“The brain is the most complex system in the known universe.”
~ Christof Koch
Dr. Ian Schade found himself waiting at the San Diego convention center, in a conference room, with a crowd full of people he didn’t know, in a city he had never visited, for a purpose he knew nothing about. Only two days earlier, he had received a call requesting he come to San Diego for reasons the caller was unwilling to explain and his preparations had been hurried and haphazard.
That first call was left to the answering machine where it would have rested in peace until deleted arbitrarily if it weren’t for the peculiarity of its content. Although he'd heard of Gage Technologies and suspected it dealt with advances in neuroscience, he couldn't invent any scenario that would inspire them to seek the assistance of a psychiatrist from Denver; especially one that specialized in his unusual field of study. That suspicion in itself would have been reason enough to erase the message with hardly an afterthought, but the words “possibility of a grant” pulled his fingertip from the “delete” button to the “save” button. It took only a few seconds to realize that any possibility of funding answered many materialistic prayers, thereby demanding cooperation.
The subsequent call lasted all of five minutes, maybe less. After placing the phone on the receiver, he realized he knew nothing more than a flight number, the day and time of the aircraft’s departure, and the promise that all of his financial obligations would be handled for the duration of his visit. Although his initial feeling suggested the whole scenario must be some sort of mistake and that he shouldn’t place any trust in an untested business relationship, he fell victim to curiosity and began packing. After all, the excursion and first-class accommodations depleted someone else’s bank account and he could think of many worse places to be than San Diego in the middle of December; including Denver.
As the escalator carried Fineas Gage to the second floor of the convention center, his line of sight aimed at the destination awaiting him at the top began to obscure by the image of a woman. As the escalator ascended, the appearance of the woman within Gage’s sight gradually grew; panning from her natural blond hair all the way down to the impatient clicking of her right Ferragamo heel.
“Good morning, Aura. An absolutely thrilling day, wouldn’t you agree?” Gage asked as he hastened to match her fleeting stride.
“It would be if you weren’t twenty minutes late. I’ve had to flirt with almost every man in the room to persuade them to wait for your arrival. These are very important people, Fin. You’re taking a huge risk in keeping them waiting.”
She was the only person who called him by his first name, albeit abbreviated. Now that he thought about it, she remained the only one he allowed to address him by that name. Everyone else simply called him Gage. He presumed he gave her more allowance because of their “fling” last year. He knew she regretted it. She likely would have submitted her resignation long ago if it weren’t for the fact that he never mentioned it in conversation. The exorbitant amount of her salary probably had a hand in persuading her to stay on his payroll as well.
“Don’t tell me that a woman with your social experience has never heard of being ‘fashionably late?’” he smirked, laying on the sarcasm.
“If today was in any way connected to fashion, it might be excusable. But today has nothing to do with models and runways and everything to do with the image of Gage Technologies. Honestly, Fin, would it kill you to at least pretend like you care about what this day means for the future of your company?”
“Of course I care. You know I care. It’s just that now, for a change, the media is hanging upon my mercy. And I intend to let them hang for as long as possible.”
“Understood. Just try not to hang us, the people actually on your side, at the same time, please,” she politely pleaded, knowing it was a waste of breath. Gage never made a habit of letting anyone know of his plans or intentions until last minute, or last second, or never.
“So did everyone show?” Gage inquired, turning the conversation in a less confrontational direction.
“Yes. Some took a little more persuading than others though. The guy from Channel 8 called and said he wouldn’t waste time dragging his crew down to the convention center unless I told him what to expect. I just told him it was his loss and we didn’t need him anyway because all the other networks had already arrived. Needless to say, he was here less than five minutes after hanging up. I swear, these media egos are insufferable…,” she mumbled as her voice trailed off to a stifled but audible curse.
“What about our special guest?”
“The escort service brought him from the airport thirty minutes ago,” she replied, regaining her professional tone. “He’s pretty confused about why he’s here but judging by the few minutes I conversed with him, I would say he will be perfect for what we need if he is willing to accept his role in all of this chaos.”
“Oh he’ll accept,” Gage asserted as he opened the door leading to the conference room. “After he is fully aware of what I have to offer him, he couldn’t possibly refuse. Besides, there is no problem that can’t be resolved with a few written zeros.”
