Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 17: The Mind Readers

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Morgana blinks herself back to reality. Efficient, no-nonsense footsteps echo into the room.

“Mrs. Bozeman, I’m Dr. Geordi McClanahan, one of the many people working with your husband, Jack. How are you today?”

Sticking the two paper fortunes back into her pocket, she looks up to see a red-headed doctor striding towards her, with his hand outstretched to greet her. Morgana shakes his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Dr. McClanahan. My last name is actually ‘Traczyk,’ but I do answer to ‘Mrs. Bozeman.’ Against my mother’s wishes, I didn’t take Jack’s last name. Just call me ‘Morgana.’ It will be easier on everyone.”

“Alright then, Morgana. Jack’s not doing well, as you probably know. At first, he was exhibiting some eye movement, but that has been steadily diminishing. Right now, we are hoping to try out some new technology that is still in the developmental stage. We will be using brain mapping and imaging to ‘see’ thoughts that Jack might be having. If we can do that, we may be able to start a dialogue, of sorts, with him, and perhaps have Jack as a new partner in getting him to improve. We are not sure what we will see and some of what we find out may be uncomfortable or even unsettling for you, and who knows, maybe even for Jack.”

“What types of images are you expecting to see?”

“At this point, we’d be happy to see just about anything. If we are successful, though, we might see images from memories, nightmares, nonsense, random static…. Remember, this is a new technology. When Jack’s eyes are open, we’re not sure if he’s seeing anything, and we have no idea, regardless of his eyes being opened or closed, whether he’s producing any kind of conscious thought. This technology could change that.”

“My goodness! So, you’ll be trying to read his mind!”

Morgana considers this possibility and wonders if she is ready for such a thing. But ready or not, she thinks, this isn’t about me, it’s about Jack. Just because our marriage is over, there’s no reason why Jack shouldn’t be given every chance to recover. After all, he’s still a young guy.

“Yes, it is like reading someone’s mind, more or less. We’re hoping more, though, rather than less.”

As if he’s suddenly tired, Dr. McClanahan settles himself into a visitor’s chair against the wall. Following his non-verbal cue, Morgana sits down in the visitor’s chair across from him, and without missing a beat, she asks:

“Do you think Jack could actually recover one day?” She knows he can’t recover, but maybe doctors deliver better results for those people who believe in their ability as healers.

“That’s our hope and that’s usually what we try to anticipate, without ignoring the cruel reality of locked-in syndrome or a persistent vegetative state. Very few people ever come out of it, and if they do, all their functions are severely compromised. I don’t want to give you false hope, but there is exciting new research using both MRIs and EEGs. At this stage, this does seem to be the best option for Jack.

“Yes, I’m sure of that. Being warehoused is just not a way for anyone to have to live. I’m relieved to know that Jack has so many competent people here to help him. I’m not expecting any miracles, although I certainly wouldn’t turn one down.

“I’m not going to lie to you, Morgana. We have an interest in doing this. This is a research hospital, and what we will be doing—with your permission—is highly experimental. Jack will not be in any pain, and may actually benefit from the increased stimulation. Although recoveries are far and few between, what we learn from working with Jack might help someone else in the future.”

“Well, Dr. McClanahan, I agree that doing something is better than doing nothing. And were Jack able to speak for himself, I believe he would say the same.”

As those words leave her mouth, she wonders what Jack would really want. She can’t imagine him wanting to live in his current state, either at the hospital or cooped up in their little apartment. She also can’t imagine him consenting to be a guinea pig for the benefit of mankind. She can, however, imagine him being totally pissed off and REALLY wanting some of his beloved rotgut Boney Stalker Scotch. She wonders now why it never occurred to her to just put a few drops of Boney Stalker to his lips while he was still at home. Oh, that’s right! Boney’s all gone! The day after he had the stroke, she took the three bottles of Boney out from under the sink and put them into a sparkling purple gift bag with pink and purple tissue paper. Just to make it more of a total package, she threw in a whole sleeve of little plastic cups and presented it to a group of very ragtag but nice people at the Lake who were sitting in a circle drinking, smoking and playing bongos, while their dogs, overstuffed backpacks, and purloined metal shopping carts filled with giant, bursting garbage bags patiently waited in the shade. Delighted, they invited her to join them, but she declined, graciously thanking them for the invite, and begging off, saying she was already late for an appointment.

Good thing Jack didn’t know what she’d done with his Boney Stalker—he would have had another stroke all over again.

Dr. McClanahan slaps his quadriceps which is “doctor speak” for “time’s up,” and gets to his feet.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Morgana. Please let us know if you have any questions, and feel free to visit Jack whenever you like–just call first to make sure that your visits don’t overlap with his therapy or our working with him. Rocky will be right in to explain some of the preliminary procedures and to have you sign some permission forms.”

“I already signed some forms back at the house before they moved Jack.”

“Those were the forms to transport Jack back to the hospital.”

“Oh, OK. Well, thank you, Dr. McClanahan.”

Rocky must have been waiting right outside the room because he comes in just as Dr. McClanahan disappears through the door.

Relieved to see him, Morgana hugs him tightly. He holds her shoulders and looks at her face.

