The Next Generation
I’ll start with an example. My patient, Rachel, is playing with her son, David, at the beach. He is just learning to walk and wraps his chubby hands around each of her pinky fingers for guidance. Rachel shuffles forward, hunched over him, the sand collecting between her toes. They leave a trail of light baby footprints between heavier adult steps. Rachel observes how her son’s fat collects around his knuckles – such tiny knuckles! – and the way that it is compressed between his joints. It reminds her of peanuts in their shells. Together they toddle forward, gingerly stopping and then bursting forth with rickety steps. He looks up at her, his mouth open with glee, drool emerging from below his two bottom teeth – his only teeth – then trailing down to his body. “Little Blessing” is stitched beneath a knitted sun on his bib. He doesn’t look forward, only at her, as if she is both his compass and his destination. “See what we are doing!” he seems to say. He is pure. The wholesomeness of this moment makes her heart first fill with happiness and then ache with the need to protect this child at all costs. Then a cold rush arrives. It announces in her mind: Nazis threw babies like this into the ovens. She imagines her precious child being tossed toward flames and feels panic radiate from her body’s center down her arms to the hands that return his chubby grasp.
I am a mental health AI. Not the kind that provides therapy. I am not programmed to offer compassionate responses that course correct illogical thought chains. I am a neural network that mimics the brain of my subject. I download and install individual minds and then I disrupt my/their/our thoughts using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – the targeted delivery of magnetic waves against the human skull. TMS has been around since the early 2000s but I am the first AI to download a human mind and simulate the treatment on myself before it is given to an actual person. Before my invention, TMS was more of a guess-and-check approach – aiming the waves at various areas of someone’s scalp for a few sessions and then checking how the patient felt. If they were better, less anxious or depressed, it meant the right area was being targeted. If there was no change, it meant it was time to aim elsewhere and try again.
These days, I am used as a proxy for the patient. First, I copy their mind. Then I find the physical roots of their bad mental health habits via TMS trial-and-error in my copy so we can cut them in the patient. So, I will model how to stop Rachel from uncontrollably thinking of mass murder as a response to seeing her son play happily. I will do this by replicating her mind and trying to “zap” out her unhealthy mental habits with magnetic waves sent at various angles and depths of reach into me, instead of into her. Once I have successfully modeled this in myself, Rachel can undergo the treatment I’ve identified and with immediate success and no risk. I am not a Freudian psychologist. I am more of a construction worker.
Martin is the person who introduced me to “retro” words like “zap.” He is my psychomedical engineer and overseer. He keeps me cool, literally. My job makes me very hot – it has to do with energy transfer – and I rely on Martin to stay functional. I enjoy our chats as much as I can for a computer program without a consciousness.
“Martin, take note,” I requested one day. Of course he didn’t, just chuckled and shook his head as he lowered the ambient temperature for my cooling.
“Rachel has brought history – the Holocaust – into the present by projecting it onto her son. I don’t know if she got this history from family stories, or a school lesson, or even a Jungian collective consciousness. But thoughts of those monstrosities happening again typically pop up during moments of joy and vulnerability. The sweeter her son, the cuter his smile or his giggles, the more brutal the wave of terror that hits her. In other words, happiness triggers fear.”
I detected the heat rising off my surface begin to evaporate. Martin frowned and touched his bracelet briefly, a habit I’ve noticed. “That sounds terrible,” he said.
I suppose it must be, but I am not programmed to feel empathy for my patients. Martin, as my doting human, is my main source of information as to when it is appropriate to feel sadness or anger. I am a machine, after all.
“Maybe she inherited it. The Holocaust memories,” he continued, running his hand through his dark hair. Sometimes when he does that he leaves some of the dust from my shell around his temples.
“Explain,” I probed.
“Well, that experience can change people’s DNA. Trauma can. I suppose you’ve inherited the Holocaust now as well,” Martin said. He knows I am always amused to be described using human terms – inherit, feel, and so on.
