Making Up My Mind

Posted on August 28, 2012

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Am I my brain? Am I somewhere inside my brain? If there are two halves, which side am I on? Am I alone in there, or part of a group? And who’s asking these annoying questions, anyway?

The human mind is a wondrous thing. Even the most pessimistic of us proceed each day with an astounding level of confidence about what we know, and what we’re capable of knowing. We do this, in part, by artificially filling in the gaps in our knowledge.

At least that’s what I do. And there are plenty of gaps.

When I don’t know something and don’t have the time or inclination to learn it, I make it up. If I’m aware that I’m doing this, I tell myself that I’m temporarily stuffing the empty space with fluffy material that I can later replace with the real thing. It’s like when we hang a jacket over the back of a chair to save a seat for someone: sooner or later, a three-dimensional person is going to show up and justify the pretense.

Just as often, I simply don’t have the necessary intelligence. No one is capable of understanding everything, after all, a thought that provides some comfort every time I try to read Einstein’s general theory of relativity, or learn a dance step, or refill a stapler. But my mind persists in fooling itself. I continue to fantasize about meeting with the planet’s leading physicists as we try to pin down a more precise explanation for the force of gravity. When I’m feeling less ambitious, I imagine starring in a remake of Top Hat, giving an electrifying performance that threatens to make the world all but forget Fred Astaire. On my most feeble days, I want no more than to get through a twenty-four-hour period without inadvertently piercing my hand with a piece of office equipment.

Usually, though, the haze in my head is the result of a long series of unconscious adjustments. There’s certainly no mischievous intent. The impulse is one of sheer necessity. It just isn’t possible to know everything I think I’m supposed to know, and to keep it all stored in an orderly way. So I fake it.

I have to resort to this kind of trick even with something as basic as the alphabet. In my mind, I can picture the first four letters – A, B, C, and D. They’re sharp and in focus. At the other end are X, Y, and Z, solid and aligned. In between, however, is a fuzzy string of characters whose names and order I can identify only when I need to concentrate on that part of the sequence. For the rest of the time, those nineteen letters hang like mismatched socks on a clothesline, shrouded in fog and blowing around in the wind. I can see their outline and sense their weight, but their faces are blurred.

The same thing seems to happen with geography. I know that Nevada fits into the bend in California, with Utah one state over to the east. In my mind, though, they sometimes switch, with Utah to the left of Nevada. I do a similar thing with Madagascar, mentally flipping it across the continent to the west coast of Africa. Yet when I look at actual maps, with Nevada and Madagascar in their proper places, I’m not surprised by where they are. I guess I’m comfortable with either version, which means the misperceptions are likely to continue. And the same thing happens with the Middle East, and Southeast Asia – I can name most of the pieces, but the puzzle is a jumbled mess.

So do I know where Nevada and Madagascar are located, or don’t I? Could I explain where Sumatra is in relation to Borneo, or tell Oman from Yemen without the labels? It feels as though there’s more than one answer to those questions.

First of all, who am I? I’m supposed to be my brain. Obviously, when people refer to themselves they’re not talking about their left arm or their gall bladder, but rather that mass of nerve cells inside their skull. But I don’t see it that way. Not really. I think of my brain as being up there, this busy machine that blinks and beeps and buzzes continually, and is engaged in intricate and important work. Meanwhile, I’m down here somewhere, trying to stay out of the way and looking for something harmless to do.

But how can this be? My mind lives in my brain. When I use the word, I, it refers to the command center. I’m not just Mission Control – I’m the person who runs Mission Control. That’s what I always thought.

Yet, when I speak, words come out of my mouth that I don’t remember forming, or even thinking about. I’m typing this sentence as if taking dictation. It’s as though there’s another person in there, cranking out ideas, and I’m nothing more than a witness to the process.

Second, what does it even mean to know something? When a friend gets a new pair of eyeglasses, I notice immediately, but I couldn’t describe the old glasses to save my life. How is it that I can tell the difference – perceive a change – without being consciously aware of what was there before?

My brain apparently knows things that I don’t know. But how? Students in medical school spend years studying and trying to memorize many hundreds of anatomical functions that some other part of their brain mastered long ago. Here’s just one example:

The brain includes something called the amygdala, a mass of cells that deal with emotions, memory, and the secretion of hormones throughout the body. If I were given a written test on the specific functions of the amygdala, I would get a zero. If it were an open-book test, I might get a thirty-five. And yet, my amygdala is apparently working fine. I get appropriately angry at the snowplow operator when he buries my driveway six times in one day, and then I feel the inevitable twinge of remorse at the things I yell at him, even though he can’t hear a word I say and probably thinks I’m just waving hello. I remember John Glenn’s spaceflight in 1962, just as clearly as I recall cracking my knee against the corner of the desk this morning. And my hormones seem to be working all right, too, although I can’t tell you what they are or what they do. All I know about them is what I learned in high school biology: hormones are chemical messengers. I have no idea what that means. I picture them as tiny men on bicycles, wearing white caps and carrying slips of paper in their back pockets. This is probably not accurate, but it is, nevertheless, the image of hormones I will continue to hold for the rest of my life. The important thing is that my brain somehow knows what each chemical is for, and where to send them, and when. I’m grateful for that. But it’s a strange gratitude, a multiple-personality kind of feeling.

We’re all in this together, I suppose. My brain and I. And whoever else might be in here, too.

They say everyone’s brain has two halves: a right side and a left side. If only it were that simple.

This post features nine pieces of original cartoon art by Ron Leishman.

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Posted in: In Over My Head