Short Fiction: The Brain Root

Jul 13, 2017

An excerpt from "Carrie," a short story by Joshua Gibbs

God created all things in six days. Some Christians allege that Christ created all things anew in three, and the last two thousand years has seen many other bold and valiant claims about the power of man. It might be said that Gutenberg reinvented humanity, or that Copernicus reinvented the heavenly bodies, or that Edison and Ford reinvented society, but in Galton Sanger alone can man claim to have reinvented every last thing.

In 1963, while performing post-doctoral work in anatomy at the University of Pittsburgh, Sanger identified what was first mistaken for the human soul, but later revealed to be the brain root. The brain root is an organ of the human body (or it was quickly proclaimed to be) with a weight of just 1.674927351 ×10−27 kg. The brain root contains what most persons in the Western world refer to as the consciousness of a human being.

Upon reading AP articles on the discovery, most laymen simply thought of the brain root as a kind of energy. This was not exactly the case. Like any other organ, the liver or the spleen, for instance, all human beings are born with a brain root. Like any other organ, the brain root is a small upon birth but steadily grows over the course of a life. Upon nearly all accounts, the brain root is exactly like all other human organs.

After Sanger published his findings, funding for research of the brain root grew up like a black mountain overnight. Very little was discovered, all things considered, over the next decade.  Like any other organ, a brain root might be healthy or sickly. In the same way that smoking ruins lungs, television and pornography were discovered to have devastating effects upon the brain root. This was a not particularly controversial, I suppose, and got people talking of “the health of my brain root,” however, no one really knew what they were talking about and discussion of the brain root had died out, at least among common people, by 1967.

The first brain root transplant surgery was successfully performed in 1973, and this certainly reopened the matter for interest and discussion and outrage. Doctors and physicists at Cedars Sinai successfully alienated the brain root of a twelve year old boy, who had suffered third degree burns on seventy percent of his body in a house fire only hours earlier, and implanted it into the body of a thirty-six year old woman.

As is the case with any other organ, no human body can have two brain roots. Think of a man with a diseased liver, for instance. He might receive a donated liver from someone on the verge of death, but the diseased liver would be removed first before the healthy liver could be installed. The man who donated the liver would die soon after. The thirty-six year old woman in question had spoken to doctors at Cedars Sinai months earlier and expressed her desire to end her life. It seems she had suffered several bad years. Her two young daughters had been killed in a car crash on Christmas her husband had left her subsequently, and both her parents had died of old age shortly thereafter. Doctors had explained that she would not be ending her life, she simply ending her own consciousness.

The doctor told her, “It will probably be a lot like going to sleep and waking up as another person, although you won’t know that you’re another person.”

She asked, “What will happen to my… brain root?”

“Like any other organ, a brain root is ‘alive’ for a few hours after it is surgically removed from a body. If it is not surgically attached to another body, it will die.”

“What happens when a brain root dies?” asked the woman.

“Well, you die, inasmuch as you understand the concept of you. The brain root is what allows you to speak, to think… to think of yourself as an I, to think of yourself and know yourself. The brain root is not the brain, it’s more of the mind.”

“So it’s my soul,” said the woman accusingly.

“No. No, it’s not. Some people say that, but that’s an ontological claim. Some very…unorthodox thinkers say that kind of thing. I think that would be the polite way to put it. It’s not scientific at all.”

“An ontological claim—what’s ontological mean?”

“I mean an interpretation, and a highly subjective interpretation at that.”

“I understand.”

The doctor said, just a little sarcastically, “Do you… believe in God?”

“Obviously not. I mean, maybe, but…”

“There is a very real sense in which having this operation performed will, in fact, be very much, very similar, to the effect of what you’ve told me you would like to do. You would also be giving someone else the chance to live on in your body— somebody that might not have a chance at living a healthy life, otherwise.”

“So my brain root, once it is removed, what will you do with it?”

 “As with any organ which suffers cellular death, we will dispose of it properly.”

“When my brain root is separated from my body, will I still… I guess I don’t even know how to put it. Will I be me? Outside of my body? Will I think about it?”

“No. No, you won’t. The brain root is only active when it is perfectly attached to the brain. Can a kidney clean human blood when it outside a donor? No. Is a lung breathing when it is outside the body, on its way to donation? Of course not.”

The woman said cynically, “I thought you had never performed this surgery before.”

“Well, we haven’t.”

