A twenty something brain

Watched a Jazz Messengers gig from Paris in ‘59 and Lee Morgan, all of 21 years old, was unbelievable. Astonishing creativity. The chances he took and never flubbed in those solos, leaping over precipices, seeing around corners, weaving a short story’s worth of narrative into every solo…. damn. When you’re that young all this stuff is new and you’re seeing these things for the first time; your brain is a huge mass of neurons you’re exploring for the first time, and the neural pathways you follow can become established routes you’ll follow again and again. You could hear those in his playing, the licks and ideas that would come up over and over again during his career. And you’d hear things he might have explored just that once and never gone back to. As you get older and older you do that less and less, the brain hardwires into distinct paths that you perfect and improve and the other synapses wither and disappear and ideas you had at 21 will never be there again. Possibilities disappear. Eventually you don’t even see those pathways anymore. You read stuff you wrote forty years ago and have no idea of all the possibilities that were before you then but you weren’t yet good enough to write them down. A twenty something brain is a marvelous thing, a mass of neuronal potential just waiting to be shaped, trillions upon trillions upon trillions of possible thoughts, and we will never have that range of cognitive possibilities before us again.

Word salad

I can’t read aloud anymore. A sentence, maybe another with brief stammers, then bam, word salad. That’s new, the word salad. Rather puts a damper on my plans of readings. Visions of readings, really, of muscular prose in dulcet radio tones, the phonemes like individual notes, words like chords, narratives as melody, rhythms rhythm, syncopating punctuation. Language is music and music is language. They run audibly through my head, these words, but stumble in the mouth. The jaw goes out of whack, electrons buzz like faulty wiring, the synapses synapsing all wrong, I can feel their confusion like low current electricity for an hour afterward, can feel it now, in fact, the jaw twitching. An epileptic’s life is an endless series of surprises at random times. new symptoms appearing instantly, new disabilities. All we can do is shrug them off. So I read these words knowing they’ll never be uttered aloud, not by me. I shrug. Whatever. Oh well. Damn.

How it differs from the rocks.


I suppose it’s the writer in me but I doubt many of you find yourself tweaking old Facebook posts that no one has looked at in months nor will ever look at again. Though whether anyone actually reads anything is not the point, it’s the shape and dimensions of the language. It is always a little unnerving for me when someone comes up and talks to me about something I wrote, as if what I wrote actually existed in the real world, instead of inside the brain where language is, sort of mind’s eye visible, sort of tactile, as if you could feel it in your nerve-rich finger tips, or sort of beyond the senses, just words representing non-verbal knowledge, bits of information, patterns of neurons, the electro chemical energy that sparks thought, that is thought, that is beneath thought even, that is awareness, if even that, what links us to slime molds and not to stones. How it differs from the rocks.

Remembering all the things you used to be able to do

You know, I have to confess I found my corporate day gig much more rewarding than writing. I don’t mean financially rewarding–though it was, obviously–but more personally rewarding. Writing has always been so easy, and I have to go out of my way to make it challenging, I never really get much a feeling of accomplishment from it. I mean I like writing, and I like a lot of what I do write, but none of it knocks me out. It’s just pretty writing. And now that my brain is so worn away by epilepsy that I can no longer do what I used to do at my day gig, that I was so damn good at, that’s a drag. That’s when I really know I’m disabled. I run into people I used to work with and I don’t know what to say. Of course to them the writing is so much more exciting. They can’t imagine I’d rather have a day gig. That I’d rather not be a full time writer. But I suppose when a messed up epileptic manages to hold a day dig despite all the challenges, nearly all of which I was able to conceal pretty well from my co-workers, and when he is indeed is one of the very best in his company at that gig, that’s a genuine feeling of accomplishment. Making it in the normal people’s world is rare among my sort. Most epileptics can’t manage it. I not only managed it, I thrived at it. Alas, in the long run it’ll eat an epileptic up, as it did me, the mental strain and pace causes too much neural excitement and wears out the brain, burning out the synapses connecting the neurons. Brain functions slip away and you’re left cognitively crippled. Time disappears. Planning disappears. Papers pile up, mail goes unopened, bills are forgotten. Surrounded by things that never get finished you find yourself remembering all the things you used to be able to do but now can’t. So you write about it, and the words flow like liquid gold, so easily, too easily.

