When I was young, I remember asking my mum; "How does a dead person know he's dead? What if he forgets and starts moving around?"
Mum gave me an uncertain answer about dead people not being able to move. I don' think she was ever confident answering my awkward-kid questions.
I suppose my question was fuelled by growing up watching '70’s British TV, a period before actors had come to terms with the fact that if you were playing a dead character and opened your eyes the audience could see. I remember one particular BBC play where the actress playing a corpse was actually munching her lunch in the background, neither realizing nor caring that she was still in shot. I grew up thinking that dead people were somehow only pretending.
So ultimately it's the ham actors from 70’s TV drama that are responsible for my work. How can I best describe what I do? I wouldn't say that I bring people back to life; that's far too dramatic. It's more accurate to say that I re-animate corpses. Essentially I'm an experimental biologist with an interest in the human brain and in particular in the interaction between mind and body.
My groundbreaking experiment attempted to establish whether the relationship between mind and body could be replicated after a person is dead through electronic stimulation. Whether it was a purely physical relationship, or whether the human mind required an all-controlling soul. Not at all unambitious for a Ph.D. student.
My experiments were all entirely ethical, the participants agreed whilst they were alive, and it all took place within an ethics-committee monitored university laboratory; I didn't use a lab in my basement and none of the lab assistants were called Igor. Well, actually there was one postgrad called Igor who worked with me one summer, but he just helped with filing and answering the phones; he was never involved with the dead bodies.
The subjects had to be alive when I recruited them, so that I could monitor how their brains worked, though I needed people who were going to die within six months or so. When the volunteers died, they left their bodies to my project: The Mind/Body Experiment. My aim was to replicate the electrical activity in the brain on their corpses to see if I could get the bodies to move, more than move in fact, to replicate the precise same activity.
My recruits were usually people with a fatal condition, mostly cancer victims. I was contacted by one death row prisoner in America, but it didn't prove possible to use him, the Justice Department insisted in going ahead with the electric chair, which didn't leave a lot of brain for me to experiment with. I also had to turn down people with neurological conditions like M.S. or Parkinson's. I was after dying bodies and healthy brains, not brains fried by the U.S. government or dopamine deprivation.
I monitored the brain activity of my recruits over a period of time and stored every single detail on my mega computer, Cecilia, named after a girl I nearly went out with at Cambridge. By getting the patients to play specially designed video games I could break down finite details of exactly how the brain functioned in a range of spatial, verbal and aural tasks, from lifting an arm or scratching a knee, to complex activities like talking and eating sardines. The equipment I used was so precise I could pinpoint the exact combination of brain cells used in any activity. I could distinguish the smell of a rose petal from the smell of a geranium just from the cell combinations they evoked.
I formed an odd bond with the volunteers. These were people who not only knew they were going to die, but that after they'd died I'd be zapping electricity into their dead bodies and trying to get them to move about. Why did they agree to do it? Who knows, maybe they wanted to feel that something useful came of their death. They all died young, without leaving a legacy, maybe they just wanted to play their role in the development of science.
The first experiment was about six months into the project. Eric his name was, a smoker, just 42. By the time he died, he had two different types of cancer competing to kill him first. I'd been doing tests on Eric for about three months before he died. He was really enthusiastic about the project, even asked me to give a talk at his funeral, to explain why he wasn't there in person.
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