Fun Fact - Can You Truly Touch Yourself?

This original science fiction story was inspired by the previous article. If you have read that article, including the last reference in Further Reading, then you will see how this story naturally follows. If fate deals me a bad card, and I must undergo such an operation someday, well, the protagonist is me. Write about what you know, or perhaps who you are.


"I know we've gone over everything in detail, but let me just summarize one more time."

Dr. Garth smiled with warmth and confidence as he looked across the table at me. He picked up his half-full coffee cup, took a sip, and placed it gently back in its saucer. His confidence was well earned; he had done hundreds of these operations over the past two decades. I had nothing to fear - well almost nothing, it was brain surgery after all. He brushed his brown hair back from his forehead and continued.

"You'll arrive at the hospital at 7 o'clock Thursday morning for prep, and the operation begins at 9."

I nodded.

"You'll be completely asleep for the first hour as we open the skull. Believe me, you don't want to be awake for that part of it. I'll make an incision above your left ear, around your forehead and over to the top of your right ear, then slowly pull back the scalp to reveal your skull. We'll keep most of your hair on top, but of course we'll have to shave along the incision line."

"Of course." I replied. My hair was already thinning, with a touch of gray. No need to shave anything in front, that's been gone for years. Just shave along the sides. Still, it would be nice to keep most of what I had on top and in the back.

"I'll drill three tiny holes in your skull in a large triangle, then, starting at one of the three holes, I'll cut a circle all the way around. That section of skull can then lift away like the lid off a pot, exposing your brain."

"Then," I volunteered, "I'll be awake, right?"

"Yes, by noon you'll be fully awake and you can answer questions. I'll probe certain areas of your brain and you'll tell me what you feel. Sometimes your arms or facial muscles will move involuntarily. Either way I'll know that we have reached the brain. You see, sometimes the tumor and the healthy brain blend together, with no clear boundary. If I didn't have your responses I wouldn't know when to stop."

"Right." I confirmed. And now the time had come. Could he sense my heart pounding in my chest - not from fear, but from anticipation. I simply blurted it out. "And one more thing - before you start probing and cutting, I want to feel my brain."

For the first time in several years, Dr. Garth was nonplussed. "What?!"

"That's right. Pull the drapes aside, and with my right hand I want to feel my brain. I want to be the first person in history to actually touch myself. Not just some other part of my body but my true self, my essence, my soul if you will. And not through a glove, I want to feel it with my hand."

Once again Dr. Garth was silent, his mouth hanging open just a bit. Finally he spoke.

"I don't even touch your brain with my bare hand! You have to realize the risk of infection."

"I know. I've thought it through. A nurse can scrub me up just before the operation, then I'll touch my brain, then you can remove the tumor. I'm a computer programmer but I love science. In fact all the programmers I know love science. They would all be scientists or professors or inventors or astronauts or some such, but there are more jobs in computing - that's all. Anyways, I want to know, I want to know everything."

"And it's not just infection." Dr. Garth stood up and paced back and forth. "You don't understand how delicate the brain is. It's fragile, like a fine work of origami."

"Oh it's not that fragile." I argued. "You told me that you sometimes separate the convolutions with your hands to reach a deep tumor. Besides, I'll be careful. That's why no glove, so I'll have some tactile feedback. I mean, I won't be able to see what I'm doing, right? You're not going to rig up a bunch of mirrors so I can see the top of my head. And you've told me the brain has no feeling. It won't be able to tell me if I'm pressing on it or not. So I have to use my bare hand."

"Now Mr. Balthizar," Dr. Garth stated emphatically, using my last name, "we simply can't allow that."

"That's a requirement for the operation." I retorted.

"Well then somebody else will have to do the operation." He sat back down at the table and took another sip of coffee.

I spoke slowly. "You're the only one in six states who has the skills to do this operation, and if you don't do it my condition will quickly become terminal. You'll be responsible for my death. So have your lawyers draw up a waiver about infections and physical trauma and such and I'll sign it."

Dr. Garth frowned for several minutes. "I'll speak to the legal department, and the hospital administrator, and we'll see what we can do."

At 7:23 on Thursday morning a hospital official, in shirt and tie, presented a three page waiver, in addition to the forms I had already signed. It described the risks of infection and physical damage, and absolved the hospital and its staff of all liability. As I read through the addendum he stared at me over thick glasses, as if to say I was nuts. Finally he pulled a pen out of the pocket of his pressed white shirt and handed it to me. "Sign here - and here - and here where it says 'Against Medical Advice'." I signed, and another employee quickly notarized. They trotted away, waiver in hand. A nurse started an IV and injected a mild sedative as I was wheeled to the OR.

"Are you ready?" asked the anesthesiologist from behind his mask. All the players looked alike in their scrubs and masks and gloves.

"I am."

You can snap out of sleep in an instant, but anesthesia is different. I heard voices from far away, as if I was at the bottom of a pool. I was drifting upward, ever upward. Soon I started to have a sense of feeling. I moved my hands about but found them gently restrained.

"We can remove those," commented a nurse, "when you are fully awake."

