It all seemed so simple to begin with. They'd all played the parlour trick where you stand in a doorway, close to one side, with your arm straight down by your side, but pressing outwards. Nothing happens of course, because your arm is pressing against the door jamb, and what are you going to do, make the opening bigger? After a couple of minutes you step away from the doorway. Then, if you relax, your arm will of its own accord start to rise. You've played a trick on your body.
Except Nick hadn't played that game, he was an art student, not a psychology one.
"Honestly Nick," said Monica, "What did you do at parties when you were at school?" Then as Nick opened his mouth to reply she went on. "No, don't tell me, I've an idea that it might lower the tone of the evening. Do you really mean to say that you've never tried it?"
"Wrong question, Mon," cut in Fiona. "You should know that our country boy has a one track mind. You've never tried this trick, have you Nick?"
"No, and I do think of other things."
"Just not often," said Catherine. "Go over there and try it now."
The group of students from Melcombe University were sat in the bar of the Lamb Inn, known fondly by them as Dai's, a reference to the supposed connection between lambs and Welshmen. Nick stood and walked over to one of the wooden posts which, hopefully, held the first floor up. He stood there pressing as instructed.
The landlord looked across. "Nick, if you're causing trouble again you can go now."
There was an outcry from the girls. "No Jim, he's doing an experiment."
"What, lurking by that post?"
Nick stepped away from the post, relaxed, and sure enough his arm slowly rose.
"Bugger me," he said.
"Thankyou, Nick, but I'll pass on that one," said the landlord. "But if the girls..."
" ... didn't come in here, you'd have nothing to feed your night time fantasies," Nick finished for him. "Honestly Jim, you know very well that the last spot of trouble had nothing to do with me."
"I know that that other fellow thought you'd taken his girlfriend, and that was why he wanted to smash my bar up. Using your head!"
Nick returned to the others. There were six of them including Nick. Catherine, Monica and James were psychology students, Mick and Fiona were computer science students, and Nick, the lone artist. The rest of the group had come together to work on a project, which involved researching how the body and mind reacted in certain circumstances when either the body or the brain could be misled into believing that something was real when it wasn't. The psychology students wanted to know if the body and brain were separate, and how one affected the other, whilst Mick and Fi were interested in the possibilities for virtual reality and the possible applications in the world of computer gaming. Nick had attached himself to the group because of a mutual attraction with Catherine. However, his skills were being co-opted to assist with certain aspects of the project. The first thing they asked was could he make a false hand, with a bit of arm too. This was to demonstrate the next part of their project. Having fooled the body, they now wanted to fool the brain.
"While you're about it," Monica said, "could you make two of them?"
Nick had agreed that making two was almost as simple as one, and there would be no problem. In fact he thought that it might even be worked into his own studies. However, he did want to know more about what they were up to.
Catherine had explained what they wanted to do when they were resting after an energetic afternoon in bed. Psychologists at Pennsylvania, she told him, had discovered how to fool the brain, and the group wanted to repeat the finding before going on.
"It's so simple that it takes some believing," said Catherine. "But then all the best tricks are. Really this was a major step forward in understanding how we perceive our bodies, and what we want to do is take it as far as we can. This is what we'll do. You place your hand on a table, but hidden by a piece of cardboard. In view will be the false hand, and then one of us will tickle both hands, yours and the fake, with a paintbrush, and after a few minutes you will believe that the fake hand is actually yours, and that what you feel is coming from that hand."
"Hmm ... I'll believe that when it happens," said Nick. It wasn't that he was other than completely open to new ideas, but you had to balance a new idea which sounded rather far fetched, and a new idea that was rubbish, and sometimes that was difficult.
"It'll work, you'll see," she told him.
They finished their drinks.
"Whose for another?" asked Nick.
"Well, we'd better get going," said Fiona grabbing hold of Mick
They said their goodbyes and left.
"They don't seem like an item," said Nick, thoughtfully.
"I don't think they are," replied James. "I get the distinct impression that they both swing the other way."
"And go around together for mutual support you mean," said Monica. "Could well be, but they do seem very fond of each other. Whatever, it doesn't much matter. They are essential to what we're doing, and they are first class students, and very likeable whatever their persuasion."
"Well, it only matters from the point of view that I find Fi very attractive. I'm destined for unrequited love, I suppose," said James.
There was general laughter.
"What about you, Nick?" asked Monica.
"She is attractive, but a bit skinny for my taste."
"You're being very gallant," said Catherine, sarcastically. "I'm sure you're only saying that because we're in company. Usually you're reckoned to fancy anything with a fanny and a pulse."
"No, no simply not true!"
"So what about all those girls at the art college then?" said Monica. "They're all very pretty. Well, most of them."
"Ah yes," replied Nick, "but most of them don't seem to have anything between their ears except how pretty they are, and how long it's going to be before they're the next Tracy Emmin. Most of them produce rubbish."
"They're all like that?"
"Well, there are a couple who aren't. Tansy, who's the archetypal Goth, but very talented, and quite determined that if she makes it it'll be as Tansy Willis, not as a shadow of anyone else. Then there's Amanda, umm ... Martin, that's it. She's got more talent than most of the rest of them put together, but she's a very big girl, and although she's pretty she has almost no self confidence at all. She's interesting to talk to too, once you can get her going..."
"Enough already!" interrupted Catherine. "Enough talking about other women on my watch, I've got better things for you to be doing with that tongue of yours Nick."
And so saying she grabbed him by the hand, and he just managed to drain his glass and set it down before she dragged him out, wishing the others a good night as they went.
It was a couple of days later that Nick had the artificial hands ready. The group met in the psychology department where they had set up simply a table and chair.
"You can have first go Nick," said Catherine. "Sit on the chair and place your arms on the table. I'll hold this piece of cardboard on the table so that you can't see one arm. There," she went on, setting the card vertically on the table and holding it against his shoulder.
Nick could no longer see his left arm.
She set the artificial hand on the table so that he could see it, and was in a position that his own hand could have adopted.
"Just look at the artificial hand, Nick," she told him.
Nick looked at the hand.
"OK, now, Monica if you use the brushes on his hands, and we'll see what happens."
Monica picked up two small paintbrushes and proceeded to gently brush Nick's hidden hand, and the artificial one, in the same relative place, and at the same time.
After a couple of minutes Nick exclaimed:
"Shit! That's fucking amazing! My brain is telling me that the hand that I made is mine."
One by one they all tried it. Everyone agreed that the illusion was amazing.
"Now it gets even more weird," Catherine told them. "Nick first."
Everything was the same as previously but this time there were two artificial hands.
"Monica, will you do his own hand whilst I do the other two?"
Nick was perplexed. This time he was ready to believe that the artificial hand was his, but which one? His brain simply could not decide.
"I give up," he said. "It could be either."
And one by one they all tried it, and all agreed. They could believe that an artificial hand was theirs, but they couldn't decide which one.
"I need a drink after that," said Nick. They retired to Dai's.
When they were all settled in a corner, Catherine, the de facto leader of the group, went over what they had done, and what the next step was.
"We have had one or two problems because this is interdisciplinary, but we've been allocated some space in our department and Fi and Mick have been allocated the necessary equipment," she stated. "So next we are going to try for an out of body experience."
"Whoa there!" exclaimed Nick. "I thought that was psychic sort of nonsense, or you had to be dead. I'm not at all sure I fancy that."
"Don't be silly, Nick. We're not that daft," said Fi. "This is where Mick and I come in, because we are getting into the realm of video games and virtual reality. No one's going to die, nor are we going to hold séances. We really aren't into that sort of rubbish."
.... There is more of this story ...