greater convenience or less strict dietary requirements. Some Highbrows have modified their brain development so that a greater proportion of their neural tissue grows in the spinal tube, allowing for a smaller skull, while others have even larger heads in order to have a flexible spine. Those who live in colder climates often grow hair on their scalps, as the loss of cooling is considered an acceptable trade-off for a more conventional appearance, while those who live in warmer climates have larger ears for greater heat conductivity.

Psychology and cognition

The Highbrow brain was designed to take advantage of its greater computing power to add new capabilities that would be impractical to implement in a smaller organ. Highbrows develop autosentience as they mature, allowing them full awareness of all their internal thought processes and brain functions. They can observe their own memory formation, intuitive judgments and patterns of learning as they happen, allowing them a far more precise understanding of their own minds than is normally possible for an unaided biont. Of course, this had been achieved as far back as the Interplanetary Age by the Zerodyn Collective's cybernetic implants, but the Highbrows were the first to achieve this without the use of DNI. Unlike the Zerodyn cyborgs, the Highbrows were designed with more rational emotional impulses from the outset, allowing them to cope with the negative side-effects of autosentience much more effectively.

One such side-effect that all Highbrows suffer from is Ultraconscious Depersonalization Disorder, a phenomenon in which a being becomes convinced that their capacity for free will is nothing more than an illusion, and the self is seen for the symbol that it is. This is caused by total awareness of the unconscious processes that determine human behaviour, but which are normally not perceptible to the person being driven by them. As a result, Highbrows experience themselves as being subtly controlled by their own instincts, desires and emotions, and that they have no real choice in how they live their lives. Rather than edit their minds to eliminate this sense of cognitive dissonance, most Highbrow societies have chosen to embrace it, managing the symptoms using meditation and other cultural practices. Indeed, they view themselves as more enlightened as to their true nature than other bionts, and regard the sense of depersonalisation they live with as something to be cherished.

Multiple redundant brain lobes allow the Highbrows to 'sleep' each region of a Highbrow's brain to 'sleep' sequentially, while other regions remain fully alert, making them Asomniacs. They can remember far more information about their lives than other Superiors, being capable of living for thousands of years without having to erase or backup their memories. The massively parallel nature of their minds allows them to focus on up to 36 separate tasks with no loss of performance, and since each of these trains of thought can observe one another's activities, a Highbrow can correct any logical errors in real time. They can even control the level of connectivity between different brain regions, silencing activity in one area to facilitate extreme performance in another. These improvements allow Highbrows to anticipate the outcome of their own mental processes, and intuitively solve problems that are too large for most individual modosophonts to handle.

With sufficient training, Highbrows can use these abilities to alter their own psychological traits, habits and preferences, in much the same manner as other modosophonts do using psychoware. The most talented Highbrows have mastered these skills to the point where they can edit their minds at will for optimum performance at any given task. Transavant Highbrows are thought to enter their 'trance state' through a novel application of these techniques, but the phenomenon remains poorly understood by subsingularity beings. Even Highbrows that lack transavant abilities are exceptionally good at anything they set their minds to, and like most Superiors their natural strengths can be enhanced even further using DNI.

History

The incident that inspired the creation of the Highbrow clade occurred in 1934 AT, at a celebration held in Rodenberry habitat, Vesta, commemorating the founding of the First Federation a thousand years earlier. Such celebrations were held once a century by the Federation to highlight its greatest achievements, as told through virch interactives. The tone of these presentations was triumphalist, and in the view of some attendees arrogant, especially in cases where the Federation had used the threat of force to get its way. By this stage, the Federation was in serious decline, with little ability to enforce its laws among the megacorps of the frontier, and the Federation leadership had come to rely ever more heavily on memetics and propaganda to keep the colonies in line. In light of these developments, it is perhaps no surprise that the celebrations did not go as planned.

Instead of Federation propaganda, attendees were shown an extract from an ancient pre-Technocalypse media series in which Baseline humans were confronted by more highly evolved beings, whose higher intelligence was supposed to be indicated by their larger heads. The host of the event then stood up to deliver his speech, revealing that his own head had been enlarged in a similar manner, much to the amusement of the visitors. His presentation involved many of the Federation's greatest blunders, such as the mishandling of the situation on Zarathustra and the corruption scandals of the Federal Institute for Provolution, and was met with riotous laughter all round. The Federation's representatives were not amused, and he was promptly fired.

