In search of mind: if memories were in some anatomical hideaway, my heart seemed a better bet than the brain I’m told is between my ears
Anne H. Rosenfeld
IN SEARCH OF MIND
I’VE NEVER SEEN a brain-not a real one. My supermarket doesn’t carry any, and maybe I don’t either. I can vouch for my heart; it thumps out an incessant (and ungrammatical) ad for itself: “It’s me: your heart. It’s me: your heart.” But my brain, if I have one, skulks silently in my skull, unseen and unfelt. No one has peeked inside to assure me it’s there, not even with X-rays or scans.
Whatever I know about my brain comes from people who have picked other people’s brains. They tell me that whatever I think, feel or do happens because billions of nerve cells are chattering away upstairs in chemical squirts and electrical beeps and gossiping-even to the tips of my toes and back-through my spinal cord. They say, too, that somewhere in that three-pound blob lies everything I stashed away when I crammed for exams, fell in love, mastered my dad’s huge Chrysler, first ate egg rolls. Somewhere up there are all those irregular French verbs, the finger moves for mangling the Moonlight Sonata, the sensous scent of hidden Whitman’s Samplers, the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby, the lunging image of Chrissie, the Great Dane who bowled me over when I was 2.
For most of my adult life, I pretended to believe my brain was as real as my nose. But all the while I pictured a jam-packed room, sort of like my office at home. Factfilled filing cabinets commanded one corner, neatly organized during fits of compulsivity. But sloppy piles littered the floor as I kept heaping on new experiences like dirty laundry. In some mental closet was a cache of confusing operating instructions for living-like those cryptic instruction sheets in half-Japanese I’ve saved from electronic gadgets barely mastered.
If memories were in some anatomical hideaway, the little chambers in my heart seemed a better bet than the invisible pudding that strangers said jiggled between my ears. (At times i could conjure up an image of a fruitcake brain studded with old sights and smells instead of cherry and nut bits, but only at Christmas.)
Could I have the bureaucratic brain I had read about, teeming with specialized centers and departments? There was the Office of Incoming Information (and its Senses Bureau), the Office of Motor Vehicles, the Office of Emotion and Motivation, the Office of Alertness and Sleep and the shady Office of Volition, Will and Strategic Planning, where it all came together for high-level analysis and policy-making. A red-tape brain like that seemed pretty farfetched, although if I had one, it might explain why I had such a hard time getting anything done.
Was my brain political, bickering between left-wing and right-wing factions? (Although I was supposed to root for the left, where all the intellectuals hung out, I was secretly rooting for the right, home of the artists and intuitive types.) Such a brain seemed somewhat congenial, but still I felt like an atheist reading about heaven and hell: What did it have to do with me?
Then along came Wilder Penfield. I never met the man, an eminent Canadian neurosurgeon, but learning about his work changed my view of brains, including my own, forever. He was, I gather, a curious fellow not content simply to open up skulls, excise tumors or zap some brain tissue to stop seizures. He wanted to know about thoughts, feelings and memory. So while he was patching up pathology, he snooped around.
Penfield’s favorite trick was to tickle his concious patients’ brains with an electrode and see how they reacted (I’m told the brain itself can’t feel pain). He’d buzz the brain a bit, and a patient would say, for example, “Oh gosh! There he is, my brother is there. He is aiming an air rifle at me.” When the stimulation stopped, so did the brother. When Penfield took aim again, the brother did, too.
Now this was something I could grasp. For the first time, it seemed possible that I, too, might have a brain, and that’s where my past was hiding. I wasn’t too convinced about the present–all that willing, wanting, expecting, feeling, yearning. That was still lodged somewhere in my heart. Or maybe in my gut. I could feel it there.
More reading led me to mull the idea that I owed a lot to my brain’s frontal and parietal lobes, both left and right. Maybe they helped me track what people were saying and toss back a few bon mots of my own. Maybe they were why I could tell my husband from my hat and could read and write–at least enough to polish the door handles and manuscripts at Psychology Today.
When I was a kid and polio was as scary as AIDS is now (and you could catch it without doing anything your parents would disapproved of) I would wake each morning, wiggle my toes and thank my lucky stars I wasn’t paralyzed. Later in life, when I learned that strokes can hurt your brain lobes and leave you speechless or baffled by what people say, I started to worry. Still not sure I had brain lobes to worry about, I’d do a lobe check each morning, after my toe-wiggles, just in case. I’d nudge my sleepy husband and say something profound to prove Broca’s area was still OK. Then, to test my comprehension I’d see if I could catch the drift of his reply. After many anxious mornings, I decided to postpone the lobe check until he had finished his coffee and The Washington Post.
At around 6:32 p.m. on March 8, 1988, while fixing dinner, I had an epiphany: If I did have a brain, it was probably named Harvey, like the invisible rabbit. I tried to picture Harvey. He was far from handsome, all pink and wrinkled and–ugh–pulsing, but he was mine and had a lovely orderliness. Besides, it made life less lonely and chaotic thinking that Harvey might be with me all the time, filtering the world for me, and packaging it into comprehensible bits so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
But there were questions still. Wandering down some old neural pathways, I bumped into a few ideas that were hard to square with Harvey’s scheme of things. Where, exactly, did my ego, id and superego hang out in all that tissue? The id, I figured, was skulking below the cortex (but above the navel), its eyes aglow in the depths of my limbic system where the passionate animal stuff coils. The superego, clearly, was perched like a martinet at the top of the cellular heap, just under my bangs. The ego–well, maybe that was a metaphor for the sum of the parts. That was a cop-out, I knew, but heck, that’s asking a lot of a brain to figure out how it can generate a sense of self. Especially when Harvey, if he was there, was also trying to keep me breathing, upright, awake and cooking dinner without burning the broccoli.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group