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The brain is not our friend, friend.
For the record, I get along swimmingly with my kidneys. We have an understanding, a simple, cordial if not particularly warm, working relationship: They filter my blood, I drink enough water to flush them clean. Is our relationship perfect? Of course not. Once, a few years ago, I had a kidney stone. Entirely my fault. I take full ownership of that crystalline accretion and its jagged-edged journey along my urethra (since renamed the Holy Mother of God Make It Stop Thruway). But, happily, after passing that stone, even before my tears had dried and the echoes of my pathetic shrieks had decayed, the kidney twins and I were back to being boon companions, recommitted to our original pact. It’s been impeccable filtering and strong, steady streams ever since.
This quid pro quo is precisely the type of symbiotic connection I like to cultivate and currently enjoy with all my organs and tissue bundles. With one notable exception. My brain.
My brain, I don’t mind telling you, is a real bastard. Uncooperative. Subversive. Loud. Deceitful. Counterproductive. By turns lazy and overactive. Honestly, I’m not altogether sure this electric glob of wrinkled tofu separating my ears doesn’t have it in for me, doesn’t hate me, isn’t out to destroy me.
Think I’m exaggerating? Paranoid? Delusional? Could be. (And if so, one has to admit it’s not my pancreas that’s gone mad.) Or it could be your own cogitator is just as cunning as mine and is deviously refuting the truth, hoodwinking you in order to protect itself from discovery. Such, I’ve learned and relearned, are its ways. Its very nature. Truth is, the brain is not our friend.
But I presume, dear reader. Obviously, I’m not privy to your state of mind, your way of being or perceiving. It’s possible, I suppose, you and everyone else I see out in the world is clear-thinking and completely happy in life—has attained, is on a path to attain, or has abandoned without remorse or regret, every aspiration, every dream. If that’s your day-to-day, congratulations and godspeed. It’s not mine.
P.S. I hate you.
OK, let me be clear here. I recognize and am beyond beholden to the assorted lobes and cortexes and noggin-based nerve cell clusters that tirelessly oversee my eyesight, inspirationally give the voiceless command for my every breath, discretely manage the secretion of all vital glandular juices, efficiently administer my solid waste disposal program, et cetera, ad infinitum. Admittedly, my brain’s doing and directing things “backstage” that I can’t and don’t want to be bothered with. Valuable? Oh my, yes. But analogously, one never reads in a car review, “The engine started every time I turned the key,” or “All six cylinders combusted the supplied fuel in a predictable manner.” Why? Because after a century of engineering, we all expect a car to idle, to turn left and right, to pump fuel and water. Cars that can’t perform these basics are, technically, statues of cars.
Ditto the brain. After eons of evolution, a preponderance of it devoted to or at least accruing to the benefit of our la-dee-dah “superior intellect,” we should expect a certain baseline performance from the cranial organ. That would include executing the involuntary functions all creatures, from bedbugs to blue whales, commonly enjoy but also a few top-of-the-food-chain perks, like the ability to communicate with others, make tools, instantly differentiate between Bewitched Darrins, and attribute our own farts to the nearest quadruped.
I guess what I’m saying is, “Thanks, brain, for your mindless yet reliable regulation of my core body temperature. But what have you thunk for me lately?”
Make that: What have you thunk constructively for me lately?
“How about this column?” one might ask.
Sure, I’m well aware that I’m only able to write this because of my brain. But it’s also worth noting that what’s on this page got here only after the same conglomeration of neurons frittered away hours watching volcano eruption videos on YouTube, even as my deadline ticked away, the timing tightening, my anxiety heightening, all while my internal voice kept hectoring me to get started, despite its good advice being snubbed by my internal ignorer, which takes the form of a second internal voice, one that continually peppers me with discouraging words of unworthiness and insecurity and hackdom, instilling in me a fear of failure, placing mental stop-sticks along the road of my highest ambitions, in the face of a third internal voice—faint, yes, but persistent—that insists I keep writing because my voice is unique and needs to be heard, only to be mocked by yet a fourth, more jaded and increasingly familiar voice, calling from the cortical wings, “Blah. Blah. And blah. Heard it all before, navel-gazer”—“all” referring to the aforementioned three voices, its own self-aware voice, and my observation—right here, right now—lamenting the four-voice situation.
