Posts Tagged ‘the body’

1: Phosphene

January 1st, 2012 | Meera

This post, and series, have been moved here.

Lessons from Plants in Pain, or What We Talk About When We Talk to Ourselves

December 14th, 2011 | Meera

Roald Dahl, sovereign of the strange idea played out in matter-of-fact sentences, once wrote a story about a man named Klausner who invents a sound machine. With it he’s able to hear rarefied notes—tremors of the air that otherwise range, like so many things, outside the limits of human perception. When he turns on his invention, Klausner finds himself initiated into an entire universe he hadn’t known existed: a universe of plant communication.

You might think, on the face of it, that this would be a fine and lovely thing. You might think of how you generally experience the green and the growing, and imagine Klausner entering a soundscape filled with music, strains that match the beauty of a field of wildflowers or the elegance of autumn leaves. But instead, he mostly apprehends the noises of plants in distress. “Fierce grinding discords” fall on his ears: he’s shocked by the shrieks that roses make when they’re clipped off the bush. He’s tormented by pity when he hears the awful moans of a tree trunk split by his own axe.

Dahl leaves the question of whether the machine really works open to interpretation—but what I like about the story doesn’t rest on the definition of Klausner as either brilliant or insane. The thing that’s stayed with me, long years after I first read The Sound Machine, is Dahl’s bleak view of what speaks loudest in this world, what he thinks drives the “speech” of all living things—and that is pain.

*******

343 (Mimosa plant, before)

Most disasters, even if they’re built on long and quiet years of brewing, eventually befall us with what feels like too little warning. A stroke slams down upon the pathway blood must take to brain, a guillotine that splits a thought in two. Your partner’s eyes, warm as summer lakes, freeze over for no reason you can fathom. A midnight switchblade sticks its cutting edge between your ribs; you gasp awake, pinned by the sharp awareness that you’re inside the wrong life. Tomorrow you might lose your job, your home. Be diagnosed with cancer. Even if you know the air is humid with the vapors of oncoming injuries, each one remains invisible until the day it’s churned into a storm.

I don’t think we’d be better off if we could see the future. I’m pretty sure I, anyway, would be flattened by the weight of full omniscience. But some small bit of notice, a clear advisory or two—watch out, here’s danger on the way!—now that, I’d take. Wouldn’t you? I think that wish must have something to do with why so many of us sit ourselves down to write quite undeliverable letters to the people we once were—an act that’s whimsical and sweet, and yet somehow forlorn.

Maybe it’s also why I’ve come to be, especially of late, a great collector of stories about other people’s hurts. (A cheerful philately.) If you’ve been wounded, come and bend my ear. I want to hear your warnings. And sometimes I eavesdrop on damages that strangers speak of. Years ago I spent almost half an hour lingering over my coffee—which was bad—because the girl at the table next to mine, fresh off her honeymoon, was wiping hot tears from her face and telling her companion how miserable she was to be married. She wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t my problem. And I’m not at all proud to have been riveted. But it was impossible not to be. My body rang (unobtrusively, I hope) with borrowed sorrow, and I still recall her cadences.

I think that moment meant so much to me because, respectfully, Tolstoy was not entirely correct about unhappiness. Life doesn’t feel the need to plan new slights and sicknesses to suit each one of us. Its threats recycle. I’m a realist: I know that, private though they feel, my troubles hover at the average, coinciding with those of my species. Whatever has battered some other Homo sapiens may soon come for me, and I would like to start preparing my defenses.

If this sounds ghoulish to you, well. I understand. But you should know that I am not alone in paying close attention to the suffering of my peers for my own sake. I stand with graceful trees: with willows, alders, poplars, sugar maples. The sweetest and most useful crops, as well—pea pods, beans, tomatoes, cotton—are selfish just like me. And ears of barley, ears of corn—these listen, too, to their beleaguered neighbors.

Klausner (tender soul!) was driven nearly mad by sadness when he overheard plant pain. He called a doctor for his broken tree and made him paint iodine in the wound. Plants themselves know better what to do.

*******

It was in the early 1980s that a few scientists first began to report on trees that seemed to send each other stress signals. One was a zoologist named David Rhoades, at the time studying Red alder (Alnus rubra) and Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) defense mechanisms at the University of Washington. Rhoades fed caterpillars leaves from trees their brethren had previously attacked. He found that they began to lose their appetites, and often died prematurely. Presumably this was because of some chemical compound the trees were able to release into their leaves as a form of rapid resistance—precisely the kind of thing he’d been looking for.

But Rhoades was surprised to discover that the very same thing happened to caterpillars fed the leaves of undamaged control trees, planted a little distance away. Could the attacked trees be emitting some kind of pheromonal warning that their counterparts could “hear?” Could they be telling their fellows to put up a fight against their leggy foes?

This study inspired a similar experiment on potted poplars (Populus euroamericana) and sugar maples (Acer saccharum) by a pair of researchers at Dartmouth. Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin found higher concentrations of mildly toxic compounds called phenols in trees whose leaves they had torn. They saw the same thing when they checked on unscathed trees, after they were exposed to air pumped in from the chamber where the damaged trees were housed.

The scientific community as a whole reacted to these findings with great skepticism, some of which was not undeserved: methodological problems and an over-confident interpretation of statistics tainted both sets of results. But there was also, apparently, not a little ridicule, with some ecologists scoffing over the idea of “talking trees” and animal behaviorists closing ranks around the definition of communication.

In hindsight, this part of the negative response was somewhat less justified. In the first fourteen years that followed Rhoades, Schultz, and Baldwin’s reports, only three studies regarding plant-plant communication were published (perhaps because of the disbelieving atmosphere they would have emerged into). But times have changed. According to this overview of the literature on the subject, that figure increased to nearly 50 papers between 2005 and 2010.

At this point, the evidence that plants can receive, act on, and benefit from specific signals produced by their distressed coequals is pretty compelling. We’ve learned, for instance, that corn seedlings primed with compounds released by damaged plants give off more of their own defense hormones and chemicals when subsequently slashed with a razor blade or painted with caterpillar regurgitant. (Science is cruel.) We’ve learned that certain unrelated species, like sagebrush and tobacco, can interpret each other’s cues about dangers like hungry herbivores or clipper-happy researchers. We’ve even learned that well-watered pea plants, having overheard a warning from a thirsty neighbor, can pass on that message to still other plants, further away—although this game of vegetable Telephone seems to be played through the medium of soil, not air.

In my favorite recent study, which delights me more because of how the plants defend themselves than how they talk about it, Lima beans infested with spider mites—as well as those exposed to leaves from infested plants—react by activating a set of genes that trigger the emission of a volatile organic compound. This compound, in turn, attracts spider mite predators that come and hoover up the pests.

How wonderful is that? I call it very wonderful, especially since our own apartment has witnessed the expiration of a beloved dwarf Meyer lemon tree that succumbed to a spider mite blitzkrieg. If we’d had two trees, I wonder if one could have saved the other?

Maybe what Dahl got wrong was not the thought that pain is the seabed of all our most essential speech. Maybe where he erred was in suggesting that the anguish Klausner heard was simply that: anguish, pure expression with no purpose and no useful end.

I think of myself sitting at a coffee table, leaning in, despite my better judgment, and breathing in the chemistry of someone else’s heartache. In my mind, now, I see it as a moment of anointment, an inoculation. I think this even though I have no way of measuring what changed in me because of it.

Our bodies fail. Our partners leave. We wake up sick, or shipwrecked. Shocked. And I am hungry to be put on guard, to know when something wicked this way comes.

*******

It’s clear that unscathed plants do eavesdrop, like me, on strangers in distress, and make themselves stronger when they hear of trouble. What’s less clear is what is happening for the plant in pain. Is its anguished warning—Watch out, danger!—really meant to serve as counsel to the ones around it? It’s possible, of course, that some plants evolved to give off stress signals altruistically, because neighbors are often kin, and one example keeps the group as a whole safe. But many times, letting a neighbor in on danger makes you more vulnerable. A Lima bean plagued with spider mites might not want its compatriots to be protected by mite-eaters. (One lemon tree might have saved another, but reluctantly.)

Instead of selfless exhortations, the story of plant stress signals seems at once more simple and more strange. The thing is, a plant that’s hurt and sending out a warning is very likely talking to itself.

Most plants have sophisticated vascular systems, and that’s often how they transmit chemical messages. But volatile compounds, diffusing through air, can travel faster than molecules moving against gravity through tiny tubes. Airborne signals also allow parts of a plant that don’t have a direct connection to each other to speak. Why, though, would a plant need to warn itself? What does that even mean? Well, think of this: A caterpillar munching on one leaf will probably move on to another, a little ways off. That second leaf has time—not much, it’s true, but some small span—to put up its own garrison against the tyranny of tearing insects. That second leaf is far from doomed. And it could use some notice. A body needs to take care of itself.

Most disasters befall us with what feels like too little warning. But maybe that’s because, wrapped up in where we hurt right now, we don’t imagine taking steps to care for what is still undamaged. I know; we are not plants, with separate fates for separate parts. When I’m in pain, it feels as if I ache completely, my entire consciousness consumed by one calamity. And yet. Could there be, do you think, something in this selfish signaling? Some way for us to be like willows and like alders?

I’m not entirely sure. But this past year, and nearly two, has felt like injury to me; so now seems like the time to test the case. I’d rather not be Klausner’s roses, crying out futility. I’ll trust instead that there is strong and healthy matter that remains in me, and let the weaker parts speak loudly to them. More importantly, I’ll try to listen and to learn. Because it’s not, I think, too late to start talking to myself.

And you? Ah. If you eavesdrop, let it be.

*******

Mimosa plant, after

Highly recommended further reading: This wonderful article about visionary biologist Chandra Bose, and his experiments in plant sensation and behavior.

Persistence Hunting

August 31st, 2011 | Meera

I have always been stubborn, and I have never been able to run.

As to stubbornness: I have stood my ground, bruised and bloody-minded, so many times over so many things that the specifics blend into each other; a plate of vegetables I refused to eat at age six resides in the same part of my brain as an apology I refused to make at age twenty seven.

