In the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, where he was called out for repeatedly telling an anecdote that wasn’t at all true, there’s been a lot of talk about bald-faced media LIES (a post topic in and of itself), and the fallible mechanism called the human memory (this post’s topic).
In the weeks and years immediately following the incident in question, Williams’ retelling was fairly accurate, but over time, instead of being in a helicopter well behind the action, he was right in the thick of it.
The fact is, he’s a liar. But, so am I. And, while we’re at it, so are you. Sorry, but you lie to yourself and you lie to everyone you know all the time. We all do. There’s even a word for it in psychiatric circles:
Confabulation: To fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory.
Brian Williams may have lied to make himself seem cooler, or he really could have remembered being in a helicopter that was shot down, even though it never happened.
George W. Bush said that he remembers seeing the first plane crash into the World Trade Center as it happened, even though not one media outlet covered it until a few minutes later and he was in a classroom talking to kids at the time. There’s this famous derpy photo of him being informed of the situation that proves that statement is untrue:
But let’s not use George W. as an example of anything but incompetence.
How about you?
Remember that time that you and your BFF were at that party that one time and that thing happened? Yeah, well, she wasn’t there. She was with you the night the other thing happened at that other party though, so your brain just mashed them together.
Remember how big your childhood house was, right? It wasn’t actually that big; you were smaller. When you picture your first bedroom, you can really picture it. Except it might be not like you remember.
As someone who has plenty of experience with brain FAIL, I can attest to how unreliable and completely changeable the human memory actually is.
We tend to think of our memories as written in stone, but our brains are tricksters. When we demand that they recall something and the memory in question is a little degraded, our brains quick-like-bunny dust it off and fill in the gaps with whatever. It will throw your best friend from college in a memory from college, because he was normally with you during that time period. Except he wasn’t there. And honestly, were you even there?
It’s a sobering thing coming to terms with the fact that the mechanism you rely on for quite literally everything is maybe not so good. Our brains keep us alive by regulating our heart rates, breathing and every other thing our bodies do. They’re responsible for our personalities and every interaction with the world we have ever had. They are at the heart of everything we see, taste, feel, think, read, say and do. They are also in charge of remembering it all, and detailed records don’t seem to be a priority. Good enough is often what we get.
I know first hand how pants-shittingly terrifying it can be to come to terms with just how crappy your brain is. A traumatic brain injury will do that to you. For a while, I couldn’t remember what happened two minutes ago. I had the memory of a goldfish (ahh, this blog’s title suddenly makes sense to you now!).
I had to drop out of school, quit my job and try to shove square pegs into square holes. I did Rorschach tests, word association tests, IQ tests, visual tests, cognitive tests, and tests that tested what kind of test I was testing and how I was testing on the test tests. In other words, I did a lot of tests.
I had to relearn practically everything and my memory went from the healthy memory of a 19-year old to the Swiss cheese memory of a geriatric Alzheimer’s patient. Fortunately for me, because I was so young, my brain was still pretty flexible and I was able to build new neural pathways. It took about a year for me to be functional again, but I will never get it all back. There are memories trapped in my head, mostly of my childhood, that I will never see again.
Also fortunate for me was the fact that I’ve always been a writer. Practically from the time I was old enough to write, I’ve kept a written record of my life, so even if I don’t remember something, I can usually look it up and get my account of what happened at the time. My early childhood is gone forever though.
I tell you all this to reassure you that, even with a massive head trauma like mine, you and your brain don’t have to be enemies. You don’t have to look at every memory that surfaces with suspicion. That said, you shouldn’t take everything at face value either. Your brain is mutable. Memory is not carved in stone, and even though you may see a memory vividly in your mind’s eye, it is not always to be trusted completely.
This post is in no way meant to imply that Brian Williams isn’t a big fat liar. I’m not defending him. All I’m saying is that it is possible–not likely, but just a smidgen possible–that his memory did play a trick on him and he did remember being in that shot-down helicopter when he wasn’t at all.
I was conked on the head by a stage light and it damaged my memory. Since I was only twenty years old at the time, the bulk of my memories were of my childhood, which means I don’t really have one. Most of the time, I don’t miss it, but that could just be because I don’t know what I’m missing.
My particular brand of traumatic brain injury affected my declarative memory. It severed a lot of the neural pathways to my long-term memories, and for a while*, I couldn’t shift most of my new memories from my short-term to my long-term memory. Both my short-term and long-term memories were damaged, so even now, not all short-term memories make it over to long-term storage (although the percentage is much higher than right after the accident), and new memories don’t always have a time/date stamp. Unless there is a significance to the date, e.g. I remember where I was and what I was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001, I cannot sort memories chronologically.
Linear time doesn’t really work for me the way that it does for the rest of you. Right after the accident, I became temporally untethered; the passage of time had no meaning for me. To this day, when I wake up, I have to look at my phone to find out what time and day it is since my brain doesn’t process that information well. I am always glancing at the clock since the passage of time still doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.
Not having a proper memory is a strange thing. I only remember fragments. When people ask me questions about my life, a lot of the time, I have to draw on second-hand information. I know I grew up in Detroit. I know the names of the schools I went to and the approximate dates. I know the facts, but the details aren’t always there. I call my sister the keeper of my memories because she remembers more about it than I do.
She’ll say something like remember that time we went there and did that thing? No. It’s so weird that you don’t remember that! It was so very traumatic/awesome! Usually, I just respond with “goldfish,” the creature renown for having a crappy memory, hence my name on this blog.
It seems to me that people, whether subconsciously or consciously, think I’m lying when I say I can’t remember things. You couldn’t possibly not remember all of fourth grade. I think it’s because I appear to be very functional, but that’s because I’ve learned to adapt. Even my own family, who was there for my most goldfishy era, has a hard time believing that I don’t remember certain things. You must just not be trying to remember. Believe me, I have tried to remember, but it’s just not there.
Well, that’s not exactly true. It is still there; I just can’t access it. Most of those memories are still in there. They are still in my brain, but without a bridge to my consciousness.
If I say “fourth grade” to you, you can probably go into your memory like a Google search and come back with results. Your memories have keywords stored in a database. Over time, those keywords and search functions will degrade and you won’t get as many results, but the mechanism is still there.
