Monday, April 2, 2007
My Aunt's Middle Name Was Penfield.
The "Penfield Mood Organ" that appears in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of my all-time favorite Dick gadgets. The device, which stimulates particular moods in the user (my favorite setting is 888 -- the desire to watch TV no matter what's on) adds to the total irony of the book; after all, the novel concerns the difference between man and machine -- which boils down to authentic feelings -- but the human protagonist Rick Deckard uses technology to produce his feelings.
Dick didn't name the device randomly; he was familiar with (and troubled by) the work of pioneering neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield whose autobiography No Man Alone is available once again from Amazon (after years of being out of print). The book chronicles Penfield's impressive career from developing new procedures for staining brain cells, to his remarkable techniques for removing brain tumors in conscious patients. Penfield would open the skull of the patient and while they were awake on the operating table he would poke around for the tumor (the brain has no nerve-endings that produce pain except in a tumor) and while he was rooting around in there, his patients often experienced remarkable sensations: hearing music, smelling and tasting food, vivid memories etc etc. These observations lead Penfield to do some of the earliest mapping of the brain.
Penfield is a legend in my family. In fact, he was my great-grandmother's brother (In a very Shakespearean turn, she died after Penfield was unable to fully remove her brain tumor). I read No Man Alone several years ago and really enjoyed it. While Penfield's work is legendary in our family and we like to think he did remarkable good for the treatment of brain tumors, Dick was deeply frightened by Penfield's observations. In his 1972 speech, "The Android and the Human" Dick said, "I wonder if you recall the 'brain mapping' developed by Penfield recently...By stimulating one minute area with an electrode, a laboratory rat was transfigured into a state of perpetual bliss. 'They'll be doing that to all of us, too, soon,' a pessimistic friend said to me regarding that. 'Once the electrodes have been implanted, they can get us to feel, think, do anything they want.'"
Ever the paranoid, Dick feared that unlocking the secrets of the mind would naturally lead to the authorities using this knowledge to control people. Perhaps he should have worried less about Penfield's techniques and more about the psychology of advertising.