On the night Austin Trenum suffered his concussion, he started to change.
The changes weren't obvious -- not at first. From the sidelines of his high school's football stadium, he answered his teammates' questions in a daze, slurring his words while assuring them he was all right. At the E.R., he seemed just like his usual self: flashing the nurses his winning smile, laughing off the injury, insisting he didn't need so much as a Tylenol. The Friday night game was over, anyway -- he'd have the weekend to sleep it off.
On Saturday morning, he went fishing; in the evening he took his girlfriend to a concert. He woke up early on Sunday -- something he never did -- and spent a few hours playing XBox.
That afternoon, while his family relaxed downstairs, Austin went into his room and hanged himself.
He left no note; not the slightest hint, it seemed, of an explanation. Up until the concussion, he'd been a straight-A student with a permanent grin -- that rare kid who seemed to get along with classmates and parents alike. Never drank or smoked pot; never struggled with anger or depression -- not the sort of kid, in short, who seemed remotely at risk for suicide.
And yet, as his parents looked back over Austin's final weekend, they remembered things -- nothing huge, just little things -- that seemed so unlike him. On the field on Friday night, he'd lobbed a string of curses at one of his friends -- something no one had ever seen him do before. On Saturday, when his mom asked him to please finish his homework, he'd snarled something unintelligible at her under his breath. On Sunday morning, he'd gotten lost while driving around his own neighborhood. And then there was the cheesecake: It'd been Austin's favorite snack for as long as anyone could remember; but when his mom brought one home on Sunday -- laid it right out on the kitchen table -- he ignored it.
Not big differences; just... odd ones. As if the concussion had left Austin's brain intact and functional, but had changed him in ways that proved too subtle to catch except in hindsight.
Even, in fact, if that hindsight is medically precise. An under-the-microscope autopsy of Austin's brain showed that he'd sustained a multifocal axonal injury -- a shock that didn't cause any large-scale brain damage, but fractured the dense web of connective white-matter fibers in his frontal lobes. In other words, on a macro scale, Austin's brain continued to work -- it just began to work a little differently.
Austin's story, I think, haunts us not just for the obvious reason -- we will never know for sure exactly why he took his life -- but for a more subtle one as well: It reminds us how utterly dependent we are on that soft gray blob inside our skulls.
The thought that -- as a recent Time magazine article puts it -- "we all exist only one well-placed head trauma away from the irrevocable erasure of the self" is not an easy one to stomach. But if this is evidence of our fragility, surely it also says something about our uniqueness: Every mind is, in the most literal sense, a one-time performance.
So give your cerebral art the funding it deserves -- with brain food and good music and challenges that keep your mind and body on their toes. Because in all the billions of years of this universe's future, there will never be another performance of you.
Follow Ben Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/theconnectome