I’ve lived roughly half a lifetime. As a result, I have a lot of things floating around in my head. I remember walking to school on the first day of kindergarten. Mostly, I remember this, because I walked right under the crossing guard’s arms and nearly got hit by a car. Nobody told me that outstretched arms meant to wait. That was not implied to my five year old brain and I had no crossing guard experience from which to draw that conclusion.
I remember a lot of first everythings. First day of school, first day on a job, first love, first breakup. I remember snow days and school lunches and so much more. And all that remembering has been done by the same faulty hunk of soft tissue inside my brainpan. It’s the same basic material I was born with, though the cells within it have lived and died countless times. I have not been overly kind to my gray matter. I have abused it countless ways, inadvertently and indirectly; still, it ticks on forming this sentence and that one.
My brain, and to a lesser extent, your brain is fascinating to me. My brain is more interesting to me than yours for a few reasons. First, it is mine and I rely on it to do quite literally everything, including writing this sentence and continuing to exist as a sentient creature. Second, my brain has most likely adapted and overcome more than yours has. My brain has character. It was mended with gold and glue, kintsugi style.
Your brain, hopefully, has not had to experience pneumococcal meningitis, many concussions, drug abuse, and a traumatic brain injury so severe that you couldn’t remember what was happening from one moment to the next. Your brain probably hasn’t had to rope off entire sections of itself and build workarounds. Yours probably never had to come up with a complicated new system for remembering things, e.g. a post it note on your steering wheel to remember where you are going.
When I was still a teenager, I received a super-dramatic traumatic brain injury. I had to drop out of school, because I couldn’t learn anything. I had to quit my job, because I was incompetent. I had to change my entire life and my system for making my way through it. You can read more about the accident here if so inclined.
My brain is fascinating to me, not only because of what it has overcome, but because of what was let untouched. While a big chunk of my brain was damaged, much of it wasn’t impacted at all. I’m still smarter than average; not as smart as I used to be, but smarter than average. I still have an excellent vocabulary and a lot of mostly useless facts readily available for any conversation (Norman invasion–1066). I still remember walking under those outstretched arms on the first day of school.
The thing about brains, like the rest of the human body, is that they don’t really age well. Once they’re done growing around the age of 25 or so, they immediately begin the process of dying. It’s kind of a messed up system; either growing or dying. All or nothing. 1 or 0.
Some memories have always stayed with me, some were recovered since the accident, but inside my brain, there are sections that are irreparable. I will never be able to access that data again. I don’t know what’s in there. I’m sure a lot of it is useless bits of information like a thousand school lunches, but there might be some treasures, too. I’ll never know.
As I age, I am more impressed with my brain than ever. When I was 21 years old, my brain, unlike your brain, did not work as well as it does right now. It was still in the process of repairing itself and coming up with workarounds. Over the years, my brain and I have trialed and tested a remembering system that works about 95% of the time.
I think, in some ways, I’m lucky that my brain had to come up with a new remembering system early on, because I am prepared to age. While the rest of you are scrambling to come up with ways to remember things, I’ve had my system in place for decades now. It seems that my brain function has finally caught up with the norm for my age.
I wish I could have chosen which memories to put in the damaged section. If I could, I would have put all the bad things in there–the bullies and sexual abuse, the drug addiction and homelessness–and roped it off forever.
Alas, that’s not how it works. It’s more like a damaged hard drive. I have some files that are completely intact. September 11, 2001 has all the metadata attached. Most of my files are missing metadata altogether, i.e., I don’t know when or where they happened. And some files have metadata, but the file itself is blank.
I have no timeline. As we age, our brains tend to jumble similar experiences together. For example, I bet you can’t tell me what you had for breakfast on April 14, 2021, unless you have the same thing for breakfast every day or there’s a significance to that date. I bet, if it was a normal day like any other, you couldn’t tell me from memory alone all of the things that happened to you on that day with complete certainty.
That’s not quite what I’m talking about though. When I say I have no timeline, I mean that I haven’t been able to place memories in time since the accident. In other words, I haven’t been able to add metadata for a long time. When I was first clobbered on the noggin, I couldn’t tell you whether I ate breakfast this morning, because I remembered having eaten breakfast at some point in my life. It was that bad.
When you ask me now when something happened to me, I search my memory for where I was living at the time, because until recently, I haven’t lived in one place for very long. From there, I can narrow it down to a date range, plus or minus a few years. That’s the system for faking a timeline that my brain has come up with. It’s the best I can do and it’s way better than it used to be.
Nowadays, I can tell you whether something happened when I was an adult or a child. Adult is broken up into a few sections: Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, and before or after my mate died. Childhood memories are harder to place, because I lived in the same house for the first 14 years of my life. In some ways, that makes it easier; if I was living off of 8 Mile Road, it definitely happened when I was a child. That’s the cutoff. Still, it could have happened anytime between the ages of 0 and 14.
The older I get, the more things I’ll forget. It makes sense if you go back to the hard drive metaphor. If you keep a hard drive at maximum capacity, it will take longer to retrieve files and you can’t save anything new without getting rid of the old. I’ve forgotten more in my half a lifetime than some people will in their entire lives.
Still, my brain and I have mostly figured out a way to make it work. I’ll be fascinated to see what my brain is like in another 20 years, if I make it that far and still have the wherewithal to ponder such things.
How’s your brain doing?