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Two Brains

brain1I’ve been thinking about the brain. Specifically, two brains in particular. I’ve been thinking about Schuyler’s brain, and my own.

The brain is a miraculous thing. Every experience you’ve ever had, every sight and every sound, every emotion you’ve ever felt, the entire universe as you perceive it, all of it is contained in a gelatinous loaf occupying the space between the cheap plastic ear pieces of your sunglasses. Think of what that means. Every human endeavor, every great romance and bitter betrayal, everything that makes the great figures of history great and the villains so terrible, every invention, every piece of technology, every song and poem and epic novel and dirty limerick, all of it originated from and came to existence within the brains of ordinary human beings. Our civilization was born from and exists within the grey goo in our heads.

If you slam your fingers in a door, you perceive pain in your hand. But there’s absolutely nothing actually happening in your hand, aside from whatever damage you’ve caused by being clumsy. That pain originates in your brain, and there it exists. And not just pain, either. Reach out and touch something next to you. The sensation your feel in your fingertip isn’t there. It’s entirely inside your brain. All that we are is there. The rest of our bodies are just fancy and oversized vehicles for carrying our brains around in luxury, like walking Winnebagos.

I love Schuyler’s brain, which might seem like an odd thing to say, given her own uneasy relationship with it. Schuyler’s brain isn’t like yours or mine, or anyone else’s. It’s broken, dramatically so, but that’s not even close to the main point. The story of Schuyler’s brain isn’t that it’s broken, but rather the extraordinary things she’s accomplished with it regardless. Schuyler walks and dances and sings, and she laughs three distinct different laughs, including the one that I love most, the one I call her troublemaker laugh. Schuyler plays percussion in band; every autumn Friday night I watch as she plays the suspended cymbals, and I see her play at exactly the right moments, contributing the rising metal shimmer as the musical phrases of Carl Orff’s epic Carmina Burana (music that originated inside his gooshy German brain, too) crest and ebb. Schuyler operates an iPad; her brain translates her thoughts into words on a screen, or in a text message with a dizzying array of digital stickers attached, because she’s moved so, so far beyond emojis. Schuyler’s brain drives her creativity, and it makes her go a little crazy for the boys, and sometimes the girls, at her school. Her brain gets sad, it becomes paranoid, and it makes extraordinarily poor choices from time to time. But it also contains all the love she has, a love that is big and fat and boundless and childlike and complicated all at once. I describe Schuyler as having the biggest heart in the world, but of course it’s her weird but wonderful, inexplicably broken but beautiful brain where that love resides, right there next to her confounding little monster.

Schuyler’s brain is wonderful and terrible. It’s where this extraordinary young woman exists, and it’s where a tiny ticking bomb that may never go off is hidden, too. Another polymicrogyria child died in recent weeks, another reminder that not all of Schuyler’s mysteries are benign. Doctors have looked at her brain, studied it, called it “unique in all the world”, even among a few thousand rare PMG brains. Schuyler’s first doctor determined early on that her brain is overwhelmingly touched by her PMG, maybe as much as seventy-five percent so, and it shouldn’t be doing most the great things it does. It’s functioning magnificently, it’s rewired pathways and remapped functions, but none of her neurologists can say how. Schuyler’s brain is full of surprises, and almost all of them have been positive. But it is in the nature of mysterious brains to break hearts. We live in wonder of Schuyler, because she is a wondrous girl, but we keep a bit of fear in our pockets, too, because that is appropriate.

My fear lives in a brain much less impressive than Schuyler’s, but one that contains considerably more experiences to be remembered and relived and yet largely uncomprehended by me. My brain contains all the emotions and all the mistakes of a lifetime. Every terrible thing I ever called someone, every unkindness I ever inflicted, every insensitive word I ever wrote is there. Every person who ever loved me for reasons I couldn’t understand and then stopped for equally inexplicable reasons, they live in this head. Every note I ever played on my trombone, every piece of music that ever brought me to tears, every book I read that came to life in my imagination, and even one book I wrote that grew there from nothing at all, it’s all inside. In some ways, I can feel how old this brain is growing. I’ve become forgetful at times, but not alarmingly so. This brain is grouchier than it once was, and every year it seems to accumulate new experiences that suggest to it that trusting people isn’t ever going to be a beneficial quality. This aging brain builds castle walls now, and I’m not proud of that but I have to admit, it’s becoming a comfortable place inside those walls.

My brain misfires dramatically from time to time, it occasionally sinks into depression, and sometimes I’m honestly afraid it might be too much one day. But not today, not just yet. My brain struggles to rewire and remap, too. I watch Schuyler and I imagine the universe that she occupies inside that mind, and I’m overwhelmed by curiosity. When my own thoughts grow dark and dangerous, as they very occasionally do, sometimes the thing that keeps me safe is the idea that if I were gone from this world, I would almost certainly miss something from Schuyler, something epic and sublime that I can’t even begin to imagine now.

When we have a quiet moment together, perhaps at the end of the day or in a break during a hectic day of marching band chaos, Schuyler will come up to me and put her forehead against mine, just for a few seconds. It’s a gesture we’ve shared since she was very young. It makes me happy when she does it, incredibly so, and it must bring her some satisfaction, too, for her to have kept doing it this long. I never really thought about it before now, but in that moment, our brains are as close together as they can be, separated by just a few thin centimeters of skull and skin. Our brains, our universes, different though they are, so close and yet so very, very different. We can hardly comprehend each other’s brains in their total chaos and and wonder. But in the trying, we discover worlds.

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