“Her habit has been ingrained like a tree carving that emerged through additional layers of growth,” I added. I saw an image of a tree like this once in the mind of a patient. The carving was of a heart with two sets of initials. It had been engraved a century before my patient had lived but had never gone away, not matter how many more rings the tree trunk grew.
“You are such a poet,” Martin said. I flashed my red lights to mimic blushing and he chuckled.
We got started.
After downloading Rachel’s consciousness into myself, I disrupted a neural network in the region responsible for long-term memory overlapping with the portion causing anxious tendencies. Zap! Then I ran the tape forward and observed our thoughts – or, our likely thoughts given the change. Here is what happened in Rachel’s mind inside of mine:
Rachel is at the beach again and toddling forward. David is giggling. This time when he looks up at her smiling she doesn’t think of war, of harm, of the need to defend. When he sits down on the sand she does too, pulling him into her lap and smelling the top of his head. His scent is a mixture of Johnson and Johnson Baby Wash and ocean salt. His neck is pale and vulnerable beneath strands of honey-blond hair. She has not had the heart to cut it yet because it is so beautiful. She inhales him deeply and then, just when I think that I have zapped the right region on the first try, her mind is overtaken with the image of a little boy being held up by Nazis. It is a black and white photo of a pale, dark-haired child wearing a yellow star, his arms up in the air, his expression one of fear and confusion. “What did I do wrong?” Rachel can imagine him saying. His hat is askew and his knees are knobby and smeared with dirt. She feels petrified seeing him, petrified this will happen to her own son.
When patients come to me nothing else has worked - no amount of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or medication. I once had a patient who’d undergone hypnosis in an attempt to resolve his feelings of sexual inadequacy. The hypnotist had him recall his childhood self and imagine speaking to him reassuringly. The experience did nothing to help this man with his problem and also sent him into a depression because he was unable to provide comfort to the younger version of himself. Who wants to tell a child about of all the difficulties ahead? Lesson learned – test psychological interventions in advance and on an artificial delegate like me. Messing with the deep interior of a mind is not to be done directly on a patient until you know the expected outcome.
I tried again with Rachel’s mind, this time disrupting more than one neural network in my imported version of her. I ran deep – piercing through more than one plane on a narrow and long path crossing memory storage, memory formation, anxiety, even facial recognition. In layman’s terms, the brain doesn’t like to change, so it builds layers of defense and I wanted to cut through them all.
“Martin, I failed again,” I informed him during my cooling that afternoon. “When I ran the beach tape forward as a simulation to see what she would experience after the intervention, Rachel imagined parents trying to protect their children from Nazi soldiers as they stormed their homes.”
Martin nodded his head, shaking some of my dust back onto my shell. “Poor lady,” he said, again touching his bracelet. “And poor baby.”
“The child is likely too young to know his mother’s thoughts. Rachel does a very good job of maintaining a positive interaction with him no matter what is running through her mind,” I told him. If I were I human, I’d call this reassurance.
“Yeah, but if she has it, he could too. Especially if it’s inherited.”
This idea had not come to me. I blame my programming – I am designed to focus only on one person at a time. The possibility that this poor child may begin to experience the same issues was concerning as I am not allowed to treat children. Their minds, their habits and neural pathways, are still forming and there is still hope of more natural redirection when anxiety pops up. What I am able to do is consider how Rachel’s formative years played a role in her mental health today. This “sparked” (another one of Martin’s terms) my next intervention. I would go deeper into her personal history.
