A Waste of Consciousness (Part 1)

Posted on March 17, 2012

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I have no real understanding of the human nervous system, this mass of interconnected cells that I use every second of every day. For example, it baffles me that I can start talking about something, especially in response to a question, without hesitation and with no idea of what’s going to come out of my mouth. If you asked what I was doing when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, I could tell you instantly, and in detail. I can remember exactly where I was standing eight months later when Mickey Mantle hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win game 3 of the World Series. And I can describe what the drawer full of scattered 45s looked like when my mother went rummaging through our records on the day Nat King Cole died.

But it’s more than memory. I can create visual images and conjure imagined sounds that have never existed in real life. With no effort, I can see a tap-dancing Sigmund Freud or recite the Gettysburg Address in the voice of Fred Flintstone, and I can do so as easily as I can visualize a container of Greek yogurt. At the same time, if you want to know how I’m managing to accomplish any of those things, I couldn’t tell you.

So it’s with a great deal of confusion that I lie awake at night and watch the parade of random thoughts make its way down the main street of my mind. A few, I’m sure, are the result of pure insomnia, or a combination of sleeplessness and discomfort. But how those physical conditions are converted by my neurons into mental activity, I can’t begin to explain.

* * * * *

A little before midnight on Tuesday, I found myself thinking about IQ tests. Who created the first one, and how did anyone know that person was qualified? You’d want someone with an extremely high IQ to produce a test like that, but how would you go about determining such a thing, before the measurement tool existed? Maybe he was a genius, but he could have also been just some smart guy who didn’t have anything useful to do. I have a thin paperback of IQ tests, and I got up to look for it, certain that it was on the shelf next to my collection of old reference books. For some reason I reached for the 1976 edition of The World Almanac & Book of Facts. I opened to a random page and read that lower inflation rates the previous year had accompanied the most dramatic economic decline in decades, with unemployment exceeding nine percent. I also learned that President Ford had used his veto power more than thirty times to thwart a Democratic Congress. Flipping to page 875, I noticed that Gunder Haegg of Sweden had, in 1945, come within 1.5 seconds of being the first long-distance runner to break the four-minute mile. A second and a half. I wondered if he’d sneezed in the middle of the race, and if that had cost him his place in history. Then, after what seemed to be a long time, I remembered that I’d gotten up to find the IQ book. It was on the top shelf. Again, I opened to a random page and read the first question I saw.

Which of the following is least like the others?
(a) Fish    (b) Dog    (c) Lion    (d) Camel    (e) Mouse

Easy, I thought. The answer has to be camel, because it’s the only animal of those five that has never starred in a Disney movie. Satisfied that I possessed high intelligence, I put the book back and returned to bed, tripping over the cat in the dark and cracking my knee against a doorframe on the way.

* * * * *

On Wednesday night, I recalled how methodically my oral surgeon had studied the x-rays before excavating the site of my impacted wisdom tooth. How, I suddenly asked myself, do those horrendous operating room disasters ever happen? They’re rare, but every once in a while we hear a story about a doctor who’s made a really big mistake, like amputating the left leg instead of the right, or operating on the wrong patient. I recently read about a surgeon in New Jersey who had removed a healthy lung from a man, leaving its cancerous counterpart intact and undisturbed. It seems impossible. If a person goes to the dry cleaner and is handed someone else’s suit, that’s understandable. A few years ago the telephone company inadvertently disconnected my fax line, because my number was similar to that of the customer who’d actually made the request. But a patient has only two lungs, so the decision to take out one of them is a major thing. It can only mean that the lung is in terrible shape. When they remove the better of the two, the possibility of recovery is all but eliminated. Lying in bed that night, I decided that I’m staying awake for all of my surgeries from now on.

There’s a restaurant not far from here called The House of Lam. Whenever I see the sign I imagine that it caters to escaped convicts and other people looking to elude capture. It’s often said that truck drivers know where to find the best food. It seems to me that anyone on the run from the law would know where to find the best service, because in that situation you’re not looking for a casual dining experience. You may not even have time for dessert. You want your meal in a hurry, and the check right behind it. If you hear sirens in the parking lot, you also want to know that there’s a bathroom window big enough to climb through. The House of Lam, I’m sure, is where I’d duck in for a quick bite.

* * * * *

I read a lot about science, and am frequently amazed by the depth of knowledge researchers had, centuries before the computer was invented. Physicists in the 1850s were capable of measuring the speed of light. This at a time when people made their own soap, and lit their homes with oil lamps. Henri Becquerel identified radioactivity in 1896, and a year later Joseph Thomson discovered the electron; both men likely rode horses to work. In 1909, Ernest Rutherford set up an experiment in which he fired protons at a sheet of gold leaf to determine the internal structure of atoms. He was firing protons? A hundred years ago? How did he know he was firing protons, or even where to get them? I have trouble figuring out the little diagram that shows you how to put batteries into a flashlight.

But at least I got that IQ question right.

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Posted in: In Over My Head