In Humanity's Collective Unconscious, the Body Is a Bad Dream

By Nitin K. Ahuja

The first images that I tried to generate from Dall-E Mini were of cartoon characters getting colonoscopies. The website, now called Craiyon, houses an artificial intelligence model that turns any submitted string of text into pictures. I’m a practicing gastroenterologist who identifies as online, but not very, and the viral tweets that introduced me to the model also served as my yardstick for submissions that felt appropriately niche. Those early efforts bore mixed results: Daffy Duck was shown standing atop a stretcher, Porky Pig registered as an actual pig, and Bugs Bunny was inserted directly into a human colon, his gray ears bleeding into its pink folds.

I’ve since defaulted to the curated experience of Twitter accounts like Weird Dall-E Mini Generations, a sort of greatest hits collection culled from Reddit. Popularity in this genre relies on a specialized calculus, squaring the creativity of a user’s written input with the fidelity of its visual output. What’s struck me most, though, is their early tendency toward medical themes—“car mechanic installs a kidney in the engine,” “a DJ laying down sick beats in the cardiac ward,” “wikihow how to impress your wife with a lamp built from your intestines,” etc.

Making jokes at the convergence of high and low follows a time-honored recipe (see also Weird Dall-E Jesus and 9/11), and the commonly recognized sanctity of medicine is ripe for profaning. Maybe the medical preoccupation is just a developmental phase for the Dall-E Mini phenomenon, akin to an adolescent sense of humor. The crude equivalence between “weird” and “transgressive” echoes the images’ own technical crudeness, including a bias toward smudged, featureless faces that gives them an almost nightmarish quality. By the same token, scrutinizing these images for patterns can seem like an exercise about as useful as the interpretation of dreams. Even so, I wonder what to make of the fact that, when our collective imagination was presented with this powerful new canvas, it wasn’t just my mind that drifted in a clinical direction.

Granted, conventional narratives of medical progress have always hinged on the transformation of past fantasy into future reality: a failing organ successfully transplanted, a terminal cancer cured. Over the past few centuries, these achievements have consolidated the perceived power of medical science while also making the body increasingly legible. Lately, though, the zeitgeist’s vision of health care has had a darker cast. There’s the still-smoldering pandemic with its long tail of death, disability, and socioeconomic upheaval; the repeated collision between politics and public health in the United States, sparked by Covid and accelerated by partisan legislation around assault rifles and climate change; and the recent culmination of a decades-long offensive against reproductive rights, radically redefining American medicine’s capabilities from the outside.

Some clinically themed Dall-E Mini submissions bear the imprint of current events fairly plainly—“plague doctor onlyfans,” or “fetus with a gun.” Others, however, seem inspired by a more generalized mood of biomedical surrealism. Contemporary strains of clinical fantasy, unlike the usual rhetoric surrounding biomedicine’s triumphant march forward, seem to tug society in the opposite direction, undermining both scientific authority and the basic precepts of human physiology. That mood is in keeping with the software’s guiding spirit (Salvador Dalí is one of its namesakes), but also with an awareness that these are especially surreal times for biomedicine in the real world.

Whether that surrealism manifests conspicuously or at the fringes, we are awash with fantastical representations of how the body works. The Ohio state legislature considered a bill in 2019, for example, that mandated an ectopic pregnancy be treated by reimplanting the embryo into the uterus, despite such a procedure being medically impossible. Ambient conspiracy theories around coronavirus vaccines suggest they can change your DNA, render you infertile, and/or facilitate your geolocation. Certain popular health trends—“horse drugs, but for people”—sound almost as if they were reverse-engineered from Dall-E Mini prompts.