The Fourth Scream
Janie loved her research. It was at the intersection of so many interesting areas - genetics, linguistics, neuroscience. And the best thing about it - she could work the whole day with these adorable vervet monkeys.
One more time, she showed the video of the flying eagle to Kassandra. The MRI helmet on Kassandra’s little head measured the neuron activation, highlighting the same region on her computer screen as the other times, the same region as with the other monkeys. Kassandra let out the scream that Janie was able to understand herself by now, the scream meaning “Eagle!”, and the other monkeys behind the bars in the far end of the room, in a cage large as half the room, ran to cover in the bushes and small caves, if they were close enough. As they did every time.
That MRI helmet was a masterpiece. She could measure the activation of the neurons in unprecedented high resolution. And not only that, she could even send inferencing waves back, stimulating very fine grained regions in the monkey’s brain. The stimulation wasn’t very fast, but it was a modern miracle.
She slipped a raspberry to Kassandra, and Kassandra quickly snatched it and stuffed it in her mouth. The monkeys came from different populations from all over Southern and Eastern Africa, and yet they all understood the same three screams. Even when the baby monkeys were raised by mute parents, the baby monkeys understood the same three screams. One scream was to warn them from leopards, one scream was to warn them from snakes, and the third scream was to warn them from eagles. The screams were universally understood by everyone across the globe - by every vervet monkey, that is. A language encoded in the DNA of the species.
She called up the aggregated areas from the scream from her last few experiments. In the last five years, she was able to trace back the proteins that were responsible for the growth of these four areas, and thus the DNA encoding these calls. She could prove that these three different screams, the three different words of Vervetian, were all encoded in DNA. That was very different from human language, where every word is learned, arbitrary, and none of the words were encoded in our DNA. Some researchers believed that other parts of our language were encoded in our DNA: deep grammatical patterns, the ability to merge chunks into hierarchies of meaning when parsing sentences, or the categorical difference between hearing the syllable ba and the syllable ga. But she was the first one to provably connect three different concrete genes with three different words that an animal produces and understands.
She told the software to create an overlapping picture of the three different brain areas activated by the three screams. It was a three dimensional picture that she could turn, zoom, and slice freely, in real time. The strands of DNA were highlighted at the bottom of the screen, in the same colors as the three different areas in the brain. One gene, then a break, then the other two genes she had identified. Leopard, snake, eagle.
She started to turn the visualization of the brain areas, as Kassandra started squealing in pain. Her hand was stuck between the cage bars and the plate with raspberries. The little thief was trying to sneak out a raspberry or two! Janie laughed, and helped the monkey get the hand unstuck. Kassandra yanked it back into the cage, looked at Janie accusingly, knowing that the pain was Janie’s fault for not giving her enough raspberries. Janie snickered, took out another raspberry and gave it to the monkey. She snatched it out of Janie’s hand, without stopping the accusing stare, and Janie then put the plate to the other side of the table, in safe distance and out of sight of Kassandra.
She looked back at the screen. When Kassandra cried out, her hand had twitched, and turned the visualization to a weird angle. She just wanted to turn it back to a more common view, when she suddenly stopped.
From this angle, she could see the three different areas, connecting together with the audiovisual cortex at a common point, like the leaves of a clover. But that was just it. It really looked like three leaves of a four-leaf clover. The area where the fourth leaf would be - it looked a lot like the areas where the other three leaves were.
She zoomed into the audiovisual cortex. She marked the neurons that triggered each of the three leaves. And then she looked at the fourth leaf. The connection to the cortex was similar. A bit different, but similar enough. She was able to identify what probably are the trigger-neurons, just like she was able to find them for the other three areas.
She targeted the MRI helmet on the neurons connected to the eagle trigger neurons, and with a click she sent a stimulus. Kassandra looked up, a bit confused. Janie looked at the neurons, how they triggered, unrolled the activation patterns, and saw how the signal was suppressed. She reprogrammed the MRI helmet, refined the neurons to be stimulated, and sent off another stimulus.
Kassandra yanked her head up, looking around, surprised. She looked at her screen, but it showed nothing as well. She walked nervously around inside the little cage, looking worriedly to the ceiling of the lab, confused. Janie again analyzed the activation patterns, and saw how it almost went through. There seemed to be a single last gatekeeper to pass. She reprogrammed the stimulator again. Third time's the charm, they say. She just remembered a former boyfriend, who was going on and on about this proverb. How no one knew how old it was, where it began, and how many different cultures all over the world associate trying something three times with eventual success, or an eventual curse. How some people believed you need to call the devil's name three times to —
Kassandra screamed out the same scream as before, the scream saying “Eagle!”. The MRI helmet had sent the stimulus, and it worked. The other monkeys jumped for cover. Kassandra raised her own arms above her head, peeking through her fingers to find the eagle she had just sensed.
Janie was more than excited! This alone will make a great paper. She could get the monkeys to scream out one of the three words of their language by a simple stimulation of particular neurons! Sure, she expected this to work - why wouldn’t it? But the actual scream, the confirmation, was exhilarating. As expected, the neurons now had a heightened potential, were easier to activate, waiting for more input. They slowly cooled down as Kassandra didn’t see any eagles.
