Rhyme And Reason - A Literary Series

The memory biopsy

The Professor is scheduled for a brain biopsy the next day. The nurse exits his room and wishes him good evening, leaving the slight man standing against the full glass windows, staring out at the surrounding office towers and low-rise houses.

The descending light rays turn his face luminous, though he does not know it. They refract past his cornea and enter the dark hole of his pupils. At the retina, the light turns into electricity (the inverse act of a light bulb), traverses the X-shaped optic chiasm, sweeps backwards into the occipital lobes, and loses itself, possibly into memory. He presses his fingers hard on the glass and tries to recall the shape of his wife's face.

A man enters the room and shakes the Professor's hand.

Good to see you again, says the Professor. He pauses, unsure. The ephemeral confusion passes like the wave of a hand. Have we met before?

Perhaps, the man says. Years ago.

The man explains (yet again), that he will be the neurosurgeon tomorrow. He goes over the operation.

The lesion to be biopsied is near the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped seat of memory formation. The Professor's memory had been failing and, for the past few months, he felt like he had been walking in a permanent mist.

What is a memory? the man finds himself asking. A professorial voice: unknown, but thought to be the set of neurons activated by the recall of an experience. Theoretically, it may be detected as an electrical signal trace.


The lift doors close and a remembrance opens. Twenty years ago, the man is a medical student, in a packed lecture room, listening to the Professor's famous Wednesday afternoon lectures. He was a lion of medicine, the type of doctor who does not exist anymore. He had seen everything, and could treat anything, in the bad old days when there were only X-rays and penicillin. The projector clicks and throws a giant image onto a pull-down screen. Slide after slide the patients look back. One is a thin, cachectic child with skin boils, another, a tuberculotic woman with a facial tumour. The Professor speaks quickly and passionately. The disease is not the patient, and the patient is not the disease.


    Justin Ker is currently a neurosurgical registrar. He studied biology and creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University, before furthering his interest in neuroscience at the University of Sydney with a medical degree.


    The Space Between the Raindrops, Epigram Books 2014 A collection of urban vignettes, where a man tests time travel by cheating on his parking coupons, and Singapore is interviewed as a psychiatric patient.

    His works have been anthologised in Fish Eats Lion, Math Paper Press 2012, and The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One, Epigram Books 2013.

    • A selection of his writings may be found at: http://justinker. diaryland.com

On his first day as a house-officer, the Professor shook his hand, in the middle of a ward, as the sick lay sick, and the dying lay dying. Young man, I must train you well. Young man, one day you will treat us.

As the lift continues its descent, the man considers the role reversals, and does not know what to make of it. He feels only a vague sense of - was it gratitude? That there exists a tradition where the knowledge of healing is passed down the generations. The doctor was now the patient, and the disciple would operate on the master.

The operating theatre is quieter than usual. A short incision is made in the Professor's scalp. The biopsy needle slides through brain, towards the lesion. The hippocampus lies centimetres away. It is a map-maker, marking both the human experience of time and space.

Time passes. Microseconds. Infinitesimal ticks of an atomic clock. The biopsy needle passes though brain, neuronal cells, synapses, even past the memory of the man on his first day as a house-officer. Everything in the present was being turned into the past, including the act of one man entering another man's memories.

The neurosurgeon thought: how strange, for one memory to biopsy another. He will withdraw the needle with the specimen inside, for perplexed pathologists to examine, under light microscopes.

At the same time, thousands of kilometres away in North America: a gravitational wave that emanated from two black-holes in a death embrace one billion light-years away, sweeps across the earth at the speed of light, warping the space-time around it. It is detected for the first time by scientists at Ligo (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) in Washington state, who have been listening for its theoretical existence for 40 years.

The gravitational wave made all the masses on earth, including the surgeon, the hippocampal neurons, the silvered metal tip of the biopsy needle, expand and then contract by an immeasurable fraction. The gravitational wave is perhaps an astrophysical form of memory, carrying information about the history of its formation, as it ripples out across the universe.

The gravitational waves prove that Einstein was right, and we live in a fabric known as space-time that is malleable and unreliable, like walking in a mist where the faces of wives, lovers and children fade in and out.

The solidity of our existence, and the forward arrow of time that we experience, are false.

A nurse pushes the Professor on a wheelchair through the hospital atrium. The Professor looks up at the skylight and is temporarily blinded. Thick shafts of light angle downwards diagonally and cut into him as alternating bands of light and darkness on his blue hospital pyjamas.

The Professor looks around at the people waiting around the atrium. To meet a colleague for lunch, to wait for a mother to visit a father in the ward. A man leans against a pillar and looks at his watch. If there is no forward arrow of time, and since the travel of light is reversible, then memories can also perform the reverse journey out from our brains, and emanate from our eyes.

The wheelchair glides across the light-filled atrium, cutting into the memories of others. Deliberately, the Professor places his hand on the wheelchair's armrest, turning his palm and all its grooved lines to face the sky.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'The memory biopsy'. Print Edition | Subscribe