Alex in Wonderland

I'm writing this now as I'm not sure what I'll remember tomorrow. Hell, I'm not even sure I'm writing this now. Yesterday when I woke up...

Well, let me back up a little. I don't know who will ever read this, so I should explain. I--we, the people I work with, study the brain. Right now we are working on something pretty neat, but also scary. We want to map a brain, functionally, down to the individual neuron. The trouble is, until now there's been no way to do this without killing the brain's owner.

But we've been able to do it--with a rat, and a cat. We don't really know if it worked with the cat, but we are currently running a simulation of the rat's brain and it appears to be exhibiting strikingly rat-like behavior. I.e. fucking amazing. Top secret. Even writing this down on something outside of company premises I'm sure violates a dozen clauses in my contract, but...let me move forward.

This is basically my project. I'm the one who's had the faith in it from the start, the drive to push it forward, and the ingenuity to make it work. But I feel I've been fighting bureaucracies the whole way, from trying to get money from people who could never understand what it's for to trying to get permission from people who could never understand why they should give it. We want to scan a monkey next. I think we'll be employing lawyers and public relations people for years to get that one to fly.

The problem is the process gives people the willies, especially animal rights officials, especially if they're religious or spiritual and have other reasons for not wanting us to tread here. The process is not passive, and the subject is aware...of everything. And I do mean everything. We use a combination of drugs and targeted electromagnetic stimulation to selectively fire semi-random sparse patterns of neural activity, and we use a sort of temporal computed tomography of the emitted EM to capture the resulting signal paths. That is, we're able to trace individual axons from neuron to neuron, and over time build up a complete connectivity map of the brain. From there, we can forcibly trigger particular groups of neurons and observe how the neurons they are connected to respond. To make this as efficient as possible, multiple non-overlapping groups are explored in this way in parallel--so it's rather like the subject is in one moment being forced to think of his grandmother, some musical score, a mathematical formula, a blue dot in his left visual field, and the best way to clean a carburetor all at the same time. And then in the next moment, some completely different set of things. Hundreds of times a second. And this goes on for many, many hours.

What makes the process tolerable is that half the drugs we're using are devoted entirely to protecting the brain. Specifically, we completely halt the processes that normally lead to the physical changes underlying the formation of memories. In effect the brain is held in a sort of chemical deep freeze, a state immune to change, but still able to function in a purely reactionary way. Other drugs keep the necessary neurotransmitters and nutrients replenished, and also keep the level of spontaneous activity as low as possible. This latter point would amount to keeping the subject unconscious, except that we then go in and light up their brain with activity much as if they were conscious, but completely under our control. In some sense, we have drugged their will to sleep, closed their eyes and ears, and replaced all of that with a machine that decides exactly what they're going to think, see, hear and feel in each moment. Yes--some day this could lead to the ultimate virtual reality experience, but that's a long time off. Right now there's no real coherent thinking or experience going on. We don't know nearly enough, nor have the computing power, to do that. Right now, it's just a random nightmare of disconnected thoughts, feelings, and sensations, experienced in rapid fire succession and immediately and forever forgotten. But that's enough--that's enough, I believe, for us to reconstruct the mind within the brain.

So, why am I talking about carburetors and grandmothers instead of cheese and mazes, considering we've only really done this with a mouse? Because I've been having nightmares about this for days. Because...I am going to have it done to me. Or maybe I already have.

I didn't want to wait. Nobody wanted to wait. When we--just a small group of us--started talking seriously about proceeding with this, the jokes started flying. It was a scenario right out of a hundred hackneyed movie plots. The Hulk, Flatliners, a classic Batman villain back-story; I was "The Drooler! Da da da!" And someone else would add, "Able to soak a large sponge in a single afternoon!" And another, "More forgetful than a locomotive." And, "His secret dual identity as a mild-mannered disk drive." They threw me a movie night to watch Memento, featuring a man who tattooed notes on himself in lieu of a damaged memory.

But fun and jokes aside, I think everyone, not least of all me, was terrified we were going to wipe my brain.

So here's where I took my first trip down the rabbit hole.

I woke up the day before we were going to do it feeling a little anxious. But it was more than that. Something was out of kilter. I sat up in bed and rubbed my eyes, rather disoriented, as if my eyes weren't quite working yet. So I rubbed them some more and looked down with perfectly fine vision at bed sheets I'd never seen before in my life. And I looked up, and there was a painting on the wall I didn't recognize. For a moment I wondered if I hadn't fallen asleep at a friend's house. But no, this was my bedroom, no doubt about it. My bed, same room, much of the stuff in it I recognized, though I can't say any of it was exactly where I last remembered it being.

