I know there is no physical sensation in the brain. It cannot feel pain. It cannot feel touch. Even in a car accident when the brain sloshes from side to side and bashes against one side of the skull and then the other, the brain sustains injuries, but feels nothing.
That notwithstanding, twice in my life I have felt physical sensations in my brain – or at least what felt like them.
The first time was at the dentist. I am terribly phobic about dentists, so even for routine procedures I need anti-anxiety medication. This was not a routine procedure.
The dentist was very understanding. He put me in the children’s treatment room, which had brightly colored designs of cactus, coyotes, cowboys, all painted on the walls in comforting colors and playful attitudes.
He also brought in a traveling anesthesiologist so that I could be unconscious during the procedure instead of terrified. My husband was there with me, of course, both to drive me and to give me moral support. (It also turned out that he had to give permission for one of my teeth to be removed in the middle of the procedure while I was unconscious.)
While the anesthesiologist was putting me under, my husband and the dentist were casually chatting. My husband made a remark and the dentist said, “Oh, she can’t hear us now. She’s already pretty far under and won’t remember a thing.”
“I bet she will,” my husband replied. The bet involved giving me a word to try to remember when I awoke. They selected the word green.
“You mean like the color of my pants?” I said. They were actually more like olive drab.
“Yes,” the dentist replied. “Green – the color.”
Just for the hell of it, as I was sinking into unconsciousness, I silently repeated to myself the word green in a slow and steady manner: green green green – until the drugs took me under.
An unknown time later I awoke. The dentist asked me, “Is there something you were supposed to remember?” I shook my head groggily.
As soon as I did, I felt an odd sensation in the back of my brain. It was like a little bubble rising up through liquid. When the bubble reached the surface of whatever the liquid was, it burst and released the word green. “Green?” I said uncertainly.
“See?” said my husband. “I told you she would remember.”
The other sensation in my brain came about six weeks after beginning a new psychotropic medication. I had gone through a long, miserable time of trying drug after drug after drug – tapering off on one and ramping up on the next – all with no effect, except unpleasant ones.
Dr. R. was ready to recommend electroshock for me. And after such a long time – I think it may have been two years – of trying and failing with different medications, I was ready to take the plunge. I admitted as much in one of my sessions.
“There’s one more thing I’d like to try before we do that,” said Dr R. “Here is a prescription for lamictal”.
“Okay,” I said. “How does it work?”
“We don’t really know,” he replied. This was our standard conversation whenever he prescribed a new drug. I was used to it, but I always asked anyway.
So I tried it. And felt the usual nothing for almost six weeks. Then one day I was in my husband’s study and we were talking, when I felt it.
It was the physical sensation in the back of my brain of a light switch being flipped. I thought I heard an internal click. When that switch flipped, suddenly something in my brain changed. It remembered how to think and to feel and to not be miserable.
“Oh!” I said. “I remember this. This is the way my brain is supposed to work.” Since then it has kept working – not continuously in the proper manner – but often enough that I consider the drug a success.
I know that in both of those cases nothing happened in my brain that caused a physical sensation. Both times, my brain gave me a metaphor for what was happening. In the dentist’s office the metaphor was a bubble rising to the surface to explain coming out from under sedation – and a little bit of self-hypnosis.
In the case of the drug, the metaphor was the cliche of flipping on a light switch. This time something had changed in my brain, something biochemical. I should not have been able to feel it, but according to my brain, I did.
It seems I have a clever brain. It gave me ways to understand what was happening in terms I could relate to. The fact that I know the brain can have no physical sensations did not matter to my brain.
Human brains are amazing – and sometimes even in a good way.