January 1, 2011
Jan 1, 2011
16 Min read time
Having been freed from my skin, I can’t exactly find my way back.
I was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, with a double major in Philosophy and English, those two broken and declining (if not already dead) fields in higher education. By the end of my third year I was low on cash and couldn’t afford both tuition and food, but because I was physically healthy (mentally is a different matter), I started selling my vital fluids to the blood bank and volunteering for every science experiment conducted on campus, and even off-campus, by aspiring inventors—provided they paid the participants.
So instead of preparing for my classes this fall, I’m sitting in a chair amiddlemost a laboratory longer than it is wide, lit overhead by soft fluorescent bulbs beneath one of the science buildings funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their largesse is visible everywhere on campus, but especially here in the high-tech labs and über state-of-the-art scientific equipment. Miles of cables like a nest of boa constrictors are hidden away behind the walls, ceiling, and floor. Flasks and burners in the lab are interspersed with a warren of monitors, scanners that in seconds can read every chemical beneath the casement of your skin, then spit forth a fire hose of data into devices that compute a thousand times faster than human thought. Two technicians of 25 and 30, very polite, are making last minute adjustments. I’ve been calling them Alphonse and Gaston because one is tall with a stiff, sliding way of walking, while the other is bald, has a belly that bubbles over his belt, and keeps a goofy little grin plastered on his face.
In the middle of this elaborate machine, this triumph of the Enlightenment, on a rainy evening in October, we’re waiting for Dr. Samantha Conner to signal the start of her experiment, on the brink of being ambushed by X-rated revelations no stuffy philosophy seminar can provide. I’m guessing she is 35, a workaholic, single, the sort of brainy woman who won prize after prize at science fairs in middle school, a child prodigy who skipped high school, started at MIT when she was thirteen, earned a MacArthur fellowship before she was old enough for a driver’s license, and had no time for something as frivolous as boys or dating because she still had to prove herself over and over in the higher echelons of the rigorous hard sciences where members of her gender are too few and far between. For me, a lowly, financially ludicrous philosophy geek in the unscientific, subjective world of literary studies, Dr. Conner, as she examines some head-breaking equation on her clipboard, is so heartbreakingly beautiful she makes my eyes blur, like maybe I’m looking at Gwyneth Paltrow in a white lab coat, gold-framed oval glasses over leaf-green eyes, with fawn-like ears, a nose turned up at the tip, and copper-colored hair pinned behind her neck by a wooden comb. I guess I have a serious case of slide-rule envy. Women with IQs over 170 have always been catnip for me, the way mountain climbers are drawn to the Matterhorn. I just fall apart in their presence.
And I know my desire for her isn’t just painful. It’s impossible. By the way the world reckoned things, I was a loser headed for the night shift at McDonald’s. (“Would you like fries with that and a definition of agape?”) Microsoft didn’t need a resident metaphysician. And a bachelor’s degree in English was about as good as one in basket-weaving. Nevertheless, I had a theory that all those messy, bottled-up feelings and the wild, sensual joy celebrated in the sloppy humanities but repressed in the sciences by quantification and reducing everything to the crystalline clarity of numbers, just might, under the right conditions, explode like a truckload of Chinese fireworks.
‘I’m a lot smarter than you think,’ I told her. ‘You’d have to be,’ she said.
During my interview, my heart did get ahead of me. I asked Dr. Conner if she’d have dinner with me at Faire Gallery Café on Capitol Hill, despite the differences in our ages, bank accounts, and academic rank. The blistering stare she gave me, peering over the rim of her spectacles, was paralyzing, like maybe I was something toxic she was looking at in a Petri dish. English and Philosophy majors get this kind of Godzilla eyeball all the time.
I told her, “I’m a lot smarter than you think.”
“You’d have to be,” she said, spanking me for taking such liberties above my station.
