A Box Of Birds

By Charles Fernyhough

Does neuroscience change our understanding of ourselves?

They turn up in fancy dress, expecting a party. They can arrive at my lab done up like naughty French maids, jolly pirates still drunk from the sea, or maybe a pair of gorillas with realistic flaring nostrils. Once they broke into someone’s amateur dramatics costume cupboard and came straight here with the spoils, and I spent an hour teaching the essentials of synaptic signalling to both ends of a moth-eaten pantomime horse. I tell them that neuroscience is a serious business, but it’s hard to be serious about anything when you’ve chosen your third-year options and there’s no coursework due this side of Easter. Gareth shows up first, glancing around at the framed photographs of professors on the corridor walls, wondering which door is my lab and what he would have to do to get in there. James swaggers on behind, carrying his public-school confidence like a bulky parcel on a busy street, expecting people to get out of his way. They’re not meant to be up here on the research floors at all, given the security situation, but this is the only part of the Institute where I can hide their threadbare costume dramas from fellow scientists’ eyes. Besides, I have to get some facts down them if they’re going to have a chance of passing anything this year. At least if they come up here to my office, they can’t attract any attention. Persuade them to keep the noise down, and no one will have to know they’re here.
     ‘I’m going to need a volunteer,’ I tell them.
     Gareth dumps his file onto one of the comfy chairs and offers himself nervously. Today he’s turned up as a Franciscan nun, complete with black veil, polyester tunic and clunky plastic neck-cross. His eyes are anxious and shadowy, and can’t stand anything for long. He gives the constant impression that someone is shooting at him.
     ‘I’m going to need you to sign a consent form. What we’re doing involves pretty harmless magnetic fields, but we need to get the paperwork right.’
     James finally gives up on trying to read the secrets of my desktop and settles down in the other chair. ‘She’s going to experiment on your brain, Gaz. She’s going to wire you up to her machines and find out what makes you tick.’
     ‘Am I wearing that?’ Gareth says.
     I grapple with the box. I come up holding an aluminium-cased helmet padded thickly with foam. A spacesuit visor slots over integrated goggles. A spinal column of processors and cables hangs down from the back.
     ‘For a little while,’ I say. ‘Just long enough for us to find out what you’re thinking.’
     ‘Better take your wimple off, Sister,’ James says.

I’ve pulled the blinds down in the office. The one-way glass of the observation window looks out onto the black emptiness of the lab. Outside it’s daylight, a bright March afternoon in the heart of the Forest Campus. James and I are perched on the workbench by the door, separated by a pile of research papers. Gareth is sitting in the comfy chair with his head inside the helmet, which is feeding real-time outputs to a desktop machine linked to a distant mainframe. The output of the software is going to a series of floor-mounted projectors planted in a fairy ring on the carpet. The space between us is filled with a huge 3-D hologram of Gareth’s brain.
     ‘What does it look like?’ Gareth says.
     ‘Colourful,’ James replies. ‘I’d say the rude thoughts are the pink ones.’
     Gareth makes a snorting sound behind the visor, and a blob of brilliant yellow shoots out from the centre of the light-show and dissolves into the rose-threaded haze of his frontal lobe.
     ‘Can you actually tell what I’m thinking?’
     I laugh, and realise I shouldn’t. ‘This isn’t the movies, Gareth. You can’t read someone’s thoughts like you read a computer file. Anyway, the resolution wouldn’t be up to it. You can see which brain areas are active, but that’s pretty much all. It’s a toy, really. Something to keep my brightest students interested.’
     ‘Think of something pleasant, Gaz,’ James says.
     His friend’s lips move behind the visor. Blue streaks of neural activity loop from front to back of the brilliant ghost-brain, and a warm red glow swells in his limbic system, that blurred loop of nuclei lodged between the two hemispheres.
     ‘Not that pleasant, perv-features…’
     I’m wondering how far back this friendship goes. The fancy-dress thing, the nerdy jargon, this shared certainty about what’s funny and not funny. It suggests a schoolboy closeness. A history.
