Gerald Edelman Scans My Brain: A Fantasy

by Jason Tougaw

 

Sometimes when I write, the combo of daydreamy thinking and poking at a keyboard conjures fantasies I never knew I had. That happened a lot when I was writing The One You Get. That’s partly why I wrote an eight-hundred page draft–five-hundred pages too many. A lot of the fantasies got cut. Sometimes I like to retrieve and update them. They feel like a record of somebody I used to be. I wouldn’t have this fantasy now. It would have morphed. Note: I realize comparing myself to Einstein is both fantastical and arrogant. But all the self-help books for dyslexic people reassure us that we’re like Einstein! The reality is I was grasping–really graspoing–for any distinction that would help me escape the world I found myself in as a kid. That grasping lasted well past childhood.

***

I’m worried because my butt’s asleep. We’re taking a field trip to the aquarium at Scripps–the famous science place near Torrey Pines.

If you grow up in San Diego, you just call it Scripps, even though so many places are called Scripps, including the hospital where I was born. This is because a philanthropist named Ellen Browning Scripps used a lot of her money for good in the early part of the twentieth century.

Diane’s in the seat next to me. She keeps holding her cupped hand to my ear to whisper as we bounce on our bumpy green vinyl seats. “Crispin smells. Look at him. You can tell from here.” Crispin is all the way at the back of the bus, but I can’t look because I’m trying to think my butt awake, to prove I’m not paralyzed. I keep picturing everybody filing off the bus, Diane trying to push me into the aisle or squeeze past me, yelling, “Mr. Warfel, Jason is paralyzed. Mr. Warfel. Mr. Warfel.” I keep wondering why Mr. Warfel is taking us. He’s not even our teacher anymore. But everything has been new since the divorce. Stanley isn’t around to call me a faggot; Aaron no longer chases me with baseball bats.

The bus slows. We’re in a Eucalyptus forest. You can smell clean lemon. “We’re here, we’re here,” kids begin to chant. “We’re here.”

“Hold your horses,” Mr. Warfel says. “It’ll be a few minutes before we reach the aquarium.” The aquarium, we’ve been learning, is one of the most advanced in the world, right here in San Diego. Some of the most famous scientists who study the ocean work here. Mr. Warfel has arranged a private tour .

The bus comes to a stop in front of a flat-roofed building made of gray-beige concrete interrupted every ten feet or so by vertical strips of tinted glass. The entrance is three revolving doors, same tinted glass. “Okay, single file and wait in line by the doors,” Mr. Warfel says. Kids rise and walk, row by row. My butt tingles and prickles , but I can move my legs. I must be walking funny, but even Diane, right behind me, says nothing. She never says nothing, so there must, to my amazement, be nothing to say.

I descried the Scripps Research Institute from memory. It’s way more elegant than I seem to have noticed as a kid.

Before I know it, we’re filing through the black glass doors, which revolve so fast they almost push you. From behind the bar where he works, without knowing it’s really happening, Stanley daydreams this spectacle, with a secret eye buried in a dark spot on his soul. The scene, set to a Pink Floyd soundtrack, “We don’t need to education / We don’t need no thought control,” registers as an itch in one of his internal organs.

Inside, the lobby is the same brown-grey concrete. We can no longer stand single file because the room is too small, so we form an egg-shaped mob. For some reason I’m in front, with my best friend Paul on one side and Diane on the other. Mr. Warfel faces us, wearing that loose, bright-colored shirt he bought on a trip to Kenya. “Let’s just wait a few minutes for our guide,” he says. “I’m sure he’ll be here in a minute.”

We’re a bored mob. It wouldn’t occur to us to register Mr. Warfel’s nervous glances toward the hallways on either end of our egg. It’s hard to imagine those halls leading to aquariums big enough for sharks, but it’s hard to imagine aquariums big enough for sharks even existing, so what’s the difference?
Paul whispers in my ear, “Did you notice Diane is acting weird.” Little whispers like this are starting to rise from our egg-mob like little puffballs.

