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Why and how your brain laughs at you

“Did you call Peggy?” Sandra asked me recently.


“Yes,” I answered proudly, secure in the knowledge that once again I had remembered to accomplish an important mission. “I asked if we could buy the bi-fold door they have in the yard sale. Give me a job and you can depend on it getting done.” 


“But did you find out what time the party starts?” she quizzed me. “It was a two-pronged task.”


“Well,” I admitted, “I failed one prong of it.” And for me, 50 percent isn’t bad, but it’s not good enough in the world of marital relations.


The brain can be defined as the mass of nerve tissue in the cranium of vertebrate animals in charge of remembering thousands of the least significant details and, occasionally, something of importance.


For instance, I can easily remember what bus I rode in school. Bus number 76. Sandra says she rode bus number 11 and her friend Martha rode bus number 58. We often have invigorating conversations like this, by the way. 


Now what about these numbers would cause us to remember them so many years later? It’s not like we’re about to rush out to the bus parking lot and be faced with the prospect of finding our bus or missing a ride home. 


I can remember the phone number we had at home when I was a kid. Sherwood 3587. Can I remember my cell phone number? 


I can see myself on “Jeopardy.” The answer is “The bus you rode in grammar school.” “Bus number 76,” I answer. And for bonus points, I tell them that Glenn Frickey drove it. Want another driver? Garland Dark. I could be a millionaire if there was just a market for useless information. 


Why does our brain pull tricks like this on us? If I needed to remember this stuff, I’d have written it down somewhere. Not that I would know where I put it, mind you. What I need to know is where I put the nozzle to the hose. Only God knows this, though, and He’s being mighty particular about divulging the location.


The reason we remember such useless information and forget the important stuff, of course, lies in how the brain stores information. It may be helpful if you think of the brain as a supermarket, with everything you need handily displayed on rows of shelves. To retrieve this information, all you have to do is to go to the right aisle, find the information and take it to the checkout counter where the brain will process it. 


Let’s say you need your car keys. The brain sends the clerk in charge of keys, eye glasses, dentures and umbrellas out to the key aisle. The clerk, who makes minimum wage working part-time in the brain and who has several other interests more important than brain work, two of them being his car and his hair, comes back with the keys you lost in 1975. At the same time, he’s texting the area of the brain in charge of “times in the past you looked stupid” and you’re suddenly struck with a memory of the green leisure suit you wore to the job interview.


This explains why you are 10 minutes late for work, looking for your car keys and this vision of 1975 comes to you. The winning lottery numbers won’t come to you, but you can remember where you left the keys to the 1970 Plymouth 40 years ago.


The brain is also choosy about what information it lets in. It lets a lot of things go by if it’s not interested in them. You could call this culling action the ability to separate what it considers the wheat from the chaff.


Some of the things the brain considers chaff is information on how to make great sums of money with very little effort; how to play the stock market; understanding algebra; predicting the weather; names of long lost friends; PIN numbers and passwords; dates of birthdays and anniversaries; understanding women; and how to play basketball like Michael Jordan. 


Some of the things the brain considers wheat are the words to songs sang by the Temptations; names of second grade teachers; your address in junior high school; names of all the parents of girls you dated; how much you paid for your first car; the price of gas in 1969; every TV show you watched when you were 9; every line in “Cool Hand Luke”; the scores of every UNC basketball victory over Duke, including the 2006 game on Duke’s senior night.


Scientists will tell you that the brain is made up of a complicated series of interconnected vacuum tubes, some of which blow out at random and others which develop loose connections. For instance, your brain tells you to get up from where you’re comfortably sitting and go into another room. On the way, you shake one of these faulty memory tubes and it temporarily loses its connection. By the time you’re in another room, you have no earthly idea why you’re there. And the only way to figure out what you were looking for is to go back in the other room and sit back down again. 


Then it comes to you where you left your car keys.