Even before I could open my eyes my vestibular system told me I was sitting up. Soon my vision returned, and OR nurses were moving about in front of me. The drape around my head was transparent, so I could see the bright lights overhead, the specialized equipment, and Dr. Garth standing nearby. Of course I could not move my head, which was clamped in place; my field of view was limited to eye movements. I watched for several minutes until my fine motor skills returned.

"I'm awake now. We can begin whenever you wish."

"Andrew, my name's Patty and I'm going to help you scrub up for your rather unusual procedure."

I instinctively tried to turn my head to the right, and failing that, I shifted my eyes to the right. She seemed to understand as she moved in front of me. At first she was just another nurse in her scrubs and face mask, but I could make out smiling blue eyes and short blonde hair.

"Your restraints have been removed, and I'm going to scrub up your right hand."

She walked back around to my right, almost out of view, and immersed my right arm in warm water up to the elbow. She then applied surgical soap, starting well above the wrist and working her way down to the fingers. Every square inch was scrubbed and scrubbed again, giving particular attention to the nails. After several minutes she announced the completion of her task.

"You're all set, but let me guide your hand. If you so much as touch the side of your face or any other surface you won't be sterile and we'll have to start again."

She held my arm midway between wrist and elbow and gently guided my hand up to the top of my head. The tips of my fingers touched something warm and damp as she released her grip. I pressed down gently and was pleased to find that the organ was indeed solid. It's not a pile of goo as one might imagine. It's a bit like touching your eye, soft, delicate, but still a solid structure. As I moved my fingers about I was struck by the sensation that this brain belonged to somebody else. The brain has no feeling, so the only tactile feedback occurred through my hand. If you have slept on your arm, cutting off the blood supply until the limb is completely numb, then you know what I mean. You're touching an arm, and it's warm, but your arm reports no contact, so it must be somebody else's arm. I had to shake off the feeling and remind myself that this was indeed my brain. But it's more than that, it's me. I placed most of my hand on the rounded surface and felt the folds and convolutions, and especially the heat. Skin is often 10 degrees below body temperature, thus internal organs almost feel hot by contrast. Yet this is more than mere metabolism, this is the heat of thought, the heat of feeling, the heat of emotion, the heat of wonder and understanding. Towards the right side, near the rim of the skull, I noticed a ridge that seemed to pulsate.

"Be careful," cautioned Dr. Garth, "that's a major artery."

"Ok." I replied quietly. Indeed, it felt like I was taking someone's pulse, but not through the flesh of the wrist, I had my finger on the artery itself. Inside flowed the fuel that kept the brain alive, that kept me alive.

I again moved across the surface and marveled and the complexity and fragility. Dr. Garth was write, the most amazing structure in the known universe really is quite fragile, thus evolution has encased it in a skull, and a blood brain barrier to protect it from the chemicals in our blood that pose no threat to any other organ, but would derail the delicate circuitry of the brain. What would happen if I tore out a handful of cortex and threw it on the floor? I'd probably be dead, perhaps the most unique form of suicide in the history of mankind. Or my hand would stop moving as soon as the motor centers were damaged, and I would be alive but forever paralyzed. Since the left side of the brain controls my right hand, I could probably plunge through the right hemisphere all the way down to the brain stem. Of course I had no such desire, it was just a passing thought, like looking out over a bridge and wondering what would happen if you jumped. The thought creeps in under the door, and must be pushed away, just as one must wrestle fear back into its box. I let my hand rest on the surface once again. Everything I know, and everything I remember, and everything I feel is electrical signals coursing through this unfathomably complicated machine. My love for my wife and my family, the magic of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, the mystery of quadratic reciprocity, and even the awe I experience as I contemplate my own brain, are all organized patterns in the brain. It's me - I have touched myself in a way that nobody has ever done before.

I sensed the growing impatience of Dr. Garth and his staff, so I gently pulled my hand away. Patty took it and rinsed off the blood. The operation began, but after the prior events, it was rather anticlimactic, though it was a bit surreal to lift my arm or twitch my mouth without any conscious control. An hour later the operation was complete.

"I think we got it all," reported Dr. Garth, "and thanks to your responses, we definitely didn't damage any healthy brain tissue. I'm going to place your skull plate back on your head, and sew up your scalp, and you'll be all set. We'll be watching very carefully for post-op infections, especially in light of your hand to brain experiment. By the way, how did it go?"

I tried to explain the experience, but honestly, there are no words. He knows what it's like to touch this amazing organ, he does it all the time. He even understands it at a high level, and can affect minor repairs. But I have touched my own brain, my own soul, and that adds another dimension that is difficult to describe or even comprehend.

Several weeks later I had made a full recovery, with no infections. In a follow-up visit, Dr. Garth encouraged me not to discuss my experiment with the general public.

"Don't go on Colbert and tell the world what you have done; I don't want other patients trying the same thing. It really is an unnecessary risk."

Well his admonition wasn't in the contract, so I will tell whomever I please. Skydiving is an unnecessary risk too, and yet we do it, because the joy outweighs the risk. I have touched my soul, and if given the chance, I would do it again.