Etidorhpa – The Living Brain
The old man accompanied his word ” come,” as I have said, by rising from his chair, and then with a display of strength quite out of proportion to his age, he grasped my wrist and drew me toward the door. Realizing at once that he intended I should accompany him into the night, I protested, saying that I was quite unprepared.
” My hat, at least,” I insisted, as he made no recognition of my first demur.
” Your hat is on your head,” he replied.
This was true, although I am sure the hat had been previously hung on a rack in a distant part of the room, and I am equally certain that neither my companion nor myself had touched it. Leaving me no time for reflection, he opened the door, and drew me through the hallway and into the gloom. As though perfectly familiar with the city, he guided me from my cozy home, on the retired side street in which I resided, eastwardly into the busy thoroughfare, Western Row. Our course led us down towards the river, past Ninth, Eighth, Seventh Streets. Now and then a pedestrian stopped to gaze in surprise at the unique spectacle, the old man leading the young one, but none made any attempt to molest us. We passed on in silence, out of the busy part of the thoroughfare and into the shady part of the city, into the darkness below Fifth Street. Here the residences were poorer, and tenement-houses and factories began to appear. We were now in a quarter of the city into which strangers seldom, if ever, penetrated after night, and in which I would not have cared to be found unprotected at any time after sunset, much less in such questionable company. I protested against the indiscretion; my leader made no reply, but drew me on past the flickering gas lights that now and then appeared at the intersection of Third, Pearl, Second, and Water Streets, until at last we stood, in darkness, on the bank of the Ohio River.
Strange, the ferry-boat at that time of night only made a trip every thirty minutes, and yet it was at the landing as though by appointment. Fear began to possess me, and as my thoughts recur to that evening, I can not understand how it was that I allowed myself to be drawn without cry or resistance from my secure home to the Ohio River, in such companionship. I can account for the adventure only by the fact that I had deliberately challenged my companion to make the test he was fulfilling, and that an innate consciousness of pride and justice compelled me to permit him to employ his own methods. We crossed the river without speaking, and rapidly ascending the levee we took our course up Main Street into Covington.
Still in the lead, my aged guide, without hesitation, went onward to the intersection of Main and Pike Streets; thence he turned to the right, and following the latter thoroughfare we passed the old tannery, that I recalled as a familiar landmark, and then started up the hill. Onward we strode, past a hotel named ” Niemeyer’s,” and soon were in the open country on the Lexington Pike, treading through the mud, diagonally up the hill back of Covington. Then, at a sharp curve in the road where it rounded the point of the hill, we left the highway, and struck down the hillside into a ravine that bounded the lower side of the avenue. We had long since left the city lamps and sidewalks behind us, and now, when we left the road way, were on the muddy pike at a considerable elevation upon the hillside and, looking backward, I beheld innumerable lights throughout the cities of Cincinnati, Covington, and the village of Newport, sparkling away in the distance behind and below us.
” Come,” my companion said again, as I hesitated, repeating the only word he had uttered since telling his horrible story, ” Come!”
Down the hill into the valley we plunged, and at last he opened the door of an isolated log cabin, which we entered. He lighted a candle that he drew from his pocket, and together we stood facing each other.
” Be seated,” he said dryly.
And then I observed that the cold excuse for furniture in that desolate room consisted of a single rude, hand-made chair with corn-shuck bottom. However, I did not need a second invitation, but sank exhausted and disconsolate upon the welcome object.
