Because Gifty’s mice help her to understand addiction, they symbolize her brother, Nana, who died of an accidental heroin overdose. The mice allow Gifty to answer questions she had—and still has—for Nana. Not all of them are answerable: she will never really be able to understand what being high felt like for Nana, and she will never be able to untangle how chance and Nana’s interrelated risk factors culminated in his addiction and untimely death. But Transcendent Kingdom makes it clear that Gifty identifies the mice—particularly one so hopelessly addicted to Ensure that he develops a psychosomatic limp, expecting to be painfully shocked while he tries to get his hit—with Nana. In her desire to understand addiction and the mice, at one point, Gifty buys a can of Ensure and drinks it herself, trying to find a point of connection with the limping mouse and with her deceased brother, with limited success. But the mice do give answers to some of the questions, namely, how can a person get a brother to put down the needle? The answer, Gifty discovers, is by modifying the neural pathways that expect reward. And although her research can’t rewrite the past or bring Nana back from the dead, when optogenetics stops the limping mouse from seeking his reward, she experiences the moment as a sort of rebirth that she always wanted for Nana.
Mouse Quotes in Transcendent Kingdom
Though I had done this millions of times, it still awed me to see a brain. To know that if I could only understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn’t speak to the full intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try to understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say. That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know.
What’s the point? became a refrain for me as I went through the motions. One of my mice … was hopelessly addicted to Ensure, pressing the lever so often that he’d developed a psychosomatic limp in anticipation of the random shocks…Soon he would be one of the mice I used in optogenetics, but not before I watched him repeat his doomed actions with that beautifully pure, deluded hope of an addict, the hope that says, This time will be different. This time I’ll make it out okay.
“What’s the point of all this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this questions is, “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing?”
My papers … captured the facts of my experiments, but said nothing of what it had felt like to hold a mouse in my hands and feel its entire body thump against my palms as it breathed, as its heart beat. I wanted to say that too … I wanted to tell someone about the huge wave of relief I felt every time I watched an addicted mouse refuse the lever. That gesture, that refusal, that was the point of the work, the triumph of it, but there was no way to say any of that. Instead, I wrote out the step-by-step process, the order. The reliability, the stability of the work, the impulse to keep plugging … that was the skin of it for me, but the heart of it was that wave of relief, that limping mouse’s tiny, alive body, living still, and still.