Weeks later, the brain root of the thirty-six year old woman was removed from her body and the brain root of the twelve year old boy was surgically implanted into it. The brain root of the woman was deposited into a glass beaker and kept alive for three hours, during which a single study was performed on it (which will be discussed later at some length). When the body of the thirty-six year old woman woke up, she is reported to have screamed, “I am not a woman! I am not a woman!” for a long while until passing out of exhaustion.

The parents of the boy waited anxiously, wondering what terrible thing they had consented to, but when the thirty-six year old woman woke later, she immediately requested mint chip ice cream, the boy’s favorite. Several weeks later, the boy returned to school. At the age of eighteen, or forty-two, he graduated high school and married just a few years later.

This posed significant challenges to religious authorities. Christians were content to side with secular scientists and no one suggested the brain root was actually the human soul. “The soul is immaterial, spiritual,” said both patriarch and pope and presbytery, “while this brain root is not.” At the same time, the myth of the soul was exposed and the Epicureans of old were vindicated. There was no soul, there was only the brain root. Atheists mocked Christians and most Christians were left without a believable explanation of the soul.

“Fear Him who can throw body and soul into hell, eh? Well, Christianity has always hated science and truth. You taught us that the earth was at the middle of everything, that a man would never give birth. What is the state of your precious Mary now? What about your Adam and your Eve?”

There was, perhaps, no more psychic pressure placed on Christian people following the discovery of the brain root than there was after Copernicus published On The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, however, Christianity’s flag flew much higher and with far more vibrant color in 1543 than it did in the late 1970s.

Between 1973 and 1980, more than four thousand brain root transplants were performed in the United States and Europe. Most of the bodies which received new brain roots were formerly possessed by persons no less “morbidly depressed” as the thirty-six year old woman described earlier. A much smaller number of these bodies were sold by former tenants at exorbitant prices—tens of thousands of dollars— and the money given to poor mothers and fathers for down payments on homes.   

You should not make the mistake of thinking that common people of this time thought often about the brain root. The fundamentalist opposition to brain root transplants was very vocal, occasionally violent, but the typical American yet went to work, paid bills, gave birth to children, voted in favor of new wars, was outraged at what now passed at the cinema, struggled with temptation to earthly-mindedness and sensuality, gained weight and worried, spent most of December thinking about personal debt, put great faith in fad diets, bought and read the first chapter of a few bestsellers, learned of religions in foreign lands and laughed aloud, contemplated ethics at odd moments, swore off alcohol on Monday morning, wondered if the answers were in a book somewhere, confessed the occasional sin and died and went to hell all without ever really losing any sleep over the brain root. The simple matters of love and hate, after all, tend to be far more interesting to anyone who is enjoying them or suffering from them than the latest war, famine, earthquake, global peace treaty, abomination or theophany. Not even the personal appearance of Christ on earth could stop men from wanting a drink or from being sincerely disappointed if they failed to get one soon— after all, when God Himself was on the verge of death, not even His closest friends were losing sleep over the matter. They simply curled up on the ground to snooze. Most Christians are thinking of lunch or a new pair of tights or whether the Kama Sutra can be checked out from the library whilst they are receiving the Eucharist. These are the human things. They do not change.

Well, they did not change in 1981, but that year they came closer than ever to changing and real sleep was lost. The first brain root transplant caused a great stir, but the first time a human brain root was transplanted into an animal (an ape) there was a great anarchy for several days. Riots in New York, Chicago, Paris, Madrid, etc. Some very beautiful things were destroyed to make a point. The riots were soon put down, though, and while everyone returned to their thoughts of food and sleep and work, anxiety remained.

Had humans not been borrowing the organs of pigs for several years now? Was the brain root anything apart from an organ? It was not. At first, no one knew what had become of that ape which now possessed a human consciousness— the consciousness of a Harvard doctor of medicine, actually— although they were upset nonetheless. Several months later, another shocking discovery. While the ape-man could not speak English, it could speak ape and translate its own words for researchers by pointing at pictures. In no time, the language of apes was discerned—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, idioms.

“But animals cannot speak. Speaking is a human faculty, something which arises from having a rational soul and being formed in the image of God. Speaking is a divine work and man is only capable of speaking inasmuch as he bears God’s likeness. It is the fact that animals could not speak which made them unfit companions for Adam, such that Eve was created.”

Well, be that as it may, an ape could speak. Hell, the Medievals would have told you it was a dogmatic and doctrinal impossibility for a living man to set foot on the moon, but that didn’t stop us.