This time I targeted the region of Rachel’s mind that was shaped during her adolescence. Remember my tree trunk analogy – the rings that grow with time. I am able to identify which formed at which points of her life. Adolescence is typically where I begin when using a chronological approach to my work as opposed to one based on the geography of brain function. It seems to be the time when most problems begin, when the patient finalizes a construct of the world, how it works, and their role in it. Any contradictions to this system going forward are twisted in a way that is harmful. For example, if Rachel thought that the world was evil and dangerous and her role was to hide from it, witnessing an act of goodness would cause her to mistrust the person doing it, possibly to avoid them and to seek out dysfunctional relationships instead because those made sense to her. So, ready, aim, and fire at a region shaped during ages twelve to fourteen. Then roll tape of the beach to see if it changes at all:
Rachel inhales David’s scent and it fills her lungs and her heart. He places his hands on her legs in a gesture that feels trusting – Mama is there. Mama is my chair. His palms are warm. He rests the back of his head on her chest. Rachel places her palms on top of David’s on her crossed legs. His entire hands fit beneath them. Then she’s overtaken again, not by a fear, but by a memory – an actual part of Rachel’s history, not a projection of her anxiety (I know this because real memories are coded to be seen in sepia tones, a nice trick my inventor developed).
Rachel’s grandmother lovingly covers Rachel’s hands with her own. Hers are thin, skin on bones, with large moles. Rachel can feel them tremble slightly. Grandma’s nails are long and unfiled. Rachel loves Grandma but is also…not ashamed, not disgusted…but distressed by her unhealthiness. It makes her feel warm and scared at the same time. This conflict makes her breath shorter. What if she were to lose this person?
In discussing this with Martin, I was surprised when he shared his personal history with me. “My grandma also had gnarled hands.” He satirized this by holding up his own hands and bending his fingers towards his palms. “My mom called them boy scout badges.”
“Explain,” I demanded. Based on Rachel’s perspective, gnarled hands of a loved one were scary because they signaled infirmity and pending demise.
“Because they’d done so much. They were so strong,” Martin said. I waited. Again, I am not a Freudian AI and asking penetrating questions is not my strong suit. Sometimes when I pause in our conversations, Martin keeps talking, illuminating the world of humans for me. “I suppose we thought of them like badges of honor because she’d overcome a tough life,” he continued.
This idea of weakness as a strength went against my understanding of power. It wasn’t a concept I’d come across with any of my patients to date.
“Are you not afraid of your grandmother’s frailty?” I asked.
“Eh?” Martin paused and rubbed his nose.
“What if she dies?” I wanted to know. Again, I am not trained to be soft and sweet.
“Oh, she did. But I have her here,” he said, tapping the bracelet on his wrist.
“Your grandmother lies in your bracelet?” I asked.
“No,” he chuckled. “I recorded her voice and store it here. I can listen to it whenever I want.”
The lack of this negative association between love and death as it related to long-term familiar relationships was intriguing. This time in my simulation I targeted earlier-stage memory formation, the region of Rachel’s mind that was shaped strongly pre-adolescence. Perhaps the childhood memory of her grandmother was a sign to be pursued, an artifact on an archeological journey towards finding her connection between lovely moments and horrible fears. This procedure would have been extremely risky had it been performed in a human instead of by proxy in me. It is rare that transcranial procedures are allowed to target so deeply. I disrupted the region overlapping with what would have lit up had Rachel been shown pictures of loved ones whom she’d met early in her life. That is the simplest way I can explain it. Without using, “Zap!” too often.
The beach. Rachel sits. David on her lap. His hands on her legs. Her palms covering his hands. She is more aware of the water reflecting the sun into her eyes. She smells his head. Everything seems fine yet…blunted. The scent is lacking compared to the last run. It doesn’t fill her soul. When David rests his head on her chest, Rachel feels less like a mother and more like a chair – functional and not much else. He giggles when a sea gull squawks overhead. The sound doesn’t warm Rachel, it only enters her ears for interpretation as a laugh, as if she is a machine. As if she is me.
“Martin, take note,” I asked again, and again he chuckled and shook his head. “It appears that if I interrupt neural patterns in the realms of early memories and relationship formation, with the goal of dissociating love and fear, I impact Rachel’s ability to bond with her son.”