You can imagine what's going through my head at this point: "Oh, fuck."

I mean, what would you be thinking? I'm like that famous patient, H.M., with a blown hippocampus, permanently locked-down brain with no new memories ever again, doomed to live the same day over and over for the rest of my life. My god, how old am I? I rushed over to the mirror, but I didn't look too different. But some day will I be rushing to the same mirror and finding an old, grey haired and wrinkled man? Oh, the horror, to grow old overnight, to go to bed young and wake up on death's door. I noticed something on my arm in the mirror, looked down to find a tattoo of the words "log in". Holy shit, I'm Memento guy! I pulled up my shirt, looked for more tattoos, front and back, nothing--just the one. My heart was pounding, I felt marginally ill. I must do this to myself every morning. It can't be good for me. So I tried to calm myself, but then had a moment of panic--how long does my memory last? Will I forget all of this in a moment and be wondering what I'm doing standing in the bathroom? I ran to the computer in the corner to log in before I forgot. Except my computer wasn't there. Well, sort of. There was a very nice display on the desk, and a keyboard and mouse, but the wires just vanished behind the desk and there was no actual computer in sight. I wanted to follow the cables back to see where they went but figured I better stay focused and just log in. My username and password were the same, as I guess they would have to be for all eternity. Up came the background image--me with some beautiful woman who I did not recognize. But the image felt somehow familiar. And there I was, me, with this woman who I don't know. I leaned forward to inspect the image for authenticity, my eyes not yet ready to believe what the rest of me was starting to accept, but icons and windows rapidly covered it up, and then a big digital post-it note popped up in the front with just the words

Stay Calm.
Enjoy each day
as though it were your last.
And love her as I do.

That was all.

I took a few deep breaths. I could still remember waking up, quite clearly, so my memory didn't seem to be fading too rapidly. How was that possible? It didn't make sense, based on what I knew of memory at the time.

Then the door opened, and in she came. Even more beautiful in person than in the photo, and still scantily clad in her night clothes. I looked back at the bed--two pillows! I hadn't noticed that when I got up. She just stood there in the doorway with a sultry smile on her face and said, "Morning, sugar."

Holy cow, I wanted to just do her right then and there. I mean, here I was, from my perspective first time ever laying eyes on her, knowing that without a doubt I could have her. None of that long and drawn out uncertainty of the dating ritual that usually stands between you and what you want, not even that first awkward physical encounter where she's shy and self-conscious in bed and doesn't really enjoy it. Past all that.

But I couldn't put it together. How did I end up with her? I mean, how did I go my whole remembered life without finding anyone like her, and then finally end up with her when I can't remember her for more hour? A day? I still didn't know.

She seemed to know what I was thinking (of course!). Me still standing there dumbfounded, possibly drooling (oh god, The Drooler!), she said, "You know that look you just gave me, like it's the first time you've ever seen me and you want me without reservations, not bored of me, not tired of my annoying habits, just wanting to take me and make me yours, mark your territory in me?" I just stood there like an idiot, still dumbfounded, and eventually managed a mouth-agape affirmative nod. "Well, that's why," she said with a big satisfied grin, and then turned and walked back out to the living room.

I stumbled out after her, mind still reeling, heart still pounding. How do I live through this every day? I'm going to die of a heart attack before I have a chance to wake up suddenly old some day. And I turned the corner into the living room, and a chorus of voices yelled "SURPRISE!" and glitter and streamers filled the air and my heart almost jumped out of my throat and ran down the street. I stumbled back and caught myself against the wall, scanned the room to see all the folks from the party the night before still there, one of them wearing my old bed sheets, my...that girl with her arms around my friend Jack--she must be his girlfriend who everyone kept telling me was just my type--and there in the corner was my computer with the wires going out the partly opened sliding doors, and surely into the ones in my room. "That's my new monitor," Peter said, referring to the one in my room. "Like it?"

I thought back to the night before. Up late with the gang who were clearly working hard to keep my glass full until I was pretty well done in for the night. Someone leading me to my bedroom, waiting outside the bath while I brushed my teeth and stumbled into my jammies, escorting me from the bathroom door to my bed--in the dark. Surely they had re-outfitted my room already during the party, could have easily rubber-stamped the "tattoo" on my arm while leading me to bed. I looked down at the sleeve of my night shirt, and sure enough there were traces of dye on it.

