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The Softening of the Hard Drive

March 9, 2011

Anybody who has ever had children knows that mental capacity is not constant.  Parents watch infants go from the awareness of a pet to doing calculus.  In contrast we watch our own capacity transition from competency to “where are my glasses!?!” three times a day.

 

But it’s not just the gaining and losing of mental prowess that befuddles.  It is the ongoing mutation of it.  Many Boomers have seen our parents slip into a state where they cannot remember what was said five minutes ago, but have crystal clarity about a conversation they had in 1938.  Once the full cycle of childrearing has been achieved, we are left with the twin realities that our issue’s infancy seems several lifetimes ago, but random moments of their presence in our lives pop up in our brains like a Magic Eight Ball fortune.

 

Even for those of us who never did hallucinogens, this phenomenon has evolved into literal “flash backs.”  A “flash back” is not reminiscence; it’s not keyed to any specific image, sound, or smell.  A true “flash back” happens spontaneously without provocation and when geriatric these events happen more and more frequently as the hard wiring of our brain seems to have had its insulation frayed enough to allow sporadic short circuiting.

 

Because of this synaptic silliness, I have reached out to others to determine if my brain burps are a shared phenomenon. Rather than a generic fishing expedition, I focus on my clearest recurring episode – high school football. I ask those who have played football at any level a simple question:  “Do you have flashbacks?”  Virtually every one of them has said yes – whether they are 80 or 20.  Even with this unanimous response, this phenomenon is not limited to ex-football fellows like me who may be showing the effects of some intra-cranial brain-bouncing. But for us afflicted with this tribal back ground the experience is intense.

 

I can be walking to my car and all of a sudden I’m tackling a running back in Rochester in 1972.  Not seeing myself from the sky as in a video, but actually physically putting my shoulder on the ball, wrapping, grabbing and exploding with my hips through him and dropping him.  It happens in about two seconds, comes from nowhere, and goes away instantly.  It happens with exactitude and unpredictability but never when I’m actually watching any game (live or on TV).

 

 

I seem to be experiencing this cross-wired event because it was downloaded at that tender age and that intensity of experience burns itself onto a young cranial hard drive to the point where it will evidence itself when the background noise of competing thought patterns ebb.

 

The fact that it now happens more frequently as do the distortions of the actual chronologic place of past events is ominous.  My assumption is that as we age we deposit layer upon layer of new memories until a max-out is achieved and our hard drive becomes inexorably weakened.

 

When will a flashback cease to be a flashback and become an invented memory?  When will the “where are my glasses,” change to “do I wear glasses?”  When will the memories of raising my children seem like they were several generations ago, because they were several generations ago?  And when will I remember conversations that I had in 1972 that I can’t remember now simply because they are buried in neurons that will get flushed away as my brain inevitably (and literally) shrinks?

 

My only hope is that over time either a neurological defragging or a chemical reboot will be created by those with a higher pay grade than me.  In any event, I’d rather have had a life that has flashback-worthy memories than one that was not memorable – I just hope that in the future I can retrieve them to appreciate that fact…

 

 

 

 

 

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Eileen Banisch permalink
    March 9, 2011 10:41 pm

    Hit me where I live!

  2. Alexandra permalink
    March 12, 2011 2:05 pm

    I’d say that the flashback experience you describe is extremely unusual. It’s not something that I or my husband have ever experienced, e.g. (Well, he did in 1975, but there was a reason for that.) Only once have I had a memory experience of the intensity you describe, but that was conscious and voluntary.

    “My assumption is that as we age we deposit layer upon layer of new memories until a max-out is achieved and our hard drive becomes inexorably weakened.”

    That’s a picturesque metaphor, but it’s not really the way the brain works. The brain isn’t a hard drive with a limited number of slots for information. It isn’t a piece of machinery that becomes worn out from use. It isn’t a jar of water that slowly evaporates. The neurons that were involved in acquiring a memory aren’t necessarily the same neurons responsible for maintaining it now but may be replacements.

    My experience of my own changing mental capacity is more one of depth replacing breadth. I may not be able to record every little bit of information that I come across the way I once did, but my ability to understand and dissect concepts is vastly better now than it was even a few years ago.

  3. March 12, 2011 2:27 pm

    Perhaps the football flashback is a part of the unavoidable bruising that leading with your head invokes…but the only objective fact I posit is the truth that brain mass does reduce with age…and I may be literal – (and not Modern) – but less is less

  4. Alexandra permalink
    March 12, 2011 2:33 pm

    “…but less is less.”

    Are men smarter than women? Careful now…

  5. March 12, 2011 2:35 pm

    Alexandra is right. The brain doesn’t slow down in the way you suggest. Memory is an odd thing, each memory is re-written every time you recall it. It’s a kind of Chinese Wispers where you are both the whisperer and the listener. You can end up with a memory which is quite false, having changed so much over a lifetime. Brains are also very flexible. They are much like muscles: they grow and shrink with use and neglect, and can be brought back into reasonable shape at almost any age. Someone can have significant brain shrinkage as a result of excessive alcohol use and that shrinkage reverse over several years of sobriety. It’s only quite recently we have learned that brains can grow throughout life, with new cells being produced.

    I would say that your flashbacks are pretty unusual. It might be worth having a check up if the flashbacks are associated with strong emotions, as this might indicate a very mild form of epilepsy.

  6. March 12, 2011 4:06 pm

    So every person who played football has epilepsy…lawyer alert!

  7. Alexandra permalink
    March 12, 2011 4:21 pm

    All joking aside, Duo, you must know that concern is growing about chronic traumatic encephalopathy due to injuries during football. It seems it takes less to injure the brain than we once thought. Maybe you should check it out – along with the other people who reported similar events. They wouldn’t even have to shoot themselves in the chest like Dave Duerson. Did the other people’s flashbacks all involve reliving football events? That would be very telling.

  8. March 12, 2011 4:37 pm

    A disruption of attention while walking to a car is harmless, but a disruption of attention while driving is not a happy state of affairs. A relatively benign brain problem (if it is a problem) can be life-threatening in such a situation. I’m just saying that if it were me, I’d at least ask a professional.

    On another matter, I’m not sure that brain shrinkage with age is now considered the inevitability that it used to be. Both physical and mental exercise seem to halt and even reverse shrinkage in some situations. We may be seeing shrinkage because a good exercise regime is not common in middle- or old- aged people.

  9. March 12, 2011 7:15 pm

    Given I work out 1-2 hours a day 7 days a week and my BMI remains north of “appropriate” (south of “morbid”) my hope is that my brain will remain full figured…but not likely

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