How am I supposed to take that? How is that (or is it “are those,” O Great and Powerful Cerebral Language Center?) the action(s?) of a friend? (Three question marks in a single sentence, GPCLC? That can’t be right.)
Not that things have to be this way. In an effort to provide solutions, I have in the past proposed this alternative creative process: Internal voice says, Write a column; writing to the best of my abilities immediately ensues; writing proceeds until finished; brain is pampered with volcano eruption videos as a reward for a job well done.
But no. That’s how antagonistic things have become (not recently become, I should add; my three pounds of skull stuffing has been full of raw enmity since I almost broke it with high school physics): My brain supplies a workable solution to a problem that is an annoyance to my brain alone, only to have my brain annoyingly refuse delivery.
And now we’re starting to get to it.
The brain is clever. Too clever. Until it’s not clever at all. And it’s that fluctuating dichotomy of Machiavelli and Shemp that has me constantly scratching its container.
In my taxonomy, the brain—or mind, if you prefer—can be broken down into three parts: unconscious, subconscious, and conscious. Not a genius configuration, really, since two-thirds of our neck-mounted think-tank operates outside of our direct control. It’s as if the three branches of the federal government were the Executive, the Freemasons, and the Star Chamber. (Side note: Some members of the Tea Party actually believe this is true.) Is it any wonder the yield of such a system is, too often, chaos, confusion, doubt, conflict, neuritis, neuralgia, and prefrontal eczema? And that the yield of said yield is depression, repression, obsession, addiction, neurosis, narcissism, insomnia, callousness, petty criminality, consumerism, road rage, bedwetting, onanism, scrapbooking, irrational list-making, and more. (“More” being, among other things, the uplifting opposite of the mental states mentioned. For information on those, pick up O, The Oprah Magazine.)
The duties of the three minds (all I must once again underscore residing in the brain, a.k.a. the Pyongyang of the Human Organism) are fluid. Overperformance and underperformance by each entity is not uncommon.
For instance, the unconscious, in addition to heading up involuntary functions, is tasked with writing and producing our dreams. For source material, it draws on daily events, short- and long-term memories, our gravest personal fears and most traumatic, deeply buried pain. These elements are marinated in embalming fluid, cough syrup, and a handful of peyote buttons, edited with a Cuisinart, and screened, nightly, as a new series of psychodramas (accent on the psycho). (Bonus parenthetical: There are no such words as psychocomedy or psychoactionpic.)
But rather than present us with bright, fun-filled fantasies of victory, indulgence, fulfillment, and joy, I find it curious that the brain— its wild creativity so evident, its locations, budgets, and effects peerless and seemingly unlimited—more commonly releases triple, quadruple, quintuple features of frustration, obscurity, perplexity, and opaque symbolism. Honestly, if I’m anxious about an upcoming medical procedure, how does dreaming of a talking jaguar stalking me (or kinda me/kinda not me, if that makes sense) through Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld—except this place had a pool...filled with mayonnaise!—really help with that? (Side niggle: Might not one’s spouse’s brain, as a favor to all concerned, dream in a series of linear, logical, linked episodes of a larger story, thereby making listening to a recap over breakfast something both could enjoy?)
And what of the conscious mind? That’s the one largely responsible for the writing problems described above, so, OK, we already know it’s a snake pit. But there’s so much more.