"You are all...just...evil!" I said, shaking my head and trying to repress an outrageous grin. I turned and walked back to my bedroom without another word. "To script!" someone yelled triumphantly, and there was much rejoicing. The last words I heard before closing the door behind me was someone yelling, "Behold The Drooler in his heroic attire!" I looked at myself in the mirror--standing in my jammies, smudged tattoo of the words "log in" on my arm--and laughed, and then quietly cried a little, because I still had to face the real thing tomorrow. Even if all went perfectly I would still lose more than twenty-four hours of my life to a drug-induced stupor--at the hands of people who, despite their antics, I trusted more than anyone else in the world, but none of whom were doctors should anything go really wrong. We had thought of conscripting a friend or two in the medical field but realized it would be the end of their careers if it ever got out. The only reason it wasn't completely crazy is because these drugs really do just lock down the brain on a physical level. So, almost no matter what happens during the scan, when I come to the next day it should be as if the previous 24 hours never happened.

Or so we thought. Or so I hoped.

But something went wrong. I don't know what. I really can't tell you what has happened in the last twenty-four hours but I will tell it as I remember it, at the moment anyway.

The rest of that day was uneventful, full of all the preparation we had been through many times before with our earlier animal trials--but this time I was the animal. Shaving a few small patches on my head, where in the morning we would slice the skin and drill little conical dimples into my skull. It sounds horrible, but really it's no big deal--the dimples are superficial, just enough to give the pointy-ended Pyrex mounting rods a fixed location to bite into. The skin folds right back around the rods and usually stops bleeding fairly quickly, and whatever minor scars it leaves later will be under my hair anyway. Starting an IV drip, with a few of the drugs that need to be ramped up slowly. I would spend the night in the lab, and would be unconscious by morning, trusting my team with...everything.

Even my anxiousness faded as the night wore on--a side effect of the drugs. I felt fine, really, really fine. The world became very soft, noises faded pleasantly into the distance. I felt very at ease. And I remember hoping coming out the back end would be just as gentle, thinking, "Hey, this isn't so bad--I could do this again!".

And then I took my second trip down the rabbit hole.

I didn't wake up gently. Frankly I'm not sure I woke up. Well, I think I did, I mean I remember doing so, not once but twice. And neither of them was right. First, I was just awake, wide awake, sitting in the lab. All the equipment was there, but I wasn't on the scanning table, I was just sitting on one of the chairs we sit on when we're running the scans. And I was wide awake. Just like that. And nobody was there. It felt like a dream, but not. It was so real, down to the finest detail, so consistent, and yet inexplicable. I was very disoriented. And then when I tried to move, I couldn't. And I thought for sure this was a dream, or is it like when you wake up half way but your body is still disengaged so you are paralyzed for a moment? So I tried really hard to move, and I don't know exactly what happened but I fell out of my chair and onto the floor and I hurt all over but then in a fit of flopping about I was up on my feet and suddenly felt okay. And I felt very calm, none of the leaping-heart feeling, and I recall being amused at myself for being so calm, and then thinking again that this was just a very strange dream.

Of course it occurred to me I could just be in the scan right then and there, that this whole experience was an unintended virtual reality experience, that this is what it's like having your neurons randomly poked and prodded while heavily doped up. But it didn't make sense, it doesn't make sense. It still doesn't make sense. My thinking was too ordinary, too linear, too willful. I could remember...well...from the moment I "woke up" in the chair. So, was I back to a Memento scenario? I looked at my arm--no tattoo. None whatsoever! Not even the faintest stain from the night before. So this is either a dream, or somehow many days or more have passed since the night before the scan.

I poked myself a few times, felt real enough. I called out. No answer. It started to dawn on me, could this be another practical joke? Think how little they'd done last time and had me completely fooled! So they washed the ink off my arm, and ran the sodium pentathol drip a little longer than the others so I would wake up more suddenly, propped me in the chair--where I sat and got stiff waiting for the last drugs to wear off--and then presto, here I am, the brunt of another joke!

The Drooler indeed!

I went straight for the door to the hallway, to find them and put an end to this way-over-the-line silliness, or so was my intent. But when I opened the door... You know those moments when you suddenly realize something is very, very wrong? Like feeling a gust of wind from nowhere, looking around to see where it came from, and then finally looking down to see the bullet hole in your chest with blood draining out of it? This was one of those moments, only it wasn't me with the hole, it was reality. My foot fell not on the hallway floor but onto open space, and in that moment I looked before me and I reached back, spun around as much as I could with my lead foot missing its contact, but my fingers just brushed the wall and found nothing to grasp. So I helplessly pivoted out the door, now backward, and fell away, watching the doorway I had just left recede into the distance, a glowing portal in an otherwise vast blue sky.

