Vera eased into consciousness after, finally, a decent night’s sleep, her first sensation the feel of Phil’s arm close to her side, not touching but close enough that she could feel its radiant warmth. The familiar pleasure too quickly gave way to concern – how would he be today? Would his gradual slide away from her since the experiment continue? Or would she be able to pull him back, to repair the rupture that, frighteningly, she felt widening between them every day?
She nestled her body closer, now just touching, one of those wordless expressions of love that she had taken such pleasure in since falling for Phil back when they were graduate students. No one had had to tell her this was love. She knew, as she felt parts of herself come alive, that this was it, this desire to give, to please – the intense need to understand him in every possible way – and to allow him to understand her. She had no doubt.
Phil stirred, the slightest murmur rising from his body and she felt, in his not-yet awake acquiescence, the reciprocity of that love, visceral, automatic.
Slipping into their familiar rhythms, she felt a surge of optimism. He was coming back, he would be hers again. His right hand slipped beneath her, supporting the arch of her back, his chin at her shoulder, cheek nuzzling cheek. She lost herself in the flow of it all, grabbing him, claiming him, in the relief maybe just a bit of anger. After, as she eased back to reality, she looked over and saw Phil, the man she lived with, worked with, loved. She snuggled in, content.
Cradling the warm cup in her hands, Vera sat before the remnants of their scrambled egg breakfast and asked, “What time do you want to head to the lab?”
Phil didn’t answer. “Phil. Hey,” she took the last sip of coffee, “will you be ready soon?”
“M’not goin’ in today,” he said, and in his clipped response she saw it again – the retreat, his closing off to her.
She struggled to maintain the patience in her voice. “But remember, the Saltburgs are visiting today. After their talk we’re supposed to take them to lunch. To celebrate their paper in Nature? Remember?”
And there it was again. His eyes gleamed with anger, chin thrust suddenly upward, his tongue – it was lightning fast but she saw it – flicked through his barely open lips. And then he stood, hands shaking on the table ledge. “But that’s just it, Vera! They think they know. They think they know – and they don’t! Nobody knows!” He let out a deep moan and slumped suddenly, bypassing the chair to lie down on the floor.
She went to him, though she knew he just needed time. His arms and legs twitched intermittently, eyes dazed, not comatose but not fully aware either.
Stroking his cheek, she murmured, “Phil, Phil . . . don’t leave me. Please. Please stay with me.”
Phil sat in the rocker by the window, unmoving. She noted the brightness in his eyes and felt better, but the tension in his jaw said the anger was still there, the hurt, the confusion. “I’m heading in,” she said. “I won’t be long. But I can’t let the Saltburgs down. I’ll tell them you’re ill.” She hesitated, “I’m sure they’ll understand.”
He grunted in response and she knew this was the best she’d get. He was there but not there, present in body only. She kissed his forehead lightly, noting its clamminess, squeezed his shoulder and turned, fighting back tears, her steps heavy.
“Next slide, please.”
“Ahem . . . move on, please. Next slide.”
Vera glanced over at the grad student running the projector and saw that, sure enough, he had fallen asleep. These poor students – long hours in the lab, challenging coursework and the social lives of twenty-somethings. As soon as the lights were dimmed some of them just crashed. The student next to him poked his shoulder and he fumbled to return to his task.
Dr. Saltburg continued: “And so, as shown on Slide 17, the consistency of use of the neural pathways with no variation in a statistically significant number of iterations indicates the absence of intentionality, and thus, we can eliminate, in this behavior, the role of consciousness.”
Vera shifted in her seat, considering the logic of the argument. Consciousness reduced to materiality, contained in the very structure of the brain, theoretically, at least, measurable and predictable.
She thought of Phil, at home, and how just weeks ago he would have been seated next to her, scribbling notes, his insatiably curious mind examining the results from multiple perspectives, his whole body energized from the mental stimulation. Later, they would have hunched down together in their office, hashed it out with vigorous dialogue, anticipating one another’s questions, finishing the other’s thoughts. At such times, it seemed their two brains were one, connected by a corpus callosum of decades of shared experience, generating thoughts and theories each alone would not have conceived.