“Quiet down,” Mr. Warfel says. “Here he is.”

A man nearly as tall as Mr. Warfel, with deep black hair, thin on top and swept over his skull, dressed in a three-quarter length lab coat, emerges from one of the hallways. I’m not good at telling right from left, so I have a game to figure it out. The hallway is on the same side as the scar on my stomach, which is on the right. But if I’m facing the hallways, does that make it right or left? I’m concentrating on the problem hard enough not to see the confused squishy face Mr. Warfel makes when the man in the coat approaches. “Hello, I’m Dr. Gerald Edelman,” he says. “I’ll be leading the demonstration today.” Mr. Warfel says something to him in a whisper. The man in the lab coat must feel Mr. Warfel’s warm breath clouds on his neck, on his ear. Right ear or left?

For the record, I have never met Gerald Edelman. This is a fantasy.

I catch only the last few words of the man in the lab coat’s reply: “just fine, you’ll see.” Mr. Warfel adjusts his position so that he is standing directly beside the man and announces, “Okay, class, this is Dr. Gerald Edelman. He is the Director of The Neuroscience Institute and Founder of the Neurosciences Research Foundation. He’s a very famous scientist. In fact, he won the Nobel Prize, the biggest prize a scientist can win. So listen carefully to what he has to say.

“Thank you, Mr. Warfel, for that introduction. Now, kids, follow me. We’re going to learn something about our brains today.”

Our brains? Our egg-mob wrestles with this one. Our brains? What about sharks? We’re in the wrong building. We’ve been hijacked by a neuroscientist. Even Mr. Warfel is confused.

We line up behind our two tall dark-haired leaders, because it’s the only thing we can do. We don’t need no education. Stanley would say we  definitely do not need no thought control. He tried really hard to get my mom to keep Aaron and me from going to school. Maybe this was the day he was so worried aobut.

Behind the bar, Stanley feels a pinch in his gall bladder. We march, single file down the hallway from which Dr. Edelman emerged. Is it right or left? It feels like a good idea to memorize the way out. The hall’s dimly lit and curves like it’s leading to a cave in the building’s core. Teachers leave them kids alone. Stanley’s small intestine seizes. Finally we reach a set of double doors made in that same brown-black glass. “This way,” Dr. Edelman says, holding the door, ushering us . Hey, teachers. Stanley’s liver convulses like a fish laying on a hot pier with a hook through its jaw.

The room is full of equipment painted beige, with black control knobs and colored lights with long words spelled out beneath them. We reconstitute our egg-mob, and Mr. Warfel joins it. Dr. Edelman stands next to a machine that looks like a hair dryer for aliens from the future who want to take over the planet. It has a black leather seat, stirrups, a harness of body belts, and a beige dome big enough to be pitch black inside. “Now, where is Jason Messin?” Dr. Edelman says. This is still my name, despite the divorce.

Nobody says anything until Mr. Warfel puts a hand on my shoulder. Every now and then he’ll touch me like this. I want to crawl on his shoulders and run away with him when he does. But this time, the touch is  more  push than comfort, a hand that says with gentle force, “I love you, but you must do this, even though walking out of the egg mob and toward Dr. Edelman is scrambling your insides until they’re nothing but hard chunks of yellow yoke better for eating than walking or talking or sleeping or running. You must go.”

With Mr. Warfel’s hand as my guide I take four slow steps forward, until Dr. Edelman’s hand on my other shoulder. Right or left? This hand spins me right round until I am facing my classmates.  I don’t see them, though–not even Paul or Diane. I see red and white stripes, a curve of light reflecting blonde hair, blue tennies with white laces, a plaid triangle with a pearly button at the tip. I see Mr. Warfel’s knees, and I can’t tell if they’re really shaking or if they look that way because I am.