And then I woke up. Again. Only this time I was drowning, completely submerged, my lungs full of water, darkness. I swam to the surface, spewed water out of my lungs, gasped for air, coughed up more water, gasped for more air, treaded water until I regained some senses.

I could feel a wind blowing, and I could tell from the lack of echoes that I was outside, though I couldn't hear much else above my own splashing about. Then off in the distance I saw a faint light, or more of a glow. So I swam toward it, and sooner than I expected my hands felt mud, and I crawled up onto the grassy shore and lay there to rest.

I just started laughing. I couldn't tell you why. Just, I guess, the absurdity of it all. My god, what a story it will make when I finally wake up. If I wake up. I fully expected the earth to open up and consume me any moment, and to find myself riding a magic carpet.

And then I heard it. Faintly in the distance, from the same direction as the glow, I heard some pretty folk music. And it wasn't the earth swallowing me up, nor a magic carpet, but it was good enough, and I laughed and laughed until I was bored of laughing, and then I just lay there with the music playing off in the distance thinking, "Okay, now what?"

Eventually I gathered myself to my feet and started trudging through the swampy grass toward the music, toward the glow. The ground soon went dry and became easier to traverse, though the grass got a bit taller, up to my waist at times. And then the grass grew thinner, and the ground more rocky, and still I could see I had a ways to go but at least now I was making good time except for occasionally stumbling over a rock. I couldn't see the moon or stars, but still it wasn't quite pitch black.

I did have one moment of panic during this little hike--I mean, as much as someone in such surreal circumstances can have anything to panic about. I heard a noise and looked to the side and swear in the faint of night I saw something huge and moving very quickly. After my initial start, which froze me in my tracks, I realized that whatever it was--if in fact I'd seen anything at all--was already long gone and clearly not coming my way. So I laughed at my ghosts and pressed on. Perhaps it was a giant teapot.

The music was live, and the glow was from a small bonfire and a number of torches. People were dancing, and when I sauntered into view, still damp and certainly looking a mess, the musicians eyed me a bit--I think wondering whether to stop the music. But they seemed to think I was harmless enough and so played on while a few curious patrons walked out to meet me.

I offered no explanation for my presence beyond that I had awakened, nearly drowned on the side of some pond and couldn't remember how I'd gotten there, and that I had followed the music here. I heard someone say it must have been catfish pond, and remark on how far I must have walked. And then I saw...her. One of the women who came out to meet me, she looked an awful lot like...that girl. The one from the prank. I didn't even get her name--I mean, the one from the prank. This girl's name was Laura. I know it because I'm staying at her place right now as I write this. She took an immediate liking to me, wanted to tend to me, and the others seemed surprisingly unconcerned that I might, say, be an escaped rapist or whatnot, and they let her scurry me away to her home where she offered me a bath and a night shirt and a warm place in front of the fire. She also found me this quill and ink and...paper, if you can call it that. Yes, I said quill. Does this really surprise you? Also, they all speak with a strange accent which I can't place, but I am thinking I must be--just to entertain the hypothesis that I actually am somewhere as opposed to just out of my fucking mind--I must be somewhere in the middle of the country, perhaps having stumbled into an Amish community?

They asked where I'm from. I told them I simply can't remember. I surely don't want to get into how I might have ended up here from Los Angeles.

Laura is a doll. She's not the same girl from the prank, just similar. Similar enough I'm basically certain I've lost my mind. It seems too coincidental otherwise. (She also says I look familiar to her, that she's certain she's seen me before, but what am I to make of that?)

Well, believe it or not, that's it, the whole story. I'm still waiting to wake up. And after all the time I just spent dreaming that I was writing this all down with a feather and ink--well, I hope at least that I remember it well.

I am going to sleep now, in front of this warm fire. Laura already went off to bed a while ago, as it has taken me quite some time to write this down. But I wanted to get it all down before I go to sleep. Strangely I think I am afraid I will wake up tomorrow, here, and not remember today. But that's all just crazy. I am going to go to sleep now, in front of this warm fire, and I am going to gently wake up in my warm and fuzzy lab in Los Angeles, with my friends around me bringing good news of a spectacular success and our imminent world fame and fortune.

Okay, good night my ghosts. It's been...unreal.

Alex Harris, PhD
From Neverneverland.

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