Your Brain on Fiction: Mad Science Installment

Steve Martin -- The Man with Two Brains

Your brain on fiction.

What would you do if you woke up one morning with someone else’s memory in your head?

Much has been made of the power of fiction to help us form a “theory of mind” (most notably in The New York Times, “Your Brain on Fiction”). This story takes that concept and runs with it.


I awoke that morning with an ugly pounding in my head, as if some thin sliver of glass had lodged itself in my brain as I slept, slipping sideways into my dreams. Halfway through breakfast, digesting the morning stock report, I remember clearly two major investments had risen nearly ten points over the previous week, thanks to the strategic acquisition of a major packing plant just south of the border I had recommended to the board. The pounding in my head subsided as a small bubble of happiness welled up inside me, like a satisfied belch. Then—from somewhere in the room—my wife spoke.

“Do you have a gift yet for Caroline?”

I hadn’t realized until then Aubrey had been sitting across the table from me. My wife and I still technically lived together, but, by dint of a fortunate floorplan, often went months without conversing. I lowered my paper and studied her face. There was something wrong with her red, glossy lips, the way they moved as she chewed, as if she’d had to relearn the act of mastication over the course of physical therapy.


“Yes,” Aubrey replied, pressing a crumb of croissant off her plate. “You remember her, she’s our daughter.”

The date on my Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date (platinum) read December 18, 2000. Which I’d noted from the newspaper, but had not, in fact, connected with the upcoming holiday. I stabbed my bacon, took a bite, and tried to recall the string of Christmas presents I had purchased for my indifferent offspring in recent years. Nineteen ninety-nine marked the year I had finally agreed to the Royal Lippizan stallion, whose purebred allergies to our Northeast air had constituted a royal pain in my ass. The Christmas before had been the trip to Vail with twenty of Caroline’s closest friends. Then, in 1997—

That’s when it hit me, like a deep-sea diver coming up with the bends: a memory so clear, so vivid, and so utterly repulsive I nearly voided the contents of my stomach on the floor of the breakfast nook there and then.

“Rex,” Aubrey noted in her vacant way, “you have food in your mouth.”

Those lips so strange—I heard the words but couldn’t grasp the meaning. My heart pounding wildly as a single, thought kept running on a loop, like a parody of some grim fairy tale: Someone has been inside my head…

There have been those who questioned my certainty that this memory is not my own—any number of well-lettered morons, in fact, have insisted I made it up. But I believe you’ll agree, after even the most glancing consideration of your own miserable existence, there is a tangible difference between the things you dream (which, however distasteful, are still in some way your own) and the shock of recognition that might occur upon pulling back the greasy curtain into someone else’s life.

The act of remembering is an intensely private function. It was as if I’d been sitting on the pot, tensed in the act of taking a dump, when the door had swung open on a downtown rush hour, revealing my hairy shins and dangling dong for all the world to see. I am not exaggerating my reaction here. I am not making a mountain out of the minor achievement of some minor fuckwad of a rodent that any qualified pest control specialist could have blown to kingdom come. The presence of this memory in my mind bears testament to a violent intrusion of my most personal depths, and there are several reputable lawyers who have assured me that if the means used to implant it can be found (whether hypnotic, televised, or otherwise), I will have extremely solid grounds to sue.

How, you may ask, do I know this memory is not my own? Consider the following:

1. In this memory, I am not myself. I am not Caucasian. In fact, I am not even a man.

2. Over the course of this memory, I am performing an action I have never before in my life observed, nor ever heard anyone describe.

3. This memory corresponds insidiously to the timeline of my own life, but to a time when I was obviously doing something very different—something I could not at that moment recall.

Inevitably, of course, you’ll want to hear the victim’s testimony, despite the trauma such an account involves, because you, like all the others—you sick little fuck—secretly desire to pull back the greasy curtain into someone else’s life. So here it is, Exhibit A:

First comes the sight of my hands—small and brown, the fat dimpled at the knuckles and, across the back of one hand, a long, pink scar. I am reaching into a dark cavern up to my elbow and grasping something warm and slippery, which responds in a disgustingly elastic manner to my touch. I am singing the chorus of some song softly to myself—it sounds a little like the Spanish I (the real I) took in high school, only the pronunciation is all wrong: querida or esquerda, something like that. I (the not-I) can feel my large, flaccid breasts resting against the elastic waistband of my shorts, and flies are buzzing around the dirty window to my left. Then comes the sickening suction of some internal organ dislodged, and I see it: the hairy back, the severed hooves, the grinning snout laid out on the table. Unbelievably, I have been shoving my hand up the ass of a pig, pulling out its still-warm guts. And, even more unbelievably, I know what I’m doing, and I’m happy about it. Because it is Christmas Day 1997, and at last, I have achieved the prosperity to provide my family with a pig.

When the memory hit me that morning, I tapped out a Benson and fumbled with my lighter, which I’d refilled the day before. The lighter sputtered, then died. “Goddamnit!” I yelled, and hurled it across the room. Aubrey and her new lips were gone; the breakfast nook was empty. I looked down and noted Exhibit B: my left leg was quivering.

While my father and his board members sat on their hands and considered consultants, I have always acted swiftly in the interest of the bottom line. And the bottom line, at that moment, was this: I wanted this thing–this squalid, low-budget production masquerading as one of my own memories–removed. Immediately. I called my personal physician.

“Houston,” I said, “we have a problem.”


4 thoughts on “Your Brain on Fiction: Mad Science Installment

  1. Pingback: I Like Who I Write Like « SDeFreitasTimmons

  2. Pingback: Omniscience (An Excerpt) « SDeFreitasTimmons

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