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21 February 2013 @ 12:04 am
LJ Idol Exhibit A: "Thought Experiment"  
Thought Experiment
LJ Idol Exhibit A | week 5 |1091 words
This is your brain on…


It was always quiet in the cranial lab. Only a handful of people worked there, our shifts so scattered we hardly saw one another. The room was designed for much larger experiments, but the four brain vats and electronic processors didn't take up much space. Sometimes, when I was alone there on long, endless nights, I thought I heard my own heartbeat echoing back off the farthest wall.

I was the newest researcher there, although the program was only about six months old anyway. Each of us was assigned a specific brain to study for a specific purpose. My subject was Elton Wilkins, a former physics professor who had died before he could finish an important new field theory. Day in and day out, I probed different parts of his brain with electricity, chasing down thought pathways and trying to discover the ones that belonged to his greatest work.

The transducer output displayed the resulting signals as visual information, which was less helpful than it sounded. Half of our job was interpreting those pictures and making sense of them. The images were often abstractions of abstractions, and understanding them was more of an art than a science.

The goal was to mine old logic and map the subject's idea patterns so they could be reapplied to new problems. Professor Wilkins was quite the challenge. The more complex the intellect, the murkier the output, which meant I'd spent entire weeks looking at images of highways and rivers and trying to glean something from the traffic or the landmarks, or even the grass and bumps along the river's edge.

Then one day, the brain transmitted a single picture of a door.

Door, door, I thought to myself. Something to unlock or enter, like a passageway that might lead to the next big idea?

I turned possibilities over in my mind for hours, but couldn't make sense of it. I was still sitting there staring at it when Dr. Seelentod stopped by around six.

"Patrick," he sighed. "Your work is very slow compared to the other researchers. You need to speed things along."

"Yes sir," I said. "Understood."

He shook his head and went home to his family. Three hours later, I gave up for the day and caught the last bus home.

On Friday, I picked my way through images of the inside of a clock. I followed the turning cogs and weights, trying to extrapolate some kind of construct. Then the door came back again.

What was the relevance of the door? I checked the ether-repository for information on Wilkins—projects, history, news articles. I'd heard that Wilkins' brain came to us after he'd killed himself, but I hadn't realized that he'd lost his wife and children to a house fire two months before that. Sad. I supposed I couldn't blame him.

I couldn't get anything but pictures of the door after that, no matter where I probed or how much I adjusted the electrical stimulus. Was the processing unit broken? I called it quits at eight and went home.

Monday morning started off better. I tested a few different areas of Wilkins' brain, and the pictures varied enough that it looked like the processing unit was fine. I was working on the left midbrain region, painstakingly recording the secrets it had to tell. Before long, I came across something new—music! I didn't know enough to understand the notation terribly well, but the building of simple, crossing melodic threads into something larger and more elaborate was pretty obvious. I fed the output through a music generator, just to see what came out. Wow. It sounded like someone let a badger loose in an orchestra pit. Well, it was a long shot anyway. Like everything else I'd uncovered, the music was an abstraction of something rather than a literal representation. I tilted the probe just slightly, hoping to catch more of the pattern, and suddenly ran into yet another picture of that stupid door. Damn it!

We’d been told that the brains couldn't produce new thoughts. Yes, the vats preserved the specimens, and our probing created outside inputs, but the brains were effectively dead. So why was this brain so relentlessly returning those images of the door? How was holding onto neuro-pathways and stale thoughts actually different from remembering?

Something caught my eye, and I looked at the display again. Now there was a picture of the sky, all wide-open blue with puffy clouds. Then the door came back again, and then the sky. What did it mean?

I got up and walked around, past the other brains, the other stations. I thought about Wilkins' family dying in that fire, and his suicide soon afterward. This research facility was owned by the university where he'd taught. Surely he'd intended to donate his brain to science. Hadn't he?

Or had there just been no one left to prevent it?

I heard footsteps behind me, and turned. It was Professor Vasilyak.

"Your reports, Patrick," he said. "They are quite overdue."