My companion lost no time, but struck at once into the subject that concerned us, arguing as follows:
” One of the troubles with humanity is that of changing a thought from the old to a new channel; to grasp at one effort an entirely new idea is an impossibility. Men follow men in trains of thought expression, as in bodily form generations of men follow generations. A child born with three legs is a freak of nature, a monstrosity, yet it sometimes appears. A man, possessed of a new idea is an anomaly, a something that may not be impossible, but which has never appeared. It is almost as difficult to conceive of a new idea as it is to create out of nothing a new material or all element. Neither thoughts nor things can be invented, both must be evolved out of a preexisting something which it necessarily resembles. Every advanced idea that appears in the brain of man is the result of a suggestion from without. Men have gone on and on ceaselessly, with their minds bent in one direction, ever looking outwardly, never inwardly. It has not occurred to them to question at all in the direction of backward sight. Mind has been enabled to read the impressions that are made on and on the substance of brain convolutions, but at the same time has been and is insensible to the existence of the convolutions themselves. It is as though we could read the letters of the manuscript that bears them without having conceived of a necessity for the existence of a printed surface, such as paper or anything outside the letters. Had anatomists never dissected a brain, the human family would to-day live in absolute ignorance of the nature of the substance that lies within the skull. Did you ever stop to think that the mind can not now bring to the senses the configuration, or nature, of the substance in which mind exists? Its own house is unknown. This is in consequence of the fact that physical existence has always depended upon the study of external surroundings, and consequently the power of internal sight lies undeveloped. It has never been deemed necessary for man to attempt to view the internal construction of his body, and hence the sense of feeling only advises him of that which lies within his own self. This sense is abstract, not descriptive. Normal organs have no sensible existence. Thus an abnormal condition of an organ creates the sensation of pain or pleasure, but discloses nothing concerning the appearance or construction of the organ affected. The perfect liver is as vacancy. The normal brain never throbs and aches. The quiescent arm presents no evidence to the mind concerning its shape, size, or color. Man can not count his fingers unless some outside object touches them, or they press successively against each other, or he perceives them by sight. The brain of man, the seat of knowledge, in which mind centers, is not perceptible through the senses. Does it not seem irrational, however, to believe that mind itself is not aware, or could not be made cognizant, of the nature of its material surroundings?”
” I must confess that I have not given the subject a thought,” I replied.
” As I predicted,” he said. ” It is a step toward a new idea, and simple as it seems, now that the subject has been suggested, you must agree that thousands of intelligent men have not been able to formulate the thought. The idea had never occurred to them. Even after our previous conversation concerning the possibility of showing you your own brain, you were powerless and could not conceive of the train of thought which I started, and along which I shall now further direct your senses.”
” The eye is so constituted that light produces an impression on a nervous film in the rear of that organ, this film is named the retina, the impression being carried backward therefrom through a magma of nerve fibers ( the optic nerve ), and reaching the brain, is recorded on that organ and thus affects the mind. Is it not rational to suppose it possible for this sequence to be reversed? In other words, if the order were reversed could not the same set of nerves carry an impression from behind to the retina, and picture thereon an image of the object which lies anterior thereto, to be again, by reflex action, carried back to the brain, thus bringing the brain substance itself to the view of the mind, and thus impress the senses? To recapitulate: If the nerve sensation, or force expression, should travel from the brain to the retina, instead of from an outward object, it will on the reverse of the retina produce the image of that which lies behind, and then if the optic nerve carry the image back to the brain, the mind will bring to the senses the appearance of the image depicted thereon.”
” This is my first consideration of the subject,” I replied.
” Exactly,” he said ; ” you have passed through life looking at outside objects, and have been heedlessly ignorant of your own brain. You have never made an exclamation of surprise at the statement that you really see a star that exists in the depths of space millions of miles beyond our solar system, and yet you became incredulous and scornful when it was suggested that I could show you how you could see the configuration of your brain, an object with which the organ of sight is nearly in contact. How inconsistent.”
” The chain of reasoning is certainly novel, and yet I can not think of a mode by which I can reverse my method of sight and look backward,” I now respectfully answered.
” It is very simple; all that is required is a counter excitation of the nerve, and we have with us to-night what any person who cares to consider the subject can employ at any time, and thus behold an outline of a part of his own brain. I will give you the lesson.”
Placing himself before the sashless window of the cabin, which opening appeared as a black space pictured against the night, the sage took the candle in his right hand, holding it so that the flame was just below the tip of the nose, and about six inches from his face. Then facing the open window he turned the pupils of his eyes upward, seeming to fix his gaze on the upper part of the open window space, and then he slowly moved the candle transversely, backward and forward, across, in front of his face, keeping it in such position that the flickering flame made a parallel line with his eyes, and as just remarked, about six inches from his face, and just below the tip of his nose. Speaking deliberately, he said:
” Now, were I you, this movement would produce a counter irritation of the retina; a rhythm of the optic nerve would follow, a reflex action of the brain accompanying, and now a figure of part of the brain that rests against the skull in the back of my head would be pictured on the retina. I would see it plainly, apparently pictured or thrown across the open space before me.”
” Incredible!” I replied.
” Try for yourself,” quietly said my guide.