I don’t have that mechanism anymore. When I search my memory for fourth grade, I get a flood of hazy school recollections that could have happened anywhere between kindergarten and sixth grade. I know which school I went to in fourth grade, but it was the same school that I went to from kindergarten through sixth grade, so I cannot refine the search any further. I cannot narrow down the results to just fourth.
In the same way that, in a standard five-day work week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday kind of blend into each other, fourth grade to me is like the middle of the week and indiscernible from the other grades in the middle.
I have not had an especially happy life. It is rife with drama, tragedy, embarrassment and terror. One might think, well, hey, it’s a good thing you lost it then! The problem is, without the foundation, I had a really hard time figuring out how I was put together. Because I only had childhood fragments after I was hit on the head, I lost a lot of the why. My motivations became unidentifiable. I did things, some terrible things, without ever really knowing why I did them. I harmed myself and others. I lost myself and nearly ended my life without ever really knowing why. After the accident, I spent the vast majority of my life in that haze without knowing.
And then, I remembered. I remembered the horror and the tragedy and the sheer terror of child sexual abuse, and it all made sense. Every once in a while, a smell, a song or some other trigger will cause my brain to create a new pathway to those old memories.
When I reconnect to an old memory, it’s visceral. It’s as if I’m re-experiencing it. I can almost feel, smell and taste my surroundings, like watching a smell-o-vision movie in 3D, only you’re strapped into your seat and can’t escape the monster coming at you. Unless I’m recovering that awesome sundae I had at some kid’s birthday party, it’s incredibly traumatic and distracting.
About ten years ago**, I recovered a memory to this night, where I was sexually assaulted. I remembered everything as if it was happening right then. I cried for about twelve hours non-stop. I experienced everything about the assault a second time, so it was almost like it happened twice.
After the initial 3D-ness of a recovered memory, it takes its place again in my brain and the memory becomes just like any other, faded and murky without a visceral response. It becomes part of my hazy database.
My memory is a minefield. One false step will produce a memory I don’t want. It’s terrifying not knowing what other demons lurk in my brain just waiting for a trigger. What other horrible experiences are there that are just waiting to be re-experienced? Seriously, how many more can there be?
It’s always a trade-off recovering a memory. On one hand, it’s overpowering to re-experience things. On the other, I’d rather know the why. Without the why, I cannot ever fully understand myself and I cannot heal.
*I use a lot of indistinct terms like “for a while” since I don’t know how long a while really was.
**Everything that has ever happened was either “about ten years ago” or “when I was a kid.”
That title is really just a fancy way of saying our memories are not to be trusted. Your perfectly normal memory is not to be trusted, but mine, with all of its blows and bruises, is definitely less trustworthy than yours. I’ve gotten used to my fail brain, but its peccadilloes do make it difficult to function at times.
You think you know yourself pretty well, better than anyone else anyway, but when you’ve had a traumatic brain injury and so much of your life is just gone, it makes you wonder if you really know yourself at all. I can’t trust my own brain.
About ten years ago, my brain randomly decided to build a new neural pathway to an old memory that had been lost. It was a traumatic memory involving attempted sexual assault with a gun. I wrote about it here. I didn’t remember that at all. It happened when I was about eighteen years old, before I was hit on the head with a stage light and lost a lot of long-term memories. When the stage light hit, the connection to that incident was lost.
One night, I was talking to a friend and something sparked the memory. It hit me like a freight train. The memory was so vivid that I could even remember the temperature and what the air smelled like. I remembered every tiny detail as if it was happening at that moment. I basically relived it. I started crying, unconsciously and uncontrollably, and didn’t stop for about twelve hours. It was just as real all those years later as it was when it happened.
A lot of my memories of child sexual abuse are buried. I only have flashes of memory. I can’t remember the whole thing. I remember smells and what my room looked like at night. I remember scratches at the window screen and absolute terror. I remember the terror best of all, but I don’t really recall details other than unimportant ones. I can’t see the whole; I see minutia. I’m not sure if I remembered the details before I was hit on the head or if I had just suppressed the whole thing even before the traumatic brain injury.
I am pretty sure that I chose to bury at least part of the childhood sexual abuse before the traumatic brain injury since I spent the bulk of my life in denial. I went through drug addiction, prostitution, cutting, promiscuity, passive suicide, depression, anorexia and sexual assault as an adult without knowing why. I either chose not to make the connection or my brain wouldn’t let me in a misguided effort to try to protect me from the childhood trauma.
I’m not even sure that I believe in the concept of repressed memory anyway. I recover memories all the time, but it’s because of a traumatic brain injury, not because my brain consciously repressed them.
It’s interesting to me that in the sexual assault I experienced as an adult, I was so numb about it. From the post I linked above: “She saw the gun, she heard the threat, she felt his hand on her arm. When he dragged her to the alley between the buildings and began pawing at her clothes, she felt nothing except annoyance and disgust.”
I totally disconnected myself from the situation when it was happening. I only panicked after the fact. I panicked years later when I finally recovered the memory. I felt all the fear I should have felt then. At the time though, I felt nothing. I cried for twelve hours years later. I held those tears in for all that time. Even now, I guess I’m still disconnected since I could only write about it in the third person.
Had I not been talking to that friend on that particular night and experienced that particular trigger, that memory wouldn’t have come back. It would still be buried in my brain and I wouldn’t remember that it happened at all. It makes me wonder what else is buried in there.
What other traumas are just lurking in my brain waiting for a trigger? The scariest thing about traumatic brain injury to your long-term memory is that your brain is sometimes capable of creating new pathways to old memories. It happens instantaneously and you can’t control it. Most of the time, the memories are benign, but sometimes, especially when you’ve lived a life as hellish as mine, they are anything but innocent. They send me into grief and panic. They stop me in my tracks and make me confront them. I never know when it will happen. I never know what will surface. It’s a pretty awful thing to live with.
But, each memory I recover is one more small victory, even if it means half a day crying because of it. They are my memories. They are trapped in my brain. I would rather know and be able to process it. If you don’t know the cause, you can’t treat the problem. I would rather know, still I’m scared of what other horrors lurk in my past.