"I'm, uh… they're not ready, sir," I said.

"You do realize that this project is a rare and valuable opportunity?" the Professor asked. "There are many, many others who would be very happy to take your place."

"Yes sir, I'm aware of that," I said. "It's just that the information is very complex. The translation is extremely difficult." I couldn't tell him that the one idea I actually recognized was something the research directors would not want to hear.

He stared at me, his eyes growing cold. It was clear that the little I'd said was already unforgivably wrong. "Gather what you have, then," he said, "and bring it upstairs to Professor Seelentod's office."

After he left, I stood there looking at my workstation, my scattered notes, and the scant progress I'd actually made. The display connected to Wilkins' brain kept cycling back and forth between the door and the sky, a pathetic plea that no one but me would ever grasp.

I packed up my notes and put on my jacket, my career here already at an end. The other brains floated quietly in their vats, their inner workings as mysterious as ever. But I knew enough about Wilkins' brain to finally understand what it wanted.

I pulled the brain out of the vat and put in the back of a cupboard where it wouldn't immediately be found. Then I washed my hands of the fluid, of the entire place, and went upstairs to begin my return to the ranks of the unemployed.

If you liked this entry, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

lriG rorriM: Thinkthinkthinklrig_rorrim on February 21st, 2013 05:15 pm (UTC)
I toyed with the idea of a "brain in a jar" story this week - I'm really glad I didn't do one, because I'm sure it couldn't compete with this. This is an awesome story, well-told! I love the way you leap right into the strange stuff, and thought interpretation sounds like an amazing (if strange) job. You made Elton Wilkins come alive, and that's quite a trick considering he's dead. Awesome stuff!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Fringe- Astrid Walter Cowhalfshellvenus on February 21st, 2013 07:29 pm (UTC)
I never thought I'd be writing a brain in a jar story, but this topic was not only the perfect opportunity, there were a lot of interesting ideas and ethics to explore!

It's always seemed to me that if you could get something "out" of a preserved brain, any thoughts that remain imply sentience-- and the last thing anyone wants is to be sentient while also powerless. What a nightmare!

This is an area where humanity and science do not mesh particularly well. And that's a whole story in itself.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

audreybuttercupaudreybuttercup on February 21st, 2013 05:51 pm (UTC)
I love this story! What a great take on the topic! I could see you doing a great prequel to it, fleshing out Elton Wilkins story even more. He really resonated with me, such a sad story.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 21st, 2013 07:32 pm (UTC)
Yay-- I'm so glad readers are getting a real feeling for Wilkins as a person! Determining how to give him a "voice" in his trapped state, one that people could see and understand, was the biggest challenge in writing this. :)

Thanks for reading!

Edited at 2013-02-21 07:32 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 22nd, 2013 05:17 am (UTC)
That's one of the things I like about these Idol rounds-- someone (or several) almost always takes an approach that I never would have expected! :)

cindytsuki_no_bara on February 22nd, 2013 05:08 am (UTC)
this is an interesting - and kind of sad - take on the brain in a jar. i wasn't expecting to feel bad for a brain, but i do!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 22nd, 2013 05:19 am (UTC)
Yay! You should feel bad for the brain. My work here is done. :D
(no subject) - sweeny_todd on February 22nd, 2013 02:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on February 22nd, 2013 06:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
n3m3sis43n3m3sis43 on February 22nd, 2013 06:27 pm (UTC)
Poor trapped brain - I really felt for it. It makes sense that the brain of a man who'd killed himself wouldn't want to be trapped and kept "alive" - if the brain retained any sense of the self it was tethered to. I was sort of hoping Patrick would steal the brain, but I guess that'd be hard to get away with.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 23rd, 2013 01:28 am (UTC)
if the brain retained any sense of the self it was tethered to.
Yes! How can you be sure it doesn't, especially when you're finding thoughts/logic still intact?