     ‘Have a look,’ I say.
     Gareth lifts the visor. As soon as the light sparks on his retinas you can see a smudge of activity way over in his visual cortex, on the far right from where we’re looking.
     ‘That’s you seeing. The bit at the back is where you process visual information.’
     ‘So you could download this stuff… you could put all my thoughts and memories onto some massive hard drive and have a virtual Gareth Buckle sitting there on your computer?’
     ‘Like I say, this isn’t Hollywood.’ I click on the remote and zoom in on an amethyst flashpoint in his frontal lobe. ‘Even if you had the best resolution in the world, you would only be able to see which neurones were working. You wouldn’t be able to see inside that neural activity—what it means to the person who’s having it.’
     In the gloom next to me, James sounds unimpressed. ‘It’s not him, though, is it? It’s just biological jazz. Stuff going on in his brain.’
     ‘It’s all him, and none of it is him. What’s him is the way all the different bits work together. Consciousness is probably just a lucky by-product of the brain’s enormous complexity.’
     ‘You don’t get out much, do you, Miss?’
     I pretend not to hear.
     ‘OK, so can it work the other way round?’ Gareth flips the visor shut and disappears into the helmet again. ‘Can you give a person thoughts and memories they didn’t have before? I saw this film with Arnie Schwarzenegger…’
     ‘You’ve never watched a film that didn’t star Arnie Schwarzenegger.’
     ‘Sorry,’ I breeze, ‘but it doesn’t work that way. A memory isn’t a chunk of data you can just plug in like a game cartridge. That makes for great TV, but it has nothing to do with real science. You want me to point to what makes Gareth the person he is. I can’t do it. You—that consciousness, that self, that body of memories—is only possible because of lots of different parts of the brain working together. Memory implants are another one of your science fiction myths, I’m afraid.’
     The nun in the helmet makes a disappointed groan.
     ‘Anyway,’ I say, thumbing the remote and quitting the software. ‘We’re only allowed to zap you for a couple of minutes at a time. Sorry.’
     I reach behind me and undim the lights.
     ‘So this is what you do in your top-secret research centre? You experiment on people’s brains?’
     Gareth is keeping the helmet on, like a kid who won’t get out of a fairground ride, thinking he’ll spot the silent secret of its magic.
     ‘Not people,’ James says. ‘Animals. The kind of considerate volunteers who keep their outrage to themselves.’
     ‘No wonder they’ve been round here breaking your windows.’
     I think of the circular email that went round after the latest attacks on the East Wing. Professor Gillian Sleet, the lithe and permatanned Director of the Institute, reminding us of the need to maintain vigilance in light of the new security situation. No one knows if those Conscience activists were students or not. The trouble is, we don’t know who’s a danger and who isn’t. Just be careful, they tell us, and trust nobody. Which is precisely why these two are not supposed to be here.
     ‘Look at this scan.’ I dim the lights again. ‘This isn’t you, Gareth; this is a composite made up of images from hundreds of different volunteers. Same technology, just a much more powerful system.’
     I touch the remote. Another hologrammic brain ghosts up in front of our eyes, its shapes made perfect by countless superimposed iterations. Running through it, like the root system of some supernatural orchid, is the vermilion net of the Lorenzo Circuit. I’m always stunned by it, humbled and threatened by its beauty, by the ambition of the thing as much as anything. It leaves nothing out: the control systems of the frontal lobe, the emotion circuits of the limbic system, all the linked factories of meaning that patch the human cortex. That swirl of self on the screen shows me a dream of connectedness, challenges me to be more whole than I am.
     ‘Hey,’ James says. ‘Who’s good-looking?’
     ‘As I say, this isn’t any one person’s brain. It’s too perfect. It’s been morphed together from lots of different scans, and a fair bit of artistic impression. But it shows the circuit we’re interested in.’
     Gareth tips up the visor to look.