Cold and efficient, she avoided my romantic overture. I could sense how important this new study would be for her career. She said it was based on work conducted in 2008 at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm by Valeria Petkova and her colleague Henrik Ehrsson. These two called it the “body-swap illusion.” Their test subjects wore a shiny black helmet that favored ones used in football (minus the face-guard), and sat across from another person or a mannequin like the crash dummies used to test air bags in cars. After just a few moments of being rigged up like that, they shook hands and experienced the mind-warping sensation that they had suddenly switched bodies with those Others. In a word, the illusion was that they were lifted out of themselves, however briefly, freed from the tight Cartesian cage that always held the self cloistered, locked in solitary confinement as a lonely monad forever separate from other unreachable monads—as I was from Samantha Conner—ontologically isolated, solipsistic, drifting through life with the rest of the world, its objects and others, always “over there.” Their work promised to be a new tool for exploring that greatest of all mysteries, self-identity; for breaking down the epistemological apartheid of mind/body dualism; and for enhancing virtual reality experiences.
But here’s the trick:
Dr. Conner and her technicians won’t use a lifeless mannequin. Or even another person. No, she dismissed that as being too easy. Too tame. She told me she had always been a nonconformist, an explorer in pursuit of the extraordinary, a person who questioned authority, and rejected any rules that held women back in a patriarchal society. Since childhood, Dr. Conner had always looked at familiar things as if they were strange, and strange things as if they were familiar. She was congenitally disposed to challenging conventions, the pedestrian, the predictable, the mundane, and to going where others feared to go. I swear her spirit of adventure and imagination stirred me up like music. Because she was going to raise the stakes on Petkova, because she tilted toward innovation and breaking taboos (and also because, to my knowledge, she hadn’t published a scientific paper in five years), she said my companion in her study would not even be human.
He’s sitting right in front of me now, a 130-pound Rottweiler named Casey, her dog: lazily licking its paws, and wearing a black helmet just like the one I’m holding in my hands. It covers his eyes and pointed ears, and displays a 3-D version of what the other participant sees. In other words what I see. I’m not surprised she’s uncommonly fond of her dog, and selected him to be my partner. People in Seattle are so in love with this species they probably spell its name, dog, backwards, and why not? Canines and humans have a 75 percent overlap between their genetic codes. From one of my seminars on Plato’s Republic, I remembered that in Book Two Socrates praised dogs for being high-spirited lovers of wisdom. So, yeah, I was OK with dogs, that symbol of fidelity. But I’m wondering, you know, how all this is going to turn out, if maybe I should have told her about some of the other, bizarre experiments for which I’d been a human guinea pig, if maybe all that might somehow prove to be an X-factor neither she nor I had figured on. Maybe when I signed the consent form, which elaborated on the possible side effects of this experiment, but also pointed out that some consequences were unpredictable and might cause death, maybe I should have told her then in that tiny office of hers, with a wall of awards, the sawdust smell of new books, and a view of Lake Washington, that some of those government-funded studies I survived won or were finalists for the Ig Nobel Prizes handed out for the most ridiculous scientific research conducted each year.
Having been freed from my skin, I can’t exactly find my way back.
Over a period of two years, I participated in experiments that measured people’s brainwave patterns while they chewed different colored M&M’s. In another experiment I was tested to determine if University of Washington males were more sexually attracted to UW females than to tennis balls. We were, according to the findings, but only marginally. I was the test subject for a musical condom that contained a microchip like the ones in musical greeting cards—when used it played the 1812 Overture and Handel’s Messiah. And I will never forget the bumps I got on my head from a study called “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts”; or the survey I was in about human belly button lint—who gets it, when, what color, and how much.
“Jeremy,” Dr. Conner says, tapping the end of her nose with a pencil. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I sit up straight in my chair. “I think so.”
