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mind over, under, and inside matter
the mystery between your ears
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

It's interesting that humans aren't bright enough to understand our own brains.

Okay, on some level, this makes sense. The brain is the most complex organ of the human body, and it's taken scientists a long, long time to figure out as much about the human body as they have. There were a few false starts there, as with all learning. Trial and error is the most successful method in the long run, but along the way it ain't pretty. The trial just doesn't work without the error. That business about the four humours. Bloodletting as a cure-all. The theory that you could cure the criminal impulse by sticking an icepick through the corner of someone's eye and waving it around.

That last bit scares me far more than the others. Maybe it's because injuring your brain is miles removed from injuring any other part of you. Or maybe it's because, while the idea of four humours is over 500 years old, the widespread use of the frontal lobotomy peaked in the 1950's. No one who was treated for an overabundance of melancholy is still around. Victims of the lobotomy still live.

And why are tragedies like that still visited on people? Because medical handling of the mind is still founded on ignorance and experimentation. Because there's a big ol' difference between taking ibuprofen for a sprain and monoamine oxidase inhibitors for your personality.

The personality is a tricky thing, and trying to change it (with drugs or surgery or what-have-you) is even trickier. If you are angry and depressed and resentful, and you take Prozac to make you sunnier, are you still you? Back up a step. If you're angry and depressed and resentful, what makes you that way? Is it a certain chemical, too much of a neurotransmitter clouding up your cerebrospinal fluid? Is it a permanent condition or a temporary glitch?

But I'm not just talking about what goes wrong, about Phineas Gage and autism and temporal lobe epilepsy. Studying what happens when things go wrong is one of the ways to understand how things go right, but honestly, a lot of this might be beyond comprehending. Why do we think what we think? Sure, on a basic level, it's electrical impulse. It's axons and dendrites and jumping across the synaptic gap. (Great, now I've got that "Crazy! Cool!" song in my head.) But a heartbeat is electric too, and it doesn't produce art, it just keeps you alive. My heart beats like yours and Cher's and Hilary Clinton's. It beats the way hearts have beaten throughout the ages. There was probably very little difference between the systole and diastole of Van Gogh and Mother Teresa and Hitler and Vanilla Ice. But the minds? Minds are different.

What is it that makes me hear the lyric "Big brother got the keys and I got Jackson Cannery" as "Big brother got the keys and I got jacked by Keanu Reeves"? Sure, in general, we always try to make sense of everything, to impose structure on the random, to make order out of chaos. But every mind has its own quirks, its own directions. (For example, lots of people's brains tell them that there should be an apostrophe in the possessive its. These people are wrong.) But I'm a writer, and my mind invents things, and the things I invent are not what you would invent, and my process of sorting through them is not the same as the process employed by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Danielle Steel or Ethan Hawke. Creativity is inexplicable. Invention may be the daughter of necessity, but it's also the better-looking stepchild of insanity. Inventing characteristics for those who don't exist makes you a novelist, or delusional. Changing your behavior based on the situation makes you adaptable, or manifesting multiple personalities. Thinking you are favored by God makes you a prophet, or a schizophrenic. Making connections no one has ever made before, depending on who you are and who's asking, either makes you a genius or it lands you in an institution.

Chew on that one for a bit.

Anyway, I've chosen to put an "improvement" tag on this column, originally intending to focus more on how to make your brain better, so I feel obligated to end with advice. And not in a use-sunscreen-related-internet-disseminated-supposedly-written-by-Kurt-Vonnegut-played-out-fad way, either.

Um, don't do drugs. Stay in school. Drop and give me twenty. And most importantly, in the immortal words of Ben Folds' dad, "look after your most valuable possession -- your mind."


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


the girl can't help it
she wants to be a techie
by jael mchenry
topic: general
published: 10.1.99

a little human sacrifice never hurt anybody
an unusual look at visiting peru
by jael mchenry
topic: general
published: 8.3.05


jeffrey walker
6.5.00 @ 7:49p

The new fad to prescribe drugs for the "not normal" scares me horribly. What if I don't want to play like the others?? If I would have been born seven to ten years later, they would have certainly given me riddilin. People have been telling me for years that I need therapy. I don't listen to them though...

jael mchenry
6.6.00 @ 9:13a

You're so right, Jeff. Prescribing drugs for the "not normal" is particularly scary because, really, what's "normal"? Kids are rambunctious, annoying, disobedient little buggers. Medicating them out of it smacks of ... well, it smacks, anyway.

joe procopio
6.6.00 @ 10:27a

You have to understand right off the bat that Jeff is the quintessential candidate for ritalin. And if he had been administered ritalin he wouldn't be nearly the amazing, wonderful psychopath he is today. I would also just like to take a moment to plug Jael's synaptic Gap joke. This is the kind of thing that only she can get away with.

adam kraemer
6.6.00 @ 3:02p

Come on, though. Everyone knows Ethan Hawke can't write....

jael mchenry
6.6.00 @ 5:03p

I never said he could write. He is, I hear, at work on a second novel. The sad thing is, it will sell on name recognition, like Jewel's poetry. Yech.

jeffrey walker
6.6.00 @ 6:24p

I'd prefer an expose on jael's "lyrics that I hear"

jael mchenry
6.7.00 @ 9:00a

Jeff, I think you're onto something. This is an exercise you can try at home, of course: Sarah McLachlan is a particularly rich source, giving us gems like "You stretch your ass to wear for a suicide bowl." (In the end it turned out to be "you strut your rasta wear and your suicide poem" but how was I supposed to know? Rasta wear?) Of course, your brain has to work like mine to yield "you speak to me in riddles and you speak to Leann Rimes." Proper names appear to be key in my process.

adam kraemer
6.12.00 @ 1:12p

When I was about 5 I could have sword that the Clash's "London Calling" was, in fact, the Clash's "Onion Garlic." I don't know what that says about my (or Joe Strummer's) breath.

adam kraemer
6.12.00 @ 1:13p

Sworn. Could have sworn.

could have sword doesn't mean anything at all.

jael mchenry
6.12.00 @ 2:46p

"Could have sword" does, however, remind one of the Saturday Night Live gameshow parody where the Sean Connery imitator keeps pronouncing the category "'s' words" as "swords." See, it was a useful typo. Welcome to Intrepid Media's discussion forums, where there's no such thing as "off-topic."

adam kraemer
7.5.00 @ 5:36p

I think were I to bring up something here about the crappy boat ride my friends and I didn't go on last night, that might be considered off-topic.

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