     ‘You can see how it runs through just about every major brain area: the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system, the memory circuits of the temporal lobe, the visual and auditory areas. We understood what these different parts do, but we didn’t understand how they all fit together. This is the Lorenzo Circuit: the connections that make us what we are. The deep root-system of the self. The basis of memory, emotion and consciousness in the human brain. And we’re trying to map it.’
     Gareth is distracted by the activity on my terminal. The scan is drawing data from my own hard disc, which has blown the screensaver and revealed my desktop. A lilac banner stares back at us, displaying another paragon of connectedness, the virtual universe of the networking game we call Des*re. I feel dangerously exposed, witnessing this public demonstration of my obsession.
     ‘Cool,’ he says, his eyes still gravitating to my screen.
     I wish I’d had the sense to log off before they arrived. A few minutes rooting around on there and he would think he knew me inside out. With a twitch of panic, I wonder whether anything new has come through for me.
     ‘Why would you want to do that?’ James is saying. ‘Map it or whatever?’
     ‘Because this circuit is the answer to your question. It’s what makes you you. The work we’re doing here is going to tell us how a brain comes to have a sense of itself, how it gets a view of its own past and future, how it situates itself in the present. Some people doubt whether this circuit even exists. They say you’ll never be able to trace human consciousness back to any single immensely complex system. But we don’t doubt it. This whole Institute, all these different research teams, are dedicated to it. We’ve got the world experts on these techniques, supported by very substantial international funding. We’re trying to map the Lorenzo Circuit in more detail than has ever been done before.’
     I hear the sound of my own enthusiasm, and respond with a little internal shiver. It’s probably dangerous to care too much about this stuff, at least while people are watching.
     ‘But why are you using animals? Why don’t you just zap a load of humans?’
     I sigh, recognising the complaint from a hundred tutorials before this one. ‘Some of these processes are very basic. They work pretty much the same way in mice as they do in people. The human brain has vastly more complexity, but we can’t do the experiments we would like to do with people. The techniques are too invasive. It’s like trying to map a city. Brain scanning gives you a rough street atlas, but we need to understand these pathways brick by brick, stone by stone.’
     ‘Neurone by neurone,’ Gareth muses.
     ‘So to do that you’ve got to chop up a load of monkeys?’
     ‘Not monkeys,’ Gareth says. ‘You’d never get permission for that.’
     He shoots a glance at his partner, which is returned with a look of mock surprise. There’s a joke here, something they’re not sharing with me.
     ‘OK, so you torture a few rats. What does that tell you?’
     I hesitate, wondering how much to tell them. All the answers are there in the holding-room across the corridor, locked away in the terabytes of data that are my experiment on amyloid plaque formation. I feel a sudden pang for my ninety-nine mice, born by mail-order, raised under artificial light, just so I can find out whether an overdose of protein in their brains sends them drooling into dementia. It’s the same guilty dread I feel at the thought that it might not work, that they will have lived and run their mazes and died for nothing. But you don’t let yourself have that thought. Wherever you go, as a scientist, you don’t go there.
     ‘The research we’re doing here is part of this bigger project. Up here on the fourth floor we’re using animal models to work out why certain bits of the Lorenzo Circuit start malfunctioning. My particular interest is in dementia. Profound, pathological forgetfulness. We manipulate the gene which controls the formation of a certain protein. We think it’s the build-up of this protein, in certain key regions along the course of the Circuit, that causes dementia.’
     My screensaver blooms, saving my secrets from Gareth’s stare. If I’ve had another gift from my mystery trader, somewhere far away in cyberspace, it will have to wait until these two have gone.
     ‘So that’s why memories can’t be implanted? Because it’s this massively complex circuit, passing through all these different brain areas? You can’t just implant a memory; you’d effectively have to implant a whole new brain?’
     Gareth finally extracts himself from the helmet and holds it out to me.
     ‘You put it on, Miss. We want to see what makes you tick.’