As to running: I have tried it so few times with such pitiful results that the specifics are horribly stark; a single night-excursion with A. through the stony streets of Jerusalem, ending mere minutes later in shame and sweat and heart palpitations, is as vivid as if it had been stitched into a medieval tapestry and hung on my wall.

A few years ago, when Ross and I lived in Boston and I volunteered as a gallery guide at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, we used to go there fairly often to listen to public lectures in the evenings. The details of most of the talks we attended—on, for instance, the physiology of singing insects or whether morality is learned or innate—are lost to memory.

But one event in particular impressed me so much that I still think about it from time to time, and it has been on my mind this week. It was by a Harvard researcher named Daniel Lieberman, an anthropologist who studies human evolution. At the time, Lieberman was obsessed with the question of how and why we run.

The conventional wisdom about locomotion, he argued—that early hominids whose bodies were more suited to bipedalism were the ones who survived when they left their shady tree-dwelling lives to forage for food on the open savannah, and that the human ability to run was simply a byproduct of the ability to walk—was all wrong.

Listen, he said: Our cousins the Australopithecines could walk on two legs, and their bodies—hunch-shouldered, short-legged—were nothing like those of the genus Homo. Plus, Australopithecines continued to lead a partially arboreal existence for millions of years, even after they evolved to be bipedal.

Walking, Lieberman announced to the room, didn’t bring us down from the trees, and it didn’t give us our human shape.

Running did.

Only look: The human body is exquisitely well-designed to run. It has long, elastic tendons in its legs and feet that store energy like springs when compressed, something we do much more when we run than when we walk. It has large gluteus maximus muscles that pull our torsos backwards and keep us upright when we lean crazily forward into the off-balance pitch that starts each new step of a run. It is relatively hairless, and can sweat—both adaptations that allow us to release the heat of extreme exertion.

The reason we evolved to lope, dash, scamper, gallop, hurtle across this great green Earth?

Well, the anthropologist grinned, we hadn’t yet invented the bows and arrows that would enable us to kill over long distances; we hadn’t yet tamed the wild horses that would one day carry us close to fleeing animals.

We learned to run, he argued—and run, and run, and run—so we could hunt prey to exhaustion, track it for hours if necessary, past the point at which a quadruped (built to gallop only for short distances) would have to stop to pant. And then we would stop running, too, and have done with it.

I remember being struck, at the time, by how extraordinarily steely this seemed—how the idea of it made me simultaneously marvel at and recoil from my strange, inherited human self. If this was true then we were born to conquer; born to do it without tools, without thought, and without guile, but through a simple act of complete and total obstinacy. To run, it seemed, was to be stubborn.

I have always been stubborn, and I have never been able to run.

For thirty-two years I have lived with both these ideas about myself. But (ask a Harvard anthropologist!) being deeply contradictory truths, perhaps it should not so much surprise that one of them would someday fall.

So far this week, heart and legs and mind stronger than they have ever been from a summer’s worth of field work, I have run a total of nine miles—by the lake, at the gym, through the streets of my neighborhood in Hyde Park. It isn’t much, I know; nine miles is far from an endurance-run across the Kalahari. There is a long, long way to go.

But I have not stopped to pant. I am persisting. I am claiming my strange, inherited human self.

And one of these days I’m going to outlast whatever it is I’m hunting, and have done with it.

lake run

(This is the 3-mile route Ross and I have been running.)

*******

(You can read more about Lieberman’s work in his 2004 paper on the evolution of running, or in any of a number of popular articles it spawned.)


Hands-On

June 12th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I’ve never believed my hands were particularly nice looking. When I was 12, I was envious of the long, slender fingers on my friend Beth. You couldn’t really hope to be an artist, I thought, without the right pair of hands. Either you were born with both the temperament and the digits—which, according to all the Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery novels I was reading at the time, arrived together—or you were doomed to a prosaic life.

I’ve also never believed my hands were particularly strong or skilled. When I started volunteering at the Field Museum two and a half years ago, it was the first time in my life that I’d really done anything useful with them. But that work, satisfying as it is, didn’t do much to transform my hands into Tom’s hands—which I watch whenever he’s working on a study skin or a taxidermy mount in the lab. Tom’s hands perform the most deft and precise motions. Yet they’re also large, callused, and muscular, and marvelously capable looking. They’ve been out in the world.

A week ago, I returned to the observatory from a long afternoon of tracking. I had just fallen from my too-tall borrowed bicycle onto a dirt and gravel road while speeding downhill, and I was feeling particularly incompetent as I walked into the yard, brushing at my bleeding lips and forehead. There I found Jennie—who grew up here in the Swedish countryside—out by the shed, fixing the bottom of the observatory’s power boat by nailing wooden planks together. “You can do anything,” I told her, meaning “I can’t.”

My hands don’t know as much as Jennie’s. They haven’t built many things, or used many tools, or been trained to keep me alive when the world goes all to hell. They’re nice hands and all; they’re just not very experienced.

Or they weren’t until now.

For the past two and a half weeks, my hands have been busy carrying field equipment, helping me push my way through birch branches and willow trees, reaching out for balance on rocks, brush, and muddy ground as I stumble up and down mountainsides, wielding rakes and paint brushes, hauling stones, helping to pull a boat by its rope, measuring and cutting wood, and—today—building an owl-sized nest box with a hammer, nails, and a great mess of splintery wooden planks.

And do you know what? Small signs of change are showing themselves on my hands. They’re a little scratched up. They’re dry and rather rough. They’ve got some cuts and scrapes and blisters on them, and a good amount of dirt seems to be baked into a couple of my fingerprints.

My hands still aren’t Tom’s hands, or Jennie’s. They’re definitely not getting any more artistic. But they’re engaging with the world in ways they’ve never done before. And I like the way they feel.

small signs of change


P.S. Here is the nest box I made today:

My first Tengmalm's Owl-sized Nest Box

And here is the Great Snipe nest I found, a few hours later, hands on my antenna.

Finding #25

The Lost Panther

March 7th, 2011 | Meera

Preface and Disclaimer: The following is an account of one family’s experience with a complex childhood malady. It is in no way intended to represent universal facts about anorexia nervosa, infantile anorexia, or the diagnosis known as failure to thrive. It is published here as a gift to Regina, whom I “met” last year when I was researching hunger and who opened her life to me with extraordinary generosity. Any errors in the science are mine; any truths you may find in it are due to her honesty. I hope you find Regina and Eicca’s story as compelling as I did, and that you approach it with respect.

I think that this is largely why people have children:

You think of hunger as a panther with a step like snowfall, prowling at the edges of your sight. You think of hunger as an itch yawning across your skin, demanding to be scratched. You think of hunger as a man cracking a whip, and you its slave. The way you know hunger is the way you know pain, the way you know fear, the way you know love: as a force that inhabits the body. It lives in the spasming of muscles in your gut, the strange internal seething of gases and fluids. You do not think of hunger as something you must find—like a lost ring buried deep beneath a sofa cushion. Like a little boy gone astray.

The sensation we recognize as hunger is the result of a deft physiological machinery: invisible to us, but nevertheless highly efficient. Dozens of chemicals of varying importance are believed to be involved in the complex play of reactions that results in the arousal of appetite, not all of them yet identified by science. A few central pathways, though, we can describe with reasonable confidence—a few guides for those who seek to find.

Here is one, for example. Go long enough without eating, and cells in the gastrointestinal tract secrete a chemical comprising a single chain of 28 linked amino acids, first discovered in 1999 and known in the scientific literature as ghrelin (but immediately christened “the hunger hormone” because of the role it plays as a messenger for an empty stomach).

Ghrelin seems to work by stimulating specialized receptors at the end of an abdominal branch of the vagus nerve: a bundle of fibers that wanders a remarkably long and complex path through the body and connects, at its zenith, to the brain. With these receptors activated, a signal vibrates up the length of the vagus nerve until it reaches an appetite-controlling center in the hypothalamus. The message it carries is as simple as it is insistent: We’re running on empty!

And then, before you know it, there you are. Losing your train of thought. Feeling saliva prickling at your mouth like tiny bees. Arrested by the memory of a particular sandwich you once ate in a restaurant in Boston, sweet with cranberry chutney and salty with Havarti cheese that melts like cream on your tongue.

This is how it works, how it’s always worked. You are born with the blueprint for hunger tattooed onto your cells, an appetite for food that is inseparable from the appetite for life. This is how it works—until it doesn’t.

*******

It is an icy January day in Oulu, Finland, on the eastern shore of the Baltic sea, when the most wanted child on earth is born. His safe arrival has been a long time coming—following, as it does, eight years of attempts to conceive, four intrauterine inseminations, two cycles of in vitro fertilization, one miscarriage, and 38 weeks of anxious pregnancy. The mother of the most wanted child on earth touches her son’s warm cheek: soft as a rising bun under her finger. She whispers his name: Eicca. She whispers munkki, my little munkki: the Finnish word for doughnut. She thinks: I have loved you from all time. She does not know that, in one way at least, this baby is incomplete: he has come into the world without his hunger.

When Regina is hungry, it is the junk food she grew up on in San Francisco that tugs at her thoughts. She dreams of Cheese-Its the crackling color of a neon traffic sign, Carl’s Jr. fries that leave a film of hot, delicious oil on her fingers. She has an especially fanatical affection for the sweet-salty taste of Reese’s Pieces. But because she has always been overweight, Regina usually tries to hold herself in check. In time, she will wonder about this. Could her own lifelong struggle to combat what sometimes feels like an immoderate hunger somehow have affected Eicca’s appetite? Could he have inherited a subtle, invisible disposition to quell his hunger? These questions, when they come, will be at once utterly absurd and completely irresistible. But that will be later.

