Grow a Brain

One year at Christmas I took home a brain. On the drive up, we had stopped at a Cracker Barrel and amongst the clutter of all that Made in China crap, I found a brain kit. (This is a true story).

The brain kit fit my budget—less than five bucks—and the checkout line was short enough to justify the wait, so I forked over my money and bought the brain. I also bought an alligator, but that’s a different story.

When I arrived home and announced my gift, the fam was underwhelmed. I guess they expected more than a Made in China brain kit from me, the responsible, former-lawyer daughter. But life had been eating at me for a while, and I needed a distraction. My sister graciously handed over her kitchen to be used as a laboratory and my niece, who was still in college and game for anything, signed on as lab assistant. Standing at the tiled counter of my sister’s incredible kitchen, my niece and I studied the printed instructions on the back of the kit, making jokes about how this actually was brain science.

We were not dissecting the brain. If the Made in China instructions were to be believed, we would be growing it.

We secured a Ziploc disposable container from my sister—disposable because she didn’t want to reuse the container after a brain had been lodged in it—and set to work. Testing the tap water for temperature (brains are very delicate organs), we filled the container with healthful, fluoridated H2O. Then carefully, so as not to disturb the nascent brain, we lowered it into the water.

The brain, no bigger than a gumball, bobbed through the water. We watched its journey. The instructions promised the brain would grow over 600%, a massive increase in brain power. The wormy contour of the brain foretold amazing results—the instructions actually used the word “magic.” Slowly, the brain sank, nestling in the corner of the container.

The full operation would take 72 hours. We did the math. Three days. We set out our tools: a pad and ink pen to record our observations and the brain’s progress. Furthermore, my lab assistant would replenish the brain solution (H20) at regular intervals and note on the pad the execution of these duties. All we had to do was wait.


Have you ever seen old stone steps where the middle sags like the backbone of a broken-down mule? That’s the repeated falling of footsteps, wearing away the concrete. Thoughts do that to the brain. Our brains, as we go through life, change. We are the engines of that change, running channels in our brain with our repeated thoughts. The neurons for the thoughts you gravitate towards with astounding regularity—worry, for example—grow stronger, and worry thoughts fly through your brain easier than, say, peace thoughts. It’s interactive, you see? Worrying is easier than generating peaceful thoughts, so you worry more often, for the brain is also a lazy son of a bitch.

The monks, the meditatives, the yogis who preach (preach, sister, preach) about stillness, quiet time, retreats into nature, space without thought—you can listen to them or not. But your brain is bobbing inside its bony skull, waiting for some assistance. “Come to me as a child,” Jesus said. Your brain needs your help.


My lab assistant’s face lit up as the brain began to grow. What had been the size of a walnut (and shaped like one, with its bifurcated, ridged halves) had grown to resemble a big fat plum. Brain growth was obviously slow. Slow as, well, Christmas.

The brain generated, protected underwater, and I could imagine it humming in support of its activity. The surface looked slimy. The brain’s nickname is ol’ gray matter, but this brain was blue. A pale, alluring blue.

My lab assistant had retreated to make gingerbread cookies or something. I lifted the Ziploc and swished the container back and forth. The brain swam from side to side, an awkward pebble rolled by the stream of life. I cradled the container in the crook of my elbow and petted the brain. It was slimy. Who knows if my touch caused damage to the newly forming brain or not. Curiosity, the cat, and all that.

Transporting the brain to the sink, I turned on the faucet and let the water run against the porcelain until it was warm, then eased back on the volume and positioned the Ziplock under the faucet. The warm water sussed in, setting the brain to dancing. I returned the brain to the kitchen counter. The brain settled down, contemplating its watery world. I recorded my ministrations.


The Force. Everyone recognizes the Force. “May the Force be with you.” What if the Force is a big ol’ brain? This big ol’ brain surrounds the world, and we shape it by our actions. Act kind, and the world brain cuts a kindness channel so that all future acts of kindness travel more easily. Act violent, and the same is true. Every act we take might help form the world we will live in. Maybe we all have a role to play here, on the large stage as well as the small. Maybe if I set my mind to acts of kindness, then kindness will become more a part of both me and the world.


The seventy-two hours done, the brain had grown to the size of a baseball. Maybe 600%, I don’t know. My time with my fam was up. My lab assistant was called to return to lecture halls and unmade dorm beds. The experiment was over.

