The receptionist lead Anton down the corridor to a small, quiet room. The walls were soothing yellow and the room was softly lit by a single lamp on the bedside table. A pair of blue hospital pajamas were folded neatly on a short table at the foot of a single bed.
The receptionist held a remote control. “You can use this to choose from different nature sounds. Some patients find it helps them sleep.” She pressed a button and the room was instantly filled with the sound of light rain and frogs chirping in the distance. “Go through them, see what you like – crickets in a field, surf at the beach. Personally, my favorite is the hum of the air conditioner. I’m a city girl. Turn that on and I’ll sleep like a baby. Everyone is different.” She set the remote on the bedside table next to a glass of water.
Anton smiled at her. “Silence works best for me, but thank you.”
“Okay. Dr. Brynn will be by in a few minutes to help you get into your pajamas.”
Anton laughed. “I think I’ll manage.”
She paused as she left the room. “No. These pajamas are a little different than what you’re probably used to. Have a seat. The doctor will be right in.”
Anton watched her leave, then stepped around to the foot of the bed. For the most part, they seemed like ordinary hospital pajamas; cotton top and bottoms, pale blue with a darker blue pinstripe, lingering traces of chlorine bleach. He picked them up for a closer look. The top had a stretchy, tight fitting hood, lined with what looked like a mesh made of thousands of small purple beads.
Dr. Brynn came into the room. “Good to see you again Anton.”
Anton hastily put the pajamas back on the table. Doctor Brynn gently closed the door. “How have you been? Any change since we last spoke?”
Anton shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
“I see. You’re still experiencing the confusion? The strange memories?”
“Well, we’re going to try and get to the bottom of it – figure out what’s going on inside that head of yours. By the way, before we get started, I have to apologize. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be at Peter’s funeral. I was out of the country. I hope you will pass along my condolences to Elena.”
Anton flashed a half-hearted smile. “Yes. Of course.”
Dr. Brynn picked up the pajamas from the table. “He and I worked together many years ago. In fact, Peter developed the technology in this hood. It’s surprisingly comfortable. You should have no trouble sleeping while you wear it.”
“Come sweet slumber, enshroud me in thy purple cloak.”
“Art of Noise? Max Headroom? Never mind. Go on. What does it do, exactly?”
Dr. Brynn stroked his goatee and looked over the top of his glasses at Anton. “You know that Peter’s genius spanned every discipline imaginable; medicine, mathematics, psychology, and most notably physics – quantum field theory in particular.
“You see, at the very smallest distances, in the very shortest spans of time, things don’t happen as we expect them to. The laws of the universe, as we have come to know them, don’t apply to the infinitesimally small. In the gaps that exists between atoms, between quarks and leptons, in the tiniest fractions of space where measurement becomes nearly impossible, logic begins to fall apart.
“Peter uncovered a phenomenon. At the finest end of the quantum scale the trusted principal of cause-and-effect is shredded. Effect can occur after cause, as we would expect, but it can also occur before its cause, or both. Cause-and-effect is the rule that makes our universe run – if that fundamental rule breaks down, what happens to us?”
Anton looked at Dr. Brynn with raised eyebrows. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Your father-in-law was able to demonstrate that under certain conditions, events can have both happened and not happened. He proved that an event doesn’t always require a cause. Peter proved Newton wrong; Not every action has an equal and opposite reaction – not in quantum terms. Peter proved that some actions have no reaction, and some actions are purely spontaneous. In layman’s terms, quantum objects can exist simultaneously in multiple places, or even more strangely, can both exist and not exist. Uncertainty is ubiquitous. Imagine Hamlet’s conundrum on the the quantum stage: To be, or not to be … or to both be, and not, simultaneously.”
Anton rubbed his forehead. “That would make for a very long and confusing play.”
Dr. Brynn nodded. “Yes. Infinitely long – but not if there is an audience. When a quantum event is observed, by the audience, so to speak, the very act of observing removes the uncertainty. That is to say, an event that has been observed has obviously happened – so it can no longer have not-happened. Do you understand what that means? Observation cements the past in place – like protecting a computer file against accidental deletion or change. Our universe uses observation as a sort of write-protect, making the past permanent.
“Now, remove the observer – close the curtain on the quantum stage. To the audience, anything can be happening behind the curtain. They are uncertain of what has happened, is happening, or will happen, as long as the curtain remains closed. The past, not having been made permanent by observation, remains an open book of blank pages. Likewise, the unobserved future is infinitely variable. And what do you think lies between an uncertain past and an uncertain future?”
Anton nodded slowly. “An uncertain present.”
Dr. Brynn clapped his hands. “Exactly.”
Anton tilted his head from side to side, stretching his neck. “So, is that what’s happening to me? I’m the victim of an uncertain present?”
Anton sighed. “I know I’m stating the obvious here, but I’m slightly bigger than a quark or a lepton.”
Dr. Brynn picked up the pajamas and opened the hood. “Take off your shirt and put this on.”
Anton unbuttoned his shirt.
“Peter always felt that medical science’s understanding of the brain was just too simple to fully explain what makes us who we are. He believed that a person, a being, a consciousness, had to be more than just a series of chemical reactions in a brain. He wasn’t satisfied to think that his entire existence was contained in that gelatinous blob between his ears. He was convinced that there is something more to it. The hood with its network of sensors woven into it will be taking measurements while you sleep.”