At 27 weeks, Regina is nervous. The time has come for her to take a glucose challenge test to see how efficiently her body processes sugar. Because of her weight, she is at a high risk of developing gestational diabetes, a temporary form of high blood sugar that only occurs during pregnancy. It doesn’t usually threaten a pregnant woman’s health, but if left unchecked gestational diabetes can lead to problems for the baby she carries, including jaundice, excess growth, or respiratory distress. The night before, Regina and her husband Marco sit together and eat an entire box of chocolates, piece by piece. If she fails the test, Regina reasons, this will be the last time in months she’ll get to indulge her sweet tooth. She had better savor this night while she can. The Finnish chocolates are no substitute for Reese’s Pieces, but she is nearly seven months pregnant and she is hungry and she is not ashamed to say that they are good. When the box is empty, Regina laughs. She puts her hands on her belly, full of chocolate and Eicca. Then she fasts for ten hours. By the time the little cup of glucose slips past her lips, she is starving. But she passes the test with flying colors.

For Regina, as for most of us, food is temptation and memory and indulgence and pleasure, all at the same time. This is how it works, how it’s always worked. This is how it works, until it doesn’t.

*******

In retrospect, the signs that Eicca’s hunger is missing are present almost from the start. At Regina’s breast, he drowses instead of drinking. When he does suckle, it is slow and fitful, and very quickly he stops, turns his head away, and falls asleep. It is as if eating is a pointless tedium instead of what it should be: the central occupation of his life, the drive behind the doubling of his cells and the development of his brain, his heart, his reaching fingers.

Even when he has gone three or four hours without feeding—the length of time it takes most infants’ stomachs to empty to the point of discomfort—Eicca shows none of the behavioral marks of newborn hunger described in a set of child feeding guidelines issued in the European Union. No increased alertness or activity, no rapid eye movements, no hand-to-mouth and suckling motions, no soft cooing or sighing, sucking sounds, no fussiness. Watching Eicca as time stretches out since his last sip, the last second is the same as the first. At night, it is the sound of her alarm that startles Regina awake for feedings; Eicca never wakes or cries for food.

You do not think of hunger as something you must find.

*******

Soon, Regina and Marco switch to feeding Eicca bottled breast-milk, supplementing it with a store-bought formula. Even so, at five weeks he is drinking less than seven ounces of food every 24 hours, a fraction of the recommended daily intake for an infant of that age. But since he is growing, if slowly, Regina puts aside her concern.

At seven weeks, a nurse comes to the house to check on Eicca and weigh him—standard practice in Finland’s universal health care system. Though all seems well at the appointment, the next morning brings a call—the voice on the other end of the line brooding and uneasy.

“I’ve been up all night worrying about your baby,” the nurse blurts out.

*******

The word anorexia literally means “without appetite;” but for most adolescent or adult sufferers of the disorder the label is precisely false. What studies of women with eating disorders show is that ghrelin levels in the blood plasma of anorexics are significantly elevated compared to healthy subjects—and they don’t drop after meals as in normal controls. The findings help to explain why many anorexics, especially in the early stages of the disease, report feeling an almost constant sensation of hunger. Besides a distorted view of your own body, this might be one of the deepest reasons for someone to deliberately lose an appetite—to push it deep beneath the cushions—the fear that if you once began to eat, you would never stop.

It’s clear, of course, that this terror is groundless—pathology, not prescience—but it has an ancient precedent. We have lived for millennia with a dread of the hunger we harbor. In Greek myth, when the mortal Erisichthon strikes down an oak tree beloved of Ceres, she sends Famine to breathe herself into his veins, like poison, as he sleeps.

When he awoke, his hunger was raging…What would have sufficed for a city or a nation was not enough for him. The more he ate the more he craved. His hunger was like the sea, which receives all the rivers, yet is never filled; or like fire, that burns all the fuel that is heaped upon it, yet is still voracious for more….at last hunger compelled him to devour his limbs, and he strove to nourish his body by eating his body, till death relieved him from the vengeance of Ceres.

Bulfinch’s Mythology

Inhabited by this ancient fear, anorexics train themselves to master hunger. Some even grow to love the painful, drawing sensation of an empty stomach for what it represents: a virtuous triumph over desire. One textbook on anorexia quotes a patient whose symptoms first began at 17. The immediate effect of self-starvation, she explains, “was a feeling of exhilaration verging on euphoria. The hunger was hell…but the hell was far outweighed by the reward.”

You think of hunger as a man cracking a whip.

*******

When anorexia occurs in infants, its rewards—if they exist—are much harder to understand. First described in detail by pediatric researchers Irene Chatoor and James Egan in the 1980s, infantile anorexia typically makes an appearance when a child reaches 3 to 6 months of age, a critical point of transition between bottle-feeding, spoon feeding, and self-feeding. The disorder originates, Chatoor has asserted, in a pattern of maladaptive interactions and conflict between an infant and his or her caretaker, and reflects a young child’s growing struggle for independence. “The infant refuses to eat in an attempt to achieve autonomy and control with regard to the mother,” she wrote in 1989, “a maneuver that serves to involve the mother more deeply in the infant’s eating behavior and to meet the infant’s need for attention. Mother and infant become embroiled in a battle of wills over the infant’s food intake. The infant’s feeding is directed by his emotional needs instead of physiological sensations of hunger and satiety.”

While this description doesn’t fully explain the source of Eicca’s troubles—which start much earlier than those of the infants in Chatoor’s studies, and seem almost congenital—its dour pronouncements seem to grow more accurate over time, as a vicious circle of insistence and refusal forms. The more preoccupied Regina becomes over her son’s lack of interest in food, the longer and more fraught mealtimes become, until she is literally trapping him into his chair with one stiff, outstretched arm while she spoons carrots and peas into his mouth with the other. While he screams. They are on vacation in Hawaii, the air coming through the windows fragrant with frangipani, and every morning it is on the schedule. Force-feeding Eicca in paradise.

Though infantile anorexia is considered a psychiatric disorder, it is not infrequently associated with physical conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease, the abnormal tendency for stomach acids to flow backwards to the gullet and cause food regurgitation. By the time Eicca is six months old, he is vomiting as often as ten times a day, sometimes several times an hour, despite being on Zantac: a powerful ulcer medication designed to block acid production in the stomach. The air in the apartment acquires the sharp, sour smell of vomit; you can smell it as soon as you walk in the door. At last, driven by a kind of exhausted pragmatism, Regina begins feeding Eicca in the bathroom, watching him closely in the mirror for signs of an imminent purge. When he throws up, she holds him over the bathtub, tears streaming down her face as the hot milk splashes onto the sleek porcelain. Then she wipes him clean and tries again.

In early 2009, just before Eicca’s first birthday, he and Regina move into a tiny room at the hospital—Marco, who has to work, sleeps there with them at night. Every day, five times a day, for three weeks, three pediatricians, a gastroenterologist, a speech therapist, and a bevy of nurses orchestrate Eicca’s feedings. They film him eating. They time his meals. They measure and record what he consumes. And all the while they watch him for signs of hunger or aversion, like wildlife biologists encountering a new species. Some days are good: once, Eicca consumes 100ml of milk, 50ml of blackcurrant soup, 80 spoonfuls of pureed mango yogurt, meat, and potatoes, 20 spoonfuls of porridge, a few bites of cheese, and the corner of a piece of bread. Regina cannot believe her eyes.

But mostly, meals are just like they are at home. The very next day, he eats nothing except for a few bites of pear, a few bites of bread, and a few sips of milk. At the end of three weeks, Eicca is still turning his head away from food. He has lost one kilogram.

*******

Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History, explains that motherhood made her searingly alive to the improbability and injustice of a hungry child: “I gave birth to my daughter and fed her my body. Later, I had a son and he, too, drank from me. I was feeding the world. This was not aggrandizement so much as myth. At the center of our life, we are Eve or Prometheus or Odysseus. At the center of my life, I fed the world, and yet children were dying.” At the center of her life, Regina offered her son the world, and he refused it—would, if she hadn’t fought with him, have died for lack of all she had to give. The improbability, the injustice of this.

The Oulu University Hospital doctors who counsel Regina and Marco about Eicca have a mantra. They will repeat it over and over through the months and years of hospital visits, say it so many times that hearing it will make Regina want to scream. You must let him find his hunger, the doctors insist. Just give him a chance and he will find his hunger. As if Eicca’s appetite has been accidentally misplaced, forgotten in a corner like one of the toy train cars he loves to race around the house. As if sooner or later he will simply realize that he needs it, this hunger of his, and go looking. As medical advice, it borders on the magical. But—at least for the moment—it is all that science has to offer.

As he gets older and continues to show almost no interest in food as a source of pleasure, Regina and Marco sometimes resort to spooning butter into his mouth, letting him dip both hands into a jar of pure sugar and smear the grains onto his tongue. The rules of healthy childrearing that normal parents set for themselves—give your child lots of proteins and vegetables, keep them away from junk food—are nothing but mythology. When Eicca is two years and seven months old he falls briefly in love with a particular brand of Finnish shortbread cookie, stuffed with a hazelnut cream filling and sprinkled with chocolate chips. Regina is overjoyed.

Love, of course, is relative. Falling in love, for Eicca, means he will cry to have a package opened, then eat one tiny corner of one cookie before turning his head away. And yet it is a blessing. A glint, perhaps, of some lost bright thing that might someday be found.

flan de queso

This Constant Heart

August 31st, 2010 | Meera

I’ve been going to bed alone this summer while Ross is in England, and the nights are hot and still. As the day ceases to stir and I grow deaf to the low drone of the fan, the spaces between sounds spread till they touch, silence to silence. No other body breathes; no other arms shift raspily against sheets. Sometimes I find it hard to sleep in the hush. But then I turn to rest my ear against the pillow, and I am not alone. The rhythm that has inhabited my body without fuss or fanfare all through the day makes itself known: my heartbeat.

As it does I am engulfed by a sensation of amazing intimacy and fascination. I don’t control my heartbeat. Like perspiration, salivation, digestion and the dilation of the pupils, the beating of the heart is a process that falls under the control of the autonomic nervous system, and is largely involuntary. Yet it feels in this moment as if I can magic it into and out of existence—lift my head and it disappears; lay it down and it returns. It seems what it is not: ephemeral.

The thump itself, when I rest my head, is familiar. Primeval. It’s a version of the maternal rhythm I must have heard as soon as my newly forming ears began transmitting signals to my newly forming brain, weeks after conception and not long after my own primitive heart hiccuped into being.