     My skin prickles. I light up with a blush. All my life I’ve been dodging this, hiding my doubt behind determined smiles, hoping the question would never come. But then something happens that throws you wide open, and you sense people looking in on the shattered illusion of you, marvelling at the workings. I tell myself it’s just the hangover of another late night at the computer, silently communicating with people who are as lost to themselves as I am. But it’s more than that. It’s the woozy, broken-up feeling of being in a million places at once, watching that mysterious circuit trying to pull it all together, and yet somehow failing to feel it. They’re looking at me, interested. I made out that I didn’t question it, didn’t doubt that that swirl of connectivity on the screen actually added up to a person. But maybe I do.
     ‘Nothing ticking,’ I tell them, as casually as I can. ‘There’s nothing ticking in here.’
     James gets up from the bench and goes over to the one-way mirror. I follow him and reach over my desk to release the blinds. It’s still light outside, and the room takes shape with startling clarity, exposing me with a sharpness that feels like guilt. James stands there looking into the blackness of my closed-down lab, one hand shading his eyes.
     ‘So what exactly do your demented mice do in there? What’s the big paddling-pool thing?’
     ‘Flotation tank,’ Gareth quips. ‘It’s very stressful being a scientist.’
     ‘Water maze,’ I say, calmly searching my desk for their essays. ‘The big paddling-pool thing is basically a big paddling-pool. You add milk to the water so that it becomes opaque. You put a mouse in somewhere around the edge and see if it can find its way to a submerged platform. That way you can test the animal’s spatial memory.’
     James is looking at the paddling-pool, trying to decide if it’s cruel to make a humanely-reared mouse swim through milky water. He takes his essay without even glancing at the mark. Gareth is trying to disturb my desktop again, to see what lies behind the branching-neurone screensaver. My late night comes back to me in yawning colour. The human clutter of the gaming rooms, the movie clips gifted from faraway traders, the network of linked webcams that creates the virtual universe of Des*re. Hours of poring over that brilliant ribbon of streaming video, probing its anonymity settings, trying to decode the when and the where of it. And, through it all, this nagging certainty that I’ve found him, or that he’s found me.
     ‘Do you get out into the forest much, Miss?’ Gareth is saying.
     He’s standing at the window, looking down at the burn that flows round the back of the Institute.
     ‘Of course she does,’ James says. ‘She works here.’
     ‘Have you ever seen McQueen out there? You know, when you’re walking to work and stuff?’
     ‘I don’t know. What does he look like?’
     Gareth makes a simian chatter and chucks at his armpits.
     ‘Sort of chimpanzee-ish.’
     I shake my head wearily. ‘There can’t be a chimp living wild in Wenderley Forest, James. It’s not possible.’
     Both seem convinced. ‘It belongs to that biotech company, Sansom. Your rivals. We reckon it escaped from their lab and it’s now roaming free with the squirrels. The word is that it’s surviving on scraps from the kitchens. Sansom are getting in a real state about it. They’re trying to find it and shoot it before anyone finds out the truth about their research.’
     ‘I’ve heard rumours like that before. It will have been some bored student, dressed up for a prank.’
     ‘No, Miss. It’s a real chimp. One of our mates has seen it.’
     ‘Chimps are practically human, Gareth. You’d never get ethical approval to work with them.’
     ‘Sansom don’t worry about ethical approval,’ James says. ‘They’re the third biggest biotech on the planet. They do what they want. Anyway, I assumed you’d know about McQueen. I thought all you vivisectionists stuck together.’
     The label stings. I’m too aware of how it sounds, to people who don’t actually understand what this work involves.
     ‘Don’t worry about him, Miss,’ Gareth says. ‘His lot say all of it is wrong. Ethical approval or not. Experimenting on animals can have no justification, whatever the potential benefits to the experimenters.’
     ‘Who are “his lot”?’ I ask, with a feeling that I’m breaking in halfway through an argument.
     ‘Conscience. The radical animal rights group.’
     Gareth looks at me, enjoying my unease. James’ eyes are turned down, gazing past a smile. He’s shaking his head gently. My heart goes flat and stiff in my chest. The last thing I need is a Conscience activist in my tutorial group.
