My mother removed her spectacles and studied them for a moment before dropping them into the breast pocket of her white overcoat. She never took that overcoat off, even in the evenings when she came home from the lab. “Okay,” she said, “I’ll tell you one thing about what I do, how does that sound?” Maybe I was too young to appreciate a more forthcoming explanation, but I had been persistent as only an eight year old can be. Inevitably the day came when she stopped to consider my question, rather than presenting me with the usual riddle, “a neuroscientist studies why you keep asking me what a neuroscientist studies.”
Pleased to have made it past that initial hurdle, I slid my chair up to the kitchen table and leaned forward. Though my mother was a leader in the field of neuroscience, to her only son she was an enigma. I didn’t have the faintest clue what her daily activities entailed, but I imagined that there was no shortage of smocks or shaved monkeys involved. She wasn’t a talker was the thing. She was a thinker. Maybe that was a prerequisite.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said, “and you can go and mull it over for a while.” She raised her eyebrows at me and I nodded. “I mean, don’t ask me another question about my work until you’ve considered what I say carefully.”
I nodded again.
Mom nodded back, then squinted as she fell into thought.
“Everything we do in life,” she began, “is controlled by our brains. Each part of our brain serves a particular function or process, so whenever you choose to do something it’s like…” She was searching. “It’s like little lightning bolts firing along a fine network of neurons, like a spider’s web.” She paused to make sure I was paying attention. I’d seen as much on television, even at my tender age, so I already had a good idea about what she was talking about. She retrieved the spectacles from her pocket and waved them like a conductor’s baton as she spoke. “Now, anything you do over a prolonged period of time, anything repetitive, whether it be tying your shoes, or juggling a ball, or even writing your name, when you repeat something like that over and over again, your brain looks for shortcuts.”
She read the confusion on my face and put up a hand before pitching onward. “As quickly as impulses travel, when you do something repeatedly the brain looks for ways to improve efficiency. The result is that new pathways are constructed specifically in the service of this new activity. If you learn to juggle then you will grow the neurons of a juggler. It follows that the examination of jugglers’ brains will reveal analogous neural networks.” She dropped the spectacles back into her pocket and said, “Close your mouth, you’re drooling again.”
I’d completely forgotten about my mouth. It felt like my mother had been etching new pathways into my brain that very moment, and by the time I’d returned to my room my head was buzzing.
Over the following year the idea–that our brains reflect our actions–not only took hold, but consumed my every thought. Every action I took, every process I underwent sparked the growth of some part of my brain, just as other parts atrophied from disuse. And the real mind twister was that this very thought, now such a constant part of my life, had forged its own network dedicated to itself. I could feel it at work, warming my scalp.
My brain, it seemed to me, was nothing less than the finest sculpting clay then, and that’s when the germ of another idea occurred to me. What if I were to dedicate my life to this brain sculpting, working my neurons through deed the way most children my age worked the knobs of their Etch-a-Sketches? Granted, I was 9 by then, so there was already some scribbling on my mind’s canvas. But that seemed like something I could yet overcome.
Thirty-some years later and my life’s work is well underway. I’m highly-attuned to the workings of my brain, and each activity I participate in serves a singular purpose. Naturally these activities do not correspond to behaviors that are compatible with the prevalent social mores, and I have managed to alienate most of the people in my life. But I fancy that mother, her foggy eyes staring out over the hospice gardens, would understand.
“Must you jangle the knitting needles in your pockets all day?” they ask me. And the answer is yes: all day. They can’t see the end result of it, and, to be sure, neither can I. But I’m working toward something.
“Why do you always sprint up an extra flight of stairs before running back down to your own floor?”
“What in the name of the gods have you done with your teeth?”
“Why do you hum one tone throughout lunch, stopping only to eat pimentos and figs?”
“Why do you pull yourself down the hall using only your elbows?”
Because I am an artist, and my skull hides wonders.