Lost & Found – Phantom Pain

Say a part of your brain is destroyed by a car wreck or an aneurysm. Say someone randomly fires a gun from the window of a passing Mercedes, and the bullet rips through your leaded window glass, through your Venetian blinds, and through the bone of your skull. Chances are, what’ll happen to you is that whole parts of your consciousness will disappear into that black hole of burned-out neurons. You won’t remember how to dance anymore, or how to bake a no-flour chocolate cake. You won’t remember how to do quadratic equations, if you ever did know how. You won’t be able to smell anymore or understand music. You won’t remember your wife’s name, or what a rose is.

On the other hand, there have been odd reports of seemingly miraculous side effects from brain damage. A man in Birmingham, Alabama, who was hit by a carpet knife falling from a window-washing platform, temporarily developed second sight. For six months, he could foresee the deaths of his friends. A woman in New Brunswick suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and subsequently developed a photographic memory. They would have her up on stage at the local community hall, blindfolded, in front of an audience of some two or three hundred people. They would take off the blindfold for only a few seconds. Afterwards, she would be able to give an accurate description of each and every member of the audience. She could recount audience members’ facial features, approximate weight, what clothes they were wearing, and even rings and bracelets.

The brain is the most complex machine in the universe; nothing else even comes close. Nothing else can invent a bicycle or a land mine, or write a Petrarchan sonnet. Not as far as we know.

Some people say that the brain is an illusionist. The whole universe is just a manifestation of all those billions of invisible electrical impulses that flicker around in there. All the mountains and the buses, all the factories and cathedrals, are just shadow puppets, magic lantern images thrown against a big blank screen. All the sadness we have is just a phantom pain, an itch from a limb that was removed many years ago.

Sometimes, when it thinks I’m sleeping, my brain takes human form, and wanders out in the night to try and find you again. The person you used to be.

It travels all alone along the remembered pathway of your spine.