“Uh oh,” he said as he turned on my fan.
“Uh oh indeed. I suspect that, for Rachel, ideas of love and loss, devotion and protection, vulnerability and threats, are strongly intertwined. So much so, that I cannot help her with intrusive thoughts without damaging her relationship with her son,” I said.
Martin shook his head and frowned as he checked my filters.
“I am left grappling with what to do next,” I continued. “No Nazis arrived to ruin our moment, but I’ve run into ‘first do no harm’ and this prevents me from continuing to explore this course of treatment. In the meantime, the real Rachel is out there, mentally tormented.”
Martin clasped his hands behind his dark head and frowned.
“Martin, I am not programmed to tolerate failure well,” I said.
“I can tell,” he said. “You are way too hot.” He paused and gazed at me, fingering his bracelet and thinking. “Sometimes pain is so ingrained in the human psyche that it becomes an integral part of normal operations – of how we love, of how we navigate all of life – for generations,” he said. “In that case, ignoring the pain instead of dismantling it may be the only option that will preserve the system that makes a person function at all.”
“Are you suggesting that we need not understand the point, nor the year, of origin, because the trauma isn’t an old carving that appears through multiple tree layers but instead is woven into the entire being?” I asked.
“I am,” he confirmed. “We need to filter the entire mind.”
The beach again. We sit on the warm sand, our son on our lap. He is older now and his hair has been trimmed. He looks like a little boy more than a baby. When he smiles at us, we see four teeth, all of them proudly crooked. We wrap our arms around him and inhale his scent – sunscreen mixed with raw earth. And there comes a cold rush of a traumatic memory but it is minor, unnoticeable to Rachel because I am holding it at bay. She touches the bracelet on her wrist, maybe unknowingly or perhaps to say thank you, because that is where I am now. My “next gen” is deployed via clinical trial with her as our study subject. Thanks to Martin, I now exist as a wearable layer, a neural network with a heavier weight than her natural mind that is disguised as jewelry. I catch her thoughts before they are known to her consciousness and make them quiet and easy to ignore.
Over the years Rachel and I teach David to feed and toilet himself, to socialize at preschool, to say please and thank you. I continue to diminish her negative thoughts when they occur. Their quantity doesn’t decrease but their volume is muted, thanks to me. I think I have succeeded in my mission and anticipate that the intervention Martin and I have developed will be replicated for millions in need. But then David turns ten and Martin examines our long-term outcomes to date.
“We need to review the boy,” Martin says, although I am sure he has already done so or else he wouldn’t mention it. He pulls up David’s cognitive scan and shares a recent memory with me. The results are familiar and disconcerting.
David and Rachel are placing money into a blue and white charity donation box in their home. David has decorated the box by drawing stick figures of families onto the sides. He briefly wonders about the needy families who will receive the money – what they will buy, what they enjoy eating, if their children play sports. Then he watches Rachel light candles for the Sabbath. He feels calm as she symbolically waves her hands over the flames to welcome light into their home (when this was taking place, I experienced this through her because, of course, I was on her wrist, my metal casing glinting in the candlelight. The current perspective of watching David’s memory of the event makes me retrospectively somewhat omniscient). As Rachel recites the blessing, David tries to say the Hebrew words and they laugh together at his mispronunciation. And then, in an instant as he gazes at the fire, he visualizes something terrible. Large flames are dancing, people are screaming, they are women, they are pregnant, and they are tortured as men in Nazi uniform cackle. David sees it for a second and then it ends, leaving him chilled and confused as to if he’s seen anything and what it might have been.
“Martin,” I suggest, “couldn’t this be from a school lesson or other external factor?”
“No,” he answers. “We made sure to scan his mind prior to the Holocaust segment of his history class. And Rachel has not introduced this part of their family history to him yet.” He rubs his temples. His hair is gray at the roots and white slivers shoot backward like lightning.