Sunglasses after dark

My latest hobby seems to be looking online for pictures of people I used to know to remember what they looked like. The good thing is they now look like I remember them. But back in 2006 my epilepsy began acting up something fierce and I woke up one morning with my facial recognition zapped away. Think they call that prosopagnosia? Some unpronounceable Greek word anyway. Even faces I knew extremely well looked alien to me, and I could walk right up to people I’d known for years and seen every day and not recognize them till they spoke. I remember looking up people’s pictures–on what I don’t know, this was before Facebook–and they looked so different. Of course, if I tried to see in my mind’s eye how I remembered them there would be a fleeting mental image that would immediately dissolve into nothing. Literally dissolve. There’d be a half second glimpse of their face and then it would just granulate into pixels and then blackness. It was a trip. For the first couple years I was always startled at how different you all looked. Even my wife. And when I spoke to you I’d find my gaze looking at things you never normally notice. Without the usual focus, my eyes would wander as if I were studying a portrait, I’d see your skin–amazing the pores we have–and hair, and facial structure. Ears. Wrinkles. Shaving scars. It was incredibly distracting.

For a while I couldn’t recognize profiles at all, even my brother’s. Some pretty funny shit went down, all of it embarrassing. Not so funny, though, was how suddenly I couldn’t read people. Talk about unnerving. I’d be talking to someone and have no idea how they were reacting. I could not tell if I was bothering them, or boring them, or what. Inevitably, I began avoiding people. Eventually I learned to visually recognize you all in other ways, by your voices, body language, whatever, and I did eventually manage to begin reading you all again, though nowhere nearly as well as I once had. It is funny when you go from being very adept at something to instantly being lousy at it. After a couple years I just got used to it. Though I still avoid people more than I did before. It’s inevitable. As a species we read each others’ faces so well. Indeed, we impart more information with facial expressions than we do speaking. Lose that skill and you’re a little fucked. And mine was a relatively mild case. I wasn’t completely face blind. Some people are.

But now my mind’s eye images seems to match your looks. That’s a relief. Even pictures of people I haven’t seen in years match my memory of them. It’s a significant recovery. I’ve long dreaded a repeat of my bad epilepsy year of 2006, because among other things I didn’t want to go though that prosopagnosia bullshit again. It was really inconvenient. Crippling even. And it was also embarrassing. I took to wearing shades because I realized that people could tell I wasn’t looking at what people normally look at when they are talking to you. Mainly the eyes, I think. You can tell when some idiot is looking at your hair or chin or ears when you are trying to talk to him. So shades helped.

Although there was a downside to wearing shades. Like the time I was walking into work and found myself behind a lady I didn’t recognize. Must be a new employee, I figured. I caught her profile as she slipped in the door ahead of me. Didn’t know who she was, but she was definitely hot. Safely behind my shades I was checking her out. I was forty nine years old and safely behind my sunglasses acting like a high school kid. I watched her walk ahead of me, her hips sliding this way, then that, like dancing a slow salsa. That’s America to me, I thought to myself. What it meant I do not know but I distinctly remember thinking that to myself because suddenly the lady in front of me stopped and turned around. What are you looking at, she asked. I knew that voice instantly. It was the lady I’d worked with for a decade. Probably my closest friend in the whole building. We talked every single day. We’d sat next to each other for years. She was gorgeous, sure, but I had never ogled her once. I worked with her. She was a friend. There are rules about those things.

