I recently found out that a friend’s granddaughter has a photographic memory. Never one to miss an opportunity to waste hours ruminating over useless hypothetical questions, the next morning I sat drinking my coffee wondering why I didn’t also have a photographic memory.
“How can you expect me to remember anything when you are always asking me to forget everything?” a pretentious little voice asked.
“What are you talking about?” I questioned.
“You are always telling me, ‘Forget this ever happened, Brain. It’s for our own good’.”
Offended I asked, “Like what?” .
“Well obviously I can’t remember,” my brain yelled back taking offense itself.
Maybe people with photographic memories have a better time accepting reality and don’t continuously write and rewrite their past like I do. (Never forgetting to highlight myself in the very best light.) Or maybe people with photographic memories are more in the moment. That way each task they do, their brain is paying attention to it, rather than, as my brain tends to do, running off barefoot like a feral child through a dense forest.
Incidentally, in no way shape or form have I ever considered that I am simply not as smart as someone with a photographic memory. Never. Not possible. I’m sure if I worked at it I could have my own photographic memory. I choose not to have a photographic memory, that’s all. I don’t feel like doing the hard work.
“Now you’re telling me to forget that we know that we are not smart enough to have a photographic memory.”
“What? I did not. Shhh. Go run in the forest.”
As I was walking my four-year-old son to pre-school one morning, he started telling me about Natalie, his girlfriend, whom he described as beautiful with hair that shined “lellow” in the sun.
“Natalie says I can’t have Adam come to my birthday party,” he said as he dropped little black berries on the sidewalk, Hansel and Gretel style.
“Oh really?!” I replied in the over-acted manner preferred by four out of five preschoolers.
He stopped at a bush, finding more berries to pick. “She says I can’t because I have to make her happy.”
BAM! Like a pack of dogs through a just-opened screen door, the next words bolted out of my mouth. I whistled helplessly for them to come back, but fast as the speed of sound, each word gonged themselves in succession against his tiny eardrums: Man. She. Sure. Is. Bossy. Realizing this was the first time he’d heard his mother talk bad about one of his friends, he turned and looked up at me, his eyes widening.
Only one day earlier, a mother reminded me that kids blab to their friends and teachers everything their parents say to them. I was aware of this when dealing with older children but I hadn’t quite grasped that my own boys were at that age. Meaning, I had yet to be shamed.
Truthfully I felt pretty confident that my kids never listen to me. I had tried to peer deep into their eyes a few times to see if my words where getting through to them. All I saw was the swift glimmer of their brain as it galloped past on its way to the forest where the wild things are. Their complete lack of comprehension was the only way I could explain why I found myself repeating the most basic of instructions. Like: “You don’t need an entire roll of toilet paper every time you use the toilet.”
Or, “I know you are trying to help clean but don’t keep putting old bowls of spaghetti back into the cabinet.”
And, “I’ve told you before if you’re going to inspect mummified lizards with magnifying glasses in my bed, please remember to take them back outside when you’re done.”
Oh, and, “Stop coming up to me and wiping your nose on my sleeve.”
Knowing that I was about to learn my gossip lesson, I quickly back-tracked. I knelt down to my son’s level and spoke to him of mutual respect, the dynamics of a male/female relationships. I brought up Martians and Venusians, King Solomon and his tasty gossip morsels. I used fast speech to jab at his pre-frontal cortex. I dropped four syllable boulders in front of his neural pathways. To overload his optical nerve, I gesticulated like a juggler with Parkinson’s. Anything to distract the arrival of those first five words to his hippocampus. Like a UPS central processing center, it’s the part of the brain where items get sorted and some are sent off to become long-term memories. I even said hippocampus a few times, just in case it is the hidden lair of the id.
I talked the rest of the way to school. I talked until his eyes crossed and birds flew around his head. I talked so much I was confident that I had rendered his brain incapable of remembering that I had said: she sure is bossy.
I kissed him off to school.
