2010.07.07 The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Lose

Written by David Green.

I started writing a column about washing tissues, but thought I might have already written one on that topic. So, I searched, and although I didn’t find one about the kind of tissues used to blow noses, I did find this one from around nine years ago...which mentions brain tissue. It’s better than the column I was working on, so I’m repeating it here, with a few changes.

The mind is a terrible thing to lose


Remember back when Dan Quayle delivered that infamous quote to the United Negro College Fund? He was expounding on their “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” motto and twisted it into:

“What a terrible thing to have lost one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.”

Did you think, “Oh, boy, what a schmuck this guy is. And he’s our vice-president?!” or were you a tad more humble, realizing, “There, but for the grace of God, go I?”

It was hard to cut the guy too much slack since he was often attributed with one verbal gaffe or another. Even allowing for distortion in the press, he sure had some bloopers. Now that’s a mind that would be fun to analyze.

I’m not of Quayle’s political persuasion so it would be easy to dismiss him entirely, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’s not really stupid—maybe he just doesn’t get enough sleep. Maybe he’s prone to worry. Times like those are when my mental alertness and acuity wane, and I make statements or do things that make me think I’m losing my mind.

Like in the morning when I’m standing in the shower wondering, “Is this the day I shampoo my hair?” (I’m on an every-other-day schedule.) When I decide it must be a shampoo day, I lather up, then rinse and rinse and get lost rinsing. Eventually, I grab for the shampoo bottle again and wonder, “Did I already repeat?” (I always follow the directions on the bottle: lather, rinse, repeat.) “Did I repeat? Did I lather once even?”

I’m endlessly intrigued, endlessly entertained by the failings of the human brain. Think about it for even just a second and you can appreciate how magnificent the space between your ears is. How it’s able to recall information from 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago, put names to faces, figure complex problems. But the real beauty of the brain is most evident in its failings. When the wires burn out like a fuse, when the train jumps the track.

A middle-aged patron came into the library the other day and was joking with my co-worker about a phone call she had made a couple of weeks before.

The patron had called to ask how late the library would be open but instead she said, “Could you tell me how old you are?”

As soon as the words tumbled out of her mouth she realized the mistake. She had no interest in Anne’s age; a major disconnect in the synapses of the brain had occurred and the question derailed, sliding right over to a different track.

It seemed like a perfectly logical mistake to me. Both questions started with “how,” involved numbers, and had to do with length of time. They seemed very related, probably controlled by the same section of the brain, I told the patron who was poking fun at herself for the blunder. It wasn’t necessary.

“You’re in good company around here,” I said. “Did Anne ever tell you about the time she answered the library phone saying, ‘This is Anne at the bank,’?” I had figured Anne must have done duty at a bank in her past, but no, she’d never even worked at a bank.

The three of us laughed at the foibles of the human mind and I admitted to making my share of similar faux pas. But I couldn’t think of any at the moment. That’s the way my mind works—or doesn’t, to be more accurate. Like a dog that won’t do its tricks in front of an audience, I can never conjure up the appropriate thing to say or retrieve from my memory bank pertinent stories at opportune moments.

Minds are such fascinating things. What goes wrong inside that blobby hunk of tissue that lets us do the things we do, say the things we say? What goes awry that keeps us from doing the logical thing, the right thing...?

That lets us eat, for a midnight snack, three Pepperidge Farm Limited Edition chocolate covered “enrobed” Milano cookies, (each enrobed in 2 grams of saturated fat and 6 grams of sugar), after a day of indulgences: a slice of chocolate cheesecake, a Zingerman’s magic brownie?

“Limited edition?” says my daughter Rosie picking up the Milano box.

“Yeah, doesn’t that scare you?” I say. In a few weeks there might not be any more of these babies on the shelves. Eat ’em while they last.

A Milano is a terrible thing to waste.

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