A Stranger on a Rooftop

Nora Cullen, Bowdoin College

Artwork by Nora Cullen

As you read this sentence, the cells in your eyes are transducing the images on this page into “readable” information for your brain. Essentially, your comprehension of my words is based entirely on chemical signaling happening between tiny cells, called neurons. Your neurons, and my neurons, are very similar in basic terms. Generally speaking, a typical neuron has a receiving end, a transmitting end, and a cell body where the nucleus is located. However, what makes me me, and not you, is the way my neurons communicate with one another through many millions of connections. These connections are made and maintained when neurons transmit chemicals, called neurotransmitters, back and forth. Just about everything we do, see, touch, feel, remember, and experience is a product of these tiny little molecules being passed between tiny little cells. Remarkable, isn’t it?

I should start by saying that I have been passionately in love with biology for most of my life. I was fascinated with the idea that we could study living organisms, and peer into the very matrix that forms the structure for life to grow. In high school, I became interested in psychology, and the concept that we were somehow able to study and establish guidelines for something as abstract as the mind. However, it was when I had my first neuroscience class that something clicked into place. I became enraptured by its seemingly paradoxical examination of the infinitely abstract and intangible mind, and the very organ that somehow produces it.

In college, I embraced this ceaseless curiosity and dove in. I am not a religious person, but it’s hard not to feel a little godlike when you study the mechanisms that make us who we are. It feels like you are pulling back the proverbial curtain, but instead of finding a small man pulling levers you find chemicals and cells, channels and ions that make us think, feel, and remember who we are. It’s a little sad, like learning the secret of a magic trick. But it’s addicting, pulling back that curtain. The curiosity itches you from the inside, and your fingers become seduced by velvet of the unknown. Eventually, you get swept along with the tide of evidence that we can be broken down to a physical existence. I like to think that I can be more than chemicals and cells, more than an infinitely complex but ultimately recreatable machine, but it becomes difficult to argue with science. It was around this time of self examination that I left for my semester in Madurai.

We were on the night train to Mysore. We sustained ourselves with overripe bananas, water from questionably clean nalgenes, and an unexpected discussion of free will. Somewhere between conversations of cross country bike rides and Bollywood music, we found ourselves enveloped in the enigmatic fog where philosophy and science meet. I tried to outline the source of my cynicism, secretly hoping to make my companions share in the desolate belief of an existence condemned to the predetermined chain reaction of chemical signalling. I failed to do this. My discussion companion confidently pointed to all of the unknowns we have yet to pull back the curtain on, the tricks not yet revealed. Her point was, perhaps in some of these cases, there is nothing behind the curtain. As a neuroscientist, I have a lot of faith in science and believe that we will continue to study ourselves. Just like we need food and water to sustain our bodies, our itching curiosity demands satiety from discovery and exploration. Maybe you open one curtain, only to find another one waiting. Whatever it is, on that train to Mysore, I found myself once again wondering how something so tangible and finite like the brain could give rise to something as infinite and complex as the mind.

Artwork by Nora Cullen

It’s hard to articulate where I stand in my existential contemplation, and I can’t promise you any profound words of wisdom. If I learned anything abroad, it’s that words often fail to impart the visceral impact of an experience. Upon retelling, a story may gain or lose details in an attempt to convey a raw truthfulness that can only be experienced. Words have a limit while experience does not. That said, words are all I have to give you, and what I can offer is a two part reflection about connections.

Neurons need input to grow, and in some cases, in order to survive. In other words, neurons need connections with other neurons. The vast collection of channels and ions that surmise existence is contingent on a network of cells being linked with one another. The complex multiplicitous web that creates everything we know is as dependent on itself as we are on it. Without communication, the passing of those little molecules back and forth, I would have a brain but not a mind; or, speaking existentially, an existence but no essence.

Early in my semester at SITA, I would often have trouble sleeping in. I usually woke up around five or so, in time to see the sunrise and to feel the heat of the day beginning to climb. One morning, I stood out on our third floor balcony, in my pajamas, brushing my teeth, absentmindedly looking at the roof of the apartment across the street from us. To my surprise, directly across from me was an Indian woman, standing on her roof, in her pajamas, brushing her teeth, absentmindedly looking at our apartment across from her. We did not wave. We stood, quietly regarding one another, and brushed our teeth. After a few minutes, she went back into her room, and I into mine, preparing ourselves to start our respective days.

Connections are everywhere. They are as unique and unpredictable as the people who make them. They can be tenuous in their beauty, a gossamer thread floating by almost unnoticeable. They can be vibrant and tenacious, like a steel piano string reverberating with the life of a note. They can be striking, a poignant scalpel against the skin that exposes your humanness. They can also be simple, as simple and as pure as a stranger on a rooftop reflecting you. Everyone stands at the center of their own web, feeling the vibrations from the surrounding interwoven matrix. Somehow, all of those little cells in our head allow us to experience this heartbreakingly beautiful mosaic. Whoever, whatever, or wherever you are, you are a complex combination of cells completely unlike me; and yet just like me. Remarkable, isn’t it?

Artwork by Nora Cullen

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