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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Brain drain

Society for Neuroscience at Friendly Encounters

Wouldn't it be nice if brains came with a detailed set of instructions? Been using mine for longer than I care to mention, but I still have no idea what it's doing, most of the time.

I mean you buy anything these day, from a motor-car to a packet of cereal, and it comes with a manual in 40 languages. "Verser les corn flakes dans l'assiette, et puis le lait sur ​​les corn flakes."

But the most complicated machine in the world arrives in a box you can't open, without even a basic set of operating rules - like don't try scratching it with a knitting-needle through your ear.

So occasionally I get mine working like a well-oiled machine, but often it's more like the rusty old bangers you find in farmyards. And that's strange because if my pals were struggling at school I'd often pretend I hadn't got it either. Made them feel better and got on the teachers' tits at the same time, which was always a bonus.

Nowadays I do the opposite, using nods and smiles, as people speak, to conceal the fact that they could be talking Swahili, for all the sense it makes to me. In an earlier post I mentioned that my son and sister's chat often goes over my head. But I have to admit it's not just theirs.

Instead of ageing gracefully into the wise, fatherly figure I've been aiming for all these years, I seem to have matured into a moron, although I think that's one of the words you can't use now, because it's offensive.

It's a word, incidentally that comes from the Greek moros, which meant dull. Sharp was oxys, which is where oxymoron - sharp-dull, a contradiction in terms - comes from.

See, I know stuff. I just don't understand anything, anymore.

So when Diane sends an email that stretches to several pages and makes only sporadic sense to me, I panic at first, then phone a friend, a trusty translator, fluent in both Diane and Douglas.

"Explain it to me, Rachel," I beg, phone in one hand, small Highland Park in the other.

"Which part don't you get?" she asks.

"See where it says 'Hi'." I say.

"Yes," she says.

"I get that," I tell her. "Then the next sentence goes on for three lines and my brain goes blooey."

So she talks me patiently through the email, explaining the acronyms, reminding me of stuff I'm supposed to know, but have misplaced somewhere in the crinkles of my cortex, and after an hour a little light shines in the darkness.

"She wants my ideas for a proposal on engaging with science researchers?" I say.

"Yes," Rachel says.

"Why didn't she say so?"

"She did."

"Not to me she didn't," I say and a stray thought strikes. Maybe my brain isn't the problem. Maybe it's everyone else's.

"Let me run something past you," I say, sipping the sweet, slightly-peated malt.

"Will it take long?" Rachel asks. "I have dinner to cook in six hours."

"I'll give you the condensed version," I say. "Chat forums, blogs and emails have taught people to do a brain dump when they want to communicate. Quantity is what counts online. So where a newspaper article is tightly edited, anything online is a baggy, bloated bunch of bollocks.

"That means editing has been transferred from the writer's brain to the reader's, and mine just can't be arsed. What do you think?"

There's a pause before she speaks. "It sounds to me like another version of the two billion people are wrong and Douglas is right theory," she says, gently. "And what are the chances of that being true?"

"Roughly two billion to one against," I say, swallowing the last of the whisky. "But that's not zero, is it?"

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