Yesterday, I wrote a post about age and how short our lives are. I said, “I don’t want to be 116 years old, but I wouldn’t mind living to 60, or maybe even 70 or 80, if I can manage to keep my brain intact that long. I’m not counting on it. With as much damage as my brain has received from meningitis, traumatic brain injuries, and drug and alcohol abuse, I’ll be lucky if I can hold it together until 60.”
That’s not really exaggerating. I had meningitis as an infant, so I practically started life with a damaged brain. I was a substance abusing teenager who never really stopped until a few years ago. I was clocked on the noggin when I was twenty or so and lost most of my memories and the ability to function for a while.
After my traumatic brain injury, I was informed that one of the potential side effects of severe brain boo-boos–aside from, you know, death–was early onset dementia. At the age of twenty, I had the brain function of an eighty year old with Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately for me, my brain was still growing when it was smashed, so I was able to gain some of my mad brain skills back, but no matter how hard I work, I’ll most likely end up there again.
It would be similar to Sleeping Beauty awakened by Prince Charming (or whatever Beaut’s beau was called–they’re all Prince Charming tropes anyway), while knowing that, eventually, she’ll end up in her sleepy coma again. She’s happy to not to be a coma patient for a while, but that reminder of her fate is a little sad.
I have a Sleeping Beauty coma hanging over my head and no Prince Charming to break the spell. If I do fall into a brain coma, don’t put a dumb rose in my hand and take that stupid crown off. Also, that is not appropriate sleepwear.
Unlike Beauty, I didn’t just wake up and everything was better. I woke up and everything was twisted, jumbled or just gone. I knew who I was, but I didn’t know where I was. I knew what happened the previous week, but I had no idea what happened during my entire childhood or five minutes before.
I have very little memory of that period because I had very little memory at all. My short-term memory barely worked. It had a difficult time converting things that happened into long-term memory. I had the memory of goldfish (real goldfish can remember for at least 6 months–still the 30 second memory myth persists).
I spent years in brain rehab. I put square blocks into square holes. I gave my opinion on ink blotches. I did test after test with specialist after specialist, day in, day out, and a little functionality came back.
My short-term memory is still not what it should be, but I’ve managed to find workarounds. If I want to remember something, I have to write it down. Over the years, my brain has made new neural pathways to reconnect to some old memories, but there’s no pattern to it. I clearly remember a field trip in kindergarten, but don’t remember what happened in third grade at all. I only have scattered fragments of my past and I cannot sort them in chronological order. My brain is a huge unfinished jigsaw puzzle of my life and I don’t even have all the pieces.
I’m essentially living on borrowed time. If I’m lucky, I have a few short decades before it all disappears again. Every time I have a bad brain day, I panic a bit, thinking this is the beginning of the end. A bad brain day is what I call those days where I just cannot get it together. I had one last weekend. Instead of concealer, I very nearly put lip gloss under my eyes. I put lotion on my hands to wash them instead of soap. I cleaned the hair out of my brush and put the hair back in the drawer and almost threw the brush away. That kind of confusion and inability to get through daily life is what is waiting for me, only it won’t be a bad brain day, but a bad brain life.
My fate terrifies me. It terrifies me all the more because I’ve already been through it. They say the unknown is scariest, but sometimes, the known can be even worse. I don’t want to live a life of panicking. I don’t want to wake up in the morning and not know where I am or what happened in the last twenty years or so. When it gets to that point, when I am well and truly gone, I would like to think that some kind creature would put me out of my misery. I don’t want to live the life of a goldfish again.
That’s what I have waiting for me again when I get old. My thinking will get slower and confused. I won’t be able to concentrate. I won’t be able to remember. I won’t have the memories I worked so hard to get back and I might even lose important functionality. I might not remember how to tie my shoes or even how to breathe. Next time, no amount of rehab will help. It will be gone forever. I will be gone forever, even though my body still breathes. All of us are destined to extremely short lives on a universal scale, but if I had one wish, it would be to live the rest of my puny life with my brain intact, or as intact as it is now.
Memory loss / difficulty retaining information / lack of concentration
Slowness in thinking, speaking, acting or reading
Getting lost or easily confused
Clumsiness / co-ordination problems / dizziness / loss of balance
Residual headaches / neck pain
Learning difficulties ranging from temporary learning deficiencies to long-term mental impairment
Mood changes / feeling sad or angry for no reason
Irritability / having a low tolerance for frustration
Changes in sleep patterns / sleeping a lot more or having a hard time sleeping
Blurred vision or eyes that tire easily
Loss of sense of smell or taste
Ringing in the ears
I’ve been blessed to have both meningitis and a traumatic brain injury. Note how many of those after effects are the same or similar. I’ll never be a proper ninja.
As an added bonus, I’m more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, and other brain disorders that become more prevalent with age. But wait, that’s not all! We’ve also thrown in a likelihood of a lowered life expectancy. Yay me.
Today, we’re going to talk about what it’s really like to experience brain trauma, particularly, the speech and language part of it.
For the most part, after my TBI, I felt like I was speaking normally. Although, sometimes, I couldn’t remember specific words or I’d get stuck in the middle of a sentence and forget where that sentence was going. These are just a few of the brain disorders I experienced, which to varying degrees, have all improved over time. It was a full-time job learning to speak and think properly again, and I still experience some of these things from time to time.
Acquired means it wasn’t developmental, but the result of a brain trauma. Verbal apraxia, also called verbal dyspraxia, is a speech disorder in which a person has trouble saying what you want to say correctly and consistently. It is not due to weakness or paralysis of the speech muscles, but to a neurological condition such as TBI or a stroke.
My speech therapist would have me repeat a sentence multiple times, for example: “I am the sun god, Ra.” And it would come out, “Yammer raisin dog.” The next time I said it, it would be, “I have the Sunday god.” The errors were not consistent. It was frustrating to say the least.
Apraxia also has the fun benefit of being aware that we didn’t say the right word, then trying to correct it multiple times, and each time, getting it more mangled. “I enjoy speech therapy,” turns into, “I enjoy speech parity, piracy, puppy, charity, kerosene, Cherokee, parakeet.” We repeatedly try to correct the word we know we said wrong and just make it worse until it devolves into puddle of melted letters at our feet.