(Before the heart becomes a servant to the rest of the body, it may beat for its own sake. The first contractions and expansions of the heart, some scientists think, are not required for the diffusion of nutrients and respiratory gases throughout the developing fetus. Instead they trigger the formation, shaping, and growth of new cardiac muscle and the tiny blood vessels that are starting to finger out from the heart. In other words, every heartbeat begins as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

This beat I hear now, though, is distinctly mine: made by the specific mechanical properties of my muscles, bone, and blood. And no one else can experience it in quite this way: no doctor channel it through a stethoscope, no lover rest an ear to my chest and capture the same immersive resonance. Having my heartbeat in my ear is like listening in on a secret conversation, my body speaking to itself.

This Paper Muscle in My Chest

Structurally, the heart is a beautiful thing, designed for one thing and one thing only: to pump. It has two muscular halves, each of which is divided again to form an upper atrium and a lower ventricle. A heartbeat may sound simple, but it’s only the barest glimpse of the complex, precise, and exquisitely coordinated choreography of blood into and out of these four chambers.

First, the upper chambers of the heart contract: the muscle twisting and tightening like the fabric of a dish rag being wrung dry. This squeezes blood from the atria into the ventricles, which relax to receive their cargo. Next, a complementary event: the atria relax and the ventricles contract, squeezing blood into the arteries (blood from the right ventricle travels to the lungs to pick up oxygen; blood from the left ventricle travels out into the body to deliver it).

Most of this movement is silent to me, except for the opening and closing of the heart valves—each a set of two or three half-moon-shaped flaps that direct the flow of blood into and out of the organ. They are responsible for the beat repeating in my ears as the whole astounding process takes place, over and over, in the still of the night. Lub and the tricuspid and mitral valves pull shut behind the blood that’s just pumped into the ventricles; dub and the aortic and pulmonary valves do the same after the blood that’s just pumped into the arteries. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub: such a sweet, optimistic sound.

I think what makes the thing seem loveliest of all is the deep choreography behind it. A heartbeat is all about the careful management of the balance between contradictory states: open, closed; expanding, contracting; inwards, outwards; full, empty; oxygenated, deoxygenated; at work, at rest. And out of the unceasing transition between these states, we get steadiness. It’s practically a Zen koan written into physiology—a most muscular teaching.

The reason this koan rushes through my ears when I place my head against my pillow? For that I can thank the internal carotid arteries that ribbon up each side of my face. On their way to the brain, these arteries pass right in front of the tympanic cavity: that inner cave of the ear where three tiny bones are curled, their only job to vibrate in response to waves of pressure and begin converting them into what I perceive as sound. It is not my heart itself I sense throbbing in my ears, but a kind of echo, as dipping your hand into a fast-moving river you feel the push of a wave that originated many miles upstream.

spanish graffiti is romantic

This past Thursday in the bird lab, I heard—or rather, saw—another echo. After one clumsy move with a scalpel, I opened a cut the length of an eyelash on the skin of my left index finger. There was a moment of what seemed like stunned affront on the part of my cells—and then I bled. Swaddling a band-aid around my finger, pressing vein against bone, I felt my pulse grow tight and insistent. I held my finger up to stare. The vessel I’d cut into was quite a long way downstream from the heart, but blood was still being propelled through it with enough force that if I looked closely I could see the shape of each echoed beat, thrusting against the flimsy fabric barrier I’d put up around my wound.

It was almost as if my heart had doubled: sent a second, smaller, version of itself to the precise location of the insult I’d created. The finger ached a little, but I smiled. To be cut, bruised, hurt, I understood, is to be aware of the heart’s extraordinary compass. There is no place in the body to which its drumbeat does not carry; no tissue it cannot touch.

Every squeeze of a healthy, reaching heart drives about three ounces of blood through its chambers (as much of the stuff as you could carry onto an airplane in a single plastic container, if you were so inclined) and fifty times that volume through the body as a whole. So much power lies behind the heart’s contractions that in the space of one minute a single red blood cell, pushed along on the tidal wave that begins in the heart, can whiz through an average of three full laps around the circulatory system—journeying each time from heart to lungs to heart to oxygen-hungry cells, and back again.

This is a fabulous statistic, so to try to get inside it I start walking and count to twenty, the time it takes for one such round. No fucking way. It’s hardly long enough to get from the kitchen to the living room window. And in that time, I am supposed to believe, trillions of blood cells have completely traversed the length of what is, for them, the entire universe? Driven by this crazy heart of mine?

It is fierce, this muscle. With a strong heart on your side, nothing seems impossible. You might run 10,000 meters in under 30 minutes. Dive the height of a skyscraper on a single one of your own breaths. Me? I don’t reach that far. But I’ll tell you that I’ve been working with my heart at the gym for three years, and I can now run for a bus without sending it into palpitations. Some of us will take what support we can get.

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Some don’t believe their hearts are on their sides at all. Another word for steady is inexorable, and the phrase keeping time has a dark second half—until it runs out. Something wild and fearful lies just on the other side of the calm thrumming that keeps me company when I’m in bed. The other day I read the following plea for help on a mental health forum.

I’m terrified of my heartbeat. I hate that my life is controlled by my heart. It’s a small muscle and it’s so powerful. It’s in control, I am not. I hate it.

I wish somebody could snap me out of this horrific phobia. I can’t stop thinking about it because it’s always there, always beating.

It’s horrible.

I get happy and then I stop, remembering I have a heartbeat, I’m human, and if I’m alive and not here to live a crazy life, I’m just here to be a mammal, because I have a heartbeat. I’m not here to have a job, or love…I’m here to eat, survive, reproduce and die.

It’s horrible. I hate having it. I wish somebody could convince me my heart is my friend and not my enemy.

There is part of me that understands this terror.

I imagine a stranger offering to put a metronome inside me that would tick off the moments remaining in my finite existence, beat by beat. I would, they’d explain, be able to feel and sometimes hear—but not very well control—the cadence of this morbid little clock. It would feed my body and give it breath, but could itself be damaged, and when it finally ran down, so (most likely) would I. As life rests on it, so a heartbeat can be an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality: making it ideal for starring roles in horror stories, and lending creatures that echo its modus operandi a shivery air.

There is part of me that understands this terror; but I don’t feel it.

In all these nights I have been, more than anything, comforted by the constancy—the mad beautiful stubbornness—of my heartbeat. Its metric varies from time to time, but the basic pattern it follows was set in motion in the womb, and continues, careless of my will. This fidelity of purpose amazes me; no wonder we say truehearted when we mean loyal. In my breast I carry a soldier who received a single order 31 years ago and has never once faltered.

Listen: On the strength of that order, in the space of one day the human heart beats approximately one hundred thousand times. One hundred thousand.

I find this figure frankly insupportable, and I’ll tell you why. It means, you see, that since Ross left the country mine has pulsed no less than four and one half million times. And how this is possible I can barely comprehend.

Without him here I have been left bereft of order, customs, habits. I don’t mind being on my own, but after years of learning to match the tempo of another person’s life this sudden solitude feels a little strange. The everyday beat that drives my world—the one I didn’t even realize was there—has bounced all out of time and now seems to syncopate beyond recognition. Each morning for the past six weeks I have woken and started over, trying to reestablish it.

Yet somehow in the same period my heart has stuck to its plan—followed its single basic order, in the face of the confusion I have felt. It has beat, same as always, four and one half million times. It has not asked for my permission. It has not needed my participation. It has simply proceeded, knowing exactly what it ought to do, in a way that I have not.

So I keep my head against my pillow, just a while, as darkness falls on each of these summer nights. The larger rhythm of my life may be a little hard to hear right now, but the one I hold within doesn’t seem to be skipping a beat.

The Virtue of Stiffness

June 1st, 2010 | Meera

I realize how determinedly morbid this is going to sound after telling you not three weeks ago that I am obsessed with death, but at 7 o’clock this morning I got down on my hands and knees in the bathroom to pull the stiffened body of a dead cat out from underneath my claw foot tub, and at 5 o’clock this evening those same two hands of mine drew the cranium and jaw bones of a raccoon, tenderly packed in bubble wrap and Styrofoam, from the recesses of a box that arrived in the mail.

But hey, sometimes that’s just the way your day turns out.

The expired cat was not, I hasten to add, my cat; if it had been I would be in no state to write these words. As it was I slept poorly last night, knowing the poor thing was just on the other side of the bedroom wall and likely close to death. My dreams were full of it. In life, the cat was a small, black, medium-haired beastie, with egg-yolk yellow eyes and a burbling purr (cats purr when stressed or traumatized, not just when content). In death, those eyes, I noticed, were open: their pupils—like those of human corpses—fixed and slightly dilated. When in its prime it was undoubtedly a pretty little thing.

Ross and I picked up the cat yesterday evening about two blocks from our apartment. It was drenched to the bone and without visible signs of injury, but moving slowly and with an almost drunken gracelessless very uncharacteristic of a feline. We thought it might have fallen out of a window or been hit by a car, and brought it into our home with the hope that the creature would survive the night and we could take it to the nearest vet as soon as it opened today—but sadly, our best efforts were in vain.

The cat had mustered what little strength it had in order to crawl underneath the tub before it died, probably because it felt a little safer in that narrow, constricted space. It was there in the morning when we went in to check on it, and if there had been any doubt about its expired status, a hand reached out to touch it made a definitive answer immediately apparent from two things: coolness and rigidity.

The average core body temperature of a cat is about three degrees higher than the average core body temperature of a human, or about 102°F. If a cat has ever sat on your lap, you already know this. A living cat is a thing of reliable warmth. Mine, for instance, is a blanket that provides snug comfort in winter and transforms into a heavy irritation in summer. This cat was cool, though not cold, to the touch.

someone's got to do it

In death, the systems that the body relies on to regulate its temperature start to fail.The rapid contraction and expansion of the muscles that produce a warming shiver can no longer take place; nor can the vasoconstriction (tightening of the blood vessels) that keeps heat from escaping from the skin, or the chemical reactions that can transform fat directly into heat in our cells. Cold as death, they say. I can tell you that what they say is true.