She looked at the neurons connected to the fourth leaf. The gap. Was there a secret, fourth word hidden? One that all the zoologists studying vervet monkeys have missed so far? What would that word be? She reprogrammed the MRI helmet, aiming at the neurons that would trigger the fourth leaf. If her theory was right. With another click she sent a stimulus to the —
Janie was crouching in the corner of the room, breathing heavily, cold sweat was covering her arms, her face, her whole body. Her clothes were clamp. Her arms were slung above her head. She didn’t remember how she got here. The office chair she was just sitting in a moment ago, laid on the floor. The monkeys were quiet. Eerily quiet. She couldn’t see them from where she was, she couldn’t even see Kassandra from here, who was in the cage next to her computer. One of the halogen lamps in the ceiling was flickering. It wasn’t doing that before, was it?
She slowly stood up. Her body was shivering. She felt dizzy. She almost stumbled, just standing up. She slowly lowered her arms, but her arms were shaking. She looked for Kassandra. Kassandra was completely quiet, rolled up in the very corner of her cage, her arms slung around herself, her eyes staring catatonically forward, into nothing.
Janie took a step towards the middle of the room. She could see a bit more of the cage. The monkeys were partly huddled together, shaking in fear. One of them laid in the middle of the cage, his face in a grimace of terror. He was dead. She thought it was Rambo, but she wasn’t sure. She stumbled to the computer, pulled the chair from the floor, slumped into it.
The MRI helmet had recorded the activation pattern. She stepped through it. It did behave partially the same: the neurons triggered the unknown leaf, as expected, and that lead to activate the muscles around the lungs, the throat, the tongue, the mouth - in short, that activated the scream. But, unlike with the eagle scream, the activation potential did not increase, it was now suppressed. Like if it was trying to avoid a second triggering. She checked the pattern: yes, the neuron triggered that suppression itself. That was different. How did this secret scream sound?
Oh no! No, no, no, no, NOO!! She had not recorded the experiment. How stupid!
She was excited. She was scared, too, but she tried to push that away. She needed to record that scream. She needed to record the fourth word, the secret word of vervet monkeys. She switched on all three cameras in the lab, one pointed at the large cage with the monkeys, the other two pointing at Kassandra - and then she changed her mind, and turned one onto herself. What has happened to herself? Why couldn’t she remember hearing the scream? Why was she been crouching on the floor like one of the monkeys?
She checked her computer. The MRI helmet was calibrated as before, pointing at the group of triggering neurons. The suppression was ebbing down, but not as fast as she wanted. She increased the stimulation power. She shouldn’t. She should follow protocol. But this all was crazy. This was a cover story for Nature. With her as first author. She checked the recording devices. All three were on. The streams were feeding back into her computer. She clicked to send the sti—
She felt the floor beneath her. It was dirty and cold. She was laying on the floor, face down. Her ears were ringing. She turned her head, opened her eyes. Her vision was blurred. Over the ringing in her ears she didn’t hear a single sound from the monkeys. She tried to move, and she felt her pants were wet. She tried to stand up, to push herself up.
She panicked. Shivered. And when she felt the tears running over her face, she clenched her teeth together. She tried to breath, consciously, to collect herself, to gain control. Again she tried to stand up, and this time her arms and legs moved. Slower than she wanted. Weaker than she hoped. She was shaking. But she moved. She grabbed the chair. Pulled herself up a bit. The computer screen was as before, as if nothing has happened. She looked to Kassandra.
Kassandra was dead. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her face was a mask of pure terror, staring at nothing in the middle of the room. Janie tried to look at the cage with the other monkeys, but she couldn’t focus her gaze. She tried to yank herself into the chair.
The chair rolled away, and she crashed to the floor.
She had went too far. She had made a mistake. She should have had followed protocol. She was too ambitious, her curiosity and her impatience took the best of her. She had to focus. She had to fix things. But first she needed to call for help. She crawled to the chair. She pulled herself up, tried to sit in the chair, and she did it. She was sitting. Success.
Slowly, she rolled back to the computer. Her office didn’t have a phone. She double-clicked on the security app on her desktop. She had no idea how it worked, she never had to call security before. She hoped it would just work. A screen opened, asking her for some input. She couldn’t read it. She tried to focus. She didn’t know what to do. After a few moments the app changed, and it said in big letters: HELP IS ON THE WAY. STAY CALM. She closed her eyes. Breathed. Good.
After a few moments she felt better. She opened her eyes. HELP IS ON THE WAY. STAY CALM. She read it, once, twice. She nodded, her gaze jumping over the rest of the screen.
The recording was still on.
She moved the mouse cursor to the recording app. She wanted to see what has happened. There was nothing to do anyway, until security came. She clicked on the play button.
The recording filled three windows, one for each of the cameras. One pointed at the large cage with the vervet monkeys, two at Kassandra. Then, one of the cameras pointing at Kassandra was moved, pointing at Janie, just moments ago - it was moments, was it? - sitting at the desk. She saw herself getting ready to send the second stimulus to Kassandra, to make her call the secret scream a second time.
And then, from the recording, Kassandra called for a third time.
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