Three short hours later I walked back to pick him up.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“Mama, you were right. Natalie is bossy,” he said. My heart became an anvil and clanked on the floor. Blind-sided, I realized that my babbling had succeeded only in confusing my hippocampus.
“You didn’t call her that, did you?” I asked.
His eyes got big. “No, Mama.”
I sighed with relief.
“No, Mama, I told her that you said she was bossy.”
Due to my unfortunate experiences with antidepressants as a teenager, I have a bit of an (un)natural distrust for the “good ideas” that my brain pushes on me.
Like millions of other teenagers, I was prescribed these little black-magic pills before it was “discovered” that antidepressants can actually increase suicidal thoughts and actions.
(“Eureka, Dr. Holmes! It seems that if you look at the empirical data that we deleted to get Prozac passed by the FDA, the suicide rate actually increases with use as compared to the placebo or even doing nothing at all.” “My God, Dr. Watson! I’d say that means it’s time we start working on Abilify.”)
My brain, even antidepressant free, is sneaky, sneaky, always seeming to try to build up my trust for it. Of course you won’t forget the special place you put your passport. Or, I’ll remind you the parking break is on. Or, I’m sure caffeine won’t keep you up all night this time. My brain is like a badly run government agency trying to cover its tracks and reassure the public. The levies won’t break, people, the levies won’t break.
It’s a biological fact. The human brain never admits to mistakes. It’s why people with schizophrenia continually quit their medicine. Their brain tells them that they haven’t had any symptoms for weeks and they must be cured. But you need to take your medicine.
The brain’s stubbornness can also be seen in the paranoia associated with dementia. Even as the part of the brain that is thought to be involved in memory forming, the hippocampus, is eaten away by Alzheimer’s, it will never concede that it just may have forgotten something:
Frontal Lobe: “Message to hippocampus, message to hippocampus, where is the toothbrush?”
Hippocampus (roused from sleep): “Hmm?” Blinking and wiping his glasses. “Hmm, what was the question?”
Frontal Lobe: “WHERE is the toothbrush? You were supposed to transfer that to her long term memory yesterday.”
Hippocampus: “Well, yes I did do that, and it should be in the medicine cabinet.
Frontal Lobe: “It is not in the medicine cabinet. We already looked twice.”
Hippocampus: “Well if it is not there, then … it must have been stolen.”
Frontal Lobe: “STOLEN??? Who would want to steal a 95-year-old woman’s 10-year-old toothbrush?”
Hippocampus: “Are you trying to suggest that I forgot? I am the hippocampus. I said it has been stolen, so it has been stolen.”
Frontal Lobe: “Fine. Fine. OK. Send it on to the nervous system. Red alert everybody. Queue the adrenaline. It has been stolen.” Frontal lobe pauses, listening and then continues. “Amygdala is saying we should hide more stuff to prevent further stealing. Hippocampus, will you remember where the stuff is put?”
Frontal Lobe: “HIPPOCAMPUS!!!”
Hippocampus: “Yes. Yes, I always remember.” Hippocampus stands and stretches.
Frontal Lobe: Holy Brain Stem, Hippocampus! Put some pants on for Oxygen’s sake.”
I think my hippocampus has a few holes in it also, because I have a horrible memory. But I thought I had finally accepted it: as much as my brain tells me I’ll remember, I won’t. So I have to write everything down. A few weeks ago I started keeping lists, using Google Calendar, doing things as soon as I think of them. I was taking my medicine, so to speak.
Then yesterday I was going to the store and my brain said, You don’t need to make a list, you haven’t forgotten anything in weeks.
And I hadn’t forgotten anything in weeks! I was so proud. I do have a good memory. See I told you.
So I went to the store without a list. I only needed two things from the store, and I came home with seven.
Then this morning my husband had to break up a fight between me and my brain as I was trying to strangle it to death because I realized I hadn’t gotten either of the things I needed.
So take your medicine. (Unless it is antidepressants and you are a teenager.)
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