The Persistence of Memory
13 October 2003
The human brain is a wondrous, many-caverned thing. Or mine is, at any rate. It amazes me that an organ made only of blood, mush and funny electrical impulses can perform some of the things that my mind can do: quick bursts of mental arithmetic, flights of fantasy, the occasional witty limerick or sonnet, even manipulating the behaviour of others. OK, I haven't managed telekinesis yet, but give me time.
But what fascinates me is the ability to retain information. Not just important stuff - that's something any successful product of evolution should be able to cope with - but I love the fact that I can have the most trivial pieces of crap floating around my head, and funnel them out of my mouth at will (or by accident, depending on the circumstances). Ridiculous, irrelevant facts; stupid lines from unmemorable films; endless lyrics from bands that were out of fashion before anyone realised they existed. They're all in there, looking for a way out.
I've spent a lot of time weighing up whether this is a curse or a blessing. There's a distinct lack of practical purpose to the majority of this stuff; but can it really be doing me any harm?
Let's look at the positives, to start with. For a start, my need for a video player is vastly diminished; I can replay scenes from The Simpsons, from Eastenders, from my favourite pornographic movies, all crystal-clear in my mind (which, coincidentally, brings to mind a quote from Stephen Fry that 'masturbation is the thinking man's television' - you see how this all starts to work now). While this has the occasional effect of making me look like a nutter as I sit giggling to myself, staring into space, on the whole it's a handy way to get through those cold winter evenings.
Then there are the social benefits. I have to admit, I have milked my abilities on the odd occasion. Everyone likes a circus freak; so there is something of the performing monkey about me when I get introduced as 'Jamie - who knows the words to every song ever written'. No pressure. And when this ability is combined with a wonderful singing voice, and an ability to come out with comic lines that sound like they've been written by a pro (tip - they have, it's just too obscure for you) - well, that vague thud is the sound of panties dropping.
Sounds good, eh? Sadly, it isn't all a social whirl. There's a great deal of pressure to be 'on' all the time, so when you want to put your talents to bed - and indeed to put yourself to bed - it's not always possible. Take the time I was roughly woken from my slumbers with cries of 'Jamie, Jamie, the villa's on fire' - just because a certain group of friends wanted to sing American Pie and I was the only one who knew all the words. Or being the one who gets phone calls at all hours of the night to solve some random trivia question that's been keeping someone else awake - thanks, now I can't sleep.
But this pales into insignificance compared to the hidden - indeed, the unconfirmed - downside. I live my life in the fear that there's a finite amount of space in my brain, and these trivialities are taking up room that could be used far more profitably. What if I could replace all the lyrics with the contents of seventy-three different language dictionaries? Admittedly, I'd be crap at karaoke (take it from me - if you're not looking at the screen people think you're cool), but I could say it in Japanese. And if this is true, does it work the other way? What if I hear the new Justin Timberlake song too many times - will I forget the way to work? Or where I live? Or how to breathe?
[This isn't as bizarre as it sounds. I have a friend who will only watch a movie with someone who's seen it before. Throughout the film she will ask at various points 'Is that relevant?' or 'Should I remember him?' This is because she can only retain a limited amount of information at once, and is continually reorganising and prioritising space. She tried to watch The Usual Suspects once - suffice to say she didn't quite get it.]
Oh well. I'm going to offer myself up for scientific study one of these days - I guess Professor Robert Winston would like to wire me up to some electrodes and make by brain go funny colours. Then again, so would most of my ex-girlfriends. Mainly because I used to forget their birthdays. Funny, that.