Placing myself in the position designated, I repeated the maneuver, when slowly a shadowy something seemed to be evolved out of the blank space before me. It seemed to be as a gray veil, or like a corrugated sheet as thin as gauze, which as I gazed upon it and discovered its outline, became more apparent and real. Soon the convolutions assumed a more decided form, the gray matter was visible, filled with venations, first gray and then red, and as I became familiar with the sight, suddenly the convolutions of a brain in all its exactness, with a network of red blood venations, burst into existence.
I beheld a brain, a brain, a living brain, my own brain, and as an uncanny sensation possessed me I shudderingly stopped the motion of the candle, and in an instant the shadowy figure disappeared.
” Have I won the wager?”
” Yes,” I answered.
Note: This experiment is not claimed as original. See Purkinje’s Beitrage zur Kenntniss des Seheus in subjectiver Hinsicht ( Prague, 1923 and 1825 ), whose conclusions to the effect that the shadow of the retina is seen, I-Am-The-Man ignores.-J. L. L.
” Then,” said my companion, ” make no further investigations in this direction.”
” But I wish to verify the experiment,” I replied. ” Although it is not a pleasant test, I can not withstand the temptation to repeat it.”
And again I moved the candle backward and forward, when the figure of my brain sprung at once into existence.
” It is more vivid,” I said; ” I see it plainer, and more quickly than before.”
” Beware of the science of man I repeat,” he replied; ” now, before you are deep in the toils, and can not foresee the end, beware of the science of human biology. Remember the story recently related, that of the physician who was led to destruction by the alluring voice.”
I made no reply, but stood with my face fixed, slowly moving the candle backward and forward, gazing intently into the depths of my own brain.
After a time the old man removed the candle from my hand, and said: ” Do you accept the fact? Have I demonstrated the truth of the assertion?”
” Yes,” I replied; ” but tell me further, now that you have excited my interest, have I seen and learned all that man can discover in this direction?”
” No; you have seen but a small portion of the brain convolutions, only those that lie directly back of the optic nerve. By systematic research, under proper conditions, every part of the living brain may become as plainly pictured as that which you have seen.”
” And is that all that could be learned?” I asked.
” No,” he continued. ” Further development may enable men to picture the figures engraved on the convolutions, and at last to read the thoughts that are engraved within the brains of others, and thus through material investigation the observer will perceive the recorded thought of another person. An instrument capable of searching and illuminating the retina could be easily affixed to the eye of a criminal, after which, if the mind of the person operated upon were stimulated by the suggestion of an occurrence either remote or recent, the mind faculty would excite the brain, produce the record, and spread the circumstances as a picture before the observer. The brain would tell its own story, and the investigator could read the truth as recorded in the brain of the other man. A criminal subjected to such an examination could not tell an untruth, or equivocate; his very brain would present itself to the observer.”
” And you make this assertion, and then ask me to go no further into the subject?”
” Yes; decidedly yes.”
” Tell me, then, could you not have performed this experiment in my room, or in the dark cellar of my house?”
” Any one can repeat it with a candle in any room not otherwise lighted, by looking at a blackboard, a blank wall, or black space,” he said.
I was indignant.
” Why have you treated me so inhumanly? Was there a necessity for this journey, these mysterious movements, this physical exertion? Look at the mud with which I am covered, and consider the return trip which yet lies before me, and which must prove even more exhausting?”
” Ah,” he said, ” you overdraw. The lesson has been easily acquired. Science is not an easy road to travel. Those who propose to profit thereby must work circuitously, soil their hands and person, meet discouragements, and must expect hardships, reverses, abuse, and discomfort. Do not complain, but thank me for giving you the lesson without other tribulations that might have accompanied it. Besides, there was another object in my journey, an object that I have quietly accomplished, and which you may never know. Come, we must return.”
He extinguished the light of the candle, and we departed together, trudging back through the mud and the night. ( We must acquiesce in the explanation given for this seemingly uncalled-for journey, and yet feel that it was unnecessarily exacting.)
Of that wearisome return trip I have nothing to say beyond the fact that before reaching home my companion disappeared in the darkness of a side street, and that the cathedral chimes were playing for three o’clock A.M., as I passed the corner of Eighth Street and Western Row.
The next evening my visitor appeared as usual, and realizing his complete victory, he made no reference to the occurrences of the previous night. In his usual calm and deliberate manner he produced the roll of manuscript saying benignantly, and in a gentle tone:
” Do you recollect where I left off reading?”
” You had reached that point in your narrative,” I answered, ” at which your guide had replaced the boat on the surface of the lake.”
And the mysterious being resumed his reading.
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