Wednesday, August 4, 2010

so-called voices from so-called hell

Image: Human Larynx, Gray's Anatomy

The brain is a humming grid of electricity and chemicals, then life pulls the plug and the brain’s humming ceases. While the brain is alive, its circuits are engaged and the living network of neurons shapes and reshapes itself continuously, growing as it absorbs the richness of its environment. Brain tissue is not unlike a highly sensitive film we carry around in our heads to capture and preserve experiences for review at a later date. Show the brain a bowl of lemons and – when the power is on and the grid is alive and humming – an image of the bowl of lemons will be etched into the brain.  The wet and salty bulk of the brain is the texture of warm tofu. Somehow, this miraculous material is able to register the shape and the color of the lemons. By virtue of its liquid-like shape-shifting, it stores the memory of lemons in the architecture of its substance, and, if the neurons sizzle correctly, the lemons can be remembered.  Beings with brains have memory. Objects without brains are unable to remember, at least not neurologically. Objects without brains are also unable to forget, in any event, you can’t teach a bucket to fetch.

From this sacred organ also flow dreams and imagination. The brain allows us to see and hear and smell and taste what our eyes and ears and noses and tongues collect. It coordinates the muscles of the mouth, commanding them to swallow, to speak, to sing, to suck. It allows us to perceive pain, to think, to pay attention, to know the difference between right and wrong, to feel an array of emotions. Happiness, terror, nostalgia, disdain, even the most fleeting emotion runs on the hardware of the brain. Emotions come from somewhere. They don’t just arise from thin air.

The choreography of living is accomplished by the brain. What other organ could possibly coordinate the intricate pedaling movements and steering maneuvers necessary to stay balanced on a bicycle? What other organ could synchronize with such precision the fine-grained movements the muscles of the voice-box execute to produce the sounds of speech? The brain, when it is humming, coordinates these routines. Breathing is also a routine the brain is responsible for coordinating. The tofu of the brain sends signals to a large muscle stretched across the bottom of the chest and smaller muscles of the surrounding rib cage, resulting in the inward and outward excursions that collapse and inflate the lungs so that the body might exchange quantities of air with its environment. This movement of air between the lungs and the sky is subject to the prevailing physics of the atmosphere of Earth. It is no accident that human lungs were made for Earth. On or near Earth’s surface, the lungs exist in a Goldilocks zone of pressure: the atmosphere is neither too thin nor too heavy and the lungs expand and recoil with ease in this environment. Fill the lungs with water or bury them underground and breathing becomes impossible. Position a two-ton slab across the chest of a reclining person and breathing becomes impossible.

When God in Genesis said – “Let there be light!” – did He speak those words aloud or did He just think them to Himself silently, raising His voice without saying a word? If He did speak the words aloud, what kind of sound-maker did God use? Did He squeeze air from a bodily reservoir of air past vibrating membranes of flesh like humans do when they sound words? Did He speak words from a language the humans He had yet to invent would one day invent? Did God move his mouth to shape consonants and color vowels like the mouth of his unborn Adam might one day learn to move? If God just thought the thought silently to Himself – “Let there be light!” – did He think using human words?

Last Halloween, I was listening to a radio program while driving to work one morning when the tone of the program turned solemn. “In all seriousness folks,” the deejay announced, “I warn you…this could scare you. This clip I’m going to play will probably change your life.  It was sent in by a listener whose uncle was a collector of audio recordings. The tape I am about to play, as our listener learned from his uncle, was recorded by a team of scientists in a remote province of Siberia. The scientists were drilling a hole into the crust of the earth. When the drill broke through unexpectedly into a cavity nine miles down, they lowered a probe with a microphone and other sensory equipment into the cavity for further investigation. The microphone was specially designed to withstand the blistering temperatures found deep in the bowels of the earth. When the sounds from within the cavity were eventually relayed to the scientists waiting expectantly on the surface of the Earth – the deejay paused dramatically – it was clear to all involved that they were the screams of tortured beings. The scientists had accidentally drilled right through the roof of Hell. Then the deejay pressed play.