“Are you OK?” he asks, his face marked with concern.

“Yes, I’m fine, Rocky. Dear, sweet Rocky! You are such a comfort to me! So…what’s this mind reading all about? Have you ever heard of it before? What do you think of it?”

“This is cutting edge technology, but unfortunately, not as sophisticated as it needs to be. What we are trying to do is to decode Jack’s brain imagery. It’s like trying to see the movies that we all see in our minds.”

Morgana tries to process what Rocky is telling her. “I’ll bet that’s easier said than done! So how do they do that?”

“We’ll be using an EEG machine later, but to start, Jack will have to be in an MRI scanner—when his eyes are open—and will be shown short films—these could be things like music videos, commercials, clips from home movies, or even just plain, old photographs—you name it. At the same time, the MRI scanner can track the blood flow through his visual cortex. We superimpose a digital 3D grid on the computer screen over parts of the brain we are scanning as a way of quantifying the blood flow, so it looks like a pixilation. So, remember, three dimensions equal volume.”

Morgana remembers this whole volume thing from middle school…height times width times depth. Oh yeah, and then there’s liquid measure and solid measure. It seemed so easy until it seemed so impossible! That’s when she first decided that she hated math. That was her first bad decision ever.

“OK, so why is volume so important?”

“Because these box-like or ‘volumetric’ pixels—you’ve probably seen them in video games—are used in computer models. These ‘voxels’ allow us to view a digitized representation of the brain and can actually teach a computer program (and us, at the same time) how visual input is translated into brain activity. In order to quantify brain activity, we must quantify blood flow, and that would be impossible without volumetric measurement.”

“Rocky, I’m glad it’s you describing this to me and not someone else, because at least you won’t judge me as being a complete idiot, but this is making my head swim.”

“Yeah, I know, Morgana. It’s complicated. Believe me, I’m not quite sure I understand it, either, but I’ve been reading about this stuff for a while now, and you haven’t been, so give yourself a break.”

“Thanks, Rocky! Back to this brain activity scan. So how do you get a picture from looking at brain activity?”

“OK, let’s just say I show the person whose brain is being scanned a picture of a rose. The pattern of “voxels” that shows up on the grid measuring the blood flow through the visual cortex could then be matched or correlated with similar patterns of voxels and would show up visually on the screen as a rose. That’s what a best-case scenario would produce. The more pictures or videos that we can show the same person, the better because we can start to build a reference library of images with their corresponding patterns of voxels.”

“Oh, so it’s like interpreting symbols.”

“Right—you can also think of it as a dictionary of sorts, but instead of words you have configurations of voxels. After a while, we have so many of these that we can apply a reconstruction algorithm to convert the brain imagery into actual images. So collecting the images and pairing them with the configurations of voxels would be ‘encoding,’ and then converting them into images would be ‘decoding.’ Clear as mud?”

“Yep! Clear as mud!”

“Good,” says Rocky. He spreads out a five-page document in front of her on the tray table next to Jack’s hospital bed.

“Here’s everything I just explained to you spelled out in medical, scientific and legal jargon. Plus, this will allow the hospital and the researchers to publish their findings. Here’s where you sign and here’s where I sign.”

Morgana takes the pen and signs her name, and Rocky does the same.

“Rocky, don’t mention this to anyone, but you know how much Jack used to love his Boney Stalker Scotch, right? Well, it just occurred to me that I’ll bet Jack would love to have just a few drops of Boney Stalker.

“Yeah, I’ll bet he would love that!”

“So, what do you think? Would it be OK if I were to bring just a tiny bit with me next time and just dribble a few drops into his mouth?”

“I don’t think it would hurt anything, especially if this were to happen after 5:00 in the afternoon when there would be no further testing or therapies for at least another 12 hours. Keep in mind, however, that being a health care professional, I wouldn’t and couldn’t recommend or approve it because just about anything could present a possible choking hazard, and, if I were ever to smell alcohol on his breath or see any evidence of there being any alcohol given to any of my comatose patients, I’d be bound by law to report it.”

Morgana looks at Rocky with a conspiratorial grin. Rocky represses a wry smile.

On her way out of the hospital, Morgana remembers to square her shoulders and walk more gracefully. The day is still young, and she decides to take the long way home by walking to the right instead of to the left around the Lake. After crossing the street to get to the Lake, she turns around to look back at the hospital and catches a flash of someone who reminds her of Dr. Hosanna Valenzuela bouncing up the stairs. Just as Morgana squints her eyes to sharpen her focus, a bus passes in front of her. By the time it moves on, the steps are empty.

She exits the Lake path after a quarter mile or so, walks to the little liquor store next to the donut shop, and buys the smallest bottle of Boney Stalker Scotch that they have–a little mini bottle that costs $2.77 with tax. She can’t believe she’s actually doing this.

“OK, Jack,” she thinks. “This is the least I can do.”

Music Credit: Youtube, Hugh Laurie – You Don’t Know My Mind [LYRICS]

Photo Credit: http://www.psychologytoday.com

To Be Continued in Chapter 18

 

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Filed under Proto-Novella, Science Fiction, The Our Little Secret Travel Agency-The Novel