But he was not with her. He was at home, damaged. Damaged by their own quest to understand the mystery of consciousness, an experiment, not safe like the Saltburgs but bold, reckless maybe, one they hadn’t dared publicize. One she was still struggling to interpret.
It had been Phil’s idea, at least overtly. But looking back she felt now that the concept had been present in her brain too, just not brought to consciousness until articulated by Phil.
“We must proceed,” he had said. “There’s no way around it. We’ve done everything short of running the experiment. We can’t wait for someone else to do it. We’re ready, Vera. This is what we’ve been working so hard for.”
Once decided, Phil had been impatient to get on with it. The breakthrough had come when they realized that the lizard’s neuronal circuitry, digitized and stored on a wafer-thin filament the size of a band-aid, could be wired to each of their brains through a portal at the base of their necks. First Phil would be the subject, with Vera the supervising scientist. Then they would reverse roles; each would have the other’s experience.
His enthusiasm, as always, had swept her up and considerations that should have given her pause stayed below the surface.
On the appointed morning, his calm and certainty carried her forward. After a perfunctory kiss, she initiated the experiment as calmly as any they had ever performed.
Video monitor in place and lab ibook at the ready, she flipped the switch that would integrate Phil’s brain with the lizard’s and waited.
The transformation was gradual, or her perception of it was. Looking into his eyes, she saw Phil, though maybe now, in retrospect, she should have realized the difference. The exaggerated blink was evident right away, and the odd movements of his neck relative to his head. The faraway look in his eyes was haunting.
Before long, he had abandoned his vertical stance, instead lying flat on a large rock in the enclosure, unmoving except for almost indiscernible twitches in his legs, arms, buttocks. Did this indicate an imagined tail? She couldn’t know – and this was the hardest part – Phil was no longer in that body. Activating the lizard brain, you couldn’t say it had changed him completely. Rather, it removed him completely. It seemed a trick, a cruel trick. The features were Phil’s but the subtleties that defined Phil were absent, the warmth in his eyes when he looked at her, the way he would tilt his head just slightly when he had an interesting notion, the curl of his lips as he formulated the structure of a thought or question. These were things she had noticed subconsciously that made Phil Phil and not just the body of Phil. And now they were missing.
She observed him, motionless, on the rock, fingers splayed, toes extended, sides expanding and contracting with each breath. After awhile, his eyes slid open and he cocked his head, once to each side, as if on some unhuman axis. And then, suddenly, he scurried across the rock, a few feet only, coming to an abrupt stop, his head bobbing up and down.
After lunch she stopped by their lab to pick up some paperwork. Conversation with the Saltburg’s had been agonizing and she was glad that Phil had not been there. They did not gloat, really, but it was clear they felt they had one-upped Phil and Vera with their Nature publication. It killed Vera to withhold information about her and Phil’s experiment or about Phil’s condition. She had smiled obtusely while they went on and on about their many invitations to speak at symposiums on animal consciousness and their plans for a book about their lives and work. It was a great relief when they had to rush off to meet their plane.
In the quiet of the lab, away from their house and the enclosure – and Phil – Vera found herself fascinated by the implications of the experiment. If Phil became lizard, what became of Phil? And why now the confusion? Had there been some loss, some transference of consciousness they had not anticipated? Was the shock of coming back to his human self too much for him to process? Was it just a transition? Or had they done permanent damage? Would Phil come back?
Vera slumped as she looked over at their reams of data, the video, the notes, the transcripts of his medical statistics measured at regular intervals, pulse, perspiration, levels of cortisol and oxytocin, brain scans – so much potential, so much exciting work to be done. The urge to dig in was strong. She could feel the excitement that accompanied this stage of every experiment, the all-encompassing process of crunching it all together, looking for meaning in the mass of data, the disparate pieces of information, how they fit together, how one informed the other. The challenge of eliminating the noise to get to the essence of the experiment, to understand – to know something not known before.
But in the weeks since the experiment, it was taking care of Phil that had been all-encompassing. At first he had seemed the old Phil after a particularly satisfying result, tripping over his words to describe his lizard life to her: “Everything just went quiet, Vera,” he said. “There was no confusion, only clarity. Awareness was different – contained wholly in me – purely physical – even in the thinking, if that makes sense.”