I was never the sun god.
Many years later: I still do this. I’m not as bad as I was, and nowadays, I don’t have trouble forming the words like I once did, but I still do the repeating the wrong words several times thing, though these days, the words aren’t quite as random.
Also known as receptive aphasia, Wernicke’s aphasia, or sensory aphasia. People with fluent aphasia form words easily, but unfortunately, they aren’t always the right words, which is why it’s often called “jargon aphasia” or “word salad.”
Fluent aphasia can range from sentences with just a few incorrect or nonexistent words to total rambling nonsense, which makes complete sense to us, but sounds like gibberish to everyone else, because it is.
You could ask someone with fluent aphasia, “What’s your favorite food?” and get the answer: “The bright seven bird on the disco elephant, before twirling pirate in the meadow. Isn’t snowflake fearless? I tread blue banana babies.”
Many years later: I still do this. If I’m distracted or tired, I will speak a sentence and the person I’m talking to will wonder what the hell I’m even talking about. “What do you mean, ‘the banana babies fly at dawn?’ I asked you if you wanted iced tea.”
I can write gibberish better than most people. That example above took absolutely no time at all. I just typed it as I typed this sentence here, as if it made perfect sense. It’s scary how in touch my brain is with gibberish. It’s how I can write posts like this and this and this.
Paraphasia is the result of damage to the language processing functions of the brain and it produces unintended syllables, words, or phrases during speech. It occurs most commonly in people with fluent aphasia. There are three different kinds of paraphasia.
Literal paraphasia (also called phonological or phonemia) is where part of a word is left out or some sounds are substituted for others. For example, to this day, every time I type “moves,” it comes out “movies.” Literal paraphasia is also responsible for me saying things like “respible” instead of “responsible.”
Verbal paraphasia is when a word is completely replaced with another one in the same or similar vein. I have to be very careful when ordering food. I often say “large” when I really mean “small.” I once asked for no meat on my cheeseburger instead of no onions. Verbal paraphasia is respible [sic] for a lot of wrong orders and confused wait staff. Oops.
The last category is neologistic paraphasia, when you can’t remember the name for something, so you make up a new one. I experienced this form of paraphasia least of all of them, but I am pretty sure that I had some neologisms for things. I just can’t remember what they were now.
Paraphasia should not be confused with “eggcorns,” which are erroneous but logical alterations of a misheard word or phrase, such as “ex-patriot” instead of “expatriate.” Paraphasia isn’t logical.
Many years later: I still experience verbal and literal paraphasia, just not as much and as often as I did right after the accident. It happens most when I’m tired or distracted.
Anomia (also called dysnomia, nominal or anomic asphasia) is an inability to recall proper names and words for objects. Someone with anomia generally speaks fluently and has no problem with grammar, but has trouble finding the right word. Sometimes, we substitute a word for a similar one, such as “telephone” instead of “television.” It often occurs in patients with fluent aphasia and is a contributor to so-called “word salad.”
This one was most pronounced immediately after my TBI, although I still experience anomia all the damn time. The most vivid memory I have of anomia was asking someone, “what is the aluminum cylindrical container with the pop top that usually houses soda or beer called?”
I had little to no difficulty remembering and speaking big words like “aluminum” and “cylindrical,” but I could not remember a little word like “can,” because to me, can was a verb not a noun. I cannot remember that can is a noun.
Many year later: Ugh. Anomia is damn annoying and hard to shake. I still butt heads with it nearly every damn day.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Honestly, I’m incredibly lucky to a) have been so young when my brain was smashed in because it was still growing b) to be alive and c) to be able to put sentences together as well as I can. There was a time, when I was a babbling idiot who couldn’t speak or remember words. The brain is a remarkable organ. With enough time and practice, it can mend itself, or at any rate, find workarounds for its deficiencies. Most people I talk to today say that, had I not told them, they’d have no idea that I had a severe TBI. I tell them anyway so that, when I can’t remember their name next time we meet, they aren’t offended.
Daily Post Prompt: Tell us about your first day at something — your first day of school, first day of work, first day living on your own, first day blogging, first day as a parent, whatever.
When I was a youngun, I was hit on the head with a stage light. It changed everything about me forever, particularly my memory. I was just over twenty years old and had the memory of an eighty year old with Alzheimer’s.
My memory was such that I could recall my first phone number and address right off of the top of my head, but if you asked me where I currently lived, I couldn’t tell you. If I saw one thought through to completion, which was a difficult task in and of itself, I would forget where I was and what I was doing. I literally had a one-track mind and it would get derailed often. I could recite an unimportant conversation from five years prior nearly word for word, but if I talked to someone five minutes ago, not only would I forget what they said, but I’d forget that I had even talked to them.
My language and speech centers were also affected. At first, I had a slight slur. I couldn’t put complete sentences together. I would have trouble remembering words. I don’t mean complicated words; I mean simple, everyday words. I still forget simple words to this day. The other day, I couldn’t remember the word “greenhouse” even though I came up with “hothouse.”
I have permanent long-term memory damage. I lost most of my childhood. I could only recall bits and pieces, and I could not put them in any sort of order. My timeline was gone forever.
Say, for example, you had a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle of a person’s childhood, which was all nice and neatly assembled into the picture on the box. If you violently flipped the whole thing onto the floor, some of the pieces would land right-side up and still be connected to each other, but most of them would end up in a big jumbled mess of disconnected pieces; some right-side up, some sideways, some upside-down. Some of those pieces would slide under the sofa with the dust bunnies, never to be seen again. That’s what happened to the memories I had stored in my brainpan.
I worked out a complicated system of writing things down. It was the only way. I used sticky notes, carried a little spiral notebook everywhere, and would write in pen on my hands and arms. If I was driving somewhere, I’d write the address, the time I had to be there and the reason why I was going there in the first place on a sticky note and put it on the dashboard. Even on the shortest trip, I would forget where I was going. When I was going home, I’d simply write HOME on the note. In all honesty, they probably should have taken my driver’s license away.