The shiny plastic helmet is as light as styrofoam in my hands. It will cover everything except my mouth. Slowly, I slide it over my head, plunging the room into darkness as black as onyx. I can faintly hear voices around me, Dr. Conner and her two technicians, but the world is void, without form or light, as it must have been before the Big Bang. So far all right. I feel Alphonse throw a switch on the side of my helmet. The helmet begins to hum. But then, unbeknownst to the others, some kind of circuit goes haywire. My nostrils catch a whiff of smoke, then pain like a burning wire stabs through my temples. I wince, and hold my breath, but I don’t let on that anything might be wrong because if they terminate the experiment prematurely, I might not get full pay.
Gradually, the pain subsides. On the screen inside my helmet I began to see spicules of light, but I can only see things sharply if they are about a foot away. The character of the lab has changed into a soft-focus watercolor of washed-out blues and pale yellows, as if everything is covered by a diaphanous piece of cellophane smeared with vaseline. But what I suddenly lack now in depth of field is more than compensated for by the tone-color of all that I can smell angling across the air—Gaston, I realize, has a few recreational drugs and a dime bag of cannabis in his lab coat (the excellent herb called Hawai‘i Maui Wowie), which I guess explains why he is always grinning; and Alphonse, whether he knows it or not, is carrying in his wallet fives, tens, and twenties scented with just a trace of cocaine, which can be found on nine out of ten bills in the United States. Then, as I turn my head, I see a hazy, helmeted shape, larger than myself, hairless (which strikes me as very odd), and wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan Consciousness: That Annoying Time Between Naps. It’s a totally ridiculous-looking, two-legged creature without a tail, chicken-necked, with thin, un-muscled arms, not good for anything as far as I can see, except maybe rubbing your tummy or opening doors so you can go outside. Suddenly I realize that it is me, seen from Casey’s side of the room. Not just through the camera in his helmet, but through the exotic difference of his mind as he experiences the roomscape as an explosion of odors sweet and pungent, subtle and gross, moist and dry, everything elemental, not lensed through language, not weakened by a web of words, not muddled by culture or cultivation. I hear a collage of sounds and can pinpoint the source in one eighteen-thousandth of a second, sounds four octaves higher than humans can perceive: the world as it might be known to an extra-terrestrial from the Zeta Reticuli star system. Then Dr. Conner says, “Go ahead you two, Jeremy, Casey, shake hands.”
When I lift, then plant what feels like a black-padded paw in the palm of that pathetically deaf, nose-dead creature over there, when I touch myself touching, I’m completely in Casey’s body, he in mine: two entangled electrons. All at once, the world becomes new, a place of mystery and the uncanny, the way a two-year-old sees it, and strangest of all is my knowing there has to already be a bit of the canine in me, and the Homo sapiens in Casey, for the experiment to work in the first place. The doctor is more successful than she knows. For just this moment, not only does it feel like we’ve switched bodies, but our minds have commingled, too.
A new impulse takes hold of me. I lick her face.
And then, as abruptly as it began, the experiment is over.
I feel Gaston lifting off my helmet. For an instant the light in the lab blinds me. I keep blinking and see through fluttering eyelids Dr. Conner leaning toward me, using one finger to push her glasses higher on her nose toward her glabella.
“How do you feel?” she asks. “Describe what happened.”
I’m not sure I can. Yes, the body-swap illusion is over. But having been freed from my skin, after stepping outside a fixed idea of myself, I can’t exactly find my way back in, as if inside and outside, here and there, have always been the real illusion and I just never noticed it before now. Thanks to Dr. Conner’s experiment, I can no longer tell, in terms of the big picture, where I end and others begin.
She and the technicians still do look faintly like a different species to me, as strange as snakes or snails. Involuntarily, I start scratching myself. And I feel more cagey, manipulative, and as playful as a puppy.
“It worked just like you said it would,” I tell her. “Just like it did at the Karolinska Institute. You know, I think you’re going to get a Nobel prize.”
“Really? You do?” Her eyes crinkle at the thought, and that wrinkles her nose. “Why?”
