James Burr

And From the Heads of Babes

Dr. Emanuel Kokoschka had long since been denounced as a crackpot and a quack but the controversy surrounding reports of his latest research was quite unlike anything I’d ever seen in all my years of scientific journalism. He welcomed me at the iron shutters of his latest clinic (in reality an industrial unit on the outskirts of Tipton) and ushered me into his office. We walked past lines of iron shelving that ran the length of the warehouse, cardboard boxes containing babies and toddlers of various ages, some of them crying, some babbling incoherently.

His office was bare apart from a plastic garden chair, an aluminum desk, a large throne-like chair of leather and polished gold, and a tatty Sunday Sport calendar from 1992, perhaps leftover from his “clinic’s” previous occupants. He bid me sit on the plastic chair as he eased himself into his throne.

“Ah, yes,” he said, “My work into the development of human consciousness has been most enlightening, raising questions about the most fundamental aspects of the nature of human awareness.”

He sat back in his throne, clearly relishing this opportunity to explain his work in detail. “For you see, awareness is simply the ability to attend selectively among a range of perceived stimuli and then combine and hold these attended items in a short-term memory store. By placing babies in sensory deprivation tanks directly from birth, I found that prodding them with pointy sticks elicited a reaction that clearly demonstrated an awareness that pointy sticks were bad and so something to be avoided.”

I stopped scribbling in my notebook, shocked.

“So awareness can therefore be found in solitary animals and is not an aspect of social intelligence. I had proven that non-conscious babies may be aware of their surroundings. However, awareness of inner body states is surely unique to conscious beasts.”

He sat forward and leaned on his desk. “So I attempted to determine how this awareness of the inner body state would be affected by manipulating the outer environment. One group I kept in their sensory deprivation tanks, another group were subjected to overwhelming external stimuli – constant flashing lights, Skrillex at 120 decibels and the like – while another had their subjective awareness distorted through round the clock administration of LSD. Four years later and the results are overwhelmingly conclusive. Idiots. Absolute idiots, the lot of them!”

He beamed at me, obviously proud of what he considered his ground-breaking research. “But then, there is the question of the nature of language in human consciousness. Freud argued that for an idea to become conscious it needs to be attached to language and language learning involves learning associations between objects and words. I tested this hypothesis by placing the little tykes in a controlled environment and then showing them objects before repeating random words. So I would show them a banana and say, “Dongle,” or give them a doll and say, “Binoculars,” for example.”

The door swung open and a young boy of around four years of age, a bloody bandage wrapped around his head and only an old bin liner around his loins, scampered in and rushed to Kokoschka. He looked up imploringly as he tugged at Kokoschka’s stained, white coat. “Kipper jam shot fizz tea!”

“Yes, yes. Be quiet now.” He paused. “They are annoying, aren’t they?” Kokoschka patted the child on the head. “And while they did indeed show a certain level of consciousness, I was faced with the issue of human language acquisition itself. In a social milieu a child wants to communicate social information and tries to talk because it is so useful in the social environment. It is this drive that elevated humans, who are indeed fully conscious, from apes, who demonstrate only awareness. So by placing these children together in a room, I observed how being with the other children affected their development of language.”

I sat in stunned silence but Kokoschka, now fully enthused in being able to describe his research to someone else continued. “And absolute gibberish it was; complete cacophony. But still, that brings me to the latest stage of my research, which is undoubtedly the most exciting.”

I was so stunned by his catalogue of atrocities that I could barely croak out a response.

“For you see, it is probable that consciousness is crucially dependent upon neural circuits located in dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex – the upper-outer lobes of the front of the dominant, language-containing, hemisphere – for this is the most recently evolved part of the human brain. So my current research involves opening up their little noggins and applying powerful electrical current to the various parts of their exposed brains.”

The frightened child continued to tug at his coat. “Fob win nostril courgette,” it whined before starting to wail.

“So…” I gasped. “What… what have you discovered?”

“Well, very strong findings! Very strong! Groundbreaking! They don’t like it. They don’t like it all. Do you, poppet?”

The child continued to cry, as rain started to pelt against the corrugated iron roof.

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