His bold and self-deprecating commentary on the Federation's shortcomings would not be forgotten, and at the next celebration in 2034, many more attendees arrived with their heads swollen to even larger sizes. They had engenerated themselves into new bodies, with brains redesigned for larger size and greater complexity by expert systems, and these pranksters used their newly enhanced intellects to mock the presentation in subtle ways. Some preferred Socratic dialogue, asking simple questions to expose inconsistencies in the Federation's portrayal of history, while others wasted time by requesting information on obscure aspects of government policy. Once the festivities had ended, they kept in contact and began meeting up regularly at a habitat orbiting Saturn.

As it turned out, these people had more than just an irreverent sense of humour in common. The Federation's failings had left them disillusioned with the lot of humanity, who in their view had gone from the partners of the AI to merely being their tools. Intelligence augmentation was now a mature science, and those who wanted to advance themselves even further were becoming Uploads or Changelings, leading many to conclude that the human brain had been rendered obsolete by these technological advances. The golden age of Hu and AI had been replaced by the age of AI alone, and most of those who remained human were Nearbaselines interested only in their own amusement rather than the fate of mindkind.

Over time, the pranksters of Vesta renamed themselves the Highbrows, after an old Anglic term for those who appreciated the finest of art and culture. The Highbrows rejected the idea that humanity had reached the limits of its potential, and believed their intellect was still a valuable resource, even in a universe run by AI. Going against the trends of the time, they decided to become a new Superior clade, one that would expand the scale of their brains to the maximum extent that their bodies could handle. The aesthetics of their large heads appealed to them as symbolic of their clade values, and everything from their digestive system to their reproductive organs would be redesigned to accommodate them.

Using computronium rented from the Institute of Primate Provolution, the Highbrows ran simulations of their current bodies, and determined what changes needed to be made to constitute a viable clade. Although they were now Superbrights, with a natural talent for the complex planning and modelling involved, it still took nearly a century of intensive research before they were satisfied with the basic design, and even then more issues were discovered when they engenerated themselves into each revision of their new bodies. Ngagi researchers from the IPP assisted with the finer details, offering their expertise in primate psychology to ensure that the new clade would be mentally stable and helping to resolve conflicts within the team. When the Highbrows finally declared themselves a new clade in 2127, these Ngagi were among the first converts, and would go on to have a strong influence on the social norms of the community.

Though the clade enjoyed strong growth for the first sixty years, the newly emerging Highbrow culture was disturbed by the outbreak of the Solsys Civil War in 2193. By the end of the conflict in 2200, the First Federation had effectively ceased to exist, and in the centuries that followed, Solsys became little more than a quaint backwater. New empires were emerging that far surpassed the First Federation in sophistication, and the Highbrow community split as different families sought to become part of these new emerging cultures. But despite being separated by hundreds of lightyears, the Highbrow clans stayed in contact with each other, feeling that they understood other Highbrows more readily than their fellow Sephirotic citizens.

Society and culture

Highbrow social behaviour has much in common with the Ngagi who helped to design their genome. They form close, tight-knit communities bound by group marriages and child rearing, though unlike the Ngagi they are polyamorous rather than centred around a dominant male. Highbrows typically keep their distance from other clades, preferring to interact via avatars rather than face to face. Due to their autosentience, they are particularly conscious of the effect that memetics have in shaping an individual's motivations and preferences, so information hygiene is of great importance to them. Participating in the culture of their local polity comes a distant second place to preserving in-group harmony.

Their living spaces reflect these cultural norms, as they prefer less sophisticated technology that requires more sophont labour and teamwork than the automated habitats most Terragens live in. Some go as far back as First Federation or even Interplanetary Age technology, with food produced in hydroponic farms, energy produced using nuclear fusion and system maintenance being carried out manually rather than being delegated to bots. Such primitive lifestyles encourage far greater cooperation and social cohesion than what modern civilisation requires for survival, in addition to providing a more complex and stimulating environment for Highbrows to work in. There is often no formal government, with only a loose cyberdemocracy in place to allocate resources.

Humans of other clades often find Highbrow communities to be cold and claustrophobic, as Highbrows have little instinctive need for personal space and do not move around much to conserve energy. Their optimal temperature range is from 2 to 10 degrees, with gravity no more than 50% that of Earth, as their top-heavy bodies put them at greater risk of falling. Typically, they also use more oxygen-rich air mixtures than other human clades, so that they can breath at a more relaxed rate than they would need to in an Earth-like atmosphere. Since these conditions are rare on most terraformed worlds, the majority of Highbrows live in space habitats, megastructures and beneath the surface of icy moons, though some Highbrow subclades can tolerate higher temperatures and gravity levels.