Anton put on the pajama top. Dr. Brynn adjusted some straps and precisely positioned the hood on Anton’s head.
“If your brain is damaged or destroyed, Anton, what happens to you?”
Anton raised his eyebrows. “I die.”
“Right. If the brain dies, Anton dies. So, it would seem that consciousness is a function of the brain. Yes?”
“Yes. That makes sense.”
The doctor connected an umbilical of wires to the hood. He opened a closet door. He connected the other end of the umbilical to a rack of electronic equipment in the closet. “We live in a technologically enlightened age, Anton. Right now, today, we have the means to use your DNA to grow an exact copy of your brain from stem cells in a lab. Imagine, a perfect duplicate of your brain – a spare brain in a jar, waiting, just in case you should ever need it. From time to time, we would connect you to the spare and update all of your fresh memories. Extraordinary, isn’t it? Lie back.”
Anton lied with his head on the pillow. “You don’t have a brain in a jar at the back of that closet do you?”
Dr. Brynn laughed. “No. This is just hypothetical.”
The rack of equipment was coming to life, emitting seemingly random beeps and tones in time with rows of blinking lights. “Perfect.” Dr. Brynn closed the closed door. “If you fell victim to a brain wasting disease or a traumatic head injury, we could replace that damaged organ in your head, with the spare. The new brain, identical to the old brain, would be completely intact with all your memories and personality traits, quirks and all. Your friends and family would never have to grieve your loss. Aside from a scar hidden in your hair, nobody would ever know that you had a new brain. It’s a wonderful prospect isn’t it?”
Anton turned to respond. “I’m not so sure …”
The doctor came around and sat on the edge of the bed. “But … how could Anton, the consciousness that we call Anton, exist in two brains simultaneously? The spare brain is identical to the original, right down to the arrangement of the axons and dendrites – every single synapse is the same. But if you have two identical brains, and consciousness is a function of the brain, then there must be two consciousnesses. How can Anton have two consciousnesses; two selfs?”
Anton’s mouth hung open and he seemed to stop breathing for a moment.
“Your mind, that is to say, your identity, your soul, your spirit, that divine spark of Anton-ness that you experience as your self is only a function of that lump of tissue we call the brain; the self is a product of biochemical processes, like the bio-luminescent light emitted from a firefly’s abdomen; just waves of energy.”
Anton closed his eyes. “That’s humbling.”
Dr. Brynn stood. “Light and consciousness; there’s very little difference in the end. If you were a lamp and I replaced your burnt out bulb, would you be the same lamp? I mean, you would still illuminate the room, wouldn’t you? If Elena was unaware that I replaced your bulb, or brain as it were, she would carry on loving her old Anton, never knowing that you were not really the original Anton. If we could indefinitely continue replacing your bulb, we would achieve immortality. Yes?”
“Please try to lie still … Where was I?”
“Right. We could all be immortal. But …” Dr. Brynn scratched his head and roughed his slicked back hair. An air of frustration seeped into the tone of his voice. “But, we must give consideration to the original Anton. We have only considered how others experience the transition from one Anton to the next – they remain unaware. What about the self? What about Anton? Even though the new brain is identical, the original Anton is gone – annihilated and replaced. The new Anton continues where the old Anton left off, equipped with a completely up-to-day set of memories, so that even the new Anton is unaware that he is not the original. But the original Anton, you, the self, has experienced obliteration.”
Anton suddenly sat up. “But why? Why are the two consciousnesses different if the two brains are the same?”
“Exactly. Why? Even if the two brains are identical right down to the physical arrangement of every single molecule and the orbit of every electron, it’s the quantum characteristics of the two brains that makes them different. The quarks, muons, taus, and leptons have an infinite number of possible states. As long as they remain un-observed, the two will have infinite variability – they will be different.
“Peter theorized that the true progenitor of consciousness is the impossibly complex and infinitely variable quantum character of the brain’s sub-atomic physicality. The biochemistry of the brain only determines our mood or state of mind at any given moment. Our consciousness is rooted in the quantum state, not in the classical, four-dimensional, Newtonian state.”
Anton leaned forward, but suddenly stopped with a jerk when he reached the end of his tether. “But if you destroy the brain, its all over. If, as you suggest, our consciousness resides in some ethereal quantum state, wouldn’t we remain conscious even if the brain ceased to exist?”
Dr. Brynn put a hand on Anton’s shoulder and guided him carefully back down onto the pillow.
“Observation creates permanence. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Peter and I both suspected that there was something different about the subatomic particles that make up the atoms and molecules in your brain’s fifty-billion neurons. That was the focus of his research when he died. His suspicion was that the subatomic particles of the brain’s matter are more prone to phenomena like quantum entanglement. The hood on your pajamas creates a field which allows us to monitor the subatomic activity in your brain.
Dr. Brynn poured Anton a glass of water and placed a yellow pill on the bedside table. “This is just to help you sleep.”
“Sleep? How do expect me to sleep after all that. My mind is tied in knots.”
“Take the pill. You’ll sleep. I’ll be back in a few minutes to check on you.”
Minutes passed and Dr. Brynn had still not returned. The sleep aid was taking effect and Anton could barely keep his eyes open. He lied back on the bed, his thoughts twirled in dizzying randomness until, finally, only blackness remained.