If I had had the means or the inclination (macabre even for me) to take its temperature, I might have been able to determine the approximate time at which this cat crossed the border between life and death. To do this I could have used the knowledge that the average mammalian corpse cools at a rate of about 1.5°F per hour, although it would have been difficult to come to a precise estimation. Algor mortis (Latin for “the coolness of death;” and death is, I fear, a cool customer) might have been affected by the size of the cat, the amount of insulation it carried on its slight frame, the ambient temperature in my bathroom and that of the tile on which it was resting, as well as other factors.

Still, a calculation could have been made. It is possible, for instance, that I could have somehow aligned the cat’s hour of death with one or another of the times in which it had wandered through my fitful sleep in the form of a dream-black-cat, healthy and mewling and full of vigor. If I were of a soul-believing bent, that might have been comforting.

But even if the cat had somehow managed to retain a good deal of its body heat after its death, the rigidity of its body would have told me it was gone, and had been for some hours. Rigor mortis (Latin for “the stiffness of death;” and death is, I fear, an inflexible wretch) is a tightening of the muscles that sets in in small mammals, like cats, within a couple of hours of the end. Apparently, the use of the term stiff to refer to a corpse dates back to the very beginning of the 13th century—so clearly has the phenomenon of rigor mortis been associated with death, and for so long.

What causes this stiffness is a sequence of chemical events that is, frankly, marvelous. (I think so, anyway.) Here’s how it goes. Normally, muscles contract because they’ve received a signal in the form of a nerve impulse from the brain. When that impulse reaches a muscle cell, it triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plugs itself into receptors on the surface of the cell, opening channels through which sodium ions enter. The sodium, in turn, causes a flood of calcium ions to be released within the muscle cells. Finally, the calcium ions enable two kinds of muscle fibers—actin and myosin—to bind together and cause the muscle as a whole to contract. In order to release that contraction, an infusion of energy is required to push out the calcium ions and return the muscle fibers to their relaxed positions.

It’s all a beautifully rehearsed and executed electrochemical relay race that results in tight, or rigid muscles. (Want to set it in motion right now? Clench your fist. There. Nerve impulse—acetylcholine—sodium—calcium—actin/myosin—clench. If you squeeze your eyes tight, you can tell yourself that you almost feel those microscopic channels opening and closing. You’ll be lying, but it’s a beguiling notion.)

After death, accumulated calcium ions tend to leak across the cell membrane into muscle fibers, causing a contraction that cannot be released because the cell is no longer generating energy. And so: Stiff as a board, they say.

I can tell you that what they say is true. By the time we looked in on our sweet, unfortunate stray in the morning, its limbs had hardened to the point where it was difficult to draw from its hiding place. Ross had to kneel beside the tub and push gently on its back legs, while I pulled gently on the scruff of its neck, to get it out. If I had held the animal up by its torso, which I did not, its legs would not have hung loose and sweetly heavy like those of my living, breathing cat. They would have remained as they were: curled around its body like armor.

(If I had waited several more hours, though, loose they would have come. Rigor mortis dissipates as decomposition sets in, breaking down muscle tissue and releasing the contracted fibers.)

I could see, as he pushed and I pulled, that Ross was a little red-eyed and sniffly to see the creature in what must have seemed, to him, a strange and unnatural state. I, on the other hand, had grieved the night before. It was much more difficult for me to witness the cat as it was before death, its hot breath coming in and going out in ragged pants and its body so lacking in strength and nimbleness, as if it had forgotten how to move its four paws. Life, as the Buddha says, is suffering.

But this morning as I lifted the limbs that had once lent it the lucky poise of nine lives and felt how they had gone hard and inflexible, it was clear that the cat had ceased to be a suffering being and become, instead, a body. Its very stiffness protected me from pity, providing a hard, unassailable demarcation between life and death. For that I am rather grateful, because no matter how interested one is in death, it is no lovely thing to pick up the cadaver of something whose nose you stroked the night before. I am curious, not ghoulish. This cat’s death was both unnecessary and melancholy.

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About my adoration for this raccoon skull, on the other hand, I have no excuses. A friend, knowing my predilections, offered to find it for me: and so it was found. And cleaned. And packaged. And sent. And the stiffness of its beautiful bones has a different sort of virtue.

On The End and What You Do Before

May 13th, 2010 | Meera

There are a few themes that preoccupy me in my life above all others: Death, if you know me, you know is primary. I can’t place when I first learned the word or grasped the perfect emptiness it contains, but I do remember (at the age of five or six or seven) regularly dampening my mother’s shirt with premature fits of mourning for what I had suddenly grasped would be her inevitable loss. Yes, she admitted, she’d die. Not yet, but one day. Not yet was too close for comfort.

That heavy terror is gone now —had slipped away, I think by the time I was eleven. My grandmother died that year. I spent what seemed like endless hours in the house where she lived, playing quiet games of cards with my cousins while her body was being embalmed upstairs in her room. I saw the tragedy of it touching my parents; my father especially seemed a new person to me. She had brought him forth, and now she was gone. He was a river with no source, the way I feared I’d be when I was little.

When her body was ready they brought it downstairs to lie before those who mourned her, and it was amazing to see her physical self so much the way she was before and yet so different. The same lines folded her face into rifts and valleys; the same powdery skin covered her fingers. But the smell that hovered around her, like sweet mint, was new. She hadn’t consented to housing six or seven liters of embalming fluid—a chemical brew of formalin, phenol, methanol, glycerin, and water that would preserve her flesh until it came time to burn it in a chamber where fires roared the air to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit—still, there it was now, having streamed through a small portal the mortuary workers made in her carotid artery and taken the place of her once hot blood.

Looking at her (She! The giantess with the jingling bangles and the frown like a stroke of lightning), what I felt was not tragedy, but awe. Yesterday, I knew, her muscle fibers pulled taut as she brushed her thinning hair, silver-white and soft as silk. Yesterday her nostrils flared with expectation at the scent of dinner. Yesterday someone joked that she was getting old, and set off a chain of events that began in the vibrating air about her ears and culminated in a parting of her lips and a stretching of her cheeks and a sound like laughter, and in between a hundred nerve cells transmitted their chemical signals across the minute gaps between them. Today, she was wholly untenanted. What an extraordinary metamorphosis.

The spectacular impossibility of death—the idea that all we are and ever have been, every quivering feeling and blooming idea that makes us sentient beings, will one day simply vanish from our bodies without warning or recourse—has amazed me ever since. So has the fact that, without truly knowing what death will mean for us, we live with it day after day. It is as if we stand at a station waiting for a train, fingering our ticket—knowing all along that what finally arrives could as well be a stone colussus stamping over the mountains as a chugging engine, could be a bird whose wings black out the sky, a fire that starts beneath our feet. Or rain. Or nothing. We wait, chat with strangers, pick up a bun to eat at the station cafe. With dying coming.

These contradictions are marvelous in their fascination. I would put it this way: The idea of death is a Rubik’s cube I carry in my pocket, always there to be drawn out and manipulated into a new configuration when I am waiting in line or staring into a snowy sky. After hours of adjusting I click one face into position at last and turn the thing over to find chaos flaring on the opposite side—yet I am convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that given enough time I shall put it in order.

Chicago Dreams: After Kurt Vonnegut

If I set the thought of death aside, I often take up work. I don’t mean to imply that I work particularly hard; given the choice I, like most of you, would rather do anything but, most days. But, diligent or not, I think about the shape of work all the time, because it, too, is a kind of mystery to me.

Here’s what I mean. If I am smiling at you while you hand me my croissant across the counter, I am wondering what it would be like to stand on the opposite side, days full of the beery smell and the heat of the ovens and the sound of the front door chiming as it opens and closes against the noise of the summer street. Is this work that brings you joy, or simple exhaustion? And what is the taste of it in your mouth?

If I crane my neck to see you jouncing gently down the side of a skyscraper like a water glider, squeezing its windows clean, I am wondering—try and stop me!—how much they pay you to do that and how you learned to fly and how much they would pay me to climb so high in the cold and then fall down, a little at a time. Would I exult in it? Do you? I peer, and try to tell what you are feeling.

And if you draw my blood out of me, tighten your black cuff around my arm to feel it push back at you pulse by pulse, peer in my eyes and my cells and tell me my fate, I am definitely also wondering what it would be like to do your work: the work of knowing the body and staving off death. What would my Rubik’s cube look like in your hands?

These are twin fixations, work and death. They are connected to each other for me in ways I can hardly articulate. Death, I trust I expect I presume I imagine I long to be true, is what makes sense of the work of a life, gives it a reason to exist at all. And work, I think I guess I wonder if I hope I believe, is what redeems a life in the face of death. And yet I have been very often mistaken about what work means for me.

Twelve years ago I thought I wanted work to be pleasure, that’s all: sheer pleasure. Find what you enjoy and do that; call it work if you want to, but it’s just a name. Doesn’t mean you have to sweat over it. I was wrong.

Eight years ago I thought I wanted work to be service. Find a need and fill it; maybe you’ll be good at it, maybe you won’t, the important thing is that it be important in the world. I was wrong.

Six years ago I thought I wanted work to be what I did so I could live the rest of my life. Work ought to recede into the background, leave you alone at the end of the day. This time I thought I’d finally figured it out, but I was wrong there, too. Work is more than that for me. I don’t want it to leave me alone. I want it to be a way—not the only way, but an important one—I can prepare for what’s coming.

So when I stand on the El platform in the middle of winter, or jostle my way down Michigan Avenue in spring, and you are all around me, each one of us here for not even a single systole or diastole in a single heartbeat in the impossibly long life of the universe—when I see you there, I want to shout my question to you all: What are you doing with yourselves, friends, while you wait for that other train? What work have you chosen? Tell me.

Maybe you mix water into flour, salt, sugar, yeast, pulling an invisible universe of life and chemistry into being and pushing it over a fire until it grows enough to offer me my morning roll. Maybe you teem up and down walls. Maybe you will be the one to check my heart, my breath, my blood, my brain, and see that they have each stopped once and for all. Whatever it is, I want to know.

