Friday, April 1, 2016

When It Just Pops Into Your Head

Just the other day I had the same experience we all have had – I couldn't think of something, a name. I reached and reached, I tried to think of a place to put with the name, I reached for something to prompt me, a sound, a letter, and nothing came. I knew I knew it but I couldn't reach it. But then I also knew what I had to do. I had to relax, I had to distract myself, I had to think of something else, and I had to have faith that it would come.

And of course, it did. The name – whatever it was, I forget now [(:-)] – just popped up from somewhere. Eureka! That's it! Thank you!

It popped up. How did that happen? Where did it come from? Why did it come? Good questions.

The best I can explain it is this, although there are probably some brain scientists who can do a better job, now that so much more is being discovered, especially in the last five years: it comes from the Right Brain. If it comes from the Left Brain, “you” can see how it comes. You follow your reasoning, you make the proper associations, you envision the letters of the name, you have an actual prompt that you always use as a clue because this is something you regularly forget, you have a sound that you remember, and association you use, etc. And whatever that process is, “you” see it.

But, there are other parts of your brain that “you” can't see working. “You” don't know how they work, because it's another process, and it's actually coming from somewhere else that's inaccessible to “you.” But you do see the result in a popup message, so you know that somewhere, something is happening. And it's got to be you, where else could it come from? You just couldn't see the process.

As I say, with all the work being done with functional MRI and other methods, the sites of this memory retrieval are probably already known – I've got to find out where to find this out. Or I don't know, maybe it will just come to me.

But now, here's the point of this post. I bet that other things “just come to us” the same way, things that are not memories. Take, for instance, something that has always puzzled non-religious people who have problems with alcohol – the “higher power.” At some point and alcoholic has to realize that as hard as they try, as much as they try to exert willpower, they can't quit alcohol “by themselves.” Just as reaching for that missing memory isn't susceptible to harder and harder Left Brain work, trying harder and harder not to drink ends in failure. So you have to give up in order to finally win. You have to invoke the help of a “higher power.”

I think that that “higher power” is the same thing as waiting for the memory to pop up, except that it's a lot harder. You just can't approach it directly. It's like taking a shot in basketball, or pitching in baseball – it is a sin to “aim it.” You have to let it fly and have faith. Aim it and die.

Of course, before you let it loose and pray, you need to practice a lot. You need to get a feel for the process and do lots of reps. But then in the end it just comes. You meet with others and think and talk about alcohol, and what role it plays, and how it is destructive, and what it means to you, and how fearful you are if you don't have access to it – and then you just have to hope that “it” comes. Where will it come from? The Right Brain? I think so. With the Right Brain, all the work is in preparation. If you never knew the name you are looking for in the first place, it won't come; if you haven't studied and thought and discussed about alcohol and overcome your shame and self-accusation, it won't come; if you haven't thrown up 10,000 shots from 28 feet (wait, that's a gross underestimate, but you get the point), it won't come. But when it does come, we experience it as a gift.

Maybe this is what people mean when they say that God is within you. Maybe this is what comes when you pray and you see the light. Maybe this is like what comes from dreams, another mysterious working of the brain that isn't just brute logic, something that kind of edges in there. Maybe this is what they say when they say dieting doesn't work, you just have to edge up to best practices of living. Maybe it's all those things.

Like relativity came to Einstein after he thought and thought about it from his childhood story of what it would be like to ride a light wave and it kind of burrowed into this head, and he worked so hard to see clocks and trains and mathematics and physics research, and then it just came. He had his Eureka! Moment, and he experienced it as a gift.

The mind is a mysterious thing. My old professor of biology, George Wald, said that the two big biological challenges of our time would be the secret of creation of life – organic molecules in a soup and lightening striking – and the secrets of the brain, and that the first would be solved in our lifetimes but the second not. Well, the first still isn't solved, which comes as a surprise. Maybe it's harder than we thought. It is true that the problem of the brain won't be solved for a long time, certainly, but recent progress has been astounding. I have to learn more about it. Meanwhile, I wouldn't be surprised if sometime soon the problem of where these popup thoughts come from will be solved. Some brain scientist will work very hard on it and then one night it will just come to him.

Budd Shenkin

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