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Expandable brains

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Tonight, as I often do, I woke in the early hours with lots of interesting thoughts buzzing around my brain – things that intrigued me about humanity, and ideas I wanted to explore through my writing. I remember clearly thinking that I would never have time to pursue all these ideas, and that I could do with a bigger brain to hang onto and process all the information.

It is a sad preoccupation of mine at the moment that my memory and brain function are not what they used to be. I struggle to recall the names of people and places, or plays that I have been to and books that I have read. I cannot recall how a plot went, and why a particular book was a favourite. As a writer who thrives on analysis and the thrill of exploring things, I find this alarming. When I woke at 4am this morning I was presented with the clear notion that I need an expandable brain.

The next step my somewhat erratic cranial connections took me, was to think of my father and his shrinking brain – evidence of his dementia. Of course, like many people with parents who live with dementia, I worry that my own brain is going in the same direction – that, far from expanding, it is actually shrinking. It is so frustrating that, at a time in my life when I am bursting with energy and ideas to write about, my brain is stubbornly telling me: enough, enough!

Computers, of course, have no such problem.

When I first did a programming course, back in the 1970s, I never got to see the computer – it was a mystery machine that filled an entire room in some faraway corner of the building. We had to deliver our programs via a series of cards with holes punched in them. These were somehow fed into the mysterious machine and, if we were lucky, two weeks later a huge stack of concertinaed paper came back with the results. Things are very different now, but back in those days you could actually understand how a computer worked. I was able to write in several languages, including Basic and Assembler, and could see how a program – written through binary ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’ – could actually be entered into, and processed by, a machine.

But computers have moved on. Their trajectory has taken them from stacks of paper to tiny, tiny chips that hold unimaginable quantities of information. If I could capture it, I could carry round my entire brain library on a memory card that is smaller than my little fingernail. Barring dropping it down the loo or leaving it for too many hours in the Sahara, it would survive and perfectly reproduce the information, on request, ad inifinitum.

What intrigues me, though, is that the human brain does not just produce the information ‘on request’. There is no logic as to why particular thoughts surface in the middle of the night, or why a sudden theme of interest emerges. Some nights I am too drowsy to wake up and note down my ideas, and they are lost. Other times, like tonight, I haul myself from sleep and reach for my trusty pen and paper, and the thoughts survive and are jotted down. It is the creativity of the process, the illogical cross-connections and jumps, that make the output human and endlessly fascinating.

This is why I read blogs, and novels, and timelines, and twitterfeeds. It’s why I hold weird repeated conversations with my dad; and why I continue to write, not knowing who might see my work or whether I will ever make any money from it. The ideas insist on coming, and they connect us to each other and our amazing universe.

© Anne de Gruchy

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