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  • Writer's pictureD. Randall Faro

Mind Games

It can be downright weird . . . how the human brain functions from time to time. Absolutely weird.

Several days ago I’m walking my daughter’s husky-great-dane-mix dog. Without a conscious decision to do so, I found myself whistling. Then I was dumbstruck when recognizing that I was whistling the song, Big Man. That tune was a 1958 hit by the 50s-60s-70s quartet, The Four Preps. I probably haven’t heard or thought of that song in four decades. Why in the wild world would that tune pop from my brain and onto my lips spontaneously? Weird.

Then there’s dreams. To try and make sense of dreams is simply nonsensical. Freaky, bizarre, subliminal scenarios that bear no semblance to reality intrude in the night. The combination of real, surreal, distant past, and stuff one has never remotely experienced in real life inexplicably comes from somewhere in my head. It’s weird, in fact, sometimes downright nuts how the brain works.

Ever walk into another room and completely forget why you're there? (But you can stand in that same room and remember when and where you first kissed your spouse three or four decades ago.) You're not alone and you're (probably) not going insane — you're just a victim of what's called the Doorway Effect. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame carried out experiments in an attempt to understand why this happens; why walking through a door confounds memory. Conclusion: we’re not really sure. Theories abound. I’ll add mine: the brain is weird.

One more. Say a word (dog, for instance) over and over again. Keep going, and going, and going even more. Do it enough, and it starts to sound a little funny. You'll start to wonder if it's even a word. What does this mean? Is it spelled right? What's a dog? What's happening? It's called semantic satiation. When we hear (or see) something enough times, our brain gets bored, and presumably wanders off to play with someone else. We don't just stop paying attention to it — we just stop assigning it any particular meaning. It's the same thing that happens if you spend all day in a coffee shop; by the end of the day you don't smell coffee anymore because your brain is bored by it. Weird.

We also need to acknowledge that there is the brain . . . and there is the mind. The brain controls a lot of bodily functions that have nothing to do with thinking, but it is also the seat of human thought. Steven Pinker explores this reality in his 1997 seminal work, How the Mind Works. This exhaustively researched study stimulates a lot of thinking about thinking. But Pinker, while I didn’t find him using the word weird, uses the word mystery a lot.

Bill Bryson does the same thing. The chapter on the brain in his excellent book, The Body (highly recommended) includes this: “A morsel of cortex one cubic millimeter in size (1 millimeter = 0.04 of an inch) could hold two thousand terabytes of information, enough to store all the movies ever made. The human brain is estimated to hold something on the order of two hundred exabytes of information, roughly equal to the entire digital content of today’s world.” Given that revelation, Bryson’s conclusion as to how the brain does what it does: a mystery.

So while the brain is weird (or does weird things), I’m still glad I have the one situated between my ears. Even not understanding why or how it does many of the things it does, I’m very thankful to have what human beings have. Shakespeare has Hamlet saying (Act IV): “What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” In the end, maybe we don’t have to understand how we understand.

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