Brainglass

Given the right geological circumstances, brains can become glass. During the 1st-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, for example, one fleeing victim’s brain was allegedly vitrified, its soft, thinking tissues transformed into “small, glassy black fragments that were just attached inside the skull,” the Washington Post reports, like shards of a broken window.

[Image: Brainglass, via the Washington Post.]

These reflective fragments—little black mirrors—“contained proteins common in brain tissue, researchers found, and had undergone vitrification and transformed into glass.” That made this “the first time brains from any human or animal have been found fossilized as glass.” This, of course, could be because we haven’t been looking: what other deposits of obsidian lying around on the Earth’s surface are actually fossilized animal brains? Vitrified neurology.

In any case, I was reminded of an exhibition last summer at the Getty Villa here in Los Angeles called Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri. Among the artifacts on display were these incredible “carbonized papyri,” or scrolls—ancient books—that had been turned into seemingly useless lumps of charcoal.

[Image: Carbonized papyrii on display at Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri; photo by betway必威 .]

The amazing thing was that, by using advanced medical imaging equipment to peer inside the lumps, researchers discovered that these previously illegible objects could be made readable again, virtually unrolled using X-ray tomography and character-recognition algorithms, to reconstruct the scrolls’ lost content. They were “able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact.”

To be honest, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen—the “noninvasive digital restoration of ancient texts… hidden inside artifacts.” Otherwise mute objects given technical legibility. (A similar technique inspired one of the greatest New York Times headlines of the past few years: “Scanning an Ancient Biblical Text That Humans Fear to Open,” combining, at a stroke, H.P. Lovecraft, X-ray imaging technology, and possible Christian apocrypha.)

Stepping away from realistic technical applications for just a moment into the world of pure science fiction, it is fascinating to imagine a team of future researchers using 21st-century medical imaging techniques to scan, Jurassic Park-style, for lost thoughts lodged inside pieces of obsidian, black glass fossils of animal brain tissue, almost like the reader of unicorn skulls in Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The idea that some of the rocks around us might, in fact, be glass brains—brainglass, a new mineral—neurological apocrypha awaiting decipherment, suggests a thousand new novels and storylines. Neurogeonomicon.

Black and ancient brains dreaming inside what humans mistook for geology.

A Spatial History of Sleep

[Image: Fish preserved in the eternal ocean of a closed jar at the American Museum of Natural History; old Instagram by Geoff Manaugh].

Although this is a classic example of something I am totally unqualified to talk about, a recent report over at ScienceNews caught my eye, about the 必威客户端app origins of REM sleep.

In a nutshell, the paper suggests that “sleep may have originated underwater 450 million years ago,” which is apparently when “the cells that kick off REM sleep” first evolved in fish. “During REM or paradoxical sleep,” we read, “the brain lights up with activity almost like it’s awake. But the muscles are paralyzed (except for rapid twitching of the eyes) and the heart beats erratically.”

Dreaming, it’s as if ancient fish learned to pass into a different kind of ocean, a fully immersive neural environment coextensive with the one they physically swam within.

What’s so interesting about this—at least for me—is the implication that REM sleep, and, thus, by extension, the very possibility of animals dreaming, was made possible by immersion in an all-encompassing 必威客户端app environment such as the sea. In other words, it took the vast black depths of the ocean to facilitate the kind of uninterrupted, meditative stillness in which REM sleep could best occur. Those ancestral cells then survived into our own mammalian brains, and, by dreaming, it’s perhaps a bit like we retreat back into some lost experience of the oceanic.

[Image: “Sleeping Beauty” by Hans Zatzka].

In any case, the study’s authors are probably rolling their eyes at this point, but so much comes to mind here—everything from H.P. Lovecraft’s marine-horror stories and their alien call of the deep—such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”—to the speculative idea that there might be other 必威客户端app environments, comparable to the ocean, that, after long-enough exposure, could inspire unique neurological processes otherwise impossible in traditional environments.

I’m thinking of Jeremy Narby’s strange book, Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, about human culture amidst the impenetrable rain forests of the Americas, or even the long-running sci-fi trope of the human mind expanding in a psychedelic encounter with deep space.

In fact, this makes me wonder about the landscapes of other planets, and whether crushingly powerful gravitational regimes in alien superstorms or bizarre swirling ecosystems deep inside liquid rock might affect the neurological development of species that live there. What other kinds of sleep are environmentally possible? Does every planet come with a different kind of dreaming? Can the design or formation of new kinds of space catalyze new forms of sleep? Are there deeper or higher levels of the brain, so to speak, waiting to appear in radically different 必威客户端app environments?

We already have astrobiology, astrogeology, even astrolinguistics, but I wonder what it would look like to study sleep on other worlds. Exosomnology.