Wherever they have spread, Highbrows have found niches for themselves, whether in meeting the complex needs of other beings or pursuing cultural projects of their own. They excel at long-term planning, managing complex systems and anticipating the consequences of a given series of actions, and these skills have put to use optimising both their own societies and those who come to them for guidance. They pride themselves on solving problems using their own mental abilities rather than relying on their exoselves, and encourage this tendency in their young with 'The Test', a challenge modeled on the pen-and-paper exams used by ancient Terragens to prove their knowledge. It is this 'Test', carried out in isolation without using DNI, that lead to the discovery of the Highbrow's transavant abilities.

In the year 6700 AT, an analyst employed by Technologies For Worship named Janasa Bree sat for her Test at an exam centre on Sacred Heart. She was an expert in applying mathematical insights to theological and philosophical problems, a skill much in demand by clients from the Keter and Solar Dominions. Her exam paper featured problems submitted by Superiors, Tribeminds, other Highbrows and even a few contributions by Hyperturings that were thought to be unsolvable by modosophonts. Such 'trick questions' are common on Tests, but to the surprise of her examiners, Bree got a perfect score, though she was unable to describe how she came to the correct answers. Further testing found that she had an intuitive grasp of basic translogic, despite never having attempted ascension.

Bree described her insights as 'epiphanies' that seemed to come to her out of nowhere, an extraordinary statement from a being with autosentience. She left her job at Technologies For Worship and set up her School for Epiphany Studies, also known as the SES. Here, transapients verified that she was indeed a transavant, and noted that she seemed to enter a trance-like state when solving problems. Though she was only capable of carrying out simple translogic work by herself, she later discovered that she could solve any problem up to the S1 level when joined with other Highbrows in a tribemind, with the most demanding tasks requiring hundreds of Highbrows working together to solve.

Highbrows in a trance do not exhibit any unusual brain activity, and the means by which their abilities manifest remain understood only by transapients, who have been crucial in helping the Highbrows develop their talents. Bree herself can now enter a trance voluntarily, a skill that only around 5% of the Highbrow population have mastered, and those who possess it enjoy great prestige in their communities for their unique insights. Although they cannot create transapientech even when in a trance, Highbrows can devise means of operating technologies not intended for modosophont use, and can optimise S0 technologies in ways that are otherwise beyond subsingularity minds.

Highbrows in the Current Era

The emphasis on family life in Highbrow culture has resulted in a much higher birth rate than is the norm for most Terragen bionts, and an unusually high proportion of Highbrows were born into the clade rather than converted to it. Since Sephirotic polities tend to prefer lower levels of population growth, Highbrows have migrated many times throughout history to find less populated frontier systems in which to raise their large families. Today, they are scattered far and wide throughout the Terragen Sphere, and their colonies can be found across the Mutual Progress Association, Negentropy Alliance, Communion of Worlds, Non-Coercive Zone, Terran Federation, Zoeific Biopolity and the Sophic League. Their tightly-knit culture tends to discourage leaving the clade, and their numbers have steadily grown over the millennia, with a population of around 112 trillion sophonts as of 10000 AT.

Initially, Highbrows attracted few converts to their clade, which has been attributed to their ungainly appearance. Superior cultures have tended to emphasis the full range of human capabilities, and Highbrows sacrifice most of the physical improvements to the Superior genome to facilitate their large brains, which reduces their appeal to other human clades. Following Janasa Bree's first trance in 6700 AT, interest in the Highbrow clade became widespread for the first time, resulting in several waves of conversion from other biont clades. Many of these beings found the psychological differences between their old selves and their Highbrow selves to be overwhelming, and returned to their original forms, but those who persisted founded new Highbrow cultures with their own distinctive characteristics. Today, around 20% of the clade is made up of converts, while native-born Highbrows tend to become uploads rather than convert to other biont forms.

Within the Sephirotics, they have thrived in the great Institutes, especially those who can bring transavant insights to modosophont problems, while outside the Sephirotics, they have flourished in societies where transapients are absent, such as in The Seams, where many of their colonies were cut off from their home empires after the Version War. Some have speculated that had early Terragen society turned away from AI, Superbright hiveminds like the Highbrows might have been among the first transapients. If nothing else, the Highbrows have demonstrated that biological substrates can be surprisingly capable with the right support infrastructure. In the time since then, miracles like the Silk God of the Red Star 'M'pire and the Sol Niger of the Alchemists have shown that even godhood is possible with wetware computing, hinting at endless potential yet to be explored.
 
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Development Notes
Text by AI Vin
Updated 2019 by Extherian
Initially published on 13 December 2006.

 
 
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