Illustration by Angelika Manhart
The sincerest form of flattery

Extracellular recording

By Andrew Zaharia

It’s hard to describe the first time you feel something (and I mean really feel something) with an intensity and clarity that comes only a couple times over the course of a life. I’m talking about having a heightened sense of yourself, an acute awareness of the whole world, when you hear all the voices of the world—once a familiar, droning cacophony—now coalescing into a wondrous harmony for the first time. The songs of the world become a part of you, and you become a part of the world. But this extreme, unnatural state of elevation, of consciousness and being, comes at a price. Being part of the world, you become vulnerable, subject to its sudden, random violence and the broken bones that follow, reminding you of your own fragility and permanently dulling your senses until you are numb to the world and can no longer appreciate its beauty.

Not that I have bones to break, exactly. I mean, I’m made of metal, after all; well, metal and glass—tungsten encased in glass to be precise; I am, at the end of the day, an electrode. Now I know what you’re going to say: “A piece of metal that thinks it’s flesh and blood, ok, now I’ve heard everything,” but I never said anything of the sort, and I won’t because I don’t need to—I know what I felt and I have the scars to prove it.

So first of all I should tell you more about myself and how I came to be: in the beginning I was just metal, stretched out until I was much thinner than a hair, and long enough to reach just below the ear—I don’t want to dwell on specifics, so let’s just say I’m quite slender, and I know it, and I’m quite pleased about that now, though I didn’t care about it at the time.

I don’t remember much before I really felt like me for the first time, the me I am now that is, after the final moments of being what I was before: helpless and naked metal, I was suddenly pulled through a ball of molten glass which, stretching along my body, cooled and fused—enveloping me in a thin, elegant crystalline armor that shielded me from the world and gave me the perfectly straight posture I have to this day. At first I was happy about the newfound strength and confidence that glass gave me, but over time I came to realize that this shining, clear encasement hardened me, made me rigid, was in fact a barrier that kept me from touching the world, or feeling it, though you’ll have to forgive me, because when I say “feel” here, I really mean “sense,” but as you’ll see “sensing” can mean different things in the life of an electrode.

Even “sense” is a strong word, because any experience I had at that stage of life behind glass was just a tiny, fleeting sketch, without detail and gone in an instant; I didn’t even have a sense of time or space, just before and after—just the feeling of being lost in a fog. There are few things I remember from this time, though—the first time the fog started to lift, or really the first time I felt anything, there was this incredible pinching sensation near one of my ends—the pinch was so strong that the glass cracked open, and the remaining tube of glass fell off, leaving half an inch of metal exposed. Then I felt another pinch—this time more terrible—an alien pincer dug into and crushed my metal bone, sidestepping the protective insulation I had grown used to, and I was left with the feeling that a great burden had been placed on me: so much so that I could feel myself bending from the weight—oh, I didn’t even know I could bend! That weight—a newly attached brass foot—felt simultaneously other and a part of me: initially a seemingly lifeless appendage, I would later see it as a gift, an opening for me to explore the world, all while keeping contact with safe, solid ground.

Up until now, I haven’t said much about my experience of the world and what have you, because up until that point, I was just floating along in the fog, oblivious to all but what I bumped into directly. Well that fog was about to lift in a spectacular way—so much so that I struggle to find the words to capture just how monumental a change it was. Some time after getting my brass foot, I felt this sudden and intense rush of energy, starting from the foot and coursing through every little atom of all the metal I was made of, and those tiny electrons, jumping from atom to atom, piled into any space in between that they could find; they would try to jump off of the metal too, only to be blocked by hard, uncompromising walls of glass and air.

Once I got used to this positively electric feeling, the electrons’ frantic jumps weren’t random to me anymore; they were in fact dancing, and dancing in a complex harmony, with multiple tempos and rhythms! I want to be perfectly clear here so you don’t get confused: even though in reality it was just electrons jostling, to me it was hearing: I realized I was experiencing (“sensing!”) the overwhelming cacophony of the world for the first time: low hums, alternating 60 times a second (which gave me a reassuring sense of time); high hums of whirring fans; language—people speaking at the same time, some of them as if they were in the same room, but others disembodied and eerily close, punctuated by bursts of noise, like radio static; and strangeexplosions of incredibly fast, high pitched beeps and bloops, like music from an alien civilization, utterly indecipherable.

All these “sounds” I could hear were coming from my tip on the end opposite my foot; I had no idea there wasn’t any glass around that tip until then! Only then did I come to realize really how finely pointed that tip was (not all of us are blessed with such delicate features): far finer than the rest of me, perhaps a hundred times narrower; and with that sharpness came my exquisite hearing, making my tip like an ear of sorts. Occasionally my tip would brush up against a wall of metal, and some electrons would jump off, and from the sound it made, like a rock clanging down a drainpipe, I came to understand that I was falling quite rapidly down a tube barely wider than myself.