But what to do with the brain? Later, I would learn that had I removed the brain from its Ziplock, poured out the healing water, and sealed the brain in a baggy, the brain would have returned to its original size. Then, whenever I needed to grow my brain, I could have repeated the experiment. But somehow in our haste to get the brain experiment underway, my lab assistant and I missed this information printed on the back of the card. Offered in fine print, no doubt, available only to the truly discerning.

I don’t want to describe giving up my brain. It involved a drain and a garbage bag. All that effort to nurture the brain, the care taken, the periodic checkings and the recordings, the oohing and ahhing over the little brain becoming a big brain, and it was gone. Drop a pebble in my palm, and I can fall in love with it before its jagged edges hit my skin.


I’ve experienced incredible healing this year. And incredible sorrow. What will the New Year bring? Will it be soaked in happiness and honey, or will it slap me upside the head? I don’t know. Here’s to each of our poor brains in their effort to grow and understand and comprehend and travel through the darkness into the light. May our actions make the world a better place.

My little brain
My little brain

brain health, Brain Kit, Grow a Brain Kit, How the Brain Works, New Year's Resolution

Comments (13)

  • I have a grow your own zombie kit. I can’t help but think your brain would make such a perfect meal for my zombie. Maybe they make grow your own dining tables with grow your own napkins and butter dishes, assuming zombies like a smear of butter with their brains.

    Zombies aside, beautiful post with your signature style and zap of wisdom wrapped in candy-coated entertainment. I’m so selfishly glad you decided to be a writer.

    • You are a woman after my own heart. Have you grown the zombie? Did you know to keep the zombie and reuse it? So many questions in the Grow A (X) World. So glad you enjoyed the post. Hope you and yours have a wonderful new year.

  • Loved the twist at the end. We took one the grandchildren to the Pink Palace for a dinosaur exhibit & he bought s dinosaur egg. As we walked out he said ‘I’m going to be a mother.” Like your brain the emerging dinosaur had been made in China

    • Love your grandson. I always look at my souvenirs to see where they were made. Sometimes if they’re aren’t local, I buy them anyway, but often not. Hope y’all have had safe travels and a happy time away.

  • Oh man, I keep worrying over whose brain that was and didn’t he/she need it? Yes, things do have a way of growing in water, especially if they have the right kind of cells. Funny the way science works. hahaha. Of course, the way you wrote this is beautiful and definitely experimental flash nonfiction, exactly perfect for the subject.

    • Ha! That’s funny. I revealed it to be a true story, then thought, but you know what? If it was a flash fiction piece where the Cracker Barrel really does sell brains for experiments, of course I’d claim it to be true. I love thinking of it as experimental flash nonfiction—thanks for giving it a name. 🙂

        • That’s so interesting, Luanne. I recently had an editor ask to publish an essay, and I had to tell her the essay had appeared on this blog. We will see if she wants it as a republish. I’ve thought over the years how I don’t write essays for publication as much as I used to because my thoughts get poured into this blog. Food for thought for my little brain.

  • Your posts are always food for the brain. The idea of nurturing positive thoughts, of directing our thinking instead of allowing our emotions to swallow us and tell us what to do is a glorious goal. In November, my husband and I did this on-line “course” through the University of Exeter called “Stoic Week” in which we read some of the thoughts of the great stoics, meditated on them and tried to put into action the principles and ideals. Interestingly, I found many of the Stoic ideals very Christian. Hubby, who is now retired, got right into it and would phone me at work wanting to discuss the thought of the day which I had a hard time remembering once I got to work and was mired in the day to day goofballness of office life. Which is of course I sign I really need to work on this brain power business.

    Like Luanne, I enjoyed the way you wove this post together, kind of like the twists and turns and channels of the brain.

    Here’s a beautiful story about brain surgery retired spouse found on the NYTimes on-line. It’s a very long read but apropos of your piece.

    Happy new year, Ellen! Wishing you more success this year!

    • The brain looked “bluish” under the OR light! Just like my Made in China Brain Kit. And what is it with the “so-called silent areas” of the brain? Why have they gone quiet? I find myself pulled toward readings about the brain all the time, but most are how the brain works, not such visceral images of the brain being worked on.:) Thanks for sending the link–what a brave writer to go in the OR. And, of course, it raises that eternal question: is there any existence apart from what our brains create? The doctor says no. But I enjoy the thoughts that answer yes.

      And I love you and your husband doing Stoic Week together. It makes me want to find something that’s a stretch for my husband and me to do together.

      Happy new year to you as well. Hope it is a marvelous one. I look forward to enjoying it through your writings.

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