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ESSAY



A MYSTERY WRITER ATTENDS THE SPRAGUE SYMPOSIUM

I attended the second annual Robert and Margaret Sprague Symposium to research my novel, Black Water. In the story, a young cop is shot in the head, but lives through it. I wasn't sure what would happen to such a character, but I wanted to know what could happen. All I really knew about the human brain was that it has many parts that do specific jobs; and that although small enough to fit inside your head, a brain is more complex than the solar system.

So I was fishing for facts, and for an interesting "angle" on my head-shot young man. The first talk I listened to was presented by Dr. Sam Gambhir of UCLA, who talked about different ways that doctors can see what is going on inside molecules. One of these "imaging systems" is based on luciferase, the chemical that allows fireflies to produce light. Scientists can light up your cells with firefly light and see, for instance, how your cells are responding to therapy.

To the adult in me, this firefly idea seemed absolutely ingenious. Who'd even think of trying that. But to the boy in me—who captured fireflies on Grandma Mae's farm in Ohio and bottled them to make lanterns, (bio-lanterns?) it seemed like an obvious application.

After Dr. Gambhir's talk, I took a tour of the PET scan facility in the Brain Imaging Center. This building and its complex machinery brought back memories. My wife Catherine and I had spent some hours here a decade ago, as the BIC helped locate and classify the tumor growing in her brain. I remember the cheerfulness and professionalism of the BIC staff. They were conducting medicine on a rarefied level, but never lost track of why they were doing it. Cat and I always felt that the whole BIC was pulling for her to beat that ugly cancer. She was in a war and they knew it, and they treated her like the hero she was.

The next presentation was Dr. Larry Cahill of UCI discussing emotion and memory. Dr. Cahill is doing research on a small, almond-shaped portion of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is where emotion is attached to memory. In women, the left amygdala performs this function, in men it is the right.

Dr. Cahill began by pointing out that human memory is not a "passive recording" but "an active building." That is, we are constantly creating, editing and storing memories of what has happened to us. In Dr. Cahill's poetic words, "Calamity has a way of imprinting itself on memory." How? Through the amygdala, of course. The amygdala provides for us the emotional component of memory—it tells us how we felt about what was happening.

Suddenly, I realized I'd found what I'd come here for. I realized that in Black Water, my wounded young deputy—Archie—would have his amygdala ruined by the bullet. I realized that when Archie rises to consciousness after being shot in the head, he would still possess the emotions surrounding his deeper, older memories, but he would not be able to create new memories with a full emotional content.

Then, when Archie remembers his shooting—and that of his wife on the same awful night—he's not able to connect an appropriate emotion to go with them. The homicide detective in charge of the case must then figure out whether Archie's version of what happened is 1) bullet-addled non-sense, 2) truthful, or 3) a cunning alibi that could allow him to get away with the murder of his wife. Archie is the prime suspect and the only witness. But he's got no amygdala—no emotional rudder—to help guide him.

Dr. Cahill had no way of knowing it, but his lecture helped solve my mystery for me. In my book—which comes out in April—I thank him and Dee Harvey and everyone at the UCI Brain Imaging Center. But I'd like to acknowledge all of you personally now, and thank you for all you do.

Science and stories have one big thing in common, they're both about people.


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