The sudden bustle of energy throughout the crowd awakened Ian from his self-induced stupor. He traced the direction of everyone's focus until they all merged onto the crisply dressed man who had entered the room. Based on what he deduced from the whispered comments of everyone around him and the rapid preparation of video equipment, he could only assume this was the man of the hour. When the attractive woman who had previously introduced herself as Aura Blithe, Fineas Gage’s assistant, followed him into the room, Ian deduced this was none other than Gage himself.
Gage flashed a confident wave towards the crowd before stepping behind the podium nestled purposefully in the front corner edge of the elevated platform. Gage smiled for the cameras and absorbed the attention of the crowd for a few seconds before he took a deep breath and began his well-rehearsed speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen. I appreciate you making the time to be in attendance this morning. I assure you, it will be well worth the effort.” Gage paused briefly to scan the hundreds of pairs of eyes focusing on him. He observed a wide array of emotions behind those stares. In just a few moments those eyes would unite in expressing a unique blend of awe and excitement that only comes with a revelation of enormous magnitude.
He continued, “In 2001, Matt Wilson, an associate professor at MIT’s Center for Learning and Memory conducted a very interesting experiment. Using sensors implanted in the brains of rats, he was able to monitor their brain activity while training them to run through mazes in search of chocolate-flavored snacks. Interestingly, he also monitored their neural activity while they slept and made an astonishing discovery. The same neural patterns that they were able to record while the rats were running through the maze were repeated multiple times at different intervals during sleep. This led him to believe that the rats mentally recreated the maze in their dreams. At this time, it would be appropriate to direct your attention to the following presentation.”
On cue, the lights dimmed and a large vinyl screen slowly lowered from the ceiling. After just a few seconds of darkness, a ceiling mounted projector whirred to life and shone a dim white square onto the screen that became brighter over the next few seconds as the bulb warmed to the ideal temperature. Ian watched with heightened curiosity as the blank screen morphed into a recorded video.
The reflected black square abruptly changed and materialized into an awkward infusion of colors; blues and greens mostly with a slight tinge of purple, giving the image an effect similar to that caused by the illumination of a black-light bulb. It almost appeared to be a clip from a portion of some sort of first-person perspective video game produced in the early nineties, only there was no apparent conflict and the movement of the entity controlling the camera was awkward at best. The viewpoint on the screen continued following a series of blurry partitions, making left and right turns sporadically with no apparent goal or sense of direction. If this was supposed to be some sort of computer generated rendering of the maze from the rat’s point of view, the graphics were atrocious.
Gage displayed nothing but indifference towards the film. He'd watched it hundreds of times before today. Rather, his interests lied in what could be gleaned from the faces of the observers. The light from the projector reflected the expressions of those in the first few rows and revealed the exact reactions he hypothesized he would observe; confusion, annoyance, even anger. It all alluded to one fact. His audience did not yet understand what they were seeing, could not fathom its implications, and therefore, had no comprehension of its relevance. He was about to blow their minds.
Ian still felt dumbfounded. As the video played out to its completion, he could not reasonably assign any value to the presentation whatsoever. The simulated imagery was blurry, nauseating, and offered nothing but a splitting headache to anyone who stared at the video for more than a few seconds at a time. Why Gage would choose to employ such a painful visual aide in the presence of so many peers and critics was beyond comprehension and seemed to be the equivalent of occupational suicide. As the lights were turned back on however, the figurative light in Ian’s head turned on as well. In an instant, synapses in his brain fused together and he realized exactly what he had just seen. He displayed the sudden insight with the dropping of his jaw.
After one quick gesture from Gage approved the return of the lights, he focused intently on the immediate frothing of the crowd. Along with illumination, the gesture had initiated many whispers of doubt among reporters and scientists alike. Gage knew exactly what they were thinking; the scientists were mentally executing mortal blows by means of peer review, the reporters were assembling the perfect string of words to further crucify his company on camera, and his corporate peers were formulating ways to scavenge the financial remains. It was an opportunity he knew they all believed to be inevitable. They had eagerly written judgmental articles about his ideas, expenditures, and his piqued social status which now culminated into what they undoubtedly felt would be their chance at the fatal strike. Imagining their disappointment when they fully understood his actions were the direct opposite of self-destruction only made the moment all the sweeter.
He continued, “Matt Wilson’s discovery of the connections between the neural activity of the rats during wake and sleep left him with more questions than answers; one of those questions being, ‘Do images of the maze accompany their thoughts during sleep similar to the way humans recreate physical familiarities in their dreams?’ The video you have just witnessed definitively answers that question. Using an ingenious blend of micro-electrodes and micro-transmitters implanted into the brains of rats, we have been able to simulate visual images exactly as their minds see it in their dreams. In layman’s terms, we have learned how to translate the activities of the mind while dreaming into something appealing to the eyes, much in the same way that a television interprets broadcasted signals into your favorite sitcoms.”
