Stories Dorothea's Brain • Kelly Chien • 2008-02-17
Riparian Entertainments






et's take a little trip today, shall we Sam? Let's go visit Dorothea's brain." Ray announced as he looked up from his morning paper. It was not uncommon for him to suggest an outing for the day and his ideas seldom failed to provide enjoyable entertainment.

"Go where, Ray? What was that?" Sam wasn't quite sure he had heard correctly. True, he often didn't pay close attention to Ray's morning plans, but then usually not much attention was required. Ray took care of the details, and the day's trip was usually something pleasant and expected, such as visiting the garden shops on the upper east side.

"Dorothea's brain. It will be a fun little jaunt."

Sam pondered a bit, picked up his coffee cup and started to sip. Then he stopped and decided that he had heard Ray correctly after all. Perhaps this was a joke? Not sure if he should join in he decided instead to attack the stack of buttered rye toast in an attempt to regain some normalcy. Mornings were not a good time for Sam to have his routine interrupted. It didn't sit well in his tum.

After two slices it seemed apparent that Ray had completed outlining his plans, at least voluntarily. Sam decided it was time to act. "Ummmm, Ray?"

"Yes, Sam?"

"Dorothea's brain? Is that the new garden shop in Milford?"

Ray smiled, understanding Sam's need for for the familiar, the usual, the known. "No, Sam. Dorothea's brain is the brain of Dorothea." Grinning now, he knew he was having some fun at Sam's expense.

"Dorothea. Her brain. Is she the nuclear physics professor we dined with that evening in Brighton?"

"No, that was Annie. And while Annie does have quite a brain, other than being intelligent, it's not much different from yours, Sam." Wry chuckle at that; Ray knew when he was clever. "We're interested in more intriguing things, unordinary things, extra-ordinary in fact."

"So who is Dorothea then?"

"Surely you remember. You sat across from her on the subway the whole way from 18th street to Moyer's Avenue. Certainly she made some impression on you old fellow."

"That trip was three weeks ago, as I recall. And also as I recall we spent the trip discussing rock edging for the new sidewalk through the gardens in the back yard. I do not recall us talking with a Dorothea, or anyone else for that matter. Are you sure you are remembering correctly, old fellow?"

"Now now, kind sir. No need to get testy. I didn't say we talked with Dorothea. I merely mentioned that she sat across from you."

"Well then, what sort of impression should this Dorothea have made on me?"

"My good man! Her charm, her grace, her beauty, her intelligence, her wit, her vast knowledge and curiosity."

Sam grunted. "Well, of course I surely would have been impressed. But I still do not recall any such person."

"There was also one other feature, though I hadn't considered it an important feature so I hadn't mentioned it. But it may help jog that addled grey puddle that you call your mind. She was in a wheelchair."

"Oh, that girl. But now you have me even more confused. We didn't happen to speak with her as our conversation was entirely between ourselves. How did you come to notice so much about her? Are you fabricating a story in some odd way for my benefit? You couldn't possibly know such things about her as you mentioned."

"Really Samuel, we must work on your observational powers. Do you really mean to say that you spent 45 minutes sitting knee to knee with a person and you know nothing about her?"

"I do indeed mean to say that. What's more, I mean to say the same thing about you. My good fellow! You couldn't even possibly know her name. So do tell, what is it you claim to be talking about."

"Tsk, tsk. I followed her every word. True, I suppose it may have been terribly rude of me to eavesdrop on her conversation, but it couldn't be helped. It was fascinating. What's more, she was aware of my attention and did nothing to discourage it, so I took that as an invitation. And as to your assertion of my ignorance, I will merely point out that I know her name is Dorothea because that is what her mother called her."

"Now I know you are fabricating. I may not have been paying attention but I am aware enough of my surroundings to know that she never said a word. Her silence was obvious."

"Of course she was silent. She was a deaf-mute. Note that I never said I heard her speak. I merely said I eavesdropped on her conversation."

"Ray, did you eat raw bacon this morning? You aren't making any sense."

"If I did it was your fault. You did the cooking this morning. Thank you very much for the lovely breakfast, by the way. And as for eavesdropping, I must confess I did so with my eyes. She was using sign language."

Sam helped himself to another slice of toast and slowly covered it with fresh blackberry jam. He considered the conversation thus far while thoughtfully chewing. Then he deliberately finished his coffee before feeling prepared to respond.

"So, I'll grant you are more observant than I. I'll also grant that you may have some knowledge about this Dorothea that I do not. So, pray now, old fellow, how is it that you intend to accomplish today's visit to her brain? Surely you're not expecting to run into her by chance on the subway again."

"Oh no, of course not, though that would be delightful and I would love the opportunity to introduce ourselves to her and participate in a two way conversation. I'm sure you would find her wit delightful, at least as much as you were able to follow."

"Now sir, I beg of you, let us just continue on with this brain trip. I don't need your continual help to point out my own shortcomings. I will struggle along as best I can, and I assure you I will ask for help whenever you leave me behind."

"Very well then Sam. Let me fill in some details that you obviously missed. We have plenty of time. A quick glance shows that today is grey and rainy, so we will probably end up here indoors most of the day. You see, Dorothea and her mother had a rather lively discussion. I got to learn a lot about her during that time. In fact, as far as eavesdropping is concerned, I feel I wasn't intruding at all since she did greet us and I introduced the two of us to them. It came about because her mother had mentioned the two handsome gentleman sitting across from them and that caused Dorothea to realize my attention. She was in the process of agreeing with her mother on my appearance when she noticed that I was watching her hands. She apologized and I assured her we weren't offended."

"Amazing. Ray, I never knew you had the talent of sign language communication. It sounds like a handy thing. Say, did she happen to mention anything about me?"

