The General

About the author

This is a picture from me at around the same time period, working for the same lab and boss (Melody Moore Jackson). We were at NextFest, a public tech event in Chicago sponsored by Wired magazine. Back then, we used passive electrodes that required gel and prepping each site. Not sure if it’s OK to mention who else is in the picture, but she was helping us at the booth and I wish her well.

Someone who saw this ancient EEG prep procedure live was shocked at the sight of a woman squirting something into my brain. That’s not what’s happening. She’s putting electrode gel underneath the electrode and over my scalp. This was an EEG-based BCI, which is noninvasive and painless. Aside from using fNIRS, my brain has never seen the light.

The General by Brendan ZaChary AllIson

The General suffered a brainstem stroke in summer 2004. The retired fighter pilot went to bed healthy and woke up with locked in syndrome – able to see, hear, think, and feel, but not speak or move. The rest of his life was spent in a bed equipped with a respirator, TV, and catheter. His wife was always there, leaning forward on a gleaming cheap wood stool, cupping his head in one hand and stroking his handsome grey hair with the other. She greeted visitors with arms like a lying fisherman and a laugh like a brick hearth on Christmas Eve before bounding off to prepare an excess of snacks and pineapple guava juice despite insistent protest. The huge living room had Puerto Rican depictions of the Virgin Mary on every wall, table, and shelf, but the dominant feature was the General. Your first thought on meeting him was to learn how to salute properly. He seemed ready to launch a thousand ships even under white plastic tubing and the sudden realization that his eyes weren’t following you. His wife told stories in English or Spanish about his days in Nam, earning medal after medal before getting shot down and washing onto a tiny island without supplies until rescue three days later. When his oe ordeal was over, he told her that he was born a general, and indeed became one, and then some. Everyone followed her lead of talking to him about whatever came to mind, never asking direct questions, hoping the topic was of interest. Finally a team of neuroscientists from Georgia Tech came to try a prototype brain computer interface so he could communicate without movement. After an assiduous hassle so his wife could sign a legal informed consent form for him, they put an electrode cap on his head and recorded EEG while he tried to convey information. No luck. The team kept at it, tinkering and returning, all the while talking to the receptive General about how the human brain works. After 3 months they got it working; he could accurately spell 2 letters per minute with brainwaves. They showed his wife how to run the system, prep him for recording, and so on. She somehow hurdled three stairs and grabbed the phone while the team lead droned on at the General – I had been talking about what exactly we were looking for in his brainwaves – and suddenly a phone was shoved at me, an excited daughter in law asking what he would say after 2 years of silence. Hard to tell, I said, one patient first asked about sports, another about her fingernails, a third complained about her shirt. After the call and 38 boa constrictor hugs, my team packed up gear in the living room and I went to say goodbye to the General and check his cap. There on the monitor was his first message, SHUT FUCK UP LEAVE ALONE. And so we did.

Author Commentary

I wrote this in 2006. I posted it on the TC Boyle message board in 2006 and on my blog in 2007.

Then and now, I thought about titling this “BCI in General,” but that would imply that it was an invasive BCI, which it wasn’t, and other details would need to change to make it realistic. “BCI on General” just doesn’t work.

I capitalized the word “General” even when it wasn’t grammatically appropriate because he was just that kind of guy.

Realism

This is based on a true story. Some details have been changed. The switch from third to first person was intentional.

Hope

This story describes restoration of agency. Someone had been unable to communicate. Thanks to a BCI, he was able to communicate one of his desires.

Here is a video of the esteemed Professor Jackson speaking about BCIs, which includes the key point that many people with severe motor disabilities – contrary to what is often assumed – are not depressed. They very much want to live, express themselves, and make changes in their lives.

It’s also an example of the unpredictability of this gig. The ending highlights some of these challenges.

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