I hadn't thought about stealing the brain, more about simply putting it where it could die (releasing it from prolonged life). The lab is never very populated, so I can hope that even if someone notices that the brain is missing, they won't find it in time to revive it.
alien_writings: Glowing Brainalien_writings on February 22nd, 2013 06:29 pm (UTC)
This was a really neat story. Poor Elton Wilkins and his trapped brain! I definitely felt bad for the brain.

Good job! :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 23rd, 2013 01:38 am (UTC)
Finally, a glowing brain of my own! It's the perfect icon for this whole prompt. :D

I would hate to be in Wilkins' place, stuck and powerless to do anything about it. :(
theun4givablestheun4givables on February 22nd, 2013 09:34 pm (UTC)
This is definitely one of the more fascinating takes on the topic. I loved the flow of this particular piece and how Patrick came to slowly realize what it was that Wilkins really wanted. I loved the end of this, too. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 23rd, 2013 07:29 pm (UTC)
Thank you!Poor Wilkins-- at least he was finally freed in the end.
Myrnamyrna_bird on February 23rd, 2013 12:46 am (UTC)
Very original take. Poor Elton. I think he would have wanted his brain to be freed. There are lots of laws and ethics with research like this. I would love to hear more.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 23rd, 2013 07:33 pm (UTC)
Yes-- regardless of whether he originally chose to donate his brain or not, I hope it was clear that he very much wanted to be let go at the end. That would be an awful way to be trapped, even if "all" of you wasn't there, but enough to know how much of it was wrong.
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hairlilycobalt on February 23rd, 2013 04:49 am (UTC)
Awww. I'm sorry, Professor Wilkins! I liked the concept of the abstract images, and the role that interpretation had to play in what the researchers do.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 23rd, 2013 08:40 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you noticed that whole mechanism of abstraction there. Brains work very well when you're IN them, but from the outside even anything still in there is very mysterious to other people. It's like the dots don't connect anymore, though you can see that they're there.
whipchickwhipchick on February 23rd, 2013 05:08 pm (UTC)
"the last thing anyone wants is to be sentient while also powerless."

Totally my nightmare!

Loved the angle you took with this, and how the reader has to unravel the mystery with the researcher.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 23rd, 2013 09:37 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad the things revealed were clear-- that part was definitely a challenge!
fourzoasfourzoas on February 24th, 2013 09:37 pm (UTC)
Interesting take on the prompt. I like the idea of the brain that's still alive--I think that's what you were working with here--a brain that is resisting the probing. Nice ending.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 25th, 2013 04:23 am (UTC)
Yes-- it's not as alive as it would be inside a person, but there is still something of the original owner in there along with his thoughts. Enough presence to know that, for whatever reason, he doesn't want to be sentient anymore.

Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!
mc_lji on February 25th, 2013 12:01 am (UTC)
lovely story (a continuation of sorts if i'm not mistaken...?). but can i just tell you that i think i would pay upwards of a hundred bucks to hear a badger in an orchestra pit?

i *really* like dissonance
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 25th, 2013 04:33 am (UTC)
This one is actually a standalone, but I do remember there being other brain-experiment stories from last season-- at least one pair during one of the intersections.

I would ALSO pay big money to hear a badger loose in an orchestra pit. I probably underreported my love of dissonance. Think Stravinsky/Prokofiev/early Bartok and you'll have some idea. :D
Janet Snakehole: [x-men] rogueapplespicy on February 25th, 2013 03:52 am (UTC)
I am pretty much in love with this story. Damn! Great work.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 25th, 2013 05:55 am (UTC)
Yay-- what a nice thing to say! Thank you! :D
Laura, aka "Ro Arwen": Creativityroina_arwen on February 25th, 2013 04:33 am (UTC)
This was very creative, loved the idea behind it - great job!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 25th, 2013 07:24 am (UTC)
Thank you! This was an interesting one to write, but the prompt really pointed me there. :)
Jemima Paulerjem0000000 on February 25th, 2013 05:11 am (UTC)
Aw, the poor brain. And good for him!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on February 25th, 2013 07:24 am (UTC)
He definitely did the right thing once he was sure what that thing was!