Braak Is Losing His Mind
It’s what happens when I don’t have regular work, or a regular schedule, or any kind of enforced regularity. I react by just letting my crazy brain and perpetually-malfunctioning body do whatever they want.
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve repeatedly forgotten to eat, haven’t gotten more than four or five hours of sleep a night, and haven’t really been drinking anything but coffee and rum.
I am, incidentally, totally looking forward to a future in which this meaty shell can be replaced by a robot body.
Anyway, one of the peculiar effects of this routine — a form of self-abnegation that really borders on the shamanic, I think — is that it’s been doing weird things to my proprioception.
Proprioception, in case you were wondering, is the part of your nervous sensorium that tells your brain where your body parts are. Like, I can recognize that my hands are my hands, because there is a set of nerves that run signals up to my brain telling me where they are.
All kinds of interesting things happen when this starts to go wrong. In the first place, it’s what many scientists suspect is at the root of “astral projection” experiences — the body’s proprioception system misfires, telling the brain that the “sensed self” and the “physical self” are in two different locations. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks relates the story of a man whose brain lost touch with his leg — and so the man became convinced that there was an extra, phantom leg in his bed, which he kept trying to throw out. Of course, since it was his actual leg, when he threw it out of the bed it took him along with it. Schizophrenics often experience something similar, when their proprioception system locates another body in the room with them, despite there being nothing there (and, in fact, Science has recently been able to replicate the phenomenon in non-schizophrenics).
There’s another story that I always bring up, though my sourcing for it is paltry enough that you’d be excused for believing it to be fictional; I usually talk about it when I’m trying to illustrate how unreliable shared experience can be. I THOUGHT it was about Shackleton and his voyage in the Antarctic, and how he and some of his buddies had to hike across the mountains in Africa or some such. I don’t remember anymore.
Anyway, they claimed that, while they were hiking through the mountains, desperately cold and on the verge of death, they all became aware of a spectral presence along with them, that encouraged them to survive. A fellow wrote a book about this (I didn’t read it, I don’t know where I heard this story from), phenomenon called The Third Man Factor.
What I think is interesting about the story is that if two people each suffer the schizophrenic’s “shadow man” experience — that is, they both recognize an additional body out on the mountain with them — and then they talked to each other about it later on, they’d have to conclude that there was one, verified presence along with them. This is because neither could sense the other’s “shadow” — each perceives only their own, and this experience causes them to corroborate the other’s. Two idiosyncratic psychologies produce the idea of a single additional entity.
Anyway, something like that is happening to me now. My hands aren’t numb, precisely, but it feels like I’m not fully attached to them. Like the idea of my hands is sort of floating about them, and the hands are working on their own.
Brains are weird.