     ‘I’m not with Conscience,’ he says. ‘I’m nothing. I’m not anything.’
     ‘You were on that demo! At Sansom. You’re there every week. It’s either you or it’s your twin brother. You made the local news, humanoid.’
     James yawns extravagantly, dismissing the argument as easily as he started it. He doesn’t really care what happens in that lab next door. He just wants to win something, some game of his own making, beat someone, it doesn’t matter who.
     ‘Well, save it for the debate,’ Gareth says. ‘Tonight at the Priors’ Hall. I might let James ask a question if he’s lucky. Are you coming, Miss?’
     I glance at the invitation card pinned to my corkboard. Gareth has invited me to something, a college debate on issues arising from the East Wing attacks. Motion: a species that wants cures for its own diseases should not test them out on its inferior cousins. Just what you need, when thousands of dollars’ worth of damage has been done to your world-class research centre: a bunch of students talking about it. But Gareth is scheduled to be speaking. I’m his tutor; I’m supposed to be supportive about this kind of thing.
     ‘I don’t know. Won’t I be at home marking your essay?’
     He lifts his file onto his lap and starts scribbling in it. The label says GAZ’S RANDOM NOTES ON NEUROSCIENCE.
     ‘Just applying the finishing touches, Miss.’
     ‘You’ll have to read it really carefully,’ James says. ‘He’s not letting anyone else see it.’
     ‘What’s the big secret?’
     ‘It’ll all be in the essay.’ James taps his nose confidentially. ‘He won’t tell anyone until he’s absolutely ready to go public. He’ll get in trouble again.’
     ‘I didn’t get in trouble because of my foolproof scheme for getting rich. I got in trouble because I hadn’t satisfied my slave-masters.’
     ‘You mean, you hadn’t handed in any work?’
     Gareth looks up at my computer, seized by an idea.
     ‘Can you access my college record on that thing?’
     ‘That’s for me to know.’
     ‘I’ll have to hack into your account, then.’
     ‘You could try. After recent events, they’ve gone a bit tight on security.’
     ‘He can handle security,’ James says, with a sly wink at me. ‘You know he hacked into the Pentagon? He was, like, twelve.’
     I think of the new bank of firewalls they put in after the latest attacks on the East Wing. You now have to enter a daily-changing security code just to get on to the networked computers. I remember the Executive’s press release after the latest anti-vivisection outrages, about the importance of scientific work being allowed to continue while we strive to find alternatives to experimental research with animals. That doesn’t help this feeling of dread. They look harmless enough, with their big smiles and prankish undergraduate humour, but I’m still going to find myself in desperate amounts of trouble if anyone catches them up here. I want them out of here, I want my house in the trees, a large Jack Daniels and my own company until bedtime. Not the thought of some uniformed thug walking past at any moment, pushing the door open on this flagrant breach of security.
     ‘If you come to the debate, Miss, you can give the scientist’s point of view. Set the record straight.’
     ‘Yeah. You can tell us what your mice are thinking about while you’re fiddling around with their brains.’
     I watch James slump back into the chair and push off his trainers. He’s wearing a Fred Flintstone hairpiece and a tee-shirt that says BIG IN NORWICH. His lips are dry, and there’s a tender colour in his cheeks that hints at childhood embarrassments. His eyelashes are long and dark. A mole on his right cheek is the mark of a perfect arrogant beauty. I’ve heard this tone of voice before, of course: the slick automaticity of the outrage, the wince in his cheeks as he hurts himself on the words. No doubt the people who firebombed an empty storage room in the East Wing had it, took it with them to their Conscience meetings to argue for a better world without cruelty to animals. But James doesn’t seem the sort who would act on his convictions. He’s just testing me, pushing on the edifice to see if it’ll break. He wants the easy kick at the cruelty of animal research, but he hasn’t the heart, or the arguments, to see it through.
