My Brain in a Jar (Part 1)

Posted on December 22, 2012


AccountantRecently, fellow blogger Karen asked if I would consider leaving my brain to science. I was flattered by the question, until I realized that such a donation would have adverse effects on my health, and suddenly the idea didn’t seem quite so appealing. Also, science doesn’t spend much time on things it already comprehends, preferring to focus on the odd and mysterious. In other words, the freaks of nature. Karen is my friend, though, and I’m sure she wasn’t including me in that category. Pretty sure, anyway.

But she did get me wondering about the process. For one thing, if I donated my brain, could I use it as a deduction on my tax return? Sometimes I hear radio commercials pitching the benefits of giving away used cars to charities. “Get rid of that old clunker and help St. Daphne’s Animal Hospital raise much-needed funds,” they say. “Your donation is tax-deductible.” If my old clunker is tax-deductible, wouldn’t my brain have to be, too? The car has a bad transmission and bald tires, while my brain has hardly been used.

TaxSoftwareIt sounds ridiculous, at first, I know. What does the brain have to do with taxes? But take a look at income tax software, specifically the packaging. It always shows people smiling their heads off. Anyone in their right mind doesn’t smile during tax season, ever. Clearly, these people are missing their brains. Of course, it could be that they’re not doing their taxes at all, and are only models who posed for the picture on the box. But how do they get themselves to look so happy? Maybe they’ve just TaxBrainfinished watching an entertaining and original romantic comedy in which a wedding has been canceled at the very last moment and the bride has run off with the guy she really loves, the one who never shaves or goes to work, but who makes her laugh and plays with her dog. That could be. Or those people might just be real taxpayers who donated their brains to science.

Suddenly, I can’t stop thinking about it. I try to imagine what it would be like to be reduced to nothing more than a mass of nerve cells, slid into a glass container, and put onto a shelf like a jar of mayonnaise. What might it feel like to be immersed in formaldehyde? To be sliced and probed and peered at under a microscope? And most intriguing of all, what if the brain, even after death, somehow remains conscious – with active thoughts and memories? The chemicals and connections are there, still in place. How can we be sure it doesn’t go on contemplating all kinds of things? So those ghost stories may actually have it right, only it isn’t the spirit that has unfinished business; it’s the mind. It’s possible that our brains can’t rest until they have everything figured out.

In my case, that could take centuries.

So I’ve decided to do it. I’m going to leave my brain to science. A noble gesture, yes, but I’m also taking an extra step. A somewhat selfish step. As they study my brain, the scientists will surely come across things they won’t understand. Rather than risk misinterpretation, I’ve compiled a brief guide, both as a way for them to advance their own knowledge, and as a chance for me to express some of my struggles. The hope is that I’ll assist in their cause and, in turn, they’ll be able to assist me as I continue, in the afterlife, to wrestle with unresolved issues. A partial list of those issues is presented here, arranged according to the section of the brain in which they reside.


1. Lingering Childhood Confusion

• Why was my mother constantly telling everyone I had my father’s nose? If it was true, whose nose did he have? And when did all this nose-swapping take place? Also, when she wanted me to get out of bed in the morning, why did she say, “Up and Adam”? Did I have someone else’s name, too?

• Speaking of Adam, why did an apple a day keep the doctor away? Did doctors not like apples? Or did we not like our doctor?

• What really happened to my baseball cards? I had shoeboxes of them, so full I had to hold the lids on with rubber bands. I hate to keep picking on my mother, but I’ve always suspected a cover-up.

2. Idiot Questions

• Who was the Lazy Susan named after, and was that the major accomplishment of her life?

• In the 1700s, why did rich people have drawing rooms, and what were they drawing?

• Who figured out that lobster was the only food that could entice grown-ups to wear a bib?

The TePe Mini-Flosser:

The TePe Mini-Flosser:

• Why is it that everywhere I go, I see those little dental floss holders on the ground? Are there that many people who don’t care about littering, but are conscientious about oral hygiene? And then there’s that flattened sock I saw yesterday in the mall parking lot, right next to the floss holder. Was there someone shopping with really clean teeth and one bare foot?

3. Unfulfilled Dreams

• To discover a new planet, a new comet, or a new galaxy, or when I’m feeling less ambitious, to purchase a telescope and find someone to help me get it out of the box.

• To meet one of those twelve-year-old whiz kids who can solve Rubik’s Cube in thirty seconds, so I can tie his shoe laces together when he isn’t looking.

• To at last locate a store that sells white boxer briefs in my size, or to get one of the underwear companies to at least answer my emails.

• To retire from major league baseball after a long and illustrious career, but without having to travel back in time, go to all those practices, play in cold weather, or have people in the stands yell mean things to me when I’m trying to hit.

4. Songs That Won’t Stop Playing in My Head

• Currently, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, but it could be any song that I hear or that someone mentions to me while I’m attempting to think or remember something. Also, most television jingles, especially the ones for products I would never buy and retail outlets I would never shop in, as well as theme songs for shows I would never watch, or would never admit to watching.

• When my daughter was very young, she had a videotape called Wee Sing Together, which she watched relentlessly for months. It featured twenty songs, including Old MacDonald Had A Farm, If You’re Happy and You Know It, and I’m A Little Teapot, all performed with unnatural enthusiasm by a bunch of kids who, when they weren’t in the recording studio, were probably afraid to leave the house. I went into therapy because of that tape, and eventually had to slip it into a dumpster behind the supermarket as my daughter slept in her car seat. I don’t remember the story I concocted to explain its disappearance to her, but it had something to do with flaming arrows, invisible helicopters, and Martian spies on horseback. She seemed to believe it.WeeSing

5. Random Movie Quotes

I inherited this trait from my father, who would memorize lines from films and then inject them into a conversation whenever appropriate. The difference is that I’ve watched hundreds more movies than he did, and so an entire region of my brain is now brimming with unrelated bits of dialogue, all packed together and intermingling incoherently, like a frozen dinner in which some of the green beans have spilled over into the brownie compartment. The scripted lines pop out of my mouth at unexpected moments and for no apparent reason. For example, if I pass the ketchup to someone at the dinner table, I might say, “Keep the change, you filthy animal,” even though no actual money has changed hands.Microscope

While the scientists are analyzing what’s left of me, I plan to communicate with them by tapping into my reservoir of film quotes. Maybe I’ll try this, from The Postman Always Rings Twice: “With my brains and your looks, we could go places.” Or, this, from Forrest Gump: “I’m not a smart man… but I know what love is.” Or, from Horton Hears a Who: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

My aim isn’t to alarm the scientists. Nor is it to impress them with my ability to stockpile vast quantities of useless information. I just want them to appreciate that they’re not dealing with some old clunker.