But unfortunately I hadn’t recognized her by her profile and besides I hadn’t been looking at her face anyway. Suddenly I felt so stupid, like a forty nine year old man caught acting like a high school kid. I’d never been so busted in my life, not even as a teenaged high school kid. But she was also one of the very few people at work who knew about my sudden face blindness. I spluttered an apology that I hadn’t recognized her. I know you didn’t, she said, that’s why you were checking out my ass. The epilepsy had also rendered me with one hell of a stutter, and thoroughly flustered I stammered something inane. You idiot, she said, take off those stupid sunglasses, you’re inside. I shoved them in my pocket. You’re blushing, she said, and cackling a pinay laugh went up the stairs to her desk. Aren’t you coming she asked. I said I’ll take the elevator. My knee, I said. My knee was fine. I just needed a few minutes alone to stop blushing. Sometimes it takes minutes. And then sometimes it takes forever. On my way to the lobby I stopped by the restroom and splashed my face with cold water. It didn’t help. I made my way to the elevator. Just as the doors were closing someone yelled hold that elevator! Half a dozen women got on, still feeling their two martini lunch. I knew all of them. Why are you blushing? the loudest of them asked. What did you do? They started snickering. He probably got busted checking out some babe’s ass! Instantly I flushed crimson again, and you’d think it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. How do women know these things? I tried to say something and stammered.

Mortified, I made a mental note that sunglasses and epilepsy don’t mix.

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.

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


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.


Red and white cubes

Had to take a mental examination for epilepsy on Monday morning. Lots of drawing, writing things down, repeating, remembering, trying to do things backwards. Little brain games. I was doing OK until the cubes. Four of them, red on some sides, white on other sides, some 50/50. I had to put them in combinations to create patterns. Right off the bat I knew I was in trouble…I had to create abstract patterns with abstract patterns. A trigger. I don’t do abstract shapes well. Within seconds I was going numb, talking slow, having trouble remembering anything. But I finished the test. All day long I was in a daze. Memory problems, out of it. Next day the same thing. On Wednesday more of the same. Finally today I am mostly back to normal. It used to be that concentrating on abstractions like that would wipe me out for a few hours. Now it lasts days. It’s not as intense as it used to get–no nausea–but it’s longer lasting. And of course, all that does is burn out more synapses and wreck more neurons. It’s like an epilepsy loop. The damage causes aka petit mal seizures which wrecks neurons which causes petit mal seizures which wrecks more neurons…..drip drip drip.

I’ve been trying to write this for days now. But I had to write this without trying to visualize the cubes and patterns, as the memory of them has the same effect as the actual experience, though the symptoms–numbness, stutter, memory loss–were even stronger. Apparently the actual experience of playing with those damn cubes involved several disparate sensory parts of the brain, but the memory involves only the parts of the brain that store the memories of the experience, and for some reason those memory centers set off more of the symptoms than the original sensory centers. If I were to think hard right now and try to remember actually doing the tests–though the memory of it is thoroughly garbled by now–I would actually get sicker than if I were actually doing the tests. I suppose I was only able to write this now as the short term memory of it has dissipated…as short term memories do after a couple days. Medium and long term memories are not as triggerable, if that is a word. If not, it is now.

The focal point of my seizures is a hole in the brain in the frontal lobe. A birth defect. Hence I can be set off by certain abstractions. I cannot do any sort of math beyond simple mathematics, I cannot read complex philosophy, I have difficulty with the modularity of things within things within things. Were I a gorilla (a common misconception, actually), this would not be as much of a problem. But Homo sapien sapiens are really big on the abstractions; our brains, in large part, grew huge because of the giant frontal lobes that developed to handle abstractions. It’s just that some of us have holes in our frontal lobes. Most of my symptoms, however, are in the temporal lobe, as so much frontal lobe activity is channeled through the temporal lobe. When the neurons that are all screwed up around the hole in my brain in my frontal lobe start firing in too rapid an order and messing things up, the extra electrical energy is released in the temporal lobe. Apparently the frontal lobe can handle such things easier. The temporal lobe, perhaps because it is much older and developed when brains were smaller and contained far less potential electrical energy (think of a neuron as a battery, and our frontal lobes are an enormous collection of interconnected batteries), perhaps never developed the protection it needs to protect it from such excess electricity. Like putting a Model T electrical system in a Porsche. The slightest thing could burn it out. And after a lifetime of epilepsy, the temporal lobe is thoroughly burned out. It has actually shrunk in size from all the electrical abuse, and a wide array of its knowledge–the various kinds of memories it stores in various places–are not even accessible anymore. The executive functions it controls–planning, etc–get thoroughly messed up. Frontal lobe functions–all that useless historical information and irritating know-it-all trivia–are unfazed. I can write. I can read. I can talk and talk and talk until everybody leaves. But stupid things like red and white cubes can mess me up for days.