“Take a seat,” Dr. Edelman says, shifting my body to face the alien hair dryer. “Just climb right up. This is going to be a lot of fun,” he says, grabbing me by the waist and lifting me into the hair dryer. Plop. My butt, I notice, is awake now. “I’m going to fasten these straps around you, but don’t worry. It’s just to keep you still while the fMRI does its job.” I hear a series of snaps, like seat belts and the whir of the dome descending. Then it’s all black. I’m alone, pure ether. For a second this feels like relief, but then I start seeing strips of pink ribbon in the black. I want to run, like I do in my dreams, run so hard that chaos drives out the panic, like a Dungeons and Dragons warrior vanquishing a monster.

“This machine,” I hear Dr. Edelman say from outside the dome, “is called an fMRI—Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine. This is a special treat, because it will be several years before the device is even invented and several more before it is widely used. You are seeing something no one has ever seen before, something that doesn’t even exist yet. We use the device to examine brains in motion. Take a look at that screen,” he says. “That’s Jason’s brain. It’s a very special brain. But, then, every brain is very special. Some might call Jason’s brain Dyslexic, but that wouldn’t be quite right. See how the brain has these two identical hemispheres—right and left?”

“Yes,” the egg-mob says. I hear Mr. Warfel’s voice in it, deeper than the rest.

“Well, everybody’s two hemisphere’s work a little differently. We’re born with unique brains, and they become more unique as time passes. The more we live, the more our brains develop their own patterns. These patterns make us who we are. Mr. Warfel noticed that Jason was having trouble with reading. When I look at these scans, because I’m trained to read them, I can see that Jason sees, and probably hears, feels, tastes, and smells, a little differently from most of us. Einstein thought this way too. You might call it ‘creative perception’. A person like Jason, or Einstein, might look at a picture or a sentence and see something altogether different from what we see. In Jason, this talent has been developing since he was a fetus in the womb.

If you had a record of his brain activity from the time he went through the birth canal—when he fed from his mother’s breast in Del Mar; as he lay in the back seat of the gold-brown car and listened to his mother and father scream at each other; as he lay in the crib breathing his dad’s second-hand pot smoke; the moment he first set eyes on his stepfather Stanley; and every time Stanley dunked him in freezing water after he wet the bed—if you had all this data, you could chart the development of his unique brain functions. You could see neurons that went unused either branching to form new, more active synapses or simply dying. You could see the cortical activity required to learn complex tasks, like crawling or walking, transferring to subcortical regions as walking and talking became automatic behaviors. And, of course, that’s just the beginning.”

“Now, kids, think about some of your own experiences. These work for you just like Jason’s do for him. They shape your brain. You may not understand all this now, but just think about one thing. No two brains are exactly the same, and every brain changes constantly. Now, give it up for Jason Messin for helping us with the demonstration.”

The egg-mob applauds. They have seen my brain. I may be Messy mess messed up Messin, but perhaps that doesn’t mean exactly what we thought it did.

***

In the real world, Neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, the Director of The Neuroscience Institute and Founder of the Neurosciences Research Foundation, both in at the Institute in La Jolla, California, won the Nobel prize for his work on immune systems in the 1970s. His Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (TNGS), or Neural Darwinism, is the most influential explanation of brain function in decades. Edelman’s theory explains the unique synaptic patterns that undergird each person’s mind, and ultimately identity, according to the tenets of natural selection. Certain neuronal patterns or groupings, he argues, get reinforced or selected, because they are, for a variety of reasons, more functional than others.

A baby’s brain starts out with more neuronal connections than an adult’s. The synapses fire too much and too often, making it difficult to sort through all the stimulus. So, experience and biology converge to produce a limited set of functional responses. They number in the billions, of course, and they remain dynamic throughout the life of the organism, but the limits are important. They enable us to perceive and act as individuals. There are three important brain functions that drive neuronal group selection.

According to TNGS, each brain’s system of networks is uniquely sculpted to link an organism’s traits to each other—so that a reluctance to display emotion, a tendency to perceive shapes oddly, a vigilance for potential threat, and empathy for insects are traits embedded in each other. It makes no sense to name one a deficit and another a strength because they shape each other. To enhance or quiet a trait, the network as a whole must be taken into consideration.

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