My hands on these keys, your eyes on these words, the elegant connections between eyecells and braincells; between fingercells and braincells and back to fingercells — none of this is mysterious, all of it is beyond miraculous. Welcome to the impossible. Welcome to your self.
Please consider this memory: I was thirty, raising three kids alone and wrestling myself through a psychology degree split between get-to-know-and-love-yourself counseling and physiological psychology. One of my teachers gathered us into a circle, in which we told our deepest stories, confronted each other, acted out our dreams, cried, froze in silence, held each other and often wanted only to escape. We all sat tight. We were learning Rogerian therapy and Gestalt technique in our bodies — and by the seat of our pants. Our teacher warmly insisted we call him by his first name. Some of us slept together. That was never mentioned in our cozy circle.
Three hours later, I would walk across campus to a brightly lit classroom in which desks were aligned in rows with military precision. An austere fine-boned man would walk in at 4, not one minute sooner nor later. His lectures were contained, much like listening to a diagram. He drew nerve pathways on the board, his handwriting as precise as his speech. We had never seen him smile. And we were always to call him Doctor.
One gray December day, I left the therapy class circle in my own fog. I had finally cried over my mother’s repeated suicide attempts. One of the other students had gently taken my hand and said, “Now your body and spirit can heal.” I walked slowly on the icy sidewalks as though I were made of glass. I wondered where my spirit resided and I had no idea how my body felt. For years, I had considered myself a huge and difficult mind on a great pair of legs.
By the time I reached the neuroanatomy classroom, I could feel the cold air in my lungs. My thoughts had cleared. The professor walked in at 4. He did not turn to the blackboard as he always did. He stood silently in front of us for what seemed forever. We waited.
“Tell me,” he said, “who you are.” It was not a question. It was a command. The room was silent. Then, a wild-haired young man raised his hand. The professor nodded. “I’m a psychology student, a guitarist and a person on his way to his real life,” the student said. The professor nodded again. An older woman raised her hand, “I’m a mother, a grandmother and a nurse.” Five or six students spoke. I didn’t. I seemed to have no answer.
“Thank you,” the professor said. “Your answers are at one level, correct. And, they are thoroughly inadequate. You see, if someone were to introduce a powerful anticholinergic inhalant into the air ducts, an inhalant that had no scent, you would within seconds not only have no idea of who you are, you would have no idea of you or are or who.” He allowed himself a small, almost sad smile. Then he turned to the blackboard and wrote: acetylcholinesterase and brain function.
I watched his hand move. His hand moving, my eyes watching, my brain decoding what my eyes see, these very thoughts, only neurotransmitters releasing and arriving, moving through cell membranes, releasing again. That is who he is; that is who I am. I wondered that I didn’t feel diminished, though, of course, I had ceased to have the same meaning it once had.
The next Spring, I stood at a tall table in the Neurophysiology teaching laboratory. The instructor placed a jar in my hands. “Don’t do anything,” she said, “until I give all of you the instructions.” She handed jars to everyone and then taught us how to carefully remove the human brain inside.
I took the cold mass into my hands. The voice of the instructor seemed to fade away. I felt the weight of an unknown person’s words and touches, of memory and loss, of longing and pain, of pleasure and knowledge. Your answers at one level are correct and they are inadequate. The voice of the lab instructor came back. “You will never know who belonged to these brains,” she said. “And, as you will learn in the months to come, our brains do not belong to us. We belong to our brains. And, in that, to our bodies.”