Adding and subtracting

Losing my arithmetic skills is driving me nuts. I calculate things in my head, then when I use a calculator later I discover that my calculations were completely wrong. You’d me amazed at how often we make calculations in our heads, even rough calculations, and you don’t notice it until you discover that your ability to do so is badly flawed. Suddenly the running tallies I keep in my head are nowhere near accurate. We live in an arithmetical world, adding and subtracting all the time. I can’t do it well. My wife can’t do it at all. Money runs out when I didn’t think it would run out, checks bounce that I swore had sufficient funds. It’s a creepy feeling. Basic human skills, the things that make people people and not chimpanzees, and once made us homo sapiens and not homo neanderthals, they’re slipping away in a mental mist.

Combine that with falling off the calendar, days just running one after another without months or weeks or years, and I’m having severe doubts about our ability to run our own affairs. If it were only one of us it wouldn’t be an issue. But we won the big wazoo, both husband and wife with the same brain damage but from entirely different causes. What are the odds, an old boss of mine used to say, what are the odds. Then he went nuts, stark raving bonkers, and they had to let him go. Brains are fragile, funny things. Think I’ll go hide myself in a book and worry about all this tomorrow.

Earworm

You see it all around you
Good lovin’ gone bad
And usually it’s too late when you, realize what you had

Hold On Loosely–38 Special

I once spent an entire day in the Mojave desert with that song going through my head. I like neither it nor the band. But it hung there, after a chance hearing on the 138 somewhere past Pear Blossom. We were on the way to Barstow in a big pick up truck without a cd player. Radio in the upper desert was all classic hard rock and conjunto between crazy preachers. You see it all around you, the southerner sang, good lovin’ gone bad.

Hours later More Than A Feeling, heard somewhere on the 15 outside Barstow, supplanted it. You wouldn’t think you’d ever be glad to hear Boston, but that day I was. That big crunching riff. Her walking away, away, awaaaaaaaay. Every once in a while, like a distant AM station I’d hear a verse of Hold On Loosely again, but once back in the LA basin a whole string of left of the dial stations replaced it with jazz, punk rock and weird shit. 38 Special was gone.

Until today. I made the mistake of opening an email from Rockaway Records. It’s our local Silver Lake record store, just a microcosm of Hollywood’s vast Amoeba, a Whoville to Amoeba’s Forbidden Planet Krell machine immensity. I like it that way, small, easy to navigate, not so many record collectors and their socialization issues. Plus it’s harder to spend money. Even if they did just get seven thousand singles, not that I buy singles. There was a picture of a mess of them. Elvis. The Carpenters. Molly Hatchet. Southern hard rock. Not my genre. I couldn’t tell you a single song by Molly Hatchet. Perhaps that is why, due to a dearth of any associated stored memories, I heard

You see it all around you
Good lovin’ gone bad
And usually it’s too late when you, realize what you had

But that’s not Molly Hatchet you idiot, that’s 38 Special. Too late, it came round again

You see it all around you
Good lovin’ gone bad
And usually it’s too late when you, realize what you had

because it’s the only part of the song I knew and it is, face it, catchy. Catchy is DNA to an earworm, it latches onto it the way a virus latches onto yours, stealing it, using it for its own needs, which consist of nothing more than repeating itself over and over. And like a virus is so simple it’s hardly even alive, an earworm is so minimally musical it’s barely there at all, a fragment of music that once unleashed is somehow able to recall itself over and over and over in ways that nothing else can. We can’t recreate favorite moments like that, loop warm memories to have them replay over and over in our heads incessantly, not people’s voices, punch lines, orgasms, Eureka moments. Nope, only earworms seem to come up on their own, out of nowhere, fragments of songs we probably don’t even like:

You see it all around you
Good lovin’ gone bad
And usually it’s too late when you, realize what you had

Yup, a 38 special song I am hearing because my brain couldn’t think of a single Molly Hatchet song to go along with the Molly Hatchet 45 it saw in a picture in an email. My brain doesn’t go into Close To You seeing the Carpenters single, or Hound Dog for Elvis, nope it defaults to a southern rock song by the wrong southern rock band. And I don’t even like southern rock. Hell, I lived through the Free Bird era, and Marshall Tucker, and the live version of Green Grass and High Tides Forever, which along with Hot Blooded by Foreigner and Heart’s entire catalog drove me into the depths of punk rock. But then you know what they say:

You see it all around you
Good lovin’ gone bad
And usually it’s too late when you, realize what you had.

Oh god….

Sometimes the brain has no clue how confused it is

(From a note to a friend suffering from a mysterious and incurable vertigo and damn if the doctors could figure out why.)

