The human brain has about 85 billion neurons, most connected to thousands of others, making for trillions of connections – the most complex object known. I’ve written before about what wonders it performs.
Recently in a newspaper I came to a page full of text of no interest, and quickly turned the page. But I said to myself, “Did I see the word breasts?” With scientific curiosity, I went back and searched; sure enough, there it was, buried amid thousands of words. How could my brain have picked it out in that fraction of a second? Why? (Well, one can guess why.)
We imagine memory works like a video camera. Not so. The brain does hold such information, but only briefly, then discards it. What it retains is only a bare thematic outline. When you later “remember,” what the brain does is to refer to that outline and to fill in the details by, basically, making them up. Really! And those confabulations change over time. (This is why “eyewitness testimony” in courts is often specious.)
This was brought home to me when I wrote an autobiographical memoir. I thought my memories were fairly accurate. But checking against diaries written when events were fresh showed how differently I remembered them years later. And when, years later still, I re-read that autobiography, I was surprised yet again to find that my memories had further changed.
And yet the brain does have an uncanny ability to file away information. Recently my wife told me someone said she reminded him of Sheila Miles.
“Sara Miles?” I said.
“Maybe. Who’s that?”
“Actress; I think she was in a film – something about an Irish girl and a soldier? I can’t recall the title. Must’ve been 1970, since I do remember the girl I saw it with.” (And I could recall just one scene in that movie. Guess what? Breasts again.)
Next morning, while coming awake (a good time for this), the word “daughter” entered my mind. In another moment, I had it: Ryan’s Daughter.
Now, I’m no film buff, and had you asked me, “Who was in Ryan’s Daughter?” I doubt I could have answered. Yet given the name Miles – even with the wrong first name – my brain made the connection. The information was still there, buried, unthought of, for 44 years.
Then there was the time I greeted my wife with, “Good morning, old man.”
She gave me a quizzical look. “What made you call me that?”
“Why, I have no idea! It just popped out of my mouth.” I’d never said it before.
Well, that night we watched The Third Man, having ordered it from Netflix. I had a vague recollection of having seen it on TV as a kid, nearly half a century earlier. If asked, I couldn’t have told you a thing about that film. Maybe that Orson Welles was in it. Maybe. And seeing the movie again now, nothing seemed familiar.
So I was gobsmacked when the Welles character calls the Joseph Cotten character “old man!”
That tiny detail wasn’t even significant in the film, but somehow, my brain had squirreled it away, and half a century later, unconsciously prompted by our Netflix order, put the words into my mouth, without my even realizing why.
Now if only I could remember where I left those keys . . . .