Mutatis Mutandis

For some reason, I am drawn to articles about brains. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and realize they don’t stock a lot of the original parts anymore. Or maybe I’m really hoping for a kind of Sears catalogue listing the upgrades available –anything that doesn’t begin with ‘Once upon a time’. And I’m tired of reading the words exercise and Sudoku over and over again like they were electricians with extra training in neuronal circuits.

I mean I’m okay with the one I got, but I keep thinking the newer models probably have more interactive apps; I think they were overly optimistic about our old ones. Somebody told me they were stamped with an update-before date, but mine didn’t come with instructions about where to look. And of course if they were hidden somewhere inside the reptile part, they knew I wouldn’t check.

But even the act of thinking about thinking, is in itself ‘conundral’ as Arden would put it; I actually prefer ‘labyrinthine’, but he would no doubt call that semantic needle threading. He usually tiptoed around big words, though, preferring his own creations where possible to avoid abstruse definitional, let alone pronunciatory gaffes. And yet it was Arden who first wondered aloud about our brains –well, his in particular anyway.

“What is all this stuff about big brains?” he blurted out one day as we sat on a crowded little bench in a downtown mall. People were breaking over and around us like surf, but Arden likes the challenge.

“You mean, as in intelligence, or just big people?” I asked. Arden can be so opaque.

For some reason he nodded, but just at that moment, a passing child poked his cheek with a straw, so I couldn’t be sure. “So big is supposed to be better, right?” Arden wouldn’t let a mere straw interfere with his chain of logic.

This time I was buffeted by a large, heavy shopping bag full of hard things, so my answer was probably lost in the expletive, but he smiled in acknowledgement nonetheless. “It can’t be just the size that makes us smarter than chimpanzees or whatever, though…” A group of chattering school children on some sort of a mall-tour passed by at that moment, so I had to ask him to repeat his observation although he was still talking  after they’d passed.

He glared at me for interrupting and then shrugged as if realizing he’d said it poorly anyway. “I mean, if size is so important, why don’t whales have cities, or elephants own stores?”

It made me wonder how he’d put it before. I decided to tell him about an article I’d read on brain size ( “Our human brain size was a mutation, Arden,” I said -rather too loudly I guess, because several other people on the bench lowered their newspapers, or raised their heads from their chests and surreptitiously glanced my way.

Arden nodded sagely, as if he’d already suspected that.

“Some gene mutated five or six million years ago, after humans split off from the chimpanzees,” I said pedantically, trying to remember the gist of what I had read. “Apparently it changed its function, or something, and made the neocortex grow.” I hoped there would be no questions, because I had already passed my comfort zone.

But Arden, fascinated by the new word, would not let it rest. He quickly surveyed the passing tide and waited for a break between the waves to talk. “What’s a neoCortes?…Or should I say Who?” he added, shaking his head at the word.

“Neocortex,” I corrected, scanning the crowd for another little boy with a straw, but a fresh wave was breaking over us as I spoke.

“Whatever!” he replied, shaking his head indignantly. “What’s a needleCortes then?” He stared at me for a moment. “Or is it Who? You never clarified that…”

I saw a group of bag-waving shoppers approaching, so I decided not to correct him again, and timed my answer to coincide with their approach. “It’s apparently a key brain region,” I whispered, so he’d be too embarrassed to admit he hadn’t heard me. He nodded again –a sure sign he’d seen my lips move.

We sat like spectators at a noisy hockey game, and the inquisitive bench-heads went back to their respective meaningless diversions. But I could tell Arden was thinking about something, because he nodded a couple of times more and then poked me with his elbow. “Isn’t it puzzling, though…?” he asked no one in particular, and the cadre of heads grew ears again. “I mean that a brain can wonder about itself!” He let his eyes soar up to the faux Tudor beams that crisscrossed the ceiling above us in a very un-medieval pattern. “Thinking about thinking is sort of like…” I could see him struggling to express the inexpressible, his face contorted in an almost religious agony of wonder. “…Brushing your hair without a mirror,” he finally chose, surrendering to the unutterable. The heads disappeared again.

He turned toward me and shrugged at the ineffability of the process. “It’s a hall of mirrors,” he added, although whether as an amendment or an explanatory postscript I wasn’t sure. “A mutation, eh?” he continued, shaking his head in appreciation of the epiphany. “Makes sense, though… I mean because otherwise religion would never work would it?”

Eyes, and the occasional mouth in the dormant heads flew open.

I stared at him for a moment, wondering if I’d missed something. “How do you mean, Arden?”

He rolled his eyes at my obtuseness. “If brain size means intelligence, then…?”

I suppose he thought he was feeding me with clues, but all I could do was blink. I made a stab at it, though when I saw the disappointment on his face. “You mean that more intelligent beings would…?” But I had to stop there, because my idea collapsed.

He started nodding his head, as if he thought I had finally grasped the profundity of his thought. “I mean they’d have to redesign everything, wouldn’t they?”

“You mean…?”

“Yes,” he interrupted, a knowing smile capturing all the available space on his face. His eyes glowed with a rapture I’d never seen before, as he considered just how lucky we were to have mutated in time. “Stuff really does work out, doesn’t it?” And he nodded to himself again as the myriad possibilities that could have been, slowly receded into the dark corners of his fortuitously modified neocortex.




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