More than two dozen animals were quickly discovered to have brains fit for receiving the human brain root. The dog, the cat, the moose, the bear, the horse, the coyote, etc. These animals possessed nothing by birth comparable to a brain root, and so a human brain root might be implanted in an animal without removing anything from the animal. While an animal implanted with human consciousness could not speak English, scientists discovered human-animal chimeras could communicate in a binary fashion (stamping of hooves, swishing of tails) with human interlocutors, but also communicate with animals which had not been implanted with human consciousness. Forthright communication with two dozen different species of animals began in earnest.

Capital punishment ended everywhere; those convicted of capital crimes were paid small sums for their bodies, then their brain roots were implanted in deep sea fish and released back into the wild. The newly vacant bodies were sold to hospitals and used to salvage the lives of those whose bodies suffered from terminal illnesses. Gradually, throughout the 1980s, stories of people with fully functioning, healthy human bodies seeking voluntary brain root transplants into animals became increasingly common, sometimes as an alternative to suicide, sometimes as an expression of identity. The language of the dog arrested the popular imagination; the dog spoke fewer than one hundred words and mainly dealt in three or four word idioms and simple expressions. “It is good [untranslatable]” was common enough, as was “Thank you [untranslatable].” Religious persons were apt to claim the untranslatable word of dogs was “God,” while irreligious persons put up little fuss against this suggestion, further claiming that religion was bestial and irrational. Religious persons claimed that a language of animals meant they could no longer be thought irrational in the traditional use of the word, but irreligious persons alleged that religious persons were largely responsible for traditional definitions of rational and irrational. Thomism fell out of fashion, or whatever fashion it had left. Physicists made little progress in reversing human-to-animal brain root transplants when they were unsatisfactory, although very few of the animals complained. One in every five thousand married couples switched bodies; it was generally agreed that (as Tiresias had claimed) it was better for women than men. Most reverse-body marriages ended in divorce. Horses were revealed to be uncommonly vulgar.

The honest-to-God turn did not take place until the new possibilities of espionage had settled deeply into public consciousness. Were the brain root of a marine or a US diplomat removed and replaced by the brain root of a foreigner, a Muslim, a communist, a terrorist group of any kind, the kind of problems that might quickly arise was without limit. Or, were the president or the premiere or the prime minister to write new policy even slightly out of keeping with previous decisions— a policy change which did not please his opposition— the claim might arise that the president was “simply not himself anymore.” It was early 1984 when the first public accusation of such a kind was made against the vice president by the minority whip as regarded a tie-breaking vote cast which was, only arguably, not perfectly in keeping with the VP’s history. “This is not a decision which the vice president would make. I suspect foul play.” Here was no direct accusation, but all knew what was at stake. Of course, some kind of brain root identification system was quickly proposed, but the proposal went nowhere as no technology existed which might back it up.

What few people knew was that neither physicists nor scientists much understood the brain root. The instrument used to perform a brain root extraction cost but a few hundred dollars (a jealously guarded secret) and training in the procedure took less than an hour. A hotel maid might learn to do the procedure properly and safely, so to speak, in less time than it would take to learn to program a VCR. Ignorance of the brain root, paradoxically, made this all so. In the same way that an aborigine, let us say, might figure out that application of a certain plant to topical burns eased pain, yet be incapable of explaining how or why, so, too, the brain root extraction was simple, cheap, and yet barely comprehensible. A kind of magnetic vacuum, no bigger around than a pencil, was placed in the ear, turned on, turned off, and the brain root was a small mote of light in a glass tube. The intake procedure was simply reversed to insert the brain root into another brain.

The crisis of brain root identity was felt broadly within the political world. Confidence in government declined, but not much lower than is typical during a failing war campaign, an economic depression or a poor showing at the Olympics. Instead, the average man or woman became increasingly anxious about their own self, their own identity. Identity seemed more illusory. For centuries, the soul was the true man. The soul was uncontrolled. Every man enjoyed the privacy of his own being, no? The fluctuations of the soul were not wrangled by the body; if the soul moved this man to love that woman, how could the body resist his soul, his master? And how do you punish a soul, if it is indeed wrong that this body love that body? Is not the soul responsible? And yet the soul was unassailable. The soul was mysterious and strange things emerged from it, whipping the body around like a tail, even while the body could barely give an account for what it did and what it said.

“Yes, but the brain root is not the soul.”

“Well, of course it is,” said just about everyone sadly, and the soul was no longer the impenetrable fortress it had been in the Western imagination for the last two thousand years. 

The dogs were growing restless.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs.