This idea was proposed in rough outline to several friends on Twitter who decided to write stories based on it. I will link the other author’s pieces as they become available at the bottom of this page.
The Atheist Serum
The first time the right answer was voiced, it was dismissed with hardly any fanfare. “No, it has to be selective memory targeting”, Dr. Kinsler said.
“But…” Dr. Alhman tried to interject in defense of her hypothesis. Kinsler had already begun speaking and didn’t hear her objection, so she cut herself off to listen. She looked up from her notes to face him now.
Dr. Thomas Kinsler was not tall, nor particularly attractive. He had a rather pale complexion and sandy brown wavy hair. Streaks of silver had begun their invasion of his locks, and one could tell they would rapidly win the battle. His narrow shoulders rested above a slight paunch that he was struggling to control. What he lacked in physical gifts he more than made up for with his mind. Truly brilliant, his research into cognitive function had made headlines once. He both relished and abhorred the fame it had brought.
“My serum was designed to target memory, it is logical to assume that the adverse effects have to do with that process, no?”, he paused to look at Dr. Alhman.
Sarah Alhman was pretty but not beautiful. Rich coffee colored skin and deep black eyes were her predominant features. Her straight black hair, which she kept in a short bob cut, shined with the light from the overhead LED’s. Approaching 30, she had impressed Kinsler with her theories of mind, particularly in the formation of belief. He had made her his assistant as soon as she had gotten her PhD. He suspected now, that she was simply seeing this serum problem through the lens of her own specialty.
“Yes?”, he said rather than asked.
Sarah sighed and nodded. “It’s possible, but…”, she tried again to advocate her hypothesis, and was again cut off.
“Let’s review the entire experiment.” Kinsler lectured. “One, the patient was suffering from schizophrenia with delusions. Two, the serum was designed to interrupt memory formation of the hallucinations.”
Kinsler paused for effect and bit his lower lip for a second before resuming, “ Now, within hours of the serum administration, the patient, reminded of his delusion, denies having it. He is then asked a series of questions. Factual questions which most 5th grade students could answer, yet he claims not to know. To me it is clear the problem is memory interruption or loss of memory location.”
Sarah was still unconvinced but knew the senior Kinsler would not be swayed by mere rhetoric. Still, she had to try, “Why then are the basic memories intact? He still knows his name, gender, age and primary self identification data.”
“Right now, I’m operating on the assumption that there is a temporal connection.” Kinsler interjected. “ Older more primal memories are unaffected”
Sarah sighed softly and thought about Kinsler’s assumption. He’s forgetting basic scientific methods. He’s begun adding assumptions to support his theory. He’s not being objective anymore. The pressure to produce this serum for HyDrex is getting to him.
Sarah scooped up her notes, arranging them into a cohesive stack by tapping them on the table. “I’m going to check on our patient”, she informed Kinsler, “Why don’t you get some rest , and some food. You’ve been pushing yourself on this project.”
Kinsler nodded and shooed her away in silence, his eyes scanning the reports and medical charts.
Sarah lingered for a moment before turning and walking into the corridor. As she made her way toward the patient rooms, she reviewed the data in her mind.
Six years before when Sarah joined the project, she was fully supportive of Kinsler’s method and goals. The goal was simple to state, even the non scientists of the HyDrex Corporation could grasp it readily. Such a simple proposal: cure mental illness. The method was glossed over and sweetened for the corporate suits to make it more palatable. It involved genetic engineering of a parasite commonly referred to as the brain eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri. That part had not been revealed to the corporate backers.
She knew it had been withheld from the suits because she had given the proposal. Dr. Kinsler was brilliant, but had the social graces of a man clipping his toenails…at the dinner table. She had carefully chosen her words and steered the proposal into much safer territory whenever she felt the questions were too pointed.
Looking around she was surprised to find herself in front of the patient ward. She swiped her security badge and the industrial electronic lock clicked loudly. She walked the much shorter corridor inside the ward to the first patient room. The only occupied patient room, thank God.