One of the fun things about epilepsy is how it displays the inner workings of the brain. If you are fascinated by cognitive processes, it’s like being your own laboratory. One of the less fun things is drooling all over the carpet.


One of the more fascinating, if unsettling, things about a neurodegenerative disease is how parts of your personality slip away unnoticed as synapses wilt and whole brains parts shrivel. These past several years music slowly stopped being a vital part of my life. I find myself going days, even weeks, without listening to it except in a car. I have a huge collection of recordings–vinyl, cassette, CD, digital–I barely touch anymore. I fear I could sell them all and miss only the mementos. And I scarcely ever write about music anymore. There was a time I did so fanatically. That time has gone. Somewhere in my head, in the temporal lobe or frontal lobe or both, enough neurons have been singed to make music less important to me than, say, books or old movies. I love the music people and I love the excitement of skilled improvisation, but very little else moves me anymore like it once did. I thought a couple years ago that maybe it was just a spell, maybe being a jazz critic had burned me out, but no. It’s permanent. I still love music, but it’s no longer essential. I still hear it all the time, tunes going through my head, but somehow the emotional connection has faded. Like it’s still up in my frontal lobe, intellectually, but the feel and soul of it in my temporal lobe has shriveled away with my bruised and battered hippocampus. I wish this bothered me more, but it doesn’t. Still, I wonder with a chill what, in ten years time, will also have faded away in significance.

Verbs not adjectives

[This was an email from 2010 that attempted to explain what I had drunkenly been describing to a friend at one of our parties. I failed. But she was terribly nice about it. I found the email later, turned it into a blog post. Then I realized I hadn’t discussed metaphors at all–which I always advise to use sparingly because the reading brain tends to trip over them–and worse yet, couldn’t discuss them. So I decided to do more reading up on metaphors. Now, reading this again, I don’t see why I thought this piece failed, as it works fine without the metaphor discussion. Whatever. This is what happens when college drop outs try to think like smart people.]

Ya know, L., I just remembered we were talking at that party about my verbs-instead-of-adjectives thing. Here’s the LA Weekly piece I was describing:

Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s in L.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.*

How that piece happened was I asked to do a pick on an upcoming Herman Riley gig at Charlie O’s. He was one of the great tenor saxophonists and yet a virtual unknown. I called him up for a few comments before writing. He spilled for a half hour, his whole life. It was overwhelming. I didn’t dare cut him off. He was one of my heroes. So I just dashed off some notes and then pulled them together. I had 200 words, tops, to work with.  I probably had 400 words first draft. Kept winnowing. Reducing.  Down to the verbs. It’s nearly all verbs, action. I had a real good friend at work I used to instant message all the time, and I became fascinated with how language was used in our messages. By how brief a message could be if reduced to the verbs, and how much of an impact it would have. It could be quite visceral. I was doing a lot of heavy thinking about neurolinguistics then, how language works mechanically in the brain. It seemed to me that action was much more effective than description, and could get across the same info. Furthermore, when you used verbs instead of actions, the brain—by means of mirror neurons—automatically pictures what is being described without any necessary descriptive context—it somehow fills all that  in. That means that virtually no description is needed beyond bare hints. I never say where it is I am seeing him play here, even though that is based upon an actual event (a Charlie O’s gig I had just seen.) But even so, invariably the response from readers was “I felt like I was there”. Where exactly? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the action.