"Well, I wasn't going to tell you, but since you brought it up ... she had mentioned that she thought you rather rude. Of course, she said that before she realized I was eavesdropping. I'm sure she wouldn't have said so if she had known."

Sam grunted. "I see. And you assured her that didn't offend me as well? I wouldn't want her to think I was rude AND offended."

"Oh, of course, of course, old fellow. Rest assured I informed her what a good and stout fellow you are."

"I thank you. I think. But enough of the introductions. Tell me of her wit and intelligence."

"Well, this is what fascinated me. I was able to deduce that she was born a deaf-mute. She has nerve deafness. Her brain has never received any audio signals at all so she wouldn't even know what it means to hear or what sound would be like. Yet, still, references to sound entered the conversation. For example, when her mom mentioned that her brother got an A on his last history exam she responded 'sounds like he's wising up and studying now.' Of course that's a common way of phrasing for us, but it made me wonder what it really means to her."

"But surely that's just a phrase she has picked up and adopted. Regardless of the word 'sound', the phrase as a whole has a specific meaning in context. That must be why she uses it. We ourselves will use that phrase to comment on something in print just as easily as we would apply it to something we've heard."

"Why Sam, my good fellow. That was very insightful of you."

Sam beamed. "Didn't think I had it in me, eh?"

"Honestly? No."

Sam contemplated using the last slice of toast as a well-placed projectile, aimed directly at Ray's nose. Cooler thoughts prevailed though, and he began spreading more blackberry jam on it instead. "Continue, dear sir."

"Well, let me ask you this ... how do you store words and thoughts in your mind?"

"I suppose as words and thoughts. Hardly a difficult answer to come up with, don't you think?"

"You miss my point. How are the words stored? Do you see them written out in your mind? Do you visualize the objects and actions that the words represent?"

"Oh, well if that's what you're getting at, then no. I suppose my memory is made up mostly of the sounds of those words. When I think, I hear the words being spoken in my mind."

"Precisely. And why do you suppose that is?"

"I suppose that's because that is how i've encountered those words. I've heard them spoken to me. And most of my thoughts become expressed as spoken words."

"Again precisely. I congratulate you."

"And I thank you for the congratulations, though it seemed that I barely did anything worthy of earning them. It's ever so commonplace a thing, to think and listen and talk."

"Oh dear, a step backwards, I'm afraid Sam. And here I thought we were accomplishing something."

"Then I suppose, Ray, that you should return to lecturing. If you're counting on me to supply the flashes of genius then you'll be sadly disappointed."

"No, no need. You'll pick up your flashes again. I'm sure of it. At least we've established that you do have thinking processes going on in your brain. But, it's not your brain we're going to visit today, is it?"

Sam nodded thoughtfully. "True enough. We were visiting Dorothea."

"Exactly! And ...", Ray prompted, with his often exasperating patience.

Sam nodded again, though he felt it to be less thoughtful this time. He took the opportunity to warm up his cup of coffee, hoping that the delay might help him discover what Ray was expecting. Alas, it did not. All he could think to say was, "Dorothea's brain, on the other hand?"

"Ah, so after all you suspect that there is a reason to suppose there is a difference. And what do you suppose that difference might be?"

"I suppose you want me to consider that her thoughts must be different. But she thinks like us, words and thoughts flowing ... oh."

"Now you're getting there. You obviously just thought of something, probably the very something that occurred to me three weeks ago."

"I see, I think. Dorothea has never heard words nor spoken them."

"Good! You've redeemed yourself after all, old fellow."

"So, since her primary means of communication is sign language, would that mean that her thoughts are a series of images of hand and finger placements? Or maybe she does see written words. No, I suppose not. She most likely learned to sign long before reading, just as we learned to talk earlier."

"I agree. Although I wonder if perhaps it's not so much images of the signs that run through her mind, but perhaps it's the feeling of her fingers in those positions that she uses to think with. I would be an interesting question to put to her, should we by chance run into her again. But in either case it's obvious that what flows through her brain while she thinks must be based on something quite different from what we have in our brains as we think."

"I see. And I further suppose that you must be wondering how that affects her. How does that alter the ways in which she thinks, what she thinks about, what sorts of memories she must have, and so forth."

"You do indeed redeem yourself again! I may just have to change my opinion of you after all."

"You flatter me with your praise. Careful lest you make my poor little head swell. But, how do we test our assumptions, other than by asking Dorothea? Surely we don't know what is going on in her brain and all this discussion is merely conjecture."

"And once again you have brought up the crucial point. We would have to communicate with her. And what will we get from her? Why, words of course. Whether they be spoken or signed or written, they will be thoughts expressed as sentences and phrases built up of words. Once you get her responses into your mind then how will you store them?"

"I suppose, if I understand your reasoning, I would say that in my brain they will end up like any other thoughts that run through my mind. I'll hear them as I would any other thoughts. Yes, I do see that that would be the case, even though they came from her as signs, silent finger movements."

"You do understand my reasoning quite well. The fact that you will accept her communication and process it in your mind in a way you understand, that you will translate her communication method and what she signs as well as any other person's spoken words, that you will understand her thoughts, doesn't this indicate to you that on some level above the mere storage mechanism in our brains that Dorothea thinks the same way you do?"

"Yes! Of course. Despite the differences our minds can still reach out and understand. Or, well, you can since you know sign language. But you can translate and then I will understand too."

"Very good Sam. It sounds like you've learned something from our little trip today."

"Yes. I've learned that I should always make more breakfast before talking to you. I'm hungry again. Care for an omelet?"

Ray patted his belly and nodded approvingly. "With some ham and green peppers? I'll go get the ketchup."