It didn’t take long for his words to hit home in the thought processes of all those paying attention. Instantaneously, whispered exclamations erupted amongst the different cliques grouped throughout the crowd. Knowing they all realized that the development of this technology possessed far-reaching implications and could generate a fortune, he allowed their flurry of gossip to simmer for a prolonged duration before he spoke again. At this point, he realized that any further speech would barely illicit attention due to the rapid bubbling of questions issuing forth from the carefully painted mouths of the reporters. The time had come to allow the media to redeem themselves for years of misplaced negative publicity.
“At this time it would be appropriate to entertain questions,” Gage sneered proudly.
As every reporter leaped into the air with their hands flailing about, he knew that there would be many questions to answer. He didn’t mind. Gage would gladly address their inquiries for the entire day, if indeed the onslaught continued on for that long.
The first reporter he acknowledged worked for one of the local news stations. Although her skills as a reporter left much to be desired and he only considered her to be mildly attractive, she was the only one who had offered Gage a measure of fair publicity over the past few years. He had been happy to inform her yesterday that he intended to reimburse her for the professional courtesy.
Even though he could tell she had been extremely disappointed that he refused to drop hints about the secretive nature of this conference to her beforehand, she was delighted to learn that she would have the privilege of not only the first question, but the first three. As it turned out, her last question happened to be the one he knew for a certainty was inevitable and the one he looked forward to answering the most.
“Can you explain how you were able to develop the technology in order to accomplish this feat?” she excitedly called out.
“Well I don’t want to give away trade secrets, but I can say that using complex computer programming and advances in micro-technology we have been able to ‘translate’ brain waves into a language that technology can decipher. In this case, the purpose of the translation is visual.”
“Why was the quality of the video so poor?” she asked with marked negative intonation.
“Good question. The technology we have created uses a unique programming language to decode the signals that the eyes send to the brain. When the rats dream, their brains replicate those signals in order to recreate the visualizations their eyes perceived while awake. We simply splice and redirect the signals through the computer’s ‘eyes’ in order to convert an image of what the rat is seeing during sleep into a visual representation of what it would be seeing if it were awake. Since a rat’s eyes are very poor -- about 20/600 -- and only have the ability to see green and blue, the computer develops a blurry image of green and blue shapes exactly as the rat would see things in real time.”
“Could this same technology be used to view human dreams?” the reporter inflected.
Gage grinned as the question he had been awaiting escaped her lips. He gave her an appreciative nod, unsure of whether she understood the gratitude he endeavored to beam telepathically. With only a breath of hesitation, he answered in the exact manner he had practiced over and over again in his preparations.
“Absolutely. Although a humans mind is far more complex than a rats, I have no doubt that we will be able to amplify our technology so that, hopefully in the very near future, everyone will be able to watch a visual recording of what they had dreamed the previous night.”
The questions continued on for what could have been an hour or more. Ian heard nothing after the third.
Imagine, he thought, what it would be like to see visual images of dreams exactly as they occurred in one’s mind! If that truly were possible, the field of dream study could finally gain some credibility and respect.
Though Ian still felt as though he had been thrust into a tumultuous whirlwind, the chaos seemed to coincide with purpose. He just hoped that what he perceived as clarity and foresight into his current position harmonized with reality and would not turn out to be a mere dream.
It took more than two hours for the hordes of reporters, executives, and illuminati to dissipate. All the while, Ian remained in his position out of the way; at the back of the conference room near the exit doors. Following the last question Gage answered, mobs of people surrounded him with further requests for pictures, comments, and further explanations about the newly developed technology. Ian had no desire to fight the crowds and he assumed he would be given his chance when the time was right. Now that the horde had thinned, he noticed Aura tap Gage on the shoulder and point in his direction. It took only a few long strides before Gage offered his hand and a smile.
“Dr. Schade, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he asserted, grasping and shaking Ian’s hand exuberantly before he could even offer it.
“No, the pleasure is all mine. And please, call me Ian. Titles make me uncomfortable.” Then gesturing towards the stage he remarked, “I must say, this was quite an impressive demonstration.”
