In Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, edited by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu (London: Women’s Press, 1985), pp. 164-174.
Not a great story in terms of plot, characterisation, dialogue; all pretty wooden. But interesting for its depiction of a female neuroscientist who destroys herself in pursuit of new modes of perception, and of the impossibility of science communication.
The story is all about how Dr Toni’s research experiences (via a machine which interferes with living brain cells, adjusting synapses to enable the ordinary world to be seen as if one is not oneself but a different creature) cannot be translated into words. Dr Toni can ‘find no adequate words. They are by now tied to our ordinary perceptions. They have solidified into little blocks.’ (168).
Narrator is from ‘Arts’, floundering yet keen to learn; she becomes fascinated by Dr Toni, ‘wondering what sort of woman she really was, under the lab coat’; she is determined to meet the challenge of giving voice to the ‘kind of scintillation of movement’ described by the scientist and goes through all her notes, searching for clearer expression: ‘To show this woman of enormous courage and intelligence, but who wasn’t so good at explaining in words what she was about. … She could talk, she could handle figures wiht no trouble. She could deal expertly with a complicated piece of equipment, but she was somehow not passing on her own experience, as I knew I could.’ (170)
Refers to black-and-white film; ‘we colour them in our minds, somwhere between vision and perception. In fact we did it better with those old ones. We knew so well that grass was green and lips were pink, that it didn’t disturb us that the colour wasn’t there. I don’t think we do that as easily now that we are so used to colour films’ (165); dismissive of stereoscopic vision, jokes about ‘smellies’ and ‘tasties’ (166). Lay narrator refers to brain structure as ‘that beehive we all keep in our heads’ (168). Dr Toni is ‘very suspicious of word processors, saying they deleted things on their own.’
Dr Toni is dismissive of drugs as gateway to expanded perception: ‘They haven’t got it right. Not even Huxley, who at least had a scientific approach – or should have had with that family.’ (166).
We learn that ‘in the 80s and 90s of the last century, it had been worked out by several groups of researchers, including Dr Toni herself, where the so many cell groupings and synapses lay in the human brain. This was what appeared to be responsible for the various perceptions of the world as we know it: the mapping of a universe within the unimaginable confines of cells, whose existence in the living subject could only be postulated, communicating in ways which are not yet understood.’ (167)
Returning to Dr Toni with her manuscript, the narrator is accosted by a male colleague of the researcher who fears for her life: ‘When the first papers on these brain cell synapses came out in the 80s or 90s, there was no way of getting at them. They’re deep down in the brain. Protected. Then we got the new brain probes, and worked away at it through the 90s. Very dodgy, that. You understand, don’t you, Miss, that you can’t work with dead cells?’ (171).
The narrator tries to stop Dr Toni from putting on the apparatus (‘a kind of fantastic crown’, lined with velvet) once more but the scientist ‘settled the thing on her head, giving me a wink and a chuckle. I suppose in a sense she knew she was beign silly, not behaving strictly as a scientist should.’ (173)