Reviewed by Ed Yong
Throughout the history of neuroscience, we have gained an inordinate amount of knowledge by studying people with severe brain damage, and watching how they manage to live. HM’s surgically altered brain revealed secrets about how memories are formed – after his death, he was revealed to be an American man called Henry Molaison. KC, a Canadian man whose real name is still unknown, also taught us much about how memory works, following brain damage sustained during a motorcycle accident. SM, a woman with an inherited brain disease, reportedly feels no fear.
These patients are known by abbreviations that preserve their anonymity, but also shroud their contributions. Their hopes, struggles and lives are condensed into patterns of injury and aberrant behaviours, and distilled into pairs of letters. But sometimes, very rarely, we get a privileged opportunity – a chance to unpack the people behind the letters, and to learn not just how they became a part of science, but how science became a part of them.
Jessica Benko’s new story, The Electric Mind, provides just such an insight. It is the latest in an increasingly strong portfolio of stories from The Atavist, a digital publisher that produces stories “longer than typical magazine articles but shorter than books”.
The Electric Mind is the story of Cathy Hutchinson, a woman known in the scientific literature as S3. She’s a mother-of-two who was “always goofing around and singing and dancing”, until a stroke disconnected her brain from her spinal column and left her with an active mind imprisoned in a frozen frame.
For several years, Cathy has been taking part in a groundbreaking experiment called BrainGate – not a sordid cerebral scandal, but a bold project that aims to give paralysed people control over mechanical limbs. The scientists behind the project fitted Cathy with microscopic electrodes that read the neural buzz within her motor cortex – the area of her brain that controls movements. The implant acts like an electronic spine that links Cathy’s brain to a computer or robot, bypassing her own immobilised flesh.
At first, she used the electrodes to control the movements of an on-screen cursor. More recently, she commandeered a robotic arm. As she thought about grabbing a bottle, the electrodes deciphered her mental commands and the arm carried them out. “For the first time in 14 years—indeed, for the first time for any quadriplegic—Cathy was able to reach out into the world.”
The project’s crowning results are published today in the journal Nature, concurrently with the launch of Benko’s story. The paper itself preserves Cathy’s anonymity, and describes her in the starkest of terms. She’s “a 58-year-old woman with tetraplegia caused by brainstem stroke… She is unable to speak (anarthria) and has no functional use of her limbs. She has occasional bilateral or asymmetric flexor spasm movements of the arms that are intermittently initiated by any imagined or actual attempt to move. S3’s sensory pathways remain intact.”
The reality behind these cold, precise words comes through in Benko’s skilful narration. Right from the start, she plunges us into Cathy’s world, as she wakes from a coma to hear the sound of the ventilator beside her bed.
We get to know Cathy through Benko’s eyes, as she tracks down the woman via her son, and meets her for the first time. First-person accounts can break the fourth wall to a distracting extent, and many journalists would balk at inserting themselves so prominently into a story. But Benko earns her place as a protagonist in her own tale, in a way that reminds me of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The author’s quest becomes an inextricable part of the story itself. Through Benko’s expectations of meeting Cathy, her descriptions of their first meetings, and her difficulties in interviewing a woman who can only communicate via eye-flickers, we learn the extent of Cathy’s disability, and the frustrating complexity of seemingly simple tasks.
Writing about extreme disability (and attempts to overcome it) is not easy. You’re always an adjective away from being mawkish, and an adverb away from being ghoulish. Benko deftly negotiates the tightrope. She cleverly uses essays from other locked-in patients to describe hardships that would sound overwritten from her own hand. And she’s a master of keenly observed but simply delivered prose. When Cathy laughs, for example, it’s “a short burst of air that vibrated across vocal cords she can’t voluntarily control.” No embellishments required. These scenes throw their own punches. Benko just puts you in the ring.
Benko’s eye for detail also elevates her descriptions of experiments that have been reported again and again in the press. We see what Cathy’s nursing home room is like. We learn that the electrodes were fired onto her brain with “a pneumatic device like a tiny air hammer”. We discover that the bottle that Cathy lifted via robot was a thermos full of coffee (she loves coffee), “emblazoned with the initials and insignias of the research team and sponsors”. She finds drama in minutiae. While other reporters rush straight for a snare-drum crash of incredible implications, Benko takes her time with scenes that build to a steady crescendo.
Using Cathy’s story as an anchor, The Electric Mind stretches back in time to look at the historical events that preceded BrainGate (including a horse accident and suspected psychic powers). The story also pulls outwards at other means of reaching the same ends, such as functional electrical stimulation, where electrodes stimulate a patient’s own muscles instead of a robotic limb.
These sections, where we leave Cathy and focus on the field at large, are arguably the weakest elements of the story. Around the two-thirds mark, the tale threatens to veer off course. From rich details about a woman steering a robot arm with difficulty, we’re suddenly plunged into hand-waving speculation about infrared vision, Avatar-like… well…. avatars, and telepathic soldiers (and the irony of reading a journalist’s words about electronic telepathy on a handheld device was not lost on me).
But then, in a rather daring move, it becomes clear that this was exactly the point (keep an eye out for the start of Chapter Seven). All the other characters not involved in BrainGate, from Nicolelis to a ridiculously breathless DARPA spokesperson, serve as foils for Cathy. Their visions are too far removed from the reality of her condition. They remind us about what The Electric Mind could easily have been – a story of technological triumph and glorious futurism. Instead, Benko has treated us to something far better – a story of extreme limitations and what happens when people (and science) run up against them.
Ed Yong is a British science writer who writes the award-winning blog Not Exactly Rocket Science. His work has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, the BBC, the Guardian, the Times, Wired UK, Discover, CNN, Slate, the Daily Telegraph, the Economist and more. He lives in London with his wife. He has never been impregnated by a botfly but he does rather like ants.