I tell you this now because I’ve thought about both these things lately perhaps even more than is normal for me. (Normal is measured by Ross no longer being taken aback when I run through with him a new imaginary scenario of his death, or mine, or my parents, or our cat’s. I have envisioned airplane crashes, car wrecks, psychotic gunmen, sudden cardiac arrests while running, drowning in foreign oceans, and plain old getting old and losing our minds. I work through the event, the hospital, the phone calls, the funeral, the sitting in a chair, unable to sleep, the night after the funeral. I am nothing if not thorough.)

But, as I say, more than normal. That’s because on April 1, 2010, a young man I knew in college died. He slipped from a waterfall while trekking in northern Thailand and fell some 30 feet—gracefully, said the woman who was with him that day, as he had lived. He was my friend, but I hadn’t been as close to him as I might, and we had not seen each other in years. My experience of his death is not the same as what is felt by those who knew and loved him as a funny, wise, strange, dear, evolving presence in their lives. Theirs is not my grief to grieve.

What I have felt, besides a deep sorrow that someone so kind and loving is gone, is something akin to the awe that was in me when I looked at my grandmother’s body twenty years ago. It seems hardly credible that death could have come this way.

Come it did.

When my friend hit the ground below the waterfall, the impact of it sent shock waves through his head, and his brain shifted forcefully against the inside of his skull. Tissues swelled, blocking the passage of blood, which pooled instead of pumping. The long threads of injured axons sheared and detached themselves from cell bodies in the white matter of his brain, leaving no way for neuron to contact neuron. Messages, and the means to send them, died. It all happened in an instant. And in that instant went everything that was the person I knew; every muscle memory of the bear hugs he used to give, every e.e. cummings or Khalil Gibran poem that recitation locked into the networks of his cortex, every dream and every lust. First he was breathing, singing, laughing, jumping, living, and then he was not.

And because I know one day I will not, either, I find myself thinking once more about work. Oh, I prepare for death in other ways, too. I make my life with the person I love. I try to see what I can of the world. I dip myself in books like feet in the ocean, and when I emerge I am dripping with ideas as icy as the Atlantic. But these are easy choices to make. Work is the hard one.

For now, I do this. I’m working right now, if not for pay, working to find a path across these small, square keys, oily with my fingerprints. Making out of them things that are only slightly less temporary than myself. When you get down to it, spending your life writing seems a little foolhardy. But it is difficult work, and that seems to mean something.

In fact, I know that it does. I know because when I imagine that train coming in for me, and think how my cells will cease their motion and their talk and my skin be full of that sweet mint smell—when those thoughts come, as they so often do, I’m pleased to think that this is what I did before the end.

Samson and Me

January 10th, 2010 | Meera

At five I couldn’t see the point of hair. I wanted it out of my way, so my mother obliged. She circled me slowly, shearing it off to just above my chin, and the air filled with a most satisfying ripping sound. Close to my ears the scissors crunched, closing their legs hungrily on my black wings.

At eleven I wanted everything under control. I was up when the sun was a murmur, stomach turning at the prospect of breakfast so early. My hair was a thick fountain I had to subdue into a ponytail neat enough for school and my desire to do things exactly right (a desire since mostly lost). I worked and reworked it, each time finding I’d sat my rubber band too far to the left or the right, or that threads of too-short hair were escaping from its noose, or that where I thought I had brushed my scalp into perfect smoothness there was still a small hillock of hair, invisible but to my own questing fingers. My sandwich sat uneaten.

Later I was a teenager, and let my hair down, and—bliss—it was a pair of doors I could shut against the world. Teachers nattered at it, instead of me. (Also, though I did not realize it then, I’d grown a set of blinders. Nothing could be seen beyond the edges of my hair, but for several years there was plenty to occupy me between their curtains: the curve of a friend’s back as she walked away, the crazy softness of a boy’s lip, my gigantic fear of being unloved.)

I began to imagine it would one day grow so long it would descend into the ground like roots, fixing me where I was. Perhaps that’s why it all came off in one dramatic gesture. How many other things were tangled in it! I looked down when it was done and saw them all snipped in half. Slick heat and sweat. The idea of being beautiful. The memory of dancing to “Copa Cabana” some school-day afternoon, laughing through my fingers. Some of them I’d have wanted to keep, if I’d known that’s where they’d been.

The year I turned 21 I was living in Jerusalem with an English boy, and it had been two years or more since I’d sat in a revolving chair, leaning my head back for a cut like a patient ready for surgery.

I was very happy then. As for my hair, it was happy, too. It wriggled with happiness; I could feel it sometimes when we sat on the bus together and everyone else leaned a little towards the speakers, listening to the hourly news. My hair leaned towards the English boy. It waved down my back like the shining tide of a gentle sea. At night we arranged ourselves, he and I, like two bookends tucked into each other. That was so he could brush my hair a hundred times, giving it all the attention of a tailor smoothing out a magnificent piece of fabric that had not yet received its first cut. When we parted the boy took some with him; for all I know he has it still.

Lately I have been cutting my own hair, chopping at it like a woodman who doesn’t care how rough are the edges of the stumps he leaves behind. I am all business. What is gone is gone.

Natalie Angier (I do adore her; she inspired my only fan letter to the New York Times to date) has written that the skin is the organ with the biggest mouth. She says it trumpets our emotions with its goosebumps and blushes, reveals our weaknesses with its scars and scrapes, and is, no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise, the well-judged cover for a book no one, really, will ever read from first to last page.

She’s right, of course: skin is a loudmouth. But if you ask me, what hair lacks in volume it makes up for in storytelling style. It may be bloodless—at least by the time its questing fibers are pushed up from beneath the scalp—but it has a heartbeat. How else to explain the fact that it can keep time (let’s see skin do that)?

Don’t believe me? Try this. Take a few long strands of hair from a brand new mother, all relief and tears, her sweet infant barely out of its packaging. Get them right from the scalp, and don’t worry; she’ll barely notice you. Take more from a woman whose child is now three-months known, her eyes bleary from 90 interrupted nights. Another from a six-month mother, practically a veteran of cradling and lullabies and midnight messes, and still more from the head of one just beginning to hear her nine-month-old babble like a brook.

All set? Right. Now. Check the very highest tip of the hair from the newest mother, the flickery spot where it emerged from its follicle, for cortisol. That’s a substance that’s a marker for stress (people call it the fight-or-flight hormone). When a woman becomes pregnant she is flooded with cortisol. It soothes her response to pain, gives her more energy, and—some evidence suggests—makes her more attentive to danger. Look at the nib of that hair, and you’ll find cortisol in spades right there, just at the point of her baby’s birth. Now move three centimeters along the hair, and test again. Less cortisol. Another three centimeters, and test again. Still less, in an utterly predictable monotonic progression.

Do the same thing with the hair from the other women, and you’ll find the level of cortisol decreasing from high to low, step-wise along the hair, in just the same way—except now the highest level won’t be found at the tip. It’ll be three centimeters along with the mothers of three-month-olds. Six centimeters along with the mothers of six-month-olds. And so on.

Line them all up against each other, matching hormone levels as you go, and what you get, in effect, is an astonishingly accurate calendar of pregnancy’s effect on cortisol production in a woman’s body. Here is where it all began, two cells meeting, merging, making plans for the future. Here they’ve grown into a little lemon, here there are hands that wave through amniotic fluid as if swimming. Here everything is ready at last, racing like a freight train towards that long-awaited emergence.

All this happens, of course, because a growing hair takes on all manner of free-floating biochemical stowaways in the blood it absorbs from its follicle, each of which is permanently incorporated into its cellular structure at that precise point. If someone were trying to poison you with lead, your hair would know. If you’d been good and given up all your vices, your hair would speak your virtue. And though it has no life of its own, hair still breathes the air you breathe, drinks the water you drink. It remembers where you live.

It’s all there—the inner ebb and flow of anxiety and love, the things you’ve brought into yourself, the places you’ve traveled—all documented in a curl. It doesn’t go away, either. Hair can keep a secret for more than a thousand years, it seems. And knowing that, I am a little rueful over the decades of ink I’ve spilled below my chair. Whole novels’ worth, perhaps. The longer the strand, the deeper the communiqué?

I’m growing it out now, you know. I’m waiting to see what my blood writes in it.

A Very Commonplace Gesture (3)

New Year’s Day Self-Similarity

January 1st, 2010 | Meera

There has always been, for me, something shivery and mysterious about the Book of the Thousand and One Nights. One reason is that although for years it sat quite within reach on my father’s bookshelf, both the Nights and its store of what we so (in)delicately call “adult” material were closed to me as a child: locked tight with a single shake of a maternal head. (Let me tell you that when I read the stories, in direct defiance of that fiat, and discovered that not only is there a lot of sex in them but that the very first tale is about a fart so legendary it reverberates through an entire kingdom for generations, I laughed until I cried. Adult indeed.)

But far more wonderful, what I knew about the comparatively slim volume revealed its position within that most favored of literary genres: the infinite book. That “thousand and one!” How I craved its everlasting promise of still one more night after you thought the final one had come.

One other thing gave the Thousand and One Nights limitless mystery, and that was the fact that it held stories within stories within stories. Scheherazade would begin to tell a tale, and all of a sudden its narrator would begin to tell his own tale, and before you knew it its narrator was holding forth on yet another narrative, and so on and so forth until your head spun with delicious confusion. No matter where you looked, it seemed, there was a tiny reflection of the book as a whole, which in turn contained its own reflection, which contained…and in turn…and in turn… The book of Nights was made of endless versions of itself, writ small (er and smaller and smaller).

As in the Nights, so in Nature. Self-similarity is everywhere. Each stretch of the British coastline, fractal-father Mandelbrot tells us, curves and jags and undulates in such a way as to produce a remarkably faithful scale model (not perfect, but close) of the coastline as a whole, no matter how many times you carve it up into smaller and smaller pieces. Always you will find that each individual part contains within itself a rough unabridged copy of the total sum.

So again with the leaves of a fern, whose fronds divide into fronds that divide into fronds, and with the branching bronchial tubes of the lungs, which fork and fork and fork once more. Raise your head to the skies and there too the part reflects the whole. Galaxies clump into small groups, like little knots of gossiping schoolchildren; those clumps form larger clusters, and those clusters even larger throngs.