Without rhyme, reason, or permission, this division of the brain can obsess over the suitability, utility, style, cost, subtext, and necessity of a gift for the newborn of a coworker to the point of immobilization, and then, five minutes later, have unsafe, adulterous, kinky sex with a virtual stranger with no thought beyond “Spank me.” This is the pal and partner that can and will, on the right night, as one lays awake in the dark, through a series of ostensibly rational, progressively accelerating thoughts, amplify a headache into dengue fever, contracted, it somehow doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe, via the biggish mosquito that might have bitten you in the African food store last week. It afflicts life with weeklong earworms by Neil Diamond and worse. It is randomly and capriciously able to recall meaningless minutia (“That’s not Regis Toomey, it’s Whit Bissell!”) but not critical life-saving fact (“Do we run from this bear or play dead?”); has no discernible or learnable protocol for information storage or retrieval; and can relate long, complete, even meaningful stories of distant and not-so-distant events which, it turns out, couldn’t possibly have happened, chump. It’s the part of the brain that, well aware of the stale garlic scent wafting from the wobbly pillar of grease-stained pizza boxes rising next to the bed that hasn’t been left for 13 days with the TV blaring a 15th straight hour of Breaking Bad on Netflix, can enable a recently divorced person to reply “I’m fine” after a friend points out these are signs of depression—and mean it. It’s also the lazy skunk that can be exposed to 23 years of expensive, private piano lessons only to accrue less overall musical talent, one discovers via a local news story, than some chance goombah who, up until he got beaned by a foul ball at a minor league game last week, couldn’t play a note but is now a virtuoso.
It’s worth mentioning here that we, as a society, allow this same brain to buy and possess automatic weapons. Proof positive the collective consciousness is every bit as hapless as the individual one.
And then there was one. (Gulp!) First among equals. (Gasp!) The Molotov cocktail, the Fifth Column, the Dick Cheney of the brain: our subconscious. (Aieeeeeeee!) Allowing the conscious mind to think it’s in control yet all the while lurking sinisterly in the shadows, answerable to nothing and no one, directing psychological black ops from an undisclosed location in an unknowable dimension. Always getting what it wants despite withholding what that is beyond “not what you want.”
The subconscious is a cipher. With exponentially more subtlety and power than the niggling, nagging voices of doubt, angst, and foreboding everyone but the Westboro Baptist Church suffers on occasion. It acts at will, on whim, without explanation. Quiet as snowflakes touching down on velvet as we make our plans. Never expressing a reservation or raising an objection to what we might have in mind—our new exercise regimen, our oath to quit smoking, our strategy to finally write that novel or get out of debt or spend more time with the kids or cut down on the homophobic slurs we hurl at the paparazzi, or any friggin’ thing we cook up that we’re sure will make life better, us happier. No. The way of this prickly, unpredictable beast is to surreptitiously undermine and countermand. After successfully sabotaging its host (and it loses less often than the Harlem Globetrotters), it takes no credit, feels no compunction to issue a statement to one’s consciousness claiming responsibility for this latest act of internal terrorism. Its role is only substantiated in the past tense, by the plans it has left in ruins.
The highest irony, though, is consciously knowing we have a cunning subconscious but that knowledge not doing us any good in outflanking it. Even if we should, through spontaneous illumination or a year-long slog of professional counseling, discover the motives and impulses behind these clandestine, internecine battles, it will continue, time after time, to engage in and likely win them.
One last analogy: I’m writing this on a laptop using Microsoft Word. If, without warning or explanation, the Word document I’m working on were converted to a PowerPoint deck or was saved in Esperanto instead of English, this computer would be on the scrap heap within a week. Because by not doing what was asked of it, my intentions, my objectives, were being subverted.
Yet: the subconscious has been with humans for thousands of years, sabotaging with impunity, without regret or remorse. A fact that may not prove there’s no God but does establish that God doesn’t have an IT department.
Bringing us, as was inevitable, to zombies. Specifically, are zombies living (or undeading, anyway) the dream? After all, they’re upright bipeds who aren’t plagued by overthought or self-doubt, aren’t easily distracted or damnably ambivalent. Instead, they’re only themselves at all times. Beings with purpose and drive—goal-oriented, and not in a sick, sublimated cry-for-help desire to impress Mommy or shame Daddy. Neither do they fear death.
Odd, then, that zombies are always shown as gruesome, grimacing characters, anguished in their “mindless quest.” How can that be? Because after living a whole life under the thumb of a brain, the eating of brains seems less like a horrifying curse than sweet, sweet revenge.
Illustration by Ward Sutton
Originally published in the May 2014 issue.