Illustration by Angelika Manhart
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Action Potential

By Ben Deen

You probably want to know how it feels, the rush of electricity coursing across my skin, ripping through my wiry body, bifurcating and trifurcating across my limbs – yes, you would like to know, but I won’t tell you, and even if I did you wouldn’t understand, you with your weighty bones and fleshy appendages, you probably couldn’t even imagine being a bat, let alone something with my pace and intensity – and lucky you for my speed! – because controlling your patchwork of muscle fibers requires an agility and finesse beyond your wildest dreams.

You think of me as mere, miniscule, wimpy, but I’ll have you know that I’m kind of a big deal around here, one of the big guns if you will, and probably bigger than you think – I clock in at two feet long and a tenth of a millimeter wide, reaching from the top of your head down the length of your spine, and please don’t call me the “fat neuron,” I’m sensitive about that, it’s bad enough my head is probably five times the size of everyone’s around me – oh, but you would call that my “body,” or my “cell body” I suppose, as if I’m some sort of container – but that’s where the action happens, where everything comes together, where I decide whether or not to act, whether or not you act – of course it’s my head!

It starts with a tickle, an electric impulse, a tug at one of the branches of my willow tree of a headdress, my “apical dendrite” as you apes call it, with branches extending to the outer rim of your brain; but I’m busy, you see, and I can’t be bothered by just any wisp, carried away by the whims of one of my more exuberant colleagues, of whom there are hundreds; so I bide my time, I wait until one tickle becomes many, until I am overwhelmed with sensation, waves of electricity combining and crashing across my branches as they roll toward my head from all angles.

That’s when it happens – that singular moment, that burst of energy, when I transition from observer to actor, when I let the wave subsume me and I become the wave – as pores in my skin, molecular gates, open wide, overcome by the impulse, and allow bits of charge to flow through me, in and out of me, propelling the wave further, opening more gates, producing a self-propelling electrical pulse that careens across my body at two hundred miles per hour, passing in a few milliseconds through your neck and into your chest – or in your funny verbiage, the “action potential.” The surge nears the end of my body and splits across my outstretched fingers, and with these fingers I play the piano of your musculature, tapping the keys of your spinal motor neurons, dictating every stretch, every recoil, every turn that carries you through the world.

And please don’t ask about what happens next, you know I’m ashamed to discuss that bashful lull, that moment of much-need quiescence that follows my outburst, in which I shut myself off from the world, stop taking inquiries, pause and look inward – suffice to say that coming down from the high of electrical ecstasy, one feels a deep hole indeed, an emptiness that comes from catching a brief glimpse of the sublime, only to be quickly and unceremoniously returned to the humdrum of normal existence, back to that patient waiting game – so call me refractory if you must, but know that I’m not merely lazy or pouting, that my pause is more profound.

Why do I keep putting myself through this ordeal, you ask – why must I endure this impulsive, explosive act, that shakes my core each and every time? I do it for you, of course: these outbursts power your muscles and coordinate your actions, from walking to typing to speaking, and if I were less impulsive, you might move like a sloth, or you might not move at all – because despite your fantasies about being in charge, my coworkers and I are the strings pulling your marionette limbs and digits, the true orchestrators of your destiny.

This piece is styled after Italo Calvino’s “Priscilla” short story series.

Ben Deen is a postdoctoral fellow in systems neuroscience at The Rockefeller University.