During this period of maximum goldfishness, I was enrolled in college. Incredibly optimistically, I tried to go back to school a few weeks after the accident. It was October and the semester had just started in September. I walked into the class and made a beeline for the very back of the room. I didn’t want anyone to see me.
In the days following the accident, my entire face and neck was one giant bruise. I had two black eyes and I looked like I had been slammed face first into a wall. I always thought it was strange that my face was bruised when it was the top of my head that was hit. Head traumas are weird.
A week or two later, when I went to school, the bruises had abated somewhat, but I still had a sickly, yellow pallor on my face where they had been. I was extremely self-conscious because my head felt about five times bigger than normal. The wound covering my dented skull was throbbing. I could feel it rise and fall every time my heart beat. If I just sat at the back, maybe nobody would notice.
Class started and suddenly, I could not remember where I was or why I was there. I panicked. I looked down at the notebook in front of me to see if there were any clues. English, it said, in what appeared to be my handwriting. English. OK, I can do English. I speak it pretty well and I know a lot of its words. Cool.
Now, what is that teacher saying? I can’t quite understand. What book? I looked down again, but there were no books in front of me besides the spiral notebook with the word English scrawled on the cover. I panicked again. I looked over at my neighbors and they all had little paperbacks in their hands that they seemed to be turning to a particular page. I looked down again, there was still no paperback on my desk. I sunk lower in my chair, completely deflated. I started to think about how I was never going to make it through school if I couldn’t even remember to bring my English book to class. When I finished that thought, I had forgotten where I was again.
I had no choice but to drop out of school. Unfortunately, it was a week or two too far into the semester to get any money back. I forfeited not only the tuition I had paid for that semester, but my formal education as well. I was two semesters shy of getting a degree. I’ve still never gone back to school because that first day was enough to terrify me forever. Formal education still scares the bejeezus out of me. Hold me.
My short-term memory slowly got better with time and use, but I still have issues with it. The brain can only recover so much. I have to be very careful about following thoughts through to completion. If I start thinking about sometime else, I’ll forget what I was doing in the first place. It’s sheer chaos if I have to remember more than one thing at a time. I think everyone has that happen to them now and again. It’s just that it happens more frequently to me and it started at a much younger age.
I’ve learned to adjust. Most people I meet today say they’d never know that I have a memory problem. I always tell them anyway, partly out of habit and partly so that they don’t get offended when I can’t remember who they are the next time we meet. The only good thing about having a memory problem is that you can’t remember what you were like before.
I have a shit memory. A lot of you are probably saying, “Me too!” but I bet you that my memory is shittier than yours. When I was around nineteen or twenty years old, when my brainpan was still gelling its contents, I was hit on the head with a stage light. It dented my skull and caused permanent brain damage. I lost most of my childhood memories and my short-term memory was severely damaged. My ability to turn short-term memories into long-term memories was lost for a while. I couldn’t remember what happened from one moment to the next. I had to drop out of college and quit my job.
I was like a goldfish, swimming from one end of the bowl to the other and forgetting where I had been in-between. Ooh, what’s over here? There’s an over there! What’s over there? Ooh, look shiny. Blurble blurble derp.
It made life challenging. Thankfully, my memory has since gotten better. Because my brain wasn’t done growing when it was smushed, it was fairly easy for it to work around the damage. It put up detour signs and went around the parts that were irretrievably lost. It took some time and my memory still isn’t what it should be, but we’ve adapted. We figured out a system to work with it. We write Post-it® Notes and reminders to ourselves, my brain and I, and we get on with things. I’ve still never been able to go back to school and the brain damage irrevocably changed the course of my life forever, but I’m alive and nearly functional.
While I am thankful that my brain is as competent as it is and didn’t stay in goldfish mode forever, this is a list of things that I hate about my memory.
1. I can’t remember numbers to save my life. If you tell me your phone number, I will recall it for as long as you’re saying the words. As soon as you’re done speaking it, it’s already gone. The only way I have a remote chance of remembering anything is to write it down. I have to hand write it out, and even then, there’s a very good chance that I’ll transpose the digits. If your phone number is 867-5309, I will remember it as 687-9503. With words, I typically only remember the first letter. I find myself saying, “It starts with P or has a P in it,” but when I finally figure out what the word is, half the time, there’s no P at all, but there’s a B or some other similar sounding letter.
2. I can’t remember names or even faces. If you tell me your name, I will recall it for as long as you’re saying the words. As soon as you’re done speaking it, it’s already gone. It’s even worse if I’m introduced to more than one person. I only know about half the names of the people I work with–the half with nameplates. If their cubicle nameplate says “customer service” instead of their name, I have no idea who they are. I say good morning to everyone I pass. I never use anyone’s name though, not even the names I know, because I think it would make it too obvious that I don’t know the other half’s names. I’ve only worked here for two and a half years.
There’s a girl named Katrina. This girl is friends with one of my friends who has a day after Thanksgiving party every year. Katrina and I see each other every year at this party. Some years, we run into each other several times. It took roughly ten years not to walk up and introduce myself to her as a stranger. After ten years of embarrassing myself and telling her about my shitty memory each time, I now know her name is Katrina and I have a vague idea of what she looks like. I might be able to pick her out of a lineup. Maybe.
3. Information is easily lost. I’ll put my car registration with the rest of my important papers. Or at least, that’s what I think I did, because that would be the right thing to do. My brain, when asked what I did with the car registration, will say, “Duh, you put it with the important papers!” So, I’ll go look in the important papers, and guess what, no car registration. Well, brain, now what? I’ll search through the house and find it in the bathroom or in the pantry or somewhere that is not even remotely close to the important papers.
It’s not all bad though. Because I have a bad memory for information, I can read books I’ve already read or watch movies I’ve already seen and I have only the faintest glimmer of recognition.
4. I can’t remember what I was looking for. When I’m looking for that car registration that is not with the important papers, I’ll be searching through a pile of random life debris and spot that phone charger that I thought I lost. Hey, I found the phone charger! I’ll go plug in the phone. Oh, right, I was looking for something that wasn’t the phone charger. What was it? Brain: searching… searching… no results found. Oh. Well, if I can’t remember, it must not be that important. Sometimes, it takes days to remember to look for the car registration again.