(What is it for, all this huddling? Is it a lonely thing, being a galaxy? I can’t imagine it could be, since you yourself are made up of clustered clustered clusters of stars…)

And what does all this have to do with New Year’s Day, my dear dears? Why, only this: When I woke up this morning I resolved to make my own self-similarity. This first day, I decided—itself just one small part of the long annum stretching out before me in all its promise and disappointment—should be a scale model, crafted as best I can, of what I want the year to be like.

Therefore, this is what today contained:

Waking to sunlight through curtains and a cat on my belly.

Cooking, with Ross and for a friend. Eating what I had made. Laughing.

Walking, face tingling in the January (!) cold. Looking. Breathing. Hugging Ross.

Making what I know how to make.

Sitting, just sitting, while music plays. Reading with a cup of coffee by my side.

Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, writing this for both you and myself, with a calm heart and nothing to prove.

Welcome to a new decade, readers-mine. I’m enjoying it so far. I’m imagining, at least for one day, that I know what the future holds. It holds a thousand and one New Year’s Days.

RedRun

On the Perpetual Balancing Act

November 17th, 2009 | Meera

In the months after I quit my teaching job, addled from the accumulated unease of days spent in battle and carrying my failure like an extra limb, I found there was nothing more soothing than stillness. Breaths grew small, hands rested quietly against thighs, feet found their place and kept it. I remember one train ride in particular, so gripped with disquiet that having once looked down to my shoes, I felt physically incapable of the simple act of raising my head. The carriage bumped along Boston’s pockmarked streets, but each twitch of its creaky frame saw me tighter and more transfixed.

I strove to be still because movements, in those moments, were traitors. Fear could speak its name in the shudder of a shoulder and there was no step but a misstep. So I paused, glassy as a frozen pond.

My silence here lately has had that same root, I think. It’s been a long, strange year. I’ve unmoored myself, once again, from a career that didn’t satisfy me. And once again I am afraid of defeat. I’ve been trying, I’ll admit, to stop time with hushed inaction. Later, I tell myself, I will speak. Later begin to move. Now, for now, let me be a statue who never leaves her spot. Better that than a human being, capable of tripping. Capable of falling.

But here is the truth; I’m not, you know. Not glassy, or frozen, or still. Not for a second, no matter how paralyzed I think I am. I haven’t a choice about it. Nothing can stop me from swaying to keep my balance.

eight

It’s clear, I suppose, that movement requires reams of complex coordination. I lift my hand to turn the page of the book I’m reading (One Hundred Years of Solitude, for the third and best time in the past dozen years), and to do so I must regulate, consciously or not, the movement of the joints at my shoulder, elbow, wrist, thumb, and forefinger—each of which is capable of turning and bending independently in up to three dimensions. That, in turn, requires controlling the contraction of nearly thirty different muscles, including the six sinewey carpal muscles that bind the wrist and let it roll over in a small half-moon once my fingers have grasped their insubstantial target. Peer in, and these muscles themselves have constituents whose movements must harmonize: fibers threaded together in bundles, each individual bundle squeezing or easing at the bidding of a single nerve.

My many parts synchronize in a beautiful clockwork, all so the sentence that begins somberly on page 70 can end on page 71 with a faint smile: “He soon acquired the forlorn look that one…sees in vegetarians.”

But in stillness, surely, there is rest. As I stand without moving, not even shifting from foot to foot, surely the threads out of which my muscles are woven are unruffled. I want this to be true so badly. Yes, breath continues, and heartbeat. Fluid moves across membranes and always there is the minute trundling of molecular motors carrying their endless loads across my cells. But look, I tell myself, these are only tremors within, rumblings beneath the earth. At least the earth itself remains stoic. My body, terra firma. So do I keep myself safe. In my immobility I can be a soft black hat on a table, waiting for the flourish of handkerchiefs that will prove the show was worth coming for.

Not so. Standing itself is parlous, and never as steady as it looks. Consider how heavy is the human head upon its kinky spine, how large the torso on its spindly legs, and yet how thick those legs compared to the stiff ankles, the tiny feet, upon which we place at last the entire burden of ourselves. We are not built, like lions, on four muscled legs, the pillars of an ancient church. Like inverted pendulums, we are secured to the ground, but travel up through our torsos and to our crowns and what you find is oscillation.

This is what the physiologists say—and they should know, because they watch: No one is ever truly standing still.

We do not ripple as do pliant blades of grass, breathed on by the wind. Instead, we fight to maintain verticality through a near-constant series of tiny displacements and corrections activated within the musculoskeletal system. Postural sway is what they call it. A gentle phrase, and one that captures both the strictness of our ideal (Watch your posture, young lady!) and the impossibility of adhering to it. Motionless we are not.

Here, then, is what moves us. It starts with diminutive shifts in the intensity and positioning of the points of pressure where our soles meet the ground. All unconscious, we map and remap the subtle forces with which we push back against the earth. As we do so, the imaginary reference point we use to gauge our balance (somewhere in between our feet) becomes a constantly moving target. It wanders.

“Rambling,” this is called affectionately in some scientific literature, as if the center of each human being’s personal universe is defined by the fact that it likes to take long walks in the outback.

So. We have a point of reference that keeps us upright, and it moves. But it isn’t unwatched. The current position of this center of pressure is instantly communicated by nerve signals traveling up the brain stem and into the neural system that controls balance. In response, nerves fire in an imperceptible ballet. They gently squeeze and relax those braided threads that make up the muscles in our calves, abdomen, back, thorax. The whole delicate orchestration causes equally diminutive shifts—”trembling,” they call this—in the position of our center of gravity.

Trembling follows rambling, and so we stand. How frail those words make us sound. Like needles skipping across a sheet of paper, following a skittering heart.

My Secret Life

Not so long ago, apparently, researchers regarded these stray wobbles as nothing but noise, meaningless bits of information generated by a flawed neural system that was not built well enough to give absolutely correct instructions. If the brain could direct the body to be perfectly still around a fixed central point, the thinking went, it would. What can we say? It can’t. C’est la vie.

If you had told me this, that day on the train, I’d have nodded. It would have been of a piece with my mood then. I’d launched myself into the air, expecting to fly, and fallen terribly. To learn that even my penitent stillness was deficient would have been no surprise.

But scientists, unlike saturnine ex-teachers, do not like the idea that things are just so because they are imperfect. Imperfection is not very interesting. So they continue to wonder about this sway. They draw graphs of it, delightful manic scribbles like ants circling about a drop of syrup, and see that though the movements we make as we shift and sway are variable, they vary within strict limits. No ant strays too far from the sugar.

Scientists also try to poke at the problem, making us close our eyes and seeing if our spontaneous quiverings change. And look, look here. They do. The intensity of postural sway increases significantly with eyes shut. But the tiny muscle movements we make don’t get more haphazard, as they might if the brain were just making more mistakes. The ants are wandering a little further away, but they’re still finding that sweet center.

(Are the ants working for you? They are for me, but I’ve been thinking about this all evening, worrying away at the idea of it. I might be an ant myself. If not, here’s what might be clearer.)

The reason you sway more when you close your eyes, scientists think, is not that you become unsteady, in danger of losing your balance. It’s that you’re working harder to keep the balance you have. With each tiny shift in those pressure points in the soles of your feet, each minute muscular movement in your legs or back, this theory holds, your brain is tracking information about your position in the world. In a way, the sway is a way to test the limits of stability.

If I do this, am I still standing? What about this? Or this? The same incessant experiment takes place whether your eyes are open or not—the brain and body are just more enthusiastic about their probings when one perceptual channel is closed off.

What I am saying is this: Maybe I have to stand up and sway to stay in balance. I’m a little less funereal now than I was those few years ago, a little more willing to welcome uncertainty. Maybe stillness itself is the root of the fall. And maybe, every instant in which I stray away from the perfect center I seek shall be followed by a move back towards it. I’m by no means sure of that. But I do like the idea of experimenting with the limits of stability. And I think I’ll be doing a little more of it right here from now on.

*******

Carrying a Ladder

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
something’s
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

—Kay Ryan

On Seeing Yourself

June 16th, 2009 | Meera

I don’t know what it’s like for you, but there are days when it feels I’m like meeting someone for the first time. Her features seem foreign to me, and that, in its way, is not so far from the truth.

I don’t know what it’s like for you: there are days when I am most comfortable if the sight is brief. Best if I have a specific task, like brushing my teeth or plucking at the ragged curve of my eyebrows until one bends to match the other; best if I can file the required report and move on, before too much is seen: Go ahead and wear that shirt. It looks well on you. No, there is no scratch on your cheek. It must have been a momentary twitch of a nerve… Yes, you look as tired as you feel. More tired. There it is. It’s not that I am ashamed, understand; my self-esteem is not a dress that has fallen and must be tugged back up. It’s not that I never stare; oh, stare I do. But there’s something unnerving about it.

I don’t know what it’s like for you. For me it’s a question of manners. Too direct a gaze creates an impossible challenge: which pair of eyes will drop first? I know that both are mine. Yet how strange is what I perceive—that I am at home inside one set of arms and legs, and at the same time these very limbs are hanging quite happily on a separate frame. That I am twinned.

Mirror, Mirror

I live quite comfortably with this contradiction, of course; but I suppose I haven’t always.

Babies aren’t born with what psychologists (somewhat ploddingly) call “mirror self-recognition.” It takes many months before they’re able to draw an unfaltering line between their reflections and themselves, to comprehend that the stare that meets their own so fearlessly does not belong to another human being. It’s not just a question of waiting until certain inevitable developments take place in the brain, either—though that is important. A light bulb doesn’t just blaze on one day and transform stranger into self. No; in fact, developing the ability to recognize one’s own body in the mirror seems to be a surprisingly rational undertaking, and one that builds over time.

In 1979—the year I was born, naked of a sense of self— two scientists named Lewis and Brooks-Gunn tumbled a series of burbling 12-month-old babies in front of a mirror, to see what they could see. The vast majority of them, the experimenters observed, engaged in something they called “contingent play”—so named because the movements of a reflection are contingent upon one’s own movements.

