Dr. Deborah Hersh, Professor of Speech Pathology at Curtin University, explains how aphasia is reflected in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Babel’.
Star Trek is full of horrifying viruses. The Taresian mutagenic virus turns people into Taresians, the Omega IV virus turns people into crystals, and the nanoprobe virus turns people into members of the Borg collective.
In comparison, the ‘word virus’ in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Babel’ (S1, Ep4) doesn’t sound as scary, jumbling up the crew’s speech and reading abilities. But as the episode unfolds, it has chilling consequences, leading to confusion, chaos, and, ultimately, death.
However, that’s not the only reason I find ‘Babel’ a tense, challenging, and vital watch. Strip away the space station, alien races, and Starfleet uniforms, and DS9’s ‘word virus’ is extremely similar to aphasia, a disorder that currently affects more than two million people in the US.
The Word Virus in ‘Babel’
Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) is the first member of the DS9 crew to be afflicted by the ‘word virus.’ “He appears to be suffering from a form of aphasia,” Deep Space Nine’s Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), explains. “It’s a perceptual dysfunction in which aural and visual stimuli are incorrectly processed by the brain.”
The Doc initially thinks it may have been caused by a stroke or blow to the head, but when other crew members begin displaying the same symptoms, he identifies the origin: a virus. “We were dealing with a disease that only mimics aphasia,” he explains.
The episode escalates quickly with more people developing aphasic symptoms—although there’s little consistency in transmission, the virus moves at ‘the speed of plot.’
We later learn that the virus originated in a replicator and was planted nearly 20 years before by Bajoran rebels hoping to infect the Cardassians during their occupation. A stark reminder that Deep Space Nine’s traumatic and violent legacy is still ‘alive,’ and the crew must reckon with it—both metaphorically and, in the case of the episode ‘Babel’, literally.
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The Frustrating Reality of Aphasia
To find out more about whether the ‘word virus’ we see on screen is like aphasia in real life, I spoke to Dr. Deborah Hersh, a Professor of Speech Pathology at Curtin University. She specializes in aphasia and post-stroke rehabilitation.
First, we need to get clear on what aphasia is. Hersh explains that, although there are different definitions and types of aphasia, it can be defined as: “a disorder of language following damage to the areas of the brain that normally manage language.”
What’s important to understand here is that certain types of aphasia—like the one in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Babel’—aren’t about problems with speaking. “People’s physical production of speech may sound clear, but they have real difficulty finding the words they want,” Hersh says.
That’s why she makes it clear this isn’t a disorder of intelligence and suggests that the best way to understand it is with an analogy.
Imagine you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language and can’t read their script. “You know what you want to say, but the messages back and forth are difficult,” Hersh says. “People with aphasia may end up trying to gesture what they want, or point to something, or try and draw a picture of it, just as you might in this situation.”
Importantly, it’s not about memory either. You don’t forget the words. You just can’t find the right ones. “It’s like a ‘tip of the tongue’ experience,” Hersh says. Which explains why it can be so very frustrating and upsetting.
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Seperating Aphasia Fact From Fiction
In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Bajoran rebels create a virus that mimics aphasia. But how do people get it in real life?
A stroke is the most common cause, as it can lead to a loss of blood flow and oxygen to the brain’s language centers. However, anything else that causes brain damage can lead to aphasia, like accidents, brain tumors, and types of dementia. Hersh says the kind of aphasia that Bruce Willis reportedly has might be caused by dementia.
But can aphasia be passed on like a virus? According to Hershe, no. But we can imagine how it might be possible in sci-fi terms.
“In theory, your virus could affect particular areas of the brain,” she explains. “You would find people suddenly or gradually getting less able to find words, to repeat, to put sentences together beyond nouns and a few verbs, to start saying ‘thingy’ a lot.”
The aphasia we see in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Babel’ is one of several types, as not everyone’s brain is affected in the same way. It all depends on the location and severity of the damage.
“Broadly, if the damage affects Broca’s area, people may have reasonably preserved comprehension (understanding of what others say to them) but may only have a few words at a time and difficulty building up sentences,” Hersh says.
She says this is the more common type of aphasia and shares an example of Sarah Scott, who has made videos about her experience of Broca’s aphasia, and ongoing journey through speech theory since she had a stroke 18 years ago.
“If the damage is a bit further back (around the top of the temporal lobe), then people have more difficulty with comprehension and self-monitoring,” Hersh says. “They may say more, and in sentences, but there will be lots of word errors, which they don’t easily pick up or correct.”
The type of aphasia most similar to what we see in DS9 is Wernicke’s aphasia—called this because it affects the part of the brain called Wernicke’s area.
“In Wernicke’s aphasia, people cannot self-monitor and have problems understanding others,” Hersh says. “They make word errors (paraphasias) and sometimes create novel words as errors (neologisms).” Essentially, you know all the words, just not the right ones. You can see an example of Wernicke’s aphasia in this very moving video of Byron.
Another analogy Hersh shares for understanding this type of aphasia is imagining that all your words are typically stored and organized in a filing cabinet. But with aphasia, it’s like all of the files have been thrown in the air and then put back in the wrong place.
“The words are still there, and your understanding of them is still there, but it’s going to take you longer to find them,” Hersh says.
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“It often improves after stroke as people go to rehab and make a recovery,” Hersh says. “However, aphasia can be chronic in that language skills may not return to how they were previously.”
The most significant difference between the aphasia we see on board the Deep Space Nine space station, and what we see here on Earth is in reality you can’t die from it. “Although it can certainly make people feel miserable, and it has an impact on their ability to connect socially through normal conversations,” Hersh says.
She also explains that dementia can be progressive and ultimately fatal. “Primary progressive aphasia (frontotemporal dementia) starts with a few years of mainly language changes and then more cognitive difficulties arise and then people experience more full-blown dementia as it worsens.”
So she can imagine how a sci-fi virus might work the same way. “You could make the virus progressive, so it starts with language changes and then overtakes the brain and is therefore fatal,” Hersh suggests. “But this would be a Star Trek thing.”
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Awareness and Understanding of Aphasia
Like many of the episodes we’ve unpicked in the Science of Star Trek series, ‘Babel’ takes a very real disorder and places it in a sci-fi setting.
Although there might be higher stakes and added drama on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the essence of what aphasia is and how it looks is still on screen—and that’s important.
I believe it serves to help with our understanding of something that affects many people right here, right now, back down on Earth, and Hersh agrees. “Greater awareness will help the public recognize the condition,” she says. “And not assume people are not intelligent or worth talking to.”
Importantly, ‘Babel’ doesn’t only provide us with a series of symptoms to look out for but accurately portrays the sadness, confusion, and frustration that often accompanies aphasia.
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Becca has been writing about tech and science for more than ten years. Her first book, Screen Time, came out in January 2021 with Bonnier Books. She loves science fiction, brutalist architecture and spending way too much time floating through space in virtual reality.