The brain is more powerfully affected by action than anything else in language. It sees something or even reads about something and the exact same neurons that are used to actually perform the action are stimulated. I just picked up a glass of water. In your mind the exact same neurons that you would use to pick up a glass of water fired off as if they were picking up a glass of water and not me writing that I had. No matter…whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, the effect is the same. And that is why narratives that are based on action instead of description, that describe movement, things take place in time, are so powerful. **

That being said, you have to think about perspective, and not from the point of view of the writer but of the reader. I believe it works this way: if you describe something in first person the reader’s mind has to visualize the action, then interpret it into you taking the action, and then interpreting that action as if they were doing it themselves, and then imagining you doing so, etc, etc. That’s a lot of steps. Third person works the same way pretty much.  Second person, in English, anyway, is impossible to pull off—you do this, you do that, etc. Very cumbersome. Our language is not grammatically designed to pull that off easily (but that’s another lecture….) So I use an implied second person. Everything I do is first person, but I remove myself (by not using the first person pronoun much) and let the reader get the feeling that it is actually he that is doing/seeing/hearing what I describe. Again, this shortens the steps necessary for the brain to interpret what it is reading into understanding.  I’ve noticed that the fewer steps required the faster the language is retrieved by the brain and the more powerful the impact. And good writing is all about impact. You want to move people, you have to increase the visceral impact of the prose. And to do that you need to think about how it is that the brain turns the words you right into thoughts it can visualize. It’s verbs, baby.

The brain is designed for verbs. It sees in verbs. It has instantaneous perception in verbs. Adjectives take extra thinking. You don’t want extra thinking. You want your words to turn themselves into those units of perception that lay beneath language, that existed before language, and you want that process to occur as quickly as possible. Think of porn. The sexual excitement people get viewing it is not literary. It’s older than that. As is love. And just about anything else important. I mean the hell with language. You have to get beneath it. You have to aim for the centers beyond the brain’s language centers, because that is where the feeling is. That is where you move people. And the most direct way to get there is action, verbs.

It interesting to note that vision was initially a matter of detecting motion, indeed a matter of detecting the change in light. If a primitive animal was hiding and suddenly all was light, it meant something might have exposed it in order to eat it. Or if the light suddenly changed to dark, it meant something blocking the light might be there to eat it. This implies movement. Go forward half a billion years or so and amphibians detect movement and not much else. You can see this in a frog to this day. A fly sits on a leave three inches from the frog, the frog can’t see it.  The fly takes flight and zap, it’s the frog’s lunch. Reptiles can see more than amphibians. Mammals more still ***. But the fundamental basis of recognition remains movement.

Adjectives reflect a much more sophisticated vision and awareness of what is being seen. Adjectives require observation and analysis. There is no equivalent of mirror neurons for the kind of information adjectives describe. You watch a tennis player serve the ball, the mirror neurons fire in exactly the same way in your brain as they do in the tennis player’s brain even though you are not actually moving. They reflect the motion. But the neurons that fire to let you know that you are seeing a tennis player with red hair, a blue shirt and a green tennis ball, they do not fire in the same way the tennis player’s does. The only automatic understanding of what you see is the parts of the brain that detect motion, that is action. Those have been firing off in brains for hundreds of millions of years. They are part of the fundamental infrastructure of the brain, much as the hypothalamus deep in the temporal lobe controls the fundamental 4 F’s (feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating) of human and mammalian behavior, and reptilian and amphibian and fish behavior****. That is, going back over half a billion years (though way back when it was not necessarily a hypothalamus per se in other animals, I believe, but the things that evolved into our own hypothalamus). Mirror neurons are also an ancient part of the brain. Information relayed through mirror neurons is understood instantly by the brain. Whatever you write that fires them off will be much more quickly and powerfully–indeed viscerally–responded to by the reader. In fact, you have only to give the absolute barest amount of descriptive detail, since the brain seems to automatically fill that in. If you say you walk into a room and sit in a chair, the reader’s brain automatically seems to provide all the details it needs to understand the scene. The reader gets that “it feels like I’m there” feeling. And nothing gets a response from readers more than prose that makes them feel as if they are part of the action. Makes them feel they are the one actually walking into the room and sitting in a chair. Or sitting in a bar and seeing and hearing a saxophone player.

Plus you should spell good.


Notes: Continue reading