The patient room was unlocked, as their volunteer patient was never a danger to himself or others. He had the entire ward to himself including the recreation room. Sarah sometimes found some of the support staff playing Xbox games with the patient in the evenings. Only before the serum, though. I haven’t seen him play since. Well, it’s only been 36 hours, perhaps he hasn’t felt like playing. She opened the door to find him sitting in his recliner style chair, gazing at the painting on the wall. She glanced at it, noting only that it was an average mountainscape.
“Hello Mark, how are you tonight?”, she probed.
“I…I’m not sure.” the patient replied. He turned to look at Sarah, deep uncertainty etched on his face. His straight brown bangs fell in front of his left eye and remained there as if unnoticed. He was an thin man of 24 years, though his face and eyes seemed to Sarah to be those of a man who has seen too much of life.
“You were staring at the painting when I came in, do you like it?”, she asked.
“ I’m not certain. I think I may have been trying to decide that very thing. Do I like this painting?”, he said slowly. It was as if the words had to struggle to reach the surface or so Sarah thought. She decided to change the subject, “ Have you been playing video games lately?”
“I can’t say”, he ponderously said. He put his head in his hands and drew a deep breath, held it for a heartbeat and released it.
Sarah, thought, he doesn’t initiate conversation. Is that significant?
Sarah suppressed a yawn as best she could before addressing the patient again. She was tired. She realized.
I should follow my own advice to Dr.Kinsler.
“I’ll be back to check on you in the morning, Mark. Try to get some sleep.”, she said in that false cheery voice professionals sometimes use.
“Will you?”, he asked. To Sarah it seemed to be a question of deep significance to him, as if it came directly from his soul.
“Of course I will”, she reassured him, “ Now, get some rest.” She said a quick and silent prayer for his recovery as she left the room.
On the drive in to the facility the following morning, Sarah’s mind was again focused on Marks’s condition. She began reviewing the entire scenario.
The patient had presented with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations. He claimed to hear the voice of God telling him things about the government spy networks and their use of integrated circuit chips implanted by dentists into the teeth of the populace. Traditional medical treatments with anti-psychotics muted the symptoms but didn’t remove them. His delusions were believed in even under the drugs, though the hallucinations stopped.
Kinsler’s serum was originally designed to target memory due to the different area of research he was working on at the time. The original serum was an unquestionable failure in treating Alzheimer’s. In fact, it seemed to erase existing memories, exactly opposite of Kinsler’s intent. He modified the serum again.
Two days ago the modified serum was ready to test on volunteers, it was determined to use just the one subject, due to the nature of the potential failure for the type of illness they were treating now. A hundred murderous schizophrenics as a result of trials would almost certainly end Kinsler’s career.
Mark was injected. Within eight hours the serum began to affect his brain. At first it seemed to be a rousing success. Mark denied having delusions, denied the dental chip plot and seemed to have been cured. As the serum took hold though, Mark began to show other symptoms which Kinsler felt were memory related. He couldn’t answer questions about arithmetic or history that he had answered correctly prior to the serum. He seemed unable to know his own opinions about value judgements, as with the painting.
Sarah, in disagreement with Kinsler, thought the symptoms were due to Mark being unable to form beliefs. Indeed, she also thought that the serum had “wiped out” some of Mark’s higher order beliefs. Beliefs that required more processing power from the brain to hold.
The car ring tone alert snapped Sarah from her reverie. She pressed the steering wheel button to take the call.
“Hello?” Sarah chimed.
“Sarah, are you alright? We missed you at church yesterday.”
“Hi mom. I’m fine, just very busy. We’re at a critical point in the research project.”
“ I know you’re busy, but make sure you save some time for God, hon.”
“I will mom, I have to go now, I’m parking at work right now. I’ll call you later, okay? I love you.”, Sarah promised.
She hit the end call button and parked in her reserved spot. Sarah walked to the entrance swiped her card and entered the building.
“Dr. Alhman! You’re needed immediately in Patient Ward! There’s been…an incident.”, the security officer who was at the front desk said nervously.
“What do you mean by ‘an incident’?”, she chirped back at him.
“I was told to send you there straight away. I don’t really know, ma’am.”, the officer told her.
Sarah began to make her way to the patient ward, her pace quickening as her mind conjured up scenario after scenario of catastrophe. Her hand shook as she tried swiping her security card, but she heard the familiar beep of the reader and the metallic thunk of the lock. She shoved the door open and darted toward Mark’s room. The day nurse saw her and beckoned Sarah with her arms. Sarah arrived in the doorway to the rec room where the nurse had been standing.
“Dr. Alhman, the patient is dead and…”
Just then Kinsler came out of the rec room into the hall.
“Dead?”, Sarah asked. “What happened?!”
“We’re not sure why, but the patient has apparently committed suicide, Sarah”, Kinsler informed her. “He was found here less than an hour ago by the nurse on her rounds. I didn’t see a note. No one from the night shift reported anything unusual. You spoke to him last night, yes? Did he give any indication…?”
“Nothing. He just didn’t believe I would return.”, Sarah interjected.
Kinsler turned to the nurse and began giving orders., “Get security in here. Have them take the body to the lab. I want posthumous blood and tissue samples of his brain. Tell the lab techs to get moving on the analysis. No one breathes a word of this until I say so. Is that clear?”
The nurse seemed shaken, but nodded her understanding. Kinsler turned to Sarah, “I’ll need to speak with you privately. Meet me in my office in 10 minutes. I have something else I must do first.”
Sarah nodded and began praying silently as she walked towards the ward entrance, at least she thought she was silent.
“That’s enough of that, Sarah”, Kinsler barked. “We’ll not be getting divine assistance on this! We have to get through this ourselves.”
Sarah cringed at the rebuffing but kept moving and praying, this time completely in silence.
Sarah sat uneasily in the visitor’s chair in Kinsler’s office. What could have set Mark on a path to take his own life? It was the serum.
Was it? Let’s not jump to conclusions Sarah.
Kinsler threw open the door, turned and closed it deliberately behind him. He marched slowly to his chair, turned to face Sarah and sat down. “With only a week left before the Hydrex visit, I can’t afford to not know what happened here. Do you understand?”
Sarah started to speak but Kinsler held up his hand and she stopped the words just inside her lips.
Kinsler continued, “We know from Norway rats and rhesus trials that the serum is not fatal in and of itself, yes? We know that. What happened to our patient was due to his distorted reality. It was a crack in his mind’s foundation. He was somehow unable to cope with his loss of delusion so quickly. I have to know what the mental mechanism is that dissolved his delusions. Are you following me, Sarah?” Kinsler only paused for a moment, not really looking for an answer to his question, “That is why I have taken the serum myself. I need to understand the process to refine it. Is it memory or some other mechanism that cured him of his delusion? I’ll need you to monitor me and make sure I come back. The serum should be flushed out of my system within 36-48 hours, but I need your help, Sarah.”
Kinsler paused this time expectantly, almost beseechingly, waiting for her reply.
“You…you injected yourself with the serum? Are you mad? What possible good can come from this?”, Sarah shouted at Kinsler.
“Sarah”, Kinsler said softly, “ I need your help. It’s already done. I just need you to monitor and test me. To document the results. You can do this. You must.”
Sarah’s curiosity was aroused. She knew Kinsler was right about the serum being non fatal, and he was already injected. He should begin showing the effects within a few hours. Her desire to care for Kinsler was also stoked. He was in trouble, and would be hard pressed to perform the tests on his own, especially if memory was affected. She nodded to Kinsler, sighed, and said, “ Let’s get started.”
The next 48 hours were hectic, to say the least. Sarah kept a few changes of clothes at the facility, as she had stayed overnight a few times. Her office had a Murphy bed and a small shower. The cafeteria was fully functional, serving 20 or so people each day. Her life became a routine of testing Kinsler, eating, sleeping and praying.
The test results were an exact match to Mark’s except that Kinsler had no psychotic delusion to disavow. He was unable to answer factual questions. He wouldn’t initiate conversation. He seemed incapable of value judgments. He often sat fixated on ordinary items in his room, a patient room that Sarah insisted he use. He seemed willingly compliant with her requests.
When Sarah awoke on the cusp of the 48 hour point for the serum’s introduction to Kinsler, she was excited and anxious. She prayed that God would return Kinsler undamaged and with the explanation.
