• Robb G. Best

Neural Chemistry, Immortality and the Stuff of Flower Pots

In 1974, local farmers in Xian, China, set out to dig a well. Instead, they discovered what many consider to be the eighth wonder of the world.

To understand the origin of the Terracotta Army, we’ll need to step back into ancient history for a moment.

Some 2000 years ago, the emperor of China was a man (or a god, depending who you asked) named Qin. Like most of us, he seems to have felt some anxiety about his own mortality. Unlike most of us, his solution was to have himself buried with an army of 6000 life-sized terracotta soldiers to defend him in the afterlife. It took 720,000 workers 37 years to pull off this remarkable feat.

Qin began the project when he was 15 years old. He died in his early fifties. What was it about the wiring in his brain that possessed Qin to strap his people with this arduous and audacious task?

It’s hard to say; every single person's brain is wired up differently. When neurosurgeons operate on people with severe epilepsy, the first step (well, after washing their hands and stuff) is to remove a portion of the patient’s skull while the patient is still awake (before you cringe, the brain has no pain sensors). Then the surgeon uses an electrical probe to poke at the brain and ask the patient what reaction it stimulates.

The surgeon marks the regions he or she has determined with small dots of paper to create a personalized map of the brain so that nobody cuts into the wrong part. (Which on the face of it, seems like a pretty good idea)

Neural pathways are constantly being built and altered, so the brain’s layout is both fluid and highly personal. Repetition reinforces certain mental routines, in the same way weight-lifting strengthens a muscle. If, for example, you’re really into building a clay army, your “give the workers instructions on the next 100 terracotta soldiers” pathways are eventually going to get quite a lot stronger than your “consider giving the workers a day off for their birthdays and/or the birth of the children” circuits.

These pathways have the greatest chance for growth or change during early childhood, and then again in adolescence. Interestingly, that’s when lighting struck for Qin and he realized how cool it would be to have is very own army of statues. Your brain finally settles in around your early twenties, with some fine-tuning still going on into your forties.

It’s hard to say what the workers of the time must have thought about Qin’s bold endeavor, and even tougher for the terracotta soldiers, whose neural pathways are as still as the Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow.

Still, if you’re a teenaged emperor with unlimited power, I don’t imagine you’re overly concerned with the ruminations of your subjects. Not when you’ve set your sights on immortality.

And although it didn’t work out quite the way he planned, given the tourist boom inspired by the well-digger’s 1974 discovery, you might say Qin’s legacy lives on even today. These days, however, it’s his clay servants getting all the attention. No doubt if that 15-year-old emperor were alive today, he would be struck by the irony of the situation. He might even pitch an adolescent tantrum.

His would-be entourage, on the other hand, remains, as ever, the picture of restraint.

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