Before I could wrap my mind around the situation I found myself in, everything changed again: the cacophony of the world disappeared and was replaced with sounds completely different in character and quality, as if I dove underwater and could hear the sounds of the maritime world, rather than the airy, buzzy sounds before, which I tuned in and out of like radio transmissions. Hearing underwater felt quite different; I could now feel the electrons in my tungsten jumping off me and into the soupy water, charged ions in turn collecting near my tip, ebbing and flowing like a crazed, erratic tide, and focusing my ear to a microscopically small part of the world.

I should explain that I was still moving downward quite rapidly, and that the water I had been plunged into was in fact a thick, tangled swamp with slime and fronds and fibers washing over and around me. This unruly tree-like tangle, a bramble of dendrites if you will, quietly, continuously whooshed by as I dove into and sliced through them. Seemingly out of nowhere, I pierced through a giant bag of fluid—the belly of a neuron—tearing it open, and its guts, ions and all, spilled out, making a sound like the crackling of an egg just as you throw it on a hot skillet: fast at first, then slowing a bit, until the sound gradually fades away. The soft ruffling sounds of the neurons’ dendritic arms now drowning out, I tore through more and more, until it was every second or so and the crackles turned into a parade of short, plaintive squeals from those bursting, dying neurons. The thick patch of neurons abruptly ended, and the sounds were replaced with the most serene silence. Replacing those boisterous neurons and dendrites, thickly insulated axons revealed themselves, like undersea cables, packed tightly together, keeping mum, indifferent to everything around them.

After a long stretch of quiet, a low rumbling in the distance drew nearer, louder, and more rhythmic, until it became clear—these were the voices of thousands and thousands of neurons, all chanting to a strange beat, like a mob, or a stadium of soccer fanatics. As the chanting settled at a healthy volume, I heard a great, explosive sound, like a rubber band snapping, but at an almost deafening level. Then a couple more snaps, one, a whole barrage of snaps, then none, then—the pattern became clear—the snaps were happening in unison with the mob chant; this must have been one of its voices: a single neuron.

Now I don’t want you to think I’m pulling your leg or something, because this really did happen, though I imagine you’re wondering, how could I be listening to this one little neuron if I’ve been hurtling down, zooming past thousands, if not millions of other little neurons? Well, I didn’t mention it yet, but this is the point when I realized I had slowed to a stop, and those snapping sounds from that feisty neuron were so loud because I was parked right outside its bulbous body. I listened to that neuron for what seemed like hours, getting familiar with its voice, trying to decipher its language, its chant, its message. Eventually, though, the neuron’s chants slowly faded away, back into the mob, never to be heard from again.

Once its voice was completely gone, I was yanked back up the same way I came in and at the end, I felt this sudden sense of disconnection from the world I had just moments ago experienced so intensely—no more hearing, no more electrons tingling, nothing. Everything was muffled again, and that electric feeling was gone. After waiting for what seemed like eternity (a concept I could not even imagine before my first connection), I got plugged back in and repeated the whole ordeal, in all its terror and all its glory, again and again. Each time, though, the sensations were just a little less intense, a little less crisp, and a little less magical.

The unrelenting repetition wore me down—I went diving so many times I began to lose track of where I ended and the mob in the marsh began; until one time, while on my way down that metal tube, instead of plunging straight in the swamp, I rammed right into a wall, crumpling my tip and bending it into a horrid, kinked hook. I was lifted up, then dropped back down again, this time in a different spot: I dove into the slimy bramble, but all the songs and rhythms I had grown so familiar with were distant and muddled, as if I was listening to them with cotton in my ear (not that it’s a real ear, but you know that already). I still felt the electrons dancing through me, but the songs, the crackles and chants, were just beyond the horizon.

After some time like this, I was withdrawn one last time, and that’s how I found myself dropped in here, in this pile among all of you, you poor, miserable creatures. Look at you—your glass cracked and falling to pieces! At least you’re doing better than this one—a bent and broken body, a mess of twisted metal. And my, is it getting hot in here. Hey you, hook-for-a-tip, I think your glass is melting! You’re glowing red! My word, it’s hot. What does that label say? Room 242, Biohazardous waste – incinerate when ful-


Andrew Zaharia studied computational visual neuroscience for his Ph.D. at NYU. He spent four of those years training two monkeys, Albert and Lil’ Wayne (may they both RIP), to play computer games and recorded neural activity in their brains. He is now out of the monkey business, working as a postdoctoral research scientist on data visualization and computer simulations of human vision at Columbia University.