Having noticed that there was a being opposite them in the glass, and having perceived that the behavior of this being seemed oddly familiar, the babies would proceed to carry out clever studies of their own. Staring at their reflections, they would perform the same series of movements over and over again, each time watching intently to see if the strange creature in front of them would follow their lead correctly. They bobbed their heads up and down, bounced their chubby bodies enthusiastically, carefully waved their arms back and forth, all the while with eyes growing wide as they began to clarify and confirm the fact that they possessed a perfectly synchronous imitative partner who would do all that they did at just the same moment. These early play sessions seem to be a necessary first step towards claiming one’s reflection as one’s own.

(They are not sufficient, for it is possible to recognize that your movements dictate those of another without recognizing that the two are one and the same. The full understanding that the face opposite you in the mirror is your own does not generally arrive until late in the second year of life, according to subsequent studies. When that understanding comes, it can truly be described as self-consciousness. One common test of mirror self-recognition is to dab a spot of rouge on a child’s nose, then place them in front of a mirror. A sheepish, or frustrated, rubbing at the spot is the positive indicator researchers are looking for.)

But listen; am I the only one who is astounded by the canny, systematic tests those children conducted? Am I the only one who went straight to the mirror to reenact them, nursing a tiny thrill and half-hoping to catch my other self shifting her neck just a heartbeat too late? Because I’ll tell you what the Lewis and Brooks-Gunn study says to me. It says that seeing yourself does not come easily.

Cloud Gate Shenanigans (2)

Let’s put it this way: to know an apple, say, is straightforward. Hold it in your palm; take in its dangerous crimson; scrutinize its glossy skin. It is entirely self-contained. Its apple-y nature is self-evident. To know your own face in the mirror is different. You have to slide into the apprehension sideways, gather together a body of physical evidence and reason your way towards the truth:

When I nod, she nods. When I stare, she stares back. Her arms follow my arms; her legs stretch as far as mine. This plant does not move when I move; it is not part of me. This other person moves without my say-so; he is not part of me. Only she, with her skin so brown and her feet curling under her like frightened mice—only she moves with me. So. This is who I am. These are the things I am made of. These are my boundaries in space.

I don’t remember collecting those proofs. I don’t remember building my sense of self like this, brick by brick with my baby-brain. But I believe that I did, and you as well. And I’ll tell you something else: I believe that we’re in good company. Elephants, apes, and dolphins can learn to see themselves through contingent play, too.

Also, robots. Robots can learn to see themselves. Are you smiling yet? Listen, at the very least, one robot can that I know of—its name is Nico. I read about Nico in this charming paper, published last year. In it, two Yale computer scientists show how, with the help of three algorithms that deftly compare data to experience, a robot “can learn over time whether an item in its visual field is controllable by its motors, and thus a part of itself.”

First, Nico spends some time—four minutes, to be precise—waving its arm back and forth and carefully noting the shape of its own movements. Then, it’s ready to look itself in the eye, so to speak. Nico is placed in front of a mirror, whose contents are captured in a streaming image by a wide-angle lens embedded in what would be Nico’s right eye. Carefully monitoring that video stream, the robot continues to motor its arm around in random directions, checking for precisely contingent movements in the reflected scene. It consults the algorithms in its memory, calculating the probability that what it sees is really Nico. Very quickly, then, the robot is able to accurately determine whether it happens to be looking at itself, an inanimate object, or an animate other.

Once it has understood the form of its own arm, learned the way in which its joints shift position—once it has traced the essential outline of its own metallic body—Nico can be said, in a very real sense, to recognize itself. And after that understanding has set in, no one (not even a sly researcher insinuating himself into the scene and painstakingly mimicking Nico’s movements) can fool it. Nico knows exactly what it is.

But achieving that knowledge demands two things, both of which are clearly spelled out in the title of the Yale paper: time and reasoning.

Seeing yourself doesn’t come naturally; it’s not fundamental to your understanding of the world in general. And it can’t be accomplished simply by having someone else tell you who you are in the glass; it’s not a fact you swallow, but a judgment you come to. At first—ask a baby; ask a robot—it’s not at all silly to narrow your eyes at that odd-looking stranger and wonder why they’re copying what you do. At first, surely it’s right and proper to be suspicious of the shade in the mirror.

When it comes right down to it, I mean, you might be wrong about the whole thing.

Here’s the thing: When I think of myself, what comes to mind is less a single clear and shining image of my own face than a shifting sensation of me-ness: a complex amalgamation of memories, ideas, and sensory impressions. I am the one around whom my husband’s arms wrap, the pressure of his musculature against my own clearly defining the shape of my body. I am the one who lay at the foot of my parents’ bed as a child, listening to the hum and click and drip of their ancient air-conditioner and imagining the sounds growing larger and larger until they merged with my own heartbeat. I am the one who frets for hours before phone calls, sweaty and pale, who dances while she cleans, who hates hair in her face and still remembers the sharp, dusty taste of the whiskey sours she used to drink because she liked the way they made her tongue twist up inside her mouth.

I am the one who feels the way I feel, thinks the way I think, not—or not just—the one who looks the way I look. And how do I look, anyway? No matter how many tests I run, no matter how much I grow to trust the image before me in the glass, the sight of my own face is always mediated through layer after layer of tin, silver, glass, copper, paint. I’ve never seen it without a mirror as middleman, without a bender and broker of light. What if the person I’m seeing isn’t who I think it is at all? Why should their mere resemblance to me be sufficient identification?

I live quite comfortably with this suspicion, of course; but not everyone does.

People with a extremely rare disorder known as Capgras delusion come to believe that those whom they love have been replaced by impostors. These strangers are identical to my mother, my sister, my brother, Capgras sufferers say, but they are not them. They are different people entirely. Their features—remarkably similar! The close resemblance is uncanny! But no; they are certainly not the ones I know. They are frauds. I do not recognize them.

The extent of the delusion is such that, confronted with their own reflections, Capgras patients are apt to startle violently. Why, I’ve never seen this person before! they may exclaim, in horror and disgust. Some engage in the same kind of contingent play that babies do, pinching themselves and waving their arms, keeping a chary eye on the ghoul in the mirror—but unlike babies, they will not be satisfied by the paltry evidence of their own eyes. And when repeated gazes into a mirror call up the same disagreeable stranger again and again, people with Capgras may accuse their likenesses of deliberately appearing in their lives solely to stalk and torment them. Capgras delusion steals a person’s ability to see their own true selves, and replaces it with an uninvited guest who cannot—will not—leave them alone. I confess, I sympathize.

But how exactly does this happen? Capgras patients are otherwise, for all intents and purposes, normal—whatever that means. Their vision is not impaired, and neither is their cognitive functioning; nor are any aspects of their memory. Their negative emotional response to their loved ones and their own reflections is bizarre, to say the least, but in some sense it’s also perfectly lucid and reasonable. It matches, after all, precisely the way you would expect someone to react if everyone in their inner circle of intimates had been replaced by an impostor. (And wouldn’t you yell if your beloved reflection suddenly turned into someone you knew, deeply and profoundly, wasn’t you at all?)

Mirrorbranch

So what causes this extraordinary disconnection between vision and belief, between seeing a person, recognizing their features, and correctly identifying them as someone whom you know and love? The inimitable UCSD behavioral neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has a lovely theory about this. Look, he says: Sensory information about objects the eye sees is transmitted from the retina into visual centers in the temporal lobes. Here, the object is identified: This looks like a teapot, this looks like a poodle, this looks like my sister. Capgras patients can accomplish this part of seeing perfectly well.

But after an object has been identified, the brain continues to work. It sends its decoded information to the limbic system, which is a complex network of brain structures that enables the perception and expression of emotions. One of the first places this visual information passes through is the amygdala (the name means almond-shaped, which it is). Ramachandran explains that the amygdala is responsible for labeling the emotional content of what the eye has seen. This object is beloved, the amygdala concludes, and should trigger affection; this one is despised, and should trigger hate.

This visual data, then, becomes colored with a layer of emotional interpretation; it travels on towards other structures in the brain. At its final stop, what began with a glance at a face sets in motion at last the physiological responses that enable a person to actually experience the appropriate emotion: things like a speedier heart rate, higher blood-pressure, and a light film of sweat covering the skin. (For what is emotion but the brain, talking to the body, talking to the brain?)

You might imagine that a rather odd sensation might occur if this process were disrupted somewhere after the point where an object is decoded and before the point where the emotion that ought to be associated with it is actually experienced. Ramachandran did. He asks:

Is it possible that in this patient there has been a disconnection between the face area of the temporal lobes and the part concerned with the experience of emotion? Perhaps the face area and the amygdala are both intact, but the two areas have been disconnected from each other. When (the patient) looks at his mother, even though he realizes that she resembles his mother, he does not experience the appropriate warmth, and therefore says ‘Well, if this is my mother, why is it I’m not experiencing any emotion? This must be some strange person.’

I think of a person like this, and how they must feel when they stare at the mirror, eyes fixed full upon their own faces and hearts as hard as stone. Do they never, now, experience the comfort of being alone with themselves?

It hasn’t been proven, so far, the hypothesis that the Capgras delusion is caused by the neurological disconnect that Ramachandran describes—but its elements catch at my heart. It’s not enough to simply identify a person in order to truly know them. The brain needs more. It’s not enough to match the movements of a reflection to your own in order to recognize it as yourself. The brain needs more. Seeing yourself does not come easily. It requires time. It requires reason. And, beyond all that, it requires some measure of affection.

Knowing this, I return to my counterpart in the mirror—the one who still seems so strange to me sometimes—and am moved to tenderness. I look on her for a long moment, studying the shape of her lips, the brown of her eyes. I forgive our separation, forget the times when her eyes have challenged mine or mine hers, and gaze.

Because if I do not see her, how will I love her?

And if I do not love her, how can I see her?

If you’re fascinated by reflections, I can do no better than to recommend the deep and intricate treatment of the subject in Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection. I found my copy in the stacks of Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, on my honeymoon.