Site Meter Peculiar Susceptibility: so much depends on synapses, on sea slugs

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

so much depends on synapses, on sea slugs

It's impossible to start a poem with that phrase anymore.

In the 1950s, at Hartford Hospital (the site - decades later - of my siblings' births) Dr. Scoville made an accidental discovery about memory. He was trying to curb a patient's seizures. This, from Lauren Slater's Opening Skinner's Box:
Based on this last assumption [that memory was diffuse, without locale, scattered like widely sown seed over the whole rind of the cortex], Scoville had no hesitation about removing Henry's hippocampus. The operating room was cool. Henry lay awake on the steel table. Because there are no nerves in the brain, such surgery was performed with the patient completely conscious, only a local anesthetic to numb the skin of the scalp. Swoosh went the shot of lidocaine. A moment laster Henry must have seen Scoville coming at him with his hand-cranked drill, and then two holes were bored above each of his open eyes, and into these holes Scoville inserted a small spatula, with which he jacked up Henry's frontal lobes.

The operating room was quiet. Nurse, hand me this. Nurse, hand me that. But otherwise, no sound. Scoville was looking into Henry. He was looking under the hood of Henry's brain, and how beautiful it was beneath the cortical coral reef, in the brain's interior capsules, where pyramidal cells are shaped like hyacinth, in complex cones, where neurons are tiny but dense. Into this nether region Scoville now inserted a silver straw. Scoville slowly threaded the silver straw deep into Henry's pulsing brain, and then - there - he suctioned out the pink-gray seahorse shape on either side, the entire hippocampus now gone. Inside Henry's head, a great gap appeared, a ragged hole where something once lived.

What did Henry feel as Scoville sucked out his hippocampus? He was, after all, wide awake, thoroughly alert, and the hippocampus, although no one knew it at the time, is the seat of many of our memories. Did Henry feel his past leave him in a single suck? Did he feel the entrance of forgetfulness, like a cold thing coming in or was it more a sensation of sliding: your lover, your qualms, the cats calling beneath the porch in summer - all dropping down into nothing?

It was this accident that gave rise to the experiment on sea slugs through which we learned about the work synapses do for us.

One of the first phrases I associate with moving to Hartford is "build your synapses." When Robyn and I lived together, we would occasionally take meandering drives and learn new paths through Parkville and Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill. This activity was something she called "building synapses."

The other day, I withdrew from whatever social engagement I had arranged (a bad habit of mine) and sludged through some old vhs tapes to find a film I hadn't watched recently. I used To Catch a Thief as a comfort film for years - if I was sick or sad or lonely, it was one of my standards, like something you hum to yourself to quell your nerves.

I let it play through. When the 1994 World Cup footage I had taped over came on, I let that play, too.

There was something comforting about the sounds of it. I let it play and it let its soundtrack waft through my little house, heretofore unfamiliar with the fragmentary phrase construction of sportscasters.

Bits of memories came back to me about that tournament: that red-headed US player; their horrible uniforms; my dad's temporarily reassigned attention from baseball to soccer that summer; that the US team did better than people had anticipated.

And then - did I remember this or did I return to a spot vacant of particulars and inscribe a memory there - I read about Andrés Escobar and it was familiar and I felt, for a moment, the fascinated repulsion of an adolescent. It was easy to feel things in high contrast then, easy to slough off complexities.

Yes - it was this very game over which I taped a Hitchcock movie. This goal is covered up, leaving only muttered half-sentences of the end of the game. Would the sports casters have known? How eerie to watch this footage knowing what would follow, knowing that Escobar had, in a way, set into action a series of events that would give narrative structure to his life. It was rent, suddenly, from the complexities and undefinables of any-life and thrust into narrative significance - something like sea slugs, significant for the meaning we have plied from them after the experiments.


betsy q. bramble said...

What I remember about the 1994 World Cup: I was walking down a street in Boston with my parents and sister. We ducked into a small shop for a soda or something, and I noticed they had hats for sale behind the counter. Baseball caps, for the World Cup. In large font, it read "1994" and the circle of the first 9 was a globe, and the circle of the second 9 was a soccer ball.

I was not one to wear hats that often, but I was overcome with the need for that hat. I was 10 years old. I loved soccer. And I knew it was a big deal that the World Cup was being held in the US. I wanted that hat to wear, to put my pony tail through in the back, but mostly to commemorate the event.

I told my dad I wanted it, and asked if he would buy it for me. My parents had no money, so the answer was almost always no when I asked for something. I expected this, but I still felt so sad this time. This was the only time this event was happening, as it was, and the only time this hat would exist to prove it. We left the store, and I was quiet but visibly sad. My dad said to me "Do you really NEED that hat?" and I immediately felt guilty because I knew the answer was no. I didn't need it. But I stayed quiet and he turned around and went back in and bought it for me. I wore it for most of 1994.

Meghan Maguire Dahn said...

Betsy Q., my dear, a couple things:
1. I love you utterly.
2. I love this comment utterly.
3. I have read it several times and each time, tears well up in my eyes.

Anonymous said...

Actually,good post. thx