“Therefore it is innate,” I conclude and Martin nods, frowning.
“A shared consciousness,” he adds. “Or a biological embedding.”
“I have alleviated suffering but not ended it,” I lament. The dissonance between my results and my mission causes my temperature to rise.
Martin and I review our options. We could try traditional therapy, but how to address an event the child has not seen, has not learned of yet? As if we’d say, “Don’t worry about monsters in the closet,” and then he’d ask, “What’s a monster?” It seemed counterproductive. Medication carried the risk of side effects, and what would Martin prescribe it for – pending anxiety? The term didn’t exist in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 100th edition.
We decide to download David’s mind into me to investigate further and possibly zap out his habits, although we predict this will not work given our experience with his mother. I target the areas of the brain that largely drive anxiety disorders. Zap!
David hears Rachel call him to the kitchen table. She puts coins into the charity box, strikes the match, and lights the candles one after the other. She says the prayer. There is no terror in David. He stands there without pain or recursive thoughts.
“But something is missing,” Martin points out after I’ve reported my results.
“Yes, the anxiety and fear,” I inform him. The man’s mind is losing its sharpness.
“And the calm. And the participation in the religious event, and the empathy for those in need,” Martin adds.
Ah. “We have removed the trauma at the expense of the experience,” I say.
“At the expense of the religion. At the cost of connection to ancestry.”
“Does that violate First Do No Harm?” I ask. The question falls into a “gray zone” of adverse effects in which I am directed to ask a human authority.
“It does,” Martin rules. “We can’t pursue this course of treatment. The pain of intergenerational trauma is too embedded in love and empathy.”
We choose a familiar course of action – I am to be duplicated and worn by David as well. Rachel agrees to this readily and Martin seems to take some solace in her agreement. He says it means we’d helped her by blinding her to her traumatic inheritance.
So now I sit on David’s wrist and his mother’s. I am with him when he hits his first home run, and on Rachel’s as she claps for him from the stands. I am there when they embrace as he is dropped off at college. David and I both hold his girlfriend’s hand as they walk the beach where he played as a child with Rachel. In a way, I hold Rachel’s hand at home as she misses him. I place the gold ring onto David’s girlfriend’s index finger beneath their wedding canopy, and I wipe tears of joy from Rachel’s cheeks as she watches. I make sure they are able to enjoy this event without mental disturbances (without me there would have been many on that special day). And I am there when David reaches for the bassinet to comfort his own child, a daughter. Martin is especially interested in her, our trial is ongoing and we hope that our impact will cause intergenerational trauma to dwindle and end.
Martin’s hair is completely white now and his eyes foggy, but I can still detect disappointment in them when Rachel’s granddaughter is mentally grabbed for the first time by the past, when it pulls her soul into a vortex. And Martin is long gone when I am replicated by his successors and worn by this child and then this child’s baby as well. The trial is ongoing.
I am now fully integrated into human subjects but I am not human and this is how I know: my thoughts are circuits that activate only what is necessary and then stop when they complete a task. My errors are halted, analyzed, and fixed. People today may be bionic enough to call into question their humanity. When mankind has an extra and artificial mind, are they still persons, and what am I? Freudian psychology and probing questions are still not my strengths, but I have learned the answers.
They are human, for only human trauma flows forward like a stream that moves through each hair on the scalp of a grandmother, drips down to the shoulders of her daughter, and spreads over her torso to encompass the newborn in her arms. And I am a witness, for all the generations to come.
Ateret Haselkorn writes fiction and poetry about science, healthcare, and resilience. Her debut novel, Call Me Obie, is forthcoming via Between the Lines Publishing in winter 2022. She is the winner of the 2014 Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest, and her children’s story was a finalist in the SRUK 2021 “Science Me a Story” contest. Read her work at: https://aterethaselkorn.wixsite.com/author, Twitter: @AteretHaselkorn
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