“Well, there was some kind of short in the helmet’s circuitry, and—and even before we shook hands, the switch happened, I mean it really happened, not with our bodies, but our thoughts.”
“Thoughts? That’s not possible,” she says. “Can you prove that?”
“OK.” I draw a deep breath. “Just before you turned things off, I got an image from Casey, evanescent, but a clear picture in my mind . . .”
“Does your bedroom have a print of Picasso’s Three Musicians on the wall, over the bed?”
“And a blue, corduroy bedspread?”
Her eyebrows rise. “Yes, I bought that last year.”
“And you listen to George Clinton music on your iPod?”
“Yes—yes, I do.” She cuts her eyes at me. “Jeremy, where is this going?”
“Well, I saw you on that bed. George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” was playing. Some nights you let Casey sleep close by in the corner. And you always sleep in the buff. You’ve got the cutest mole on your abdomen, and this really great honey-pot tattoo on the upper, inner part of your left thigh—”
‘So much about you is different now,’ she says. ‘You seem much more useful and . . . feral.’
Dr. Conner cups her right hand over my mouth. I’ve never seen anyone move so quickly. Alphonse and Gaston look round at her in wonder. The doctor’s cheeks flush cherry pink.
“That’s just a carryover from college and too many margaritas one night,” she laughs, her voice quivering. “I think Jeremy may need to rest awhile. Why don’t you two take a coffee break.”
I pull her hand down, and say, “No, I’m fine. I like to sleep in the buff, too. And then there’s that other tattoo on–”
Dr. Conner’s clipboard falls clattering to the floor, and she hisses at Alphonse and Gaston, “Leave. Now!”
They hurry out of the room, and when she swings her head back toward me, I’m so mesmerized by the beauty of the golden highlights in her hair that, in spite of myself, a new impulse takes hold of me.
I lick her face.
That sends her back-pedaling about five feet, holding the wet spot as if she’s been stung. And now she has a spot of lipstick on her front tooth. After a moment, she composes herself. She smooths down her black skirt, picks up her clipboard, finds her pencil, and is again the portrait of professionalism, taking notes in her obsessively neat and idiosyncratic script, her Ts like the Space Needle, her Ms like an outline of the Cascades.
“Is there anything else, Jeremy?” Her eyes are evasive. “These perceptual and behavioral transformations are, um, unprecedented. I want to know everything.”
Actually, she doesn’t want to know everything, so I think it best not to tell her that, like Casey, I have an overwhelming urge to sniff her butt, something of which she does not approve, of course, but in his case and mine it’s just in the disinterested pursuit of gathering information, you understand.
“Oh, there’s a lot more,” I say. “You’re going to have enough new research for publications to last a lifetime. Naturally, I’m at your service for any further experiments, conferences, or lectures you’ll be called upon to do. You know, as living proof of your success with inter-species communications. I can also help you translate technical jargon into proper English, which will make your research reader-friendly for a larger, public audience, especially dog lovers. That means more popularity for you and easier fundraising. You might even need to start an institute. But sorting all this out will take awhile. I’d say days. Even weeks or years. Maybe we can start by you letting me take you to dinner.” Obviously, I’m still trying to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences.
I see her shoulders relax. She lowers her clipboard to her side, and experiments with a smile. Just as I’m seeing things anew, I can tell by the tilt of her head that she is perhaps seeing Jeremy Tucker, English and Philosophy major, for the first time.
“So much about you is different now,” she says. “You seem much more useful and . . . feral. Yes, I think perhaps we can do dinner. I’ll bring a tape recorder.”
I figure we have enough to discuss for a lifetime, and who knows where things might go from here? But this is where my fabliau (I believe that’s the right form; I aced a class on the genre) ends, one I hope caused no offense, but if it did, try to keep in mind that sometimes every able-bodied American male enjoys being a dog.
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January 01, 2011
16 Min read time