But within hours, it seemed, the experience itself started to fade and he wrestled with the memory of it, the memory of being a lizard processed in his human mind. One could understand that confusion, surely.
Why had they not anticipated this? Was it a willful ignorance?
She looked up through her tears and read the quote above Phil’s desk, seeing it more clearly now than in the thousands of times she had seen it before :
“Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.
We must know. We will know.”
Had they pursued understanding so single-mindedly that they had ignored the dangers?
She knew she needed to go, get back to Phil. But the twisting knot in her stomach told her that she, too, was confused and nervous. Since that initial period of clarity, he had lapsed into an unpredictable pattern of Phil and not-Phil, human brain and lizard brain. She would find him in the enclosure, stripped bare, imitating his lizard mannerisms, but imitation, that’s all it was. Without the portal attached, he could approximate but never achieve his lizard state.
Or she would find him bent over his journal, trying to put the Dr. Phil Soros stamp of conclusivity on things – but he was no longer Dr. Phil either, and the failure to describe his experience precisely seemed to drive him mad.
“Lizard Consciousness,” he had written at the top of his paper. And then, not sentences, but a series of phrases:
Body awareness/proprioception: heightened; intensified
Consciousness of self and surroundings integrated/whole/complete
Consciousness not awareness but lack thereof
Words – pictures – thoughts
Language ≠ thought
This then devolving into an organized mass of scribbles, almost like scratch-marks, as if he were trying to circumvent language.
He became frustrated verbally, too, the excitement rising in his voice as he struggled to explain and then crashing in frustration at the futility of it, his words clipped, cut off, swallowed – “Oh just forget it,” as he grasped the sides of his head, whipsawed by the twin drives to express himself and to be accurate.
She wished she could talk to Phil about this. She needed her other half. Their original plan, to complete the experiment by reversing roles, was out of the question. He was not coming back, she could see that now. Not to the point where she could trust him to guide her through the experiment as she had guided him.
So what should she do? Could she work through the analysis on her own? She was curious about the results – she knew they would be novel, fascinating, ground-breaking. They had worked so hard to get to this point. Should she finish it out for Phil?
But something in Vera had changed too. She sensed it without knowing it. Phil’s distrust of language, of communication, was not a dysfunction. It spoke to a real epistemological quandary. The Saltburg’s approach, from a purely scientific viewpoint, would always be missing something. It would always be a limited third-person account, confined to the realm of conceptual understanding. Without the actual experience, you don’t know – you can’t know – the whole truth.
Vera shifted into neutral as her car eased into the driveway. She coasted to a stop, shut off the engine, set the brake. She hoped, without conviction, that Phil would show some sign of improvement, a return to his intellectual self. Her briefcase burgeoned with the data she had brought home, the files she planned to go through with Phil if she could manage it. What else did she have but stubborn hope?
She dropped her keys on the kitchen counter, hoping to alert him that she was home. There was no response. He was not in his chair where she had left him; perhaps he was taking a nap.
Searching each room, to no avail, she became aware of a suspicion just now working its way to the surface. She knew where Phil was.
She stepped onto the patio and looked across the yard to the enclosure and there he was, as comfortable as she had seen him for weeks. Laid out on his favorite rock, eyes closed, head slightly tilted, face to the sun. The latissimus dorsa on his left side twitched slightly and she thought she saw in Phil’s expression a curiosity, simple and direct. But something was off, different. And then she realized – this wasn’t the lizard-Phil of recent days – this was the real, experimental lizard-Phil. His contained motionlessness and flat affect told her this was so. He must have circumvented their controls to reactivate the portal. He had left her, rejected their experiment to return to his life as a lizard.
Vera reached back, fingered the portal at the base of her own neck. She knew then what she would do.
She would know. She must know.
Melissa Kinsey has written three personal essays about the outdoors, published in The Bugle magazine. This story was inspired by her observations of a chuckwalla lizard while on a family houseboating trip to Lake Powell, Arizona.