Doors of Perception

6 Dec

Aldous Huxley: I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.

In November 1989 I attended what was to be my last International Scientific Conference. It was held in Berlin. I was 31 years of age and had begun to realise that I was getting too long in the tooth to achieve my dream – a tenured academic post as a Zoologist. I had passed my sell by date.

In addition I was sick to death of working in another person’s research laboratory, as a postdoctoral associate, on someone else’s research program. I had strayed so far from my interests as a zoologist (arthropod behaviour and structure) that it seemed to me that I had allowed myself to become a highly paid drone.

As I travelled by train from The Netherlands to Germany, I became aware that many heavily armed German military Police joined the train at the border. East/West tensions were running high at the time, I was aware that we were on the cusp of a seismic shift in World politics.

Huxley’s Doors of Perception were beginning to open.

Research scientists normally apply to the grant awarding body who supports their research for funds to cover their travel expenses. On this occasion I decided to be a free agent again, so I paid to go out of my own pocket. A wise decision, it transpired, as it allowed for greater freedom and clarity of thought.

On the second day of my stay, I wandered over to Check Point Charlie and crossed over in order to visit a brilliant developmental biologist called Wolfgang Dohle. I took him some new boxer shorts, chocolate and several pairs of socks. He gave me a lot of Russian Vodka.

Wolfgang had a cynical view of his home country, East Germany – “Great public transport and concerts, Henk. Shit food and no decent chocolate. Very very grey.” The next day, nursing a hangover, I watched Brian Hanrahan, in the flesh, reporting for the BBC on the unfolding and tumultuous events in Berlin, against the backdrop of the wall and the Brandenburg Gate.

At five metres away, I was part of History. https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/the-berlin-wall/zdphd6f

The military police were nowhere to be seen. East was about to meet West with the force of a sledgehammer on a concrete wall. Thousands of East Germans had decided to swap their Vodka for decent underwear and good chocolate.

Flushed with the excitement of what I had witnessed, I attended the final day of the conference. I listened to a very clever woman, a young neuroscientist, describe how she had mapped the internal wiring of the visual cortex in the brain of the little owl.

Athena noctua, the little owl, named after the virgin Goddess of wisdom and war – often depicted sitting upon her shoulder.

Here she sits on the post of a cleft oak gate overlooking Meersbrook Park.

The scientist insisted on referring to the owls she had worked on as ‘preparations’ and the processing of the owl in order to study its neuroanatomy as ‘sacrifice’.

She ‘sacrificed’ quite a few little owls.

It occurred to me that no one had asked Athena if this sacrifice was worthy, and that her syntax was hideously close to the lexicon of The Holocaust. Echoing all around us under the Brandenberg Gate and in the park, Unter den Linden.

As the Berlin wall came crashing down, Huxley’s Doors of Perception opened in my mind.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception” A. Huxley.

I suddenly realised that neuroscience and physiology research were no longer for me.

Disassembling animals in order to understand how the whole creature worked seemed reprehensible, reductionist and utterly disgusting.

In all conscience I could no longer see the point of understanding a system if one had to destroy the very thing one was studying in the process. Although my work was carried out on the humble and destructive plague locust. I didn’t think this ‘preparation’ should pay the ultimate price for our insatiable curiosity.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

I experienced what might be called a moral paradigm shift. Zen masters would call it enlightenment.

“Let the owls be owls, Grasshopper!” Is now my Koan.

I resigned in the Spring of 1990 and retrained as a science teacher. A stepping stone to where I am now, where I make the doors for other’s perception and no longer contribute to a Brave New World.

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