A clean bill of health does not mean the problem could not be neurological. It might just mean that somewhere in your neuro network a few neurons, or maybe a mess of neurons, are out of whack. I found that studying neurology helped me to make it through the randomness of epilepsy, with all kinds of neurons out of whack, and see it as not so much a medical problem as an engineering one. Whenever the brain began perceiving things wrongly–as in your brain still being convinced you have a balance problem–I learned how to work with it and either correct my brain’s incorrect assumptions or work around them. Just coming up with fixes and work arounds. Thus I was able to function successfully (more or less) in a world full of normal brained people. The neurologist V.S. Ramachandran‘s wonderful (and wonderfully readable) book The Tell-Tale Brain, in particular, was a real help. Brain patients are always fascinating anyway, mistaking wives for hats and all, and Ramachandran has come up with some extraordinary fixes (a jerry rigged box full of mirrors, for instance) for his patients that oft times just got the brain’s sense of self  (i.e., the parts of the brain that connects the mind with the body that holds it) to realize that it was actually the problem. More often than not looking at the carefully placed mirrors so that the  brain could see the missing arm from the brain’s point of view (and not a mirrored reflection) cause the phantom pain to disappear instantly.  Your phantom vertigo–caused either by a virus or statin drugs, both done with ages ago–might be like those who suffer phantom pain in a long lost arm or leg.

Incidentally, some of the exceptional skills and capacities your specific brain has–the way you can hear and transcribe vast orchestrations in your head perfectly, as if a symphony is playing in front of you–could actually be the root if the problem. You never know. But extraordinary cognitive abilities usually lead to unplanned difficulties at some point. Which is probably the reason that not everyone has those abilities–they have been selected against through natural selection. Genius does have its downside.

Escher

I think if our late middle aged selves ever came face to face with our early twenty something selves at a party, we’d be astonished at how open minded and open to influences we had once been. In fact, we’d probably both quickly get irritated at each other and leave, denying that could ever have been or ever could be us.

If you imagine each synapse as a door to another room….

(from an email)

Brain tissue is a problem, but new brain pathways do spring up. Also, the current research seems to indicate that music thinking is a precursor to language, so it’s deeply embedded.

Well, those new synaptic pathways are also a problem for epileptics, as synapses connect in ways they shouldn’t and rerouting around synapses that should be connecting, thereby sundering the neuronal pathways to parts of the brain. It’s as if a neuron that had one hundred possible connections now has only five possible connections. If you imagine each synapse as a door to another room, suddenly ninety-five rooms have been locked shut, and everything within them is now unavailable forever. That is the impact partial seizures have on our brains, a few neurons at a time. When you realize that entire behaviors can be the result of a handful of connected neurons, it is amazing just what can be lost with even a virtually invisible seizure. A seizure is like a power surge in an electrical system, arcing currents and burning out circuits and wires and damaging machinery. As the temporal lobe seems to be much more vulnerable to this than the frontal lobe, every time an epileptic has a partial TLE seizure, some of the pathways are sundered and information is lost forever. Most we are not aware of. It can take decades to realize things are missing, though I’m sure the vast majority we have no idea we lost at all, simply because you can’t remember what you no longer remember.

Happify

(2015)

You seen this ad on Facebook? Stop Negative Thoughts, it says, in big scary letters. Sort of New Age-ishly Orwellian. “In the last decade, the world’s leading scientists created groundbreaking research on the science of happiness.” Now you know what the world’s leading scientists have been up to. “Happify has transformed this science into activities and games that train you to overcome negative thoughts, worrying, and stress.” Though you gotta wonder about those activities. Or was that a dirty thought. Maybe those are allowed.

I like my negative thoughts. Why would anyone want to have nothing but happy thoughts? You might as well be on heroin. Have these world’s leading scientists ever been stuck in a room full of people with nothing but happy thoughts? The boredom alone will kill you. Of course, all you have to do is utter some of your negative thoughts aloud and watch all the happy thoughts darken into consternated thoughts. The Groucho effect. How that elephant got into my pajamas I’ll never know.

And dirty thoughts, too.

Dirty thoughts, too.

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The brain is able to function the way a drummer lays down a complex web of polyrhythms.

(2014)

The plasticity of the brain defies belief…a woman born without a Cerebellum and not diagnosed till age 24. Which means that even though the genes that would normally be involved in cerebellum development were missing (actually they were there, they were just unable to perform this set of tasks), other genes were able to use other parts of the brain to perform the cerebellum’s tasks. The brain is able to function the way a drummer lays down a complex web of polyrhythms. That is, a drummer has two feet and two hands, but is able to create varying patterns by combining elements of the same hands and foot pedals striking in different but simultaneous patterns. And the brain can use the same neurons in varying patterns by making varying combinations of neurons…a neuron firing can fire off other neurons simultaneously so one neuron can be part of various chains of neurons performing various functions. It’s insanely complex.

I suspect this woman needs more fuel to keep at her peak alertness since a smaller brain means that neurons are firing more often and burning through the cells stores of potassium and manganese (which are what neurons use to spark) than a healthy brain. My wife has recovered remarkably from being without a heartbeat for four minutes, but her thinking fades if she fails to eat properly throughout the day. That’s because she lost a few million neurons when oxygen stopped being delivered to the brain, and since then her brain has recovered most of its former capabilities through plasticity–other neurons taking over. But those neurons are now being used more, which means they are firing more, which means they run low on the fuel–potassium and manganese, mostly–faster than they did prior to her heart stoppage.

A ten year old told me about this story. Brains are so cool, she said.

The brain without a cerebellum.

The brain without a cerebellum.

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