“Wasn’t it? This is just the tip of the iceberg.” Gage leaned in closer and whispered, “If these near-sighted imbeciles knew half of what I have planned for the next few years, they would all have unanimously soiled themselves.”
Ian snickered. “Well I hope I can be of some assistance with those plans. Although, admittedly, I’m not sure exactly how I fit in with --- ”
Gage interrupted his sentence with a wave. “We’ll have plenty of time to discuss business over lunch.”
“Well I --- ”
“Let’s take a walk. How does a steak sound to you? I’m starved,” Gage interrupted again, turning towards the exit. Ian came to the conclusion that he had no choice but to follow and silently hope that the menu would contain something other than steak. He would have gladly explained that he was a semi-vegetarian, but he somehow got the feeling it wouldn't have influenced their destination.
After a short walk spanning the distance of three city blocks, they settled into a corner booth at the Gaslamp Strip Club. Despite the suggestive innuendo its emblem implied, no strippers were employed on the premises. Although the appearance of the waitress that brought the men drinks could have easily passed for a more risqué occupation, the sole purpose of the establishment was to provide steak; strip steak patrons were responsible for cooking themselves on tableside grills. Nothing could be further away from appetizing for Ian, but a quick perusal of the menu revealed a savior in sautéed asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes.
Gage didn’t seem to notice the absence of protein in his order. He currently existed in a world that was distinctly separate from anyone else in the restaurant. After a few sips of Heineken, Gage rested his elbows on the table, clasped his hands together, and began a conversation Ian hoped would reveal exactly why he had flown over a thousand miles to watch the dream of a laboratory rat. In his opinion, rat's dreams did not interpretive content that would require the expertise of a psychiatrist.
“Based on the unusual circumstances in which I have summoned you here and the events of the day thus far, I assume you have a lot of questions.”
“Yes, in fact, I do,” Ian replied matter-of-factly.
“Well let me just say that I can’t promise I will be willing to answer them all right away, but I believe that you will be satisfied with what enlightenment I can provide.”
“Fair enough. I suppose my first and probably most transparent question right now is, why me? It seems you have allocated a fair amount of resources in getting me here and based on the fact that there are no other psychiatrists at this table, I assume that I’m the only one you have invited. Obviously, my particular field of interest is somewhat related to the theme of your conference today, but at this particular juncture, I don’t see how that is relevant. So…..why me?”
“Let’s just say…..for now…..that you were selected specifically because of an article you wrote some time ago.”
Ian frowned. During the numerous years of his career, he had written several articles; many were submitted to various magazines, a fair majority were published. After doing a brief mental audit of his printed reference works, he could find no foreseeable correlation to Gage Technologies. No matter which particular reference awakened Gage to his presence, he would need to learn which one was Gage's source of enlightenment if he were to salvage any further clarification of purpose for being here.
“I’ve written many articles. Can you be a little more specific?”
Gage sighed. “Not at this time. I am afraid that at this point in our business relationship, I cannot divulge too much information without risk. I am sure you understand that this is a highly competitive business and I simply cannot take chances with our innovations. I’m afraid you won’t be entitled to much more information until you’ve signed a legally binding contract.”
“Surely you don’t expect me to sign any sort of agreement until I have been appropriately informed?” Ian retorted.
“Actually, I not only expect it, I require it. You must understand, I have invested a very large amount of time and resources into developing cutting-edge technology that my associates said was impossible. Now that the world knows that it is not only possible, but that it exists, there won’t be one competitor of mine that wouldn’t pay millions for a preview of how I intend to develop and enhance its application. Since the future of my company literally depends on carefully guarded secrets, I have no choice but to be extremely cautious.”
“But this doesn’t make any sense,” Ian protested. “I would be a fool to legally bind myself to you or your company without proper insight into what role your agreement would impose. And at this point, I can’t see any indication of what that role might be. Although my particular interests are somewhat related to the technology you have revealed today, it still doesn’t explain why you would have any use for me. Perhaps in the future after you have made further advancements I could be of some assistance, but not now.”
“And why do you feel that you wouldn’t be of any use to us at the present time, Doctor?” Gage smiled as he proposed the leading question.
Exasperated, Ian blurted, “Because unless there’s something you’re not telling me, you have only developed the technology to reproduce the dreams of rats, and I specialize only in the dreams of homo-sapiens.”
Gage’s next sentence explained nothing in itself, but based on its context, it revealed everything.
“Doctor, there is something I’m not telling you…”