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My Old Brain

John W. Pinkerton


Being that I have this giant brain, I thought I'd write an essay about our brains.

I've been interested in my brain since I was a little fellow.  My brain was obviously a slow starter.  I think the first time I noticed it wasn't at its most useful point was when a little girl who lived next door was much…much quicker at putting together a simple puzzle.  The other time I suspected that there may be something wrong with my brain was when I participated in an Easter egg hunt.  I could not find Easter eggs.  Now I know it's a skill not often called upon, but while I wandered around aimlessly, the other kids were scooping up eggs by the…baskets full.  A nice lady who had noticed that I wasn't making any progress pointed to an egg for me to claim.  Before my poor brain could process  her kindness and the secreted egg, another young fellow flew through Eggland like a Jedi to claim the prize.   No eggs for me. 

When I was in the second grade, a couple of things happened which made me think about my brain.  The first one might be interpreted as a positive or a negative.  I decided to experiment with sticking my finger in an open light socket.  The bad news is that it shocked the heck out of me.  The good news is that I proved that I had a brain filled with curiosity...well, that’s what my takeaway was.  The other thing resulted from a blow to my head---self-inflicted.  As I recall I was exploring under a bridge when I misjudged the distance between my head and one of the girders.  Wow!  That hurt but I did gain the understanding that one can injure one's brain.  “Don't do that,” was the lesson I took away from this incident.

A large part of life is figuring out what our brains are good at and…well, lousy at.  I guess the first thing I noticed that I wasn't good at was music.  My music gene, apparently, missed the boat.  For some reason, unknown to me, I ended up in a fourth grade band; I was anointed as a clarinetist.  I don't remember ever mentioning to either Mom or Dad my desire to join the band, but there I was---ninth chair clarinetist.  Yes, there were only nine clarinetists.  I guess Mom and Dad had long ago given up on the hope of my becoming a professional musician because when I got to high school, they did not utter a sound when I decided to truncate my torture at that juncture.

I've always been able to cipher and do simple sums with the best of them, but the higher skills like trigonometry was a nonsense world to me.  On the other hand,  by comparison my brain was a whiz at plain geometry.  I guess the difference was that I could see the relationship of the shapes arrived at.  It made sense to me.  As I said, trig didn't make any sense.  Perhaps I needed to be shown how to apply these skills to real life problems.  Oh well, I wrote math off as a lost cause.  I had planned to be an architect, but by the time I graduated from high school, I suspected it would be a mighty struggle for me.

By the way, during my first semester in college, I thought maybe I would become a psychologist, but after taking one course, I realized that I knew more about what makes people tick than the books or the professor.  My brain made a logical decision to ditch psychology.

Shortly after this unfortunate aborted choice, I noticed I was doing well in my English classes.  I thought at the time, “What a lousy gift---language.”  I soon learned this did not extend beyond the English language.  Back in my day, one had to take and pass sixteen hours of a foreign language before being awarded a bachelor of arts…naturally, I signed up for French.  Wow!  I found something I was worse at than math.  I got through it of course, but years later while I was more or less in the army I learned how little French I knew as I wandered around France while on leave without permission.  (Oh, it just felt like the time to see France.)

Let's go back to college…my latter days in college.  There came a time that the university demanded that I choose a major.  I spent one evening debating between English and philosophy.  I had developed a real love of philosophy, but in the end, I chose English which I thought gave me a wider range of choices…both personal and occupation wise.

Along my educational way, I definitely noticed that my brain’s rote learning skills were minimal.  I developed techniques which avoided absolute failures, but even today when given a list of ten items, I may remember six or seven…not great.

Now, let's go back to the time I was around six-years old when I noticed that I seemed to have the ability to read other folks…not just a little accurately but uncannily accurately.  My first recognition of this involves my dad adding a room to our house when I about six.  I was trying to help him, but all of my efforts seemed to be responded with criticism.  My brain and I thought about the situation that evening.  The next day I set a trap.  I concentrated on his every word so as not to miss or misunderstand any of his instructions.  Mission accomplished, but he was still gripey.  I concluded that the problem was not my brain but his impatient nature.  This gave me a clue to my greatest strength.

If one combines attentiveness and curiosity (finger in light socket) to one's surroundings with the gift of understanding humans, your chances of having good bar sense are pretty good.  I won't take this thought any further other than to say “bar sense” has saved my skinny butt many times, and I've actually been able to apply this gift to other more useful situations…not that bar time is a waste.

Until I was about thirty-five, I could remember every interaction I ever had with anyone.  “Remember” doesn't do it justice.  I could replay the interactions as though it were a wide screen Technicolor movie.  The lighting, the expressions, the words, the actions just rerun in my brain.  This ability has declined a little in recent years, but it's still pretty good.

Now, there's a good side and a bad side to this ability.  If the memories are pleasant, great; if they're not…well, you know.

Being interested in my brain from an early age, naturally I wanted to know my IQ.  Let's just say that if I hadn't bumped my noggin on the bridge, I could have been a genius…could have been, but I ain't.

By the way, as a little fellow, perhaps around ten or eleven, I heard someone say, “We only use 10% of our brains.”  If a fifth grader can be intrigued, I was intrigued.  I used my imagination to wander around in my mind to find the door to the other 90%.  I found it: it was a kind of rubbery membrane which I pushed against mightily until I was exhausted.  I guessed that I'd just have to limp along on the easily available 10%.

Another area of interest has only come to my attention late in life.  The right side-left side brain debate.  Every time I've taken one of these tests to see which side of my brain is dominate, the results are identical: left side, 50%/right side, 50%.  I've concluded from this information that I'm adequate at most things but not exceptional in any.

What brought this debate to my attention was my entry into the world of art.  The right side seldom gives me any help at all, but when it does, I'm an artist, when it doesn't, I'm just an old guy who paints.  For me the right side seems to be as illusive as Big Foot even though some “scientists” pooh pooh the whole idea.

The reason I referred to the left side/right side matter as a debate is because in recent years, psychologists have concluded that it is not as clear cut as they once thought.  This lack of knowledge about our brain verifies the wisdom of my decision to drop psychology as a possible major.

Most of you know that I taught high school English for a quarter of a century.  A kid once challenged my conclusion that he had copied his essay from some source other than his brain.  My reaction was simply, “Bubba, there are only two things at which I am really good: the English language and understanding human nature.  These two talents are telling me that you fail, and I trust them more than I trust you.”

At my age, 76, I check on my brain almost every morning.  So far so good.   If and when it goes, I'll miss it.  It's been a good friend in spite of its short comings.