The supposed screaming of tortured souls sounded more to me like a busy mall on a Saturday afternoon: a cacophony of human-like voices woven into a churning clatter cut through from time to time by excitable children hollering, ladies speaking loudly into the mouthpiece of an ancient telephone and a choir of nervous baritones booming psalms with nonsense syllables and sounds of squealing metal filtered through layers of syrup and etched with glitches of feedback. The deejay played along with what I assumed was a radio prank. After hearing the deejay’s exchanges with the listeners who called in to the program, I came to the realization that everyone was serious. One caller was scared so badly she made right with Jesus immediately. She said she’d be pulling over to the first church she could find. I have to admit, this was not my reaction. I mean, of all the flimsiest evidence for the existence of Hell I have heard, this was by far the flimsiest.

Assuming for the sake of argument that Hell is an air-filled cavern nine miles below Siberia and that the sounds picked up by the microphone were the screams of tortured souls, it remains to be explained how those sounds were physically produced. All sounds require sound-makers, right? On the surface of the Earth, humans make sounds by squeezing air from their lungs past a narrow opening of flesh. Do departed human souls also use lungs and a voice-box to make sounds? Also, the scientists needed a microphone that could withstand the extreme heat found in the cavern nine miles down, a temperature two thousand times greater than the temperature at the surface of the Earth. Wouldn’t lungs under these conditions, even if they could expand and recoil under what must be crushingly high pressures, burst into flames and burn away to ash? Wouldn’t a voice-box get all dried up by the heat?

And squeezing lungs to produce screams requires a lot of energy, even presumably in Hell. What’s powering the movement of air into and out of the Hell-lungs? Are they being fed and watered in order to survive? Where does the oxygen they breathe come from? On Earth, green plants supply the oxygen humans need. Does Satan grow acres of Hell-flowers in a sprawling underground greenhouse outfitted with an artificial sun? Or does He rely on photosynthetic algae crusting the stagnant Hell-ponds He brews? On Earth, the brain coordinates the movement of the muscles that power the lungs. From what wet and salty Hell-organ does the diaphragm get its marching orders? Do the souls of the departed have fireproof brains that send and receive signals from the muscles to which they are connected by bundles of fireproof nerves? What muscles wrap around what spine of what skeleton? Screams don’t just happen from nothing. Screams are sounds and, like all sounds, they are made by sound-makers. When we die and go to Hell, do we leave our human sound-makers behind to collapse and decay, no longer inflatable, in a coffin buried barely underground, and acquire a brand new pair of sound-makers when we cross over into Hell, a fireproof set of lungs conveniently pressurized for those conditions? Or are there no lungs and no voice-boxes in Hell? Sure, maybe some other sound-maker is responsible for the moaning and the screaming. If the sound-makers are something totally different, some organ more suited for the pressure and temperature conditions of Hell, why would they make the same sounds that voice-boxes make? Shouldn’t different sound-makers make different sounds?

Come to think of it, why do we imagine that when we get to Heaven we will continue to experience memory and emotion? We picture ourselves up there looking down with fondness, recalling the memories of our loved ones with a peaceful sigh of nostalgia? Do we have brains in Heaven also? After all, memory and emotion don’t just happen from nothing. Some organ must generate these products of the mind. On Earth, we don’t pay much attention to the fact that when we experience memory and emotion, they come from the humming of our brains. These things just happen effortlessly, as though they bubble up from out of nowhere, so the workings of the brain tend to go unnoticed by the humans who use them. That doesn’t mean that memory just vanishes into thin air. Memory is grounded in the circuitry of the brain. Memory emerges from the activity of the brain and vanishes without some hardware to store it and retrieve it.

When we die and go to Heaven, are all our memories transferred to some other kind of memory storage device, some organ the soul sprouts in order to receive the recorded memories Earth-brains can no longer sustain once they are starved of blood and oxygen? When the Earth-brains of humans wither prematurely, when dementia robs the brain of its memories by gumming up and destroying over the course of a few years the relevant memory hardware, does the soul learn to collect memories in anticipation of the day when the body will finally expire and all the forgotten memories kept securely in the cradle of the soul where they are resistant to Earthly corrosion will be returned to the departed spirit for the purpose of wistful remembrance? Maybe the soul is also a memory organ operating its own hardware in parallel with the brain. Maybe the soul is also a sensitive film which when exposed to life experiences receives those emanations, collecting Earthly memories into a collection of colorful postcards, filing them away in a death-resistant lock-box and pulling them out of storage once it has crossed over into Heaven.  The soul is starting to sound a lot like the brain, a magical rustproof brain that runs entirely on ether.

The brain is a humming grid of electricity and chemicals, then life pulls the plug and the brain’s humming ceases.