5. I constantly get lost. When I first had my accident, I couldn’t drive, not because I couldn’t remember how or anything like that, but because I couldn’t remember where I was going. Immediately after the accident, I had to drive all over town to specialists here and there. I’d get in my car at home, drive to an office and walk in for my appointment. Occasionally, I was correct, but most of the time, the appointment was with another specialist, or it was yesterday or tomorrow. Sometimes, I couldn’t remember where I was going at all, so I’d just drive home again. One day, I walked into the same doctor’s office three times thinking I had an appointment. The receptionist laughed the first time, but by the third time, she felt sorry for me.
I came up with a Post-it Note system for driving. Before I left the house, I would write out where I was going, what day and what time. The day and time were really important. That way, when I was driving along and goldfished, I could look at the note, figure out what day and time it was at the moment, and react accordingly. When I was done with an appointment, if I remembered, I’d put a sticky up that simply said, “HOME.” That system made my life a lot easier.
Even today though, I still absentmindedly drive along and suddenly panic because I don’t know where I am. These days though, the panic only lasts a few seconds until I orient myself.
6. I get confused easily. I have rituals for everything, not because I’m OCD or practice some ritualistic religion, but because if I don’t do the same task the same way, I will miss a step. For example, taking a shower: wash hair, wash face, rinse hair, condition hair, shave, wash body, rinse body, rinse hair. If I don’t do things in precisely that order, I will fuck up taking a shower. I have put conditioner in my hair without rinsing the shampoo. I have put conditioner in my hair without shampooing it. I have walked out of the shower without rinsing my hair. I can’t even do a simple thing like shower properly.
There are certain tasks I do every day, like feed the animals, and some tasks I do once a week, like clean up dog poop in the yard on Sunday. The weekly tasks aren’t a problem so much. I can look in the yard and see if there’s dog poop. If there is, I haven’t done my job yet. It’s the daily tasks that are a problem since they’re so close together. I will very clearly remember feeding the cat this morning, when in actuality, I’m thinking of yesterday morning. There have been days where the cat isn’t fed in the morning because I fed him yesterday morning instead. Fortunately, I feed my animals twice a day so it’s not like they’ll starve to death from missing one meal. The cat is too fat anyway.
7. Interruptions leave me totally helpless. I work with headphones on partly because I love music and it helps me work, but mostly because it keeps me from being distracted. When someone comes into my office and interrupts me with a question, or worse, idle fucking chitchat, I immediately lose my train of thought. Most of the time, I can never get it back again. This happens a lot when I’m writing. I’ll be typing away and my roommate will start blabbing at me about something and I’ll have to stop writing and answer him. Then I go back and I will have completely forgotten where I was going with a post. The reason I have 50 drafts in my drafts folder is because I have been interrupted 50 times.
8. Recovered memories. Some people think repressed memory is bunk. I tend to agree with that assessment as regards traumatic experiences, but when it comes to brain damage, it’s entirely true. I’ve experienced it myself. My brain lost connections to a lot of data, and every once in a while, it will build a new neural pathway to something that was hopelessly lost. Occasionally, I’ll be going about my life, when suddenly, a smell or a sound triggers a memory. It’s always a shock, because when it first comes back, it’s vivid as hell. Every time I remember it after that, it’s just like any old faded memory. From then on, it takes its rightful place in my memory with all the others and I can recall it whenever I choose. As nice as it is to remember again, the shock of it all is sometimes overwhelming.
9. I can’t follow instructions. If they’re written down and I can refer to them again and again, like a recipe, I’m good. However, like the phone number and name problem, if you just tell me to do something, forget about it. Specifically, I will forget about it. That’s the reason that I work best through email. If you email me something I have to do, I will read the message and decide if it’s time sensitive. If it is, I’ll either do it right then or set a reminder. If it’s not time sensitive, I will flag it in my email. Once a week, I sort my email by flagged items, do them, and then un-flag them. It’s a good system and it works. The problem is, you can’t do that with phone calls and conversations. I tell everyone I have to deal with for work to email me, yet some of these people ignore this request and call me instead, jerks. I use email for a reason.
10. I remember things that are incredibly insignificant, but can’t remember important things. I still remember my first address and phone number, but I have no idea what my phone numbers are now. I have to look them up whenever someone asks me. I remember song lyrics for songs I haven’t heard in twenty years, but can’t remember what I ordered for lunch a minute ago. When the waitress brings it to me, it’s a lunch surprise! I can’t remember where I put my car registration, but I know exactly where my sticker book is. I can’t remember what I read on the previous page of a book, but I remember that a character first appeared in the same book roughly a hundred pages back on the lower left of a page. The real problem with my memory is that I can’t choose what to remember. It’s like a sieve.
Some things flow from my short-term memory right on through to my long-term memory without any issues at all. Other memories get stuck on the mesh; only part of them make it through or nothing at all. It’s all completely random and infuriating.
But I have adapted. My fail brain and I are in détente. We have come to an accord. However, there are times I wonder just what’s going on up there. Perhaps the brain has secretly signed a treaty with the mouth or hand, and they’re plotting to overthrow me. In any event, my brain and I don’t always get along. Here are some examples of what I mean:
Last night, when I got home from work, I attempted to use the clicker for my car on my front door. I stood there for a minute clicking and getting frustrated because my house door still stubbornly remained locked. It was only when I heard the click-click coming from my car that I realized that this thing would never open my front door.
Sadly, that was not the first time I tried opening my house with my car key. With this same clicker, I have opened the trunk of my car instead of my door more times than I can count, and I have tried unlocking my doors with the lock button and vice versa. I’m really better off with just a plain old key.
I make a pot of coffee every morning without fail. In today’s modern world, making coffee isn’t really that difficult. It requires three ingredients: coffee, water and heat. In my case, it involves coffee, water, heat from a coffeemaker, a coffee filter and a coffee grinder since we grind our coffee ourselves.
About 50% of the time, I manage to grind coffee, add water, replace the filter with a new one, put fresh coffee in, and turn the coffee pot on. The other 50% of the time, I fail entirely. I put the filter in without adding coffee, or worse, I put the coffee in without a filter. I forget to add water. I forget to turn the coffee pot on. Sometimes, I make coffee the correct way and then leave the house without it. This morning, I threw the new coffee filter into the trash instead of the old one.
