As a zookeeper, my primary job was to take care of my animals. But since 2009, I’ve watched them in awe as their brains have been profoundly advanced by progress in technology.
Here is how I learned about a real-life creature that looks and acts so different from us that it may be even smarter than us: I researched my father’s death, an unforeseen episode during which he grabbed a cocaine stash while he and his daughter were in the doctor’s office. He was paralyzed by the second day and died two days later.
As I am completing this story, I’m still mindful of how much technology has improved our lives — but there’s also that side of me that saw my father destroyed by a lack of connection with his own body. While I didn’t see him ever suffer from poor sleep, no matter how fit or healthy he may have seemed, he appeared weak on his feet on walks. Perhaps he felt tired when we were not together. Who knows? But it gave me a glimpse of how completely disconnecting from my own body can destroy a person.
Today, my brother and his wife have two kids, a computer and no qualms about bathing them, but still want a familiar hand. My aunt still has her rocking chair in her room with a view of the ocean, but rarely rides with the nieces. Still, I see her each week and hear her laugh and dance with her daughters, even when the weather is miserable.
Whether it is in a doctor’s office, in a puddle of water or in front of a television, perhaps most of us just want the same thing. We want to be close to something that holds us.
So scientists have been studying gorillas, chimps and other primates in search of new tools and ways to help our own brains prepare for death. And while the goal of evolution is to keep us alive as long as possible, it’s evident that researchers want to see what animals can do to prepare for death. If gorillas can recognize humans, they could, researchers theorize, recognize the symptoms of dementia or other illnesses in humans. There may be ways they can simulate anxiety, depression and other things humans may be experiencing before they can even communicate.
However, I can’t say it was always easy to meet those goals. For the past six years, I’ve examined the brains of gorillas, chimpanzees and other monkeys that were kept at the Virginia Primate Center in West Virginia. The work has been more than just an educational undertaking, because as a zookeeper, I can’t imagine knowing my own mortality while away from my animals. If only we could use the monkey brains to remember the shows we saw and the stories we told our kids, we would be far closer to preserving the planet we share. But researchers didn’t always get there. Researchers only started to differentiate brains of the sick from the healthy when the U.S. started treating humans and nonhuman primates as if they were part of the same species.
One year, the primate center was awarded $4 million to study the brains of patients in a veterans’ mental health facility in West Virginia. Last year, the university reviewed the scientific article that reported our results and was struck by two things. One, that human brains are very similar to primates’ brains; and two, that chimpanzees’ brains are similar to the human brain.
When you look at your own brain, both studies, many of which I helped research, do give you a distorted picture. I keep one on my nightstand to remind me that my connections with my brain run deep and that I can help save the world by asking researchers to be open to new possibilities for how our brains can help us.