Last week was a prime illustration of how defective my brain is. As it’s the only one I have I find it somewhat alarming that large chunks of my own history are apparently missing from it. Of late it is definitely a thrill if a friend recounts an event I have no recollection of; who wouldn’t like to hear stories about themselves that were entirely new? But it’s disconcerting to live vicariously through one’s self as if you were standing on the outside of you, looking in. Not good.
So. Having previously known London at least as well as I know my toenails, I clearly now do not. My ex husband Roy knows it infinitely better than I and the man lives in California.
I was walking him back to his hotel in the district of Holborn at night. An hotel I had occasion to be at two years previously, for what I couldn’t remember. As we marched along the streets of Soho (or possibly Covent Garden, I had to ask) a fantastical building hove into view, illuminated by blue lights, big as a cathedral. Enormous thing, old and impressive, prompting me to say with wonder, “Wow. What’s that?”
Roy patiently supplied the answer. “It’s the Freemason’s Hall.”
“I’ve never seen that before.”
He paused. “Of course you have.”
“I have no memory of it.”
“See that restaurant opposite? We used to go there all the time.”
“Yes. The Freemason Hall’s been there since 1933 so we’d have to assume you’ve seen it before.”
He added, rather kindly, “It might not have been lit up blue, before recently.” This is typical of our exchanges. “Look at that church. It’s amazing.” “You’ve been in it.” “Have I?” “Yes. We went to Mikey’s sister’s wedding there.”
People find my penchant for keeping ex partners in my life quite odd, but I’d argue it’s the only way of accessing my memory. They are obliged to serve as repositories of my experiences, as I patently seem unable to do so myself. It’s been troubling me, until I read this piece today;
Only a tiny fraction of the brain is dedicated to conscious behaviour. The rest works feverishly behind the scenes regulating everything from breathing to mate selection. In fact, neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine argues that the unconscious workings of the brain are so crucial to everyday functioning that their influence often trumps conscious thought.
“There is a looming chasm between what your brain knows and what your mind is capable of accessing.
You are not consciously aware of the vast majority of your brain’s ongoing activities, nor would you want to be—it would interfere with the brain’s well-oiled processes. For instance, the best way to mess up your piano piece is to concentrate on your fingers; the best way to get out of breath is to think about your breathing; the best way to miss the golf ball is to analyse your swing. The ability to remember motor acts like changing lanes in a car is called procedural memory, and it is a type of implicit memory—meaning that your brain holds knowledge of something that your mind cannot explicitly access. Riding a bike, tying your shoes, typing on a keyboard, and steering your car into a parking space while speaking on your cell phone are examples of this. You execute these actions easily but without knowing the details of how you do it. You would be totally unable to describe the perfectly timed choreography with which your muscles contract and relax as you navigate around other people in a cafeteria while holding a tray, yet you have no trouble doing it. This is the gap between what your brain can do and what you can tap into consciously.”
Your brain goes through a mini version of rewiring the subconscious when you go on holiday. Your hotel room becomes a fixed point from which you navigate access to your favourite spots on a beach or in a restaurant. It’s refreshing precisely because you are learning new things and breaking your routine. By logical extension, you’d imagine that moving continents is just a layered process of extending your knowledge bit by bit of your holiday experience. On holiday there is a security in knowing you can let go of the new mental pathways relatively quickly once you get home.
But in order to absorb these new patterns on a permanent basis you have to let go of the old ones completely. Not just because you no longer need them but because the new ones have to supersede your previous knowledge and become your primary, reflexive default.
It takes a concerted effort to do so. During the initial stages, one feels utterly lost at sea. My defensive strategies have included barricading myself inside a new home for months until confident enough to venture out and bouts of pathetic, girly crying.
You will be familiar with this feeling of alienation upon moving house from one neighbourhood to another but if you shift countries almost nothing you know applies.
Sure, you understand that appliances need to be plugged in. But they not only have different plugs, but other voltages. And the switch for off and on, something you have rehearsed as a muscle memory until it is subconscious, is now reversed on the socket or panel. It has to be felt for like a blind person and momentarily considered instead of thoughtlessly hit on your way into a room.
If you move countries, you inevitably change jobs, which is a great deal of information to absorb at once. There might be several hundred new faces and roles to take in, plus new responsibilities, boundaries and daily routines. It’s a big step. However –
Consider all that you know about your current life and environment:
- the internal geography of your house
- furniture placement and location of thousands of personal and household objects
- local and national geography
- mapping routes to and from home
- cultural do’s and don’ts
- the demeanour and mindset of the society you live in
- TV channels
- your friend circle
- how your toilet flushes
- telephone numbers: your own and important public services such as directories, operators, emergencies
- currency denominations and how much items cost
- how your dozen or more appliances work
- closing times of shops and places you need to go
- medical and dental services
- driving rules
- animal care
- the correct date order when writing it
- public holidays
- the local language or terminology
- bank accounts and access
- bill procedures and utility companies
- taxes and laws
- your set of keys and what they pertain to
- alarm codes, passwords
- your internet browser and provider
- postal services and rules
- accessibility to shops: dry cleaning, gardening, hardware, groceries, opticians, pharmacy, clothing, household
- repair and maintenance services
- favourite restaurants, take-out menus and what you order
- cinemas and entertainment
- route to the airport
- trash collections
- local newspapers
- rent or mortgage procedures
- public transport and taxis
As you read those items, you will have visualized your own versions of them. You know them, right? Of course you do. You take them for granted as your internal and external landscape, ingrained, built up by years of rote.
Now discard everything you are familiar with and start from scratch.
Do it again.
Now do it again.
That’s where I am.
From England to America, from America to Dubai and back to an England that was so changed after 30 years and different to what I supplanted it with I had to learn everything anew. Add to that 18 house moves on three continents.
I realised with a start that a lot of people (including my brother who seems to have life sorted out in a progressed and organized fashion in comparison to his idiot sister but hasn’t moved house in 20 years and has always lived in the UK) have not had the same experience of the kind of rewiring of their hard drives that, say, enables them to completely erase that they once ordered a lover to return a pair of trophy knickers because they were far too expensive an example of Agent Provocateur finery to leave as a souvenir or told Johnny Mathis to fuck off because he complained of their smoking in a First Class cabin of British Airways. Apparently.
Their collective subconscious has been far freer, to allow them to concentrate on the mechanics of life and productively getting on with all it entails.
It might be just as well though, in my case.
I was apt to crow, from time to time, about my prodigious memory for song lyrics. While other people seemingly have a gift for faces, names and routes I’d always supposed that all my RAM was used up with music; why I have been known to spend months in the company of someone only to need to have it explained to me who they are two years down the line. Why I turn useless circles in doorways forgetting what I was aiming myself in the direction of doing. Why I have no idea what day it is, causing me to miss important appointments. Blame it on the music I’d say. I have a new excuse courtesy of David Eagleman.
Meanwhile, I’m eternally pleased to be able to offer you, from the annals of Alison’s brain, a little snippet of song lyric. Spare a conscious thought. Lyrics are all I have at my disposal.
We met at nine
-We met at eight
I was on time…
– No, you were late
…Ah yes, I remember it well
That carriage ride
– you walked me home
You lost a glove
– I lost a comb
…Ah yes, I remember it well
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