Most of the time, I don’t remember to turn it on, so you can forget about remembering to turn it off. Thankfully, it has an auto shut off otherwise I would have killed it by now. In my defense, I haven’t had any coffee yet when I’m making coffee.
I’ve lived in my neighborhood for about eight years and I still get lost. I will either not pay attention, miss a turn and then panic because I don’t know where I am, or I will genuinely not know how to get from point A to point B because I usually get to point B from point C, not from point A. Going from his house to the dog park, Male once said, if you go the other way, it’s shorter, but since you finally remembered this way after months of conditioning like a homing pigeon, we’ll leave it be.
I take a pill every morning, or at least, I’m supposed to. I had to tie my pill taking to putting on my ear jewelry otherwise, I will forget entirely. If at some point later in the day, I realize that I don’t have heavy stainless steel things in my earholes, I know I haven’t taken my medication:
Those things are heavy. I don’t know exactly how much they weigh, but it’s enough to notice when I am not wearing them, yet not heavy enough to notice I’m not wearing them before I leave the house.
I continually misspell the same words. For example, when I did a search for the image for Exhibit D, I typed “0 guage” for the nth time in my life. The search engine asked me if I meant 0 gauge. I said, yes, that’s what I meant. I knew that. Yes sirree.
I take my dog to the dog park several times a week. At the entrance, they have two doors like so:
The sign says, “Please close gate behind you BEFORE opening next gate.” The point of the one door at a time system is to keep dogs from getting out. At my dog park, one gate opens towards me, while the other gate opens away from me. They look identical so you can’t tell which opens which way from a glance. I have never been able to remember which door opens which way, so most of the time, I’m trying to force a door the opposite way it was designed to swing… twice. And then I repeat the same confusing process on the way out. I have only been taking my dog to that park several times a week for two years. Maybe by the time she’s five, I’ll have it down.
Male and I have coffee at the local coffee shop a lot. We trade off buying. He drinks the same thing, but it’s a complicated drink with at least five different words I have to say. I had to have him text it to me because I couldn’t remember all five words. I still refer to that text message sometimes while waiting in line because I forget. I haven’t told Male that because he’d laugh at me.
Passwords. Forget about it. I can’t remember a single one. I have to keep them in a password protected file on my hard drive. Sometimes, I will open the file and forget to close it. What is the point of having a password protected file if I just leave it open on my desktop? No point. There is no point to that. Derp.
I think I’ll stop here today, lest I completely embarrass myself. I would go on, but to be honest, I can’t remember anything else right now. Brain, I do wonder about you sometimes.
As I discussed in the post CHS Syndrome, I can’t hear shit. I am partially deaf in both ears, but my right ear is useless for all but picking up background noises. One thing I forgot to mention in that post is that a direct result of my hearing impairment is a case of the mumbles.
Just this morning, I’ve mumbled twice. As I was walking through the lobby, our cleaning lady was mopping the floor. I simply said, “con permiso” (I’m sorry) because I didn’t know how to say “I’m sorry for walking through your freshly mopped floor again for like the 50th time this week and it’s only Tuesday” in Spanish. The cleaning lady and I trade languages. I speak to her in Spanish and she speaks to me in English. Neither one of us seems to have a very good grasp on the other’s language, but that’s exactly why we do it.
I seem to be prescient about floor cleaning. Wherever there is a floor being cleaned, I instinctively feel the need to walk through it at that exact moment. This happens at work daily, but it also applies to the outside world.
As I was walking through Marta’s newly clean floor again and I said I’m sorry, she replied with something I did not catch. Instead of saying “¿qué?” or “¿perdón?” or any of the things I could have said to have her repeat it, I just mumbled something like “Berm on it.”
I have no idea whether my brain had actually formed a coherent thought and my mouth tripped on it, or if my brain just threw some random letters at my mouth, and my mouth just shrugged its mouthy shoulders and went with it. Either way, mumbling “berm on it” is not going to help Marta learn English.
Then, just a minute ago, I was walking through Marta’s clean floors again and the receptionist said, “Good morning. How are you?” This is a no-brainer. We’re all asked this question multiple times a day. You don’t even have to think about it. You just say, “Fine. And you?” and that’s the end of that. But, not my brain.
When the receptionist asked me, “How are you?” I replied, “Bueno. ¿Y tu?” My brain decided to reply in Spanish, even though the receptionist is not Mexican and speaks fluent English having been born in America. Only after the words were already erroneously hanging in the air above the clean echoey floors did my brain realized what it had done. To make up for the error, the brain threw some words, the mouth shrugged its shoulders again and out came, “Murgefer.” The legs were ordered to move us away from there quickly so that the incident might be forgotten as soon as possible by everyone involved.
That last example isn’t really hearing impairment so much as plain idiocy. In that CHS post I linked above, I talked about Creative Listening Skills, where if I can’t hear something, I just make up sentences that sound like the same intonation and syllables said to me. Apparently, it also applies to words my brain makes up for its hearing deficiencies, or for generally misunderstanding the universe and its occupants. If my brain is embarrassed by its own stupidity, it will make up random sounds to cover its tracks and run away. BLARHGBYFLRR!! The person on the receiving end has to use their own Creative Listening Skills to try to figure out what the hell I meant. Godspeed to them, because I don’t even know. Berm on it, murgefer.
Counterintuition is a seemingly simple concept–it represents a truth that is contrary to common sense or the expectations of intuition.
The human brain is the most counterintuitive thing in our existence. Your brain is not to be trusted, which is weird since it’s responsible for everything you do, think and say. The human brain is a faulty mechanism that tricks us, and itself, all the time.
My brain is definitely not to be trusted even more than yours. I had a massive head trauma years ago and I’ve had to adapt to working with a damaged brain. When your brain goes busto, it kind of makes you interested in brains in general and how they work. The thing is, we really don’t even know how our own brains work, but we’ve figured some things out.
Today, we’re going to explore some counterintuitive ways our brains trick us all the time.
Have you ever looked at floor tiles and seen faces? A figure in the clouds? Jesus on a piece of toast? A face on Mars? Ponce de León in tree bark? Remember when you were kid and you swore that the shadow of your lamp was a monster?