     ‘Like I say, in this lab we’re mostly using transgenics. We don’t have to tamper with their brains at all: we let their genes do it for us.’
     ‘Don’t you have any doubts about that?’
     He stares at me, sensing a weakness I didn’t know about.
     ‘Sometimes,’ I say.
     ‘So are they conscious when you’re fiddling around with their transgenics or whatever?’
     ‘That depends on what you mean by conscious.’
     I wish he’d look away now. I like to think I can hide it, by speaking when I’m spoken to, smiling back when people smile at me, and maybe giving a little involuntary blush when it’s a man. But then, out of nowhere, someone sees right through me, notices how I stumble over a response to a question, or leave a glance out of a window hanging a half-second too long. That feeling of being centred, that X that’s supposed to mark the spot of the soul: it gets shown up as the nothing it is. James has scented it, the doubt that’s at the heart of me. It’s like I’ve thrown open a door onto a party you can hear from the street, only to show that there’s nothing there.
     ‘I mean what you mean, Dr Churcher. I mean what it feels like to be alive. To experience the amazing qualities of existence. I’m not talking about neural pathways or bits of the brain working together in harmony. I mean what it feels like to be you, Dr Yvonne Churcher. Age thirty-something. Possibly single. To be that person, in this room, right now.’
     I redden, and hate myself for it.
     ‘Here, in this room, is not really the place to discuss this, James.’
     He holds the gaze. It’s too determined; its need to embarrass me is too much on show. But I find myself yielding to it, in a kind of admiration for his guessing the truth about me. He has me in his gaze, that cool, fascinating fixedness: not fighting me now, more like what comes after fighting.
     ‘You take it to pieces, Dr Churcher, and then you can’t put the pieces back together again.’
     I laugh. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. It’s a mid-brain reflex, some neural cluster buzzing some other neural cluster, and going nowhere near that mythical centre, whatever it is that’s supposed to be me. He’s blushing now, scorched by an older woman’s mockery, and I can feel the tingling dread that tells me that I’ve gone too far. He’s hauling up the smile, hardening it, putting a bit of menace into it, a squeeze of anger. It’s too hot in here. All the doors and windows sealed, and electronic locks on all the doors, and just the two of us trapped in this moment, fighting for air.

It’s true: I do doubt myself. Not in the way that I would doubt whether I could jump that fence or make that person fall in love with me; it’s more like doubting the ‘I’ that’s supposed to be doing the doubting. I know that if I had been more certain about myself, I might have been able to stop Gareth from doing what he did, and I might not have fallen for James’ boom-boy charm, his wild stories and shatterproof smile. I use this word, this feathery personal pronoun, like you might say the name of a foreign town you’re headed for but have never actually seen, hoping the act of utterance might bring it closer. But I don’t believe in that town. I never did. That feeling of centredness, of me-ness, that is supposed to keep you rooted in your life: well, it passed me by. I have this fantasy that I’ll do what Gareth wants me to do, I’ll take the thought-helmet and put it on, dim the lights and let everyone see what’s going on inside. There’ll be the low-level buzz of life-or-death routines, the reflexes that keep the machine working. The Lorenzo Circuit will be flickering, knitting together my past and future selves. As I turn around to see James sitting there, there’ll be the swirl in the back of my brain corresponding to the sight of him. But then he’ll ask me again, ‘How does it feel to be you, here, now?’ And suddenly the evidence of my existence will be gone. I’ll be back to being a network of activity, one neural cluster buzzing another neural cluster, one lot of bio-electrical traffic taking the ring-road around the soul; one deluded meat puppet sizing up another deluded meat puppet and wanting to fight it or fuck it or whatever. ‘What about how it feels?’ James will ask me. ‘There must be something that it feels like to be you.’ I’ll shrug and say that it feels like this. You sitting there with your fading blushes and your day-old stubble, wanting to fight me or fuck me, both, I don’t know. Knocking at the door, trying to work out why there’s no answer.
     Calling my name.
     Wondering why there’s no one at home.

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