My Brain in a Jar (Part 2)

Posted on December 30, 2012


BrainDiagramThere are clear benefits to leaving your brain to science. For one thing, there’s no more sitting at traffic lights, having to go to the bathroom in the middle of a movie, or arguing with someone three continents away about the four-dollar mistake on your last bank statement. For another, you never get the hiccups.

But there are problems, too. You’re submerged in a beaker filled with liquid chemicals, which is no doubt unpleasant until you get used to it, something like jumping into a cold swimming pool, or eating hummus for the first time. You may discover, too late, that you’re uncomfortable in confined spaces, or don’t enjoy out-of-body experiences. And it’ll be hard to hear what people are saying about you, especially when their backs are turned.

Most troubling is that you have little control over what the scientists will do with your brain. The worst outcome is that they won’t do anything. They’ll forget it’s there, and you’ll be left alone with your thoughts and recollections, stashed in a dusty storage room along with a collection of fern fossils, a few disemboweled frogs, a ten-month supply of latex gloves, and a stack of mismatched folding chairs. In that case I’d spend most of my time wishing I had legs, just so I could kick myself.

Only slightly preferable to being banished to a dark corner of the basement is the real possibility that the last remnant of your physical existence – and the part that most closely identifies who you were – will be assigned to a junior assistant lab technician who recklessly obliterates your entire high school career just to see if his knife needs sharpening. And what about the dissection itself? Neurologists claim that the brain cannot feel its own pain, but what would make them think otherwise? Once you remove the vocal cords, that cuts down considerably on the screaming.

The most famous brain, that of Albert Einstein, was preserved within hours of his death in 1955. Eventually carved into nearly transparent specimens and mounted on glass slides, Einstein’s brain is now the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

Mütter Museum, College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Mütter Museum, College of Physicians of Philadelphia

While I understand the practice of analyzing paper-thin tissue samples, I fear that the true wonder of this amazing organ may be lost in the process. The magic of the brain is its complexity — the connections it creates and maintains – and that requires wholeness. What happens when you chop it all apart and line the slices up in rows inside a box? I’d think it would produce a distorted picture. There’s slide 27 directly across from slide 68, two sections of the brain that had never before been anywhere near each other. And how does that affect you, the poor owner of this brain, presumed inanimate but somehow still perceiving? Suddenly, the memory of your honeymoon on Easter Island is sandwiched between your third-grade class trip to the arboretum and the time you ran into a tree at summer camp while struggling to escape from Bigfoot. After a lifetime of trying to make sense of the world, the meager progress you made is now completely gone.

Can such confusion be prevented? A tiny spark of optimism compels me to assemble these few pages, so that they may serve as a helpful reference for anyone destined to be involved in the study of my brain. But I’m also a realist, fully aware that washing machines and toaster ovens come with instructions, and in the history of the universe no one has ever bothered to read them. I can only hope that if I’m going to be whittled, dyed, and catalogued, the people in charge will be curious enough to do at least a little preliminary research.

Caveman6. Odd Beliefs

• Almost everyone I know wears eyeglasses. Has our vision deteriorated over the centuries? I can’t imagine why it would. Rather, I believe that before glasses were invented, people huddled around a fire after dark and attempted to read the latest hand-written scrolls. During the day, suffering from eyestrain, they walked around tripping over rocks and falling into ditches. They also had to stand very close in order to see who they were talking to. Most conversations began with, “Gregorius? Is that you?”

• As the population rises, cities will be forced to expand vertically, with skyscrapers several miles high. For the same reason, humans will grow taller, accessing the formerly-unused space above their heads. Within two hundred years, the average height will be nineteen and a quarter feet, making pants much harder to fold, and basketball much less interesting to watch.

• Animals can count just as well as we can. If you don’t agree, the next time you see a female mountain lion with six or seven cubs, try snatching one of her babies when she isn’t looking.

7. Chronic Fears

• That the songs that won’t stop playing in my head really never stop – that every song I’ve ever heard is, in some obscure track of my brain, running continually and providing the disturbing soundtrack for most of my dreams.

• That instead of neglecting my inner child, I’ve been allowing him to call the shots all this time. This would explain my tendency to watch television while lying on the floor eight inches from the screen, as well as a strong affinity for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Froot Loops, and a powerful urge to flee important meetings and play kickball in the hallway.

• Any alligator or crocodile, even the ones that are dead, or made of plastic.Television
8. Useless Information

• There is no country whose name starts with the letter X.

• There are more than six hundred kinds of pasta. So far, I’ve had only about twelve.

• The word trivia came from ancient Rome, and referred to the intersection of three roads.

• Half of a whale’s brain remains conscious while the other half rests, allowing it to go to the surface for air and avoid drowning when asleep.

• The 1962 New York Mets had two pitchers named Bob Miller.

9. Unbreakable Habits

• During power failures, I continue to flip light switches on and off.

• I cut old credit cards into small slivers and scatter them into separate bags when throwing them away. Sometimes I’ll even drive a few of the pieces to a different location.

• When mailing something, I always double-check that the envelope went down, because the next person who comes along would like nothing better than to steal my check made out to the phone company.


Crutches10. Physical Quirks

• My day has not officially begun until I’ve smashed a toe or finger with some solid, immovable object. This minimum daily requirement of physical pain may be attained through clumsiness, lack of attention, or sheer stupidity. I’ve been known to reach my weekly quota within a forty-eight-hour period. Currently, my record for cracking a knee on the corner of the coffee table in a single afternoon is five.

• I’m unaware of the tension in my body. When a chiropractor, nurse, or fitness instructor tells me to relax my shoulders, I have no idea what they’re talking about or how to do it. I can’t even feel my shoulders. In fact, I’m pretty certain that every part of my body is as relaxed as it’s ever going to be.

• I’ve never seen the center of my back, not even in photographs. It’s been following me around for almost six decades, but I don’t know what it looks like.

• If you happen to be the junior assistant lab technician and you need to wash my brain, please do not use soap, because it really burns, especially around the occipital lobe.

And one last thing: