The Rewiring, Part 1: Series Introduction
by Paul Dancstep • October 10, 2018
On a Saturday morning last year I got an email from my friend Diane. The subject line was “I just smelled my first rose,” and it contained a photograph of these flowers in bloom. “Faint, sweet, and powdery?” she asked, as if to confirm that this was indeed how roses are supposed to smell.
Nearly three years ago, Diane suffered a severe head injury. That cranial blow altered everything about how she experienced the world, from the way it sounded to its raw look and feel. Her sense of taste became scrambled. And smells went away completely.
Diane and I make interactive exhibits at the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco. The process of making an exhibit usually begins when you notice something odd or beautiful in the world around you. Imagine you’re doing the dishes one evening and you notice that when submerged in water, at just the right tilt, the time disappears from the face of your watch. Back at the museum’s fabrication shop, you can begin exploring this phenomenon. What other materials have this effect? Is it better viewed from above or below? After messing around with different vessels and props, maybe setting up mirrors for better viewing, your creation is eventually ready for the museum floor. An exhibit is just something we build that makes it easier for other people to notice this weird thing too.
In the course of our work, Diane and I are constantly drawing each other’s attention to various delightful peculiarities — the rainbows that form in the dripping condensation of a bread maker, the kaleidoscope effect in the glass panes around an ice skating rink, the way you can’t push and breathe at the same time when you’re going #2 on a toilet. Anything can form the basis of an exhibit, so we’re always on the lookout. Diane calls this “professional noticing.” For over a decade we’ve worked together, swapping observations, critiquing design choices, and learning from one another.
Certainly the ordinary business of life became challenging for Diane after her injury. But as an exhibit developer, her altered perceptions presented an especially pointed dilemma: How are you supposed to be a professional noticer when your senses are all screwed up?
Diane and I continue to share the small oddities and wonders that we notice. Over these last three years, our conversations have largely been about the intriguing details of her experience. From those conversations grew the following series of stories, which details some of her inventive coping strategies and surprise breakthroughs. They recount how, little by little, she could observe her brain rewiring itself. It has been an inspiring experience for me, watching her learn to love the questions themselves, to be patient with the winding path of recovery, and to observantly celebrate each small miracle, like the day when a rose begins to smell like a rose again.