Pareidolia is the phenomenon that occurs when we see faces or figures where there are none. This particular quirk is responsible for most of what we call “supernatural” experiences. There’s an auditory component as well, e.g. hearing hidden messages on records when played in reverse.
We can’t help it. We are hardwired to recognize the human face, figure and voice in almost everything. From birth, we can see the human face clearly in low light and at a distance. Whatever details our eyes can’t see, our brain fills in. It gave us an evolutionary advantage, allowing us to tell friend from foe in an instant. Our brains are really good at pattern recognition, and the human face is our favorite pattern.
First Impression Bias
Speaking of pattern recognition, your brain turns you into a judgmental, bigoted racist, whether you want to be or not, because it attempts to classify everything based on stereotypes and known patterns. This is also an evolutionary trait. When you’re out on the plains, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between Aunt Betty and a gigantic carnivore as soon as possible. We needed to know whether to run or not, like, now. Quick, which one of these people is a threat?
However, nowadays, humans don’t have too many predators (besides ourselves), so this ability isn’t all that necessary, but we do it all the same. Stereotypical thinking comes almost naturally. They say that first impressions are the most important. It’s true because humans go around making snap judgments of each other all the time. It’s almost instantaneous and you can’t stop doing it. Way to go, racists!
Most of the time, this judgmental small-mindedness isn’t a problem since we can override first impressions with knowledge, but sometimes it can lead to big trouble. Biased first impressions can prevent us from assessing all the factors involved in a decision. First impressions can lead to doctors misdiagnosing patients or biased jurors.
Have you ever stared at something so long that everything else disappeared or went fuzzy? That’s Troxler’s fading. When you stare at a fixed point for a long period of time, it causes everything else in your field of vision to fade away. Like the first two items on the list, this is also an evolutionary throwback. If you were a hunter/gatherer, the success of your hunting/gathering depended largely upon how well you could focus on what you were looking for, e.g. a plant, an animal or your car keys.
It’s simply a neural adaptation that allows unchanging scenery to be dropped from our visual field, rerouting all our focus to what we’re looking at. It’s why we can concentrate so well. If you stare at the red dot long enough, the blue circle will actually disappear:
Remember that time that you went to the movies with your friends Jay, Bob, Bill and Ted to see Batman’s Revenge and then had tacos at Taco Ed’s Tacos afterwards? Well, Bob and Ted weren’t there, you actually saw Riddler’s Revenge and you had tacos with your sister at Taco Ed’s three days later. Remember how huge your childhood home was? Yeah, that’s because you were so much smaller. Remember that time when you were a small child that you found a magical unicorn in the woods who gave you a ride to the Leprechaun’s gold? Yeah, that didn’t happen.
It’s called confabulation. It means to fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory. Typically, the psychological condition is the result of a neurological disorder like Alzheimer’s disease, but it happens to normal brains to a lesser extent, too.
The human memory is not etched in stone. Not even close. It’s more like writing in sand right before the tide comes in. The human memory is actually very easily manipulated with images, suggestion and time. If you are the eyewitness to a crime and you offhandedly hear someone say they saw a tall black man, even if you saw a short white lady, your brain will trick you into believing that you saw a tall black man and eventually, with enough repetition, you will actually see Samuel L. Jackson robbing a liquor store.
That’s an example of a phenomenon called Eyewitness Memory. Here are some scary results of confabulation from the wiki I just linked:
A growing body of research now supports this speculation, indicating that mistaken eyewitness identification is responsible for more convictions of the innocent than all other factors combined. The Innocence Project determined that 75% of the 239 DNA exoneration cases had occurred due to inaccurate eyewitness testimony.
Remember how I told you your brain was not to be trusted? Yeah, that’s why.
Have you ever had that feeling that you’ve been here, said that, done this before? Yeah, everyone does. It’s not paranoia, or supernatural, or an image from a past life or an alternate you. It’s just your brain messing up like a skipping record.
I’ve written about this before in the post Brain FAIL so I’ll just paraphrase myself:
[Déjà vu is when] your short-term memory and your long-term memory overlap, giving you two different versions of the same thing. You can recall experiencing something, but you can’t remember the specifics. That’s your brain malfunctioning. That’s your brain trying to trick you … since it doesn’t want to be blamed for the error. It’s the captain of the Titanic trying to blame it on the iceberg when the iceberg is actually part of the ship.
Do not trust the brain.
The Placebo Effect
I experience this one every night. My brain patently refuses sleep without sleeping pills. I need to connect point A-sleeping pills to point B-sleeping. However, someone could come into my sleeping pill stash, replace the insides of the capsules with sugar and I probably would still be able to sleep just as well because I think I’ve taken my sleeping pill.
Can you explain exactly why you’re attracted to a certain person (or farm animal)? No? Well, neither can anyone else. It’s called choice blindness and it happens to all of us.
In a 2005 study, researchers showed heterosexual male subjects two pictures of female faces. The subjects were asked to choose the face that they found more attractive. They were then shown the card they chose and asked to explain why they chose it. Every fifth time, the evil scientists used a card trick to switch the cards so the subjects were shown the picture that they didn’t choose. Only 1 in 10 times did the subjects even notice that they were shown the wrong picture. The rest of the time, the subjects went on blithely explaining why they preferred that picture, even though it was not the one they chose.
We seem to have little to no awareness of choices we’ve made and why, and then we use rationalizations to cover our tracks. Human brains are easily tricked into justifying choices they didn’t actually make, like a shell game we play with ourselves.
Even when we’re aware of the deception, unlike the attractiveness study, it still works. For example, your boss is leaving and you decide that you’d really like his job, but that asshole Dave from accounting was promoted instead of you. You then convince yourself you are better off not being the boss. Being the boss is more responsibility, more hours, more headaches. Screw that! You’re much happier where you are. In fact, you really wanted to stay where you are all along. Poor Dave from accounting. What a sucker!
These are just a few examples of how we have relatively little access to the inner workings of our minds. I could continue with cognitive dissonance, event boundaries, etc., but I think we’ll stop here today. My brain is telling me that’s enough and I always listen to my brain.