As Sarah walked down the short corridor of the patient ward, she heard Kinsler crying out, “Is that you Sarah?”
She picked up her pace a bit to reach the door to Kinsler’s patient room. The unsolicited communication from Kinsler was a good sign. She threw open the door and said, “Dr. Kinsler, how are you this morning?”
Kinsler beamed a huge grin at Sarah, “I’m well, Sarah. I think I have the answer! I want to shower and eat breakfast first though. Will you wait and have breakfast with me?”
“Of course, Thomas”, she replied, unable to stop her own smile from spreading across her face.
In the cafeteria, Kinsler seemed ravenous. He wolfed down two helpings of eggs and hash browns. He also had coffee and bacon. As he swallowed the last of his eggs and wiped his mouth, it was clear that he was ready to talk. “I have it. You were absolutely right, Sarah. The serum targets higher order beliefs.”, Kinsler explained.
“How can you be sure? What was going on in your mind?”, Sarah asked.
“I knew the answers to all the questions. That is to say the information was there, I simply didn’t trust it. It felt like every piece of information I had learned was a lie. Well, perhaps not a lie, but suspect. It was very odd.”, Kinsler paused and looked at Sarah. “I was absolutely impartial”, he continued.
“But what about now? How do you feel now?”, Sarah demanded.
“Well, I’m a bit tired but altogether I’d say I’m fine.”, Kinsler seemed thoughtful for a moment, then continued. “ Hmmm, that’s odd. I didn’t have an opinion (or a belief) about my condition until you asked. I had to weigh the sensations from my body and make a determination. I wonder…”
Sarah took in the report of Kinsler’s mental experience before asking the obvious question, “Wonder what?”
“ I need more data. Ask me belief questions. Ask me things about my beliefs!” Kinsler said excitedly.
Sarah scrambled for a topic. She knew that in the past Kinsler had been in favor of gun control legislation, so that seemed a good place to start, “Do you believe in gun control?”
“Hmm”, Kinsler stroked his chin in thought . “I remember being in favor of gun control, but I’m experiencing difficulty justifying that former belief with data. I simply do not have enough information to decide this! Isn’t that wonderful?! Ask me something else! Go on!.” Kinsler seemed to be getting more and more excited.
Sarah paused, bit her lip, and then said, “Do you believe in God?” Kinsler had been something of a deist with regard to the God question, he believed that a deity had created the cosmos, but that it had pretty much let the universe run without interference since.
“I remember believing in a God.”, Kinsler whispered. “I have no data that would support such a conclusion. The evidence is quite clear that everything could have come about without such a being. I…I don’t believe in a God.” Kinsler smiled then and stood. He turned to face Sarah . He was beaming. “Do you realize what this serum is?”, he thundered. “It would make critical thinkers of all of mankind. Every belief would need to be justified! Think of the progress humanity could make without the shackles of blind faith!”
Sarah had been listening with ever growing unease as Kinsler prattled on. She felt like a knife had been plunged into her very soul. “ But, what of faith and humility before God?”, she managed to say.
Kinsler was already in his own thoughts. He voiced them as they came to his mind, as he so often had done when engrossed by a particular problem. “ I could mass produce the serum. It could be altered to be ingested rather than injected. Yes, I think that’s entirely possible. How best to market it or should it even be a product? If I could get it into a major water supply, or better still the water cycle of the entire planet! Hmmm, how could that be accomplished? Would need to encapsulate the enzyme responsible in hydrophillic proteins”.
In Kinsler’s excited and totally absorbed state, he failed to notice Sarah approach him with the syringe. Darkness overtook him.
The Hydrex representative was nondescript, just another suit in a seemingly endless line of suits. Still, he had raised a question and was looking expectantly for an answer.
“Yes, we are going to transfer him to a psychiatric hospital very soon. We aren’t too hopeful for his recovery, but I’m praying for him”, Sarah said with great enthusiasm.
The Hydrex employee took another look through the door glass at Kinsler. He was bound on a gurney in leather restraints. He was fighting the restraints and shouting something over and over .
Or was it “No God”?
“Believe” by John Bullock (@beagrie)