Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

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January 28, 2016

26-1-16 Where is I?

A bit less than a year ago I was awaiting my spot in the theatre to have a pituitary tumour removed. As neurosurgery goes it’s a pretty simple job; you can get at the pituitary up through the nasal cavities and dig around to haul the nasty out. All the same there are no guarantees, so I’d punted the idea to close family that Things Go Wrong and that I’d really rather take The Big Drop than arrive at the other side animating my carcass with a faltering version of Me so damaged that I was unrecognisable.
OK – skip the pre-meds; admission; the procedure and the few days in the observation ward hooked up to monitors and regularly punctured for blood-tests.
I self-tested for cognitive deficit with a book of Telegraph Cryptics in waking-moments and was happy to find I still had loads of miscellaneous stuff stored in my head, though with a slightly slowed down capacity to retrieve it.
A few weeks after discharge we had the routine consultant’s meeting when at one point I said that I had no way to understand the intricacies of neurosurgery but as I’d been comatose 20-22 hours per notional day it had been a field trip through states of consciousness I’d only previously read about; the experience was a practical, philosophical exercise in ontology and a range of available contructs of Self.
At this point glances were exchanged by the surgeon and her invited audience of trainee doctors. What I’d thought was a clear distinction between her specialism and mine, which I’d imagined was an indication of my underlying lucidity – not bad in the circumstances – was received as a bout of incoherent rambling. Not their jargon. The senior neurosurgeon was prepared to concede that after surgery there was somtimes “a pychological component”.
In that wording, I gathered that all this mimsy stuff, the cognitive, emotional artefacts weren’t really her concern and that her view of the procedure could be reduced to components. The surgery had been successful, that was the objective evidence.
I wondered at the time if the word ‘ontology’ sounded to her like I meant some branch of neurology which I’d misread on a Google-search, and at the same time I wanted to say that her expertise wouldn’t be devalued if she was unfamiliar with the word.

In my coma I was aware of a mosaic of sensations and what I can only call ‘thought-activity’. The brain was ticking over with no particular place to go and only coincidental connection with me, and that became a theme. It went something like: if I was able to observe this tumble of activity then what process throughout gave me this sensation that a calm, objective Me was tuning-in to survey the torrent?
That part of my brain thought that my condition was like one of those awkward Greek riddles Zeno was famous for, the smartarse in Aristotle’s class who’d come up with: if I plucked one hair from Aristotle’s beard, is it any less a beard? Well, what about two hairs? Three? At what point does he cease to have a beard?
Here I was, effectively immobile from exhaustion, communicating occasionally in monosyllables, living in the attic under my skull, observing what was happening ‘downstairs’ in the nerves and giblets.Amazing how much sensation’s generated in an inert body. I had no appetite but the guts were in denial; in the hush, the creaks and groans of borboryghmy sounded like those recordings of Blue Whales chatting between oceans. My metal heart-valve – tunk! tunk! Tunk! – seemed to reverberate from throat to belly, handy corroborative evidence that I was still alive. Nerves under the skin were still firing, though at times a limb would twitch and I’d realise it wasn’t where I thought I left it.
Almost as remote, the activity of the electric jelly carried on thinking while my mind’s I observed.
I’d read Daniel Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’ – not exactly explained but examined in neurone-popping close-up; what I’d gathered from William Calvin’s ‘How Brains Think’ went something like, a bunch of cells and synapses get sufficiently excited and at some point, a thought gathers enough momentum and crowd-surf into Consciousness to be hoisted onto the Cartesian proscenium, promoted from Brain-stuff to Mind-stuff. I had my scrapbook of Behavioural/Cognitive labels but this experience was a salutary reminder about not confusing the map with the territory. These weeks did have the feel of unmapped tundra.
I had weeks of these elaborate theoretical constructs translated into practical experience: oh look, I’m doing ideation now, and look over there, that’s a very nightmarish dream happening. There were even stretches of agnosia – unprocessed consciousness – not so much Thought as Awareness. The lights were out and no-one was at home. This is me beyond the limits of words; I might as well try to hum the taste of the colour 7.
Lastly, because this is the most contentious discovery, the one I keep quiet about because it ends up in lengthy, circular debates about what I don’t mean: I lost the will to live.
I don’t know what it feels like at the point of death but several times I came back to consciousness with a sense of mild surprise that I was still in the game, still walking the edge, and it was simple rational common sense to accept that no act of will, no flexing of the ego would win me one extra heartbeat. If I ran out of heartbeats there’d be a temporary emotional ripple in my wake and Life would continue.
I really like that quote from Mel Brooks: Mozart was a genius; he died. Einstein was a genius; he died. So what chance do I have of living forever? Practically none.

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