Was that me?

One of the things that fascinates me the most about the brain is the way it makes up coherent, mostly convincing stories with great confidence, even in the face of incomplete or puzzling information. It’s a dangerous trait, true, but where would we be without it? In particular, our selves seem more seamless than they are; they seem to stretch from the past to the present with some understandable gaps in memory but an overall sense that we were in charge the whole time and have reasonable insight into what went on. Sometimes, though, my past self is a foreign country.

This morning I had occasion to dig through some of my more recent notebooks and computer files in search of three phone numbers I wrote down last fall, knowing I would need them this summer. It took me a long time to find them, because I’ve scattered records of my mental processes over far too many little scraps of paper, not to mention various notebooks. Along the way, though, I had a mildly entertaining glimpse of myself last year, or at least those bits of myself that I had entrusted to my calendar book, my to-do list, and a little journal I carry around with me.

I recognized what was in most of my notes, or could at least figure them out without too much difficulty, but some of them were so opaque that they might almost have been written by someone else. This wasn’t the first time that I was baffled by a former self, but this was such a recent former self. How could I have forgotten already about this fragment of a recipe that calls for two cucumbers and eight ounces of water? Or the context in which I scrawled the note “Moth – Berbiglia – somnambulism”? A Google search told me what that was about (although I misspelled the name), but I have no recollection of who told me about it or why. (I assume someone told me in person because if I’d originally seen it online, it would be sitting forgotten in one of my extensive bookmark folders.) At the back of my calendar book, there’s a list of the first four months of 2011 with a number jotted down after each one. Evidently I decided to record some statistic, but I have no idea what, or why I stopped; they’re too precise and too low to be my weight and too high to be average temperatures for that time of year.

These are small gaps, obviously, and a lot of memories get lost over time with little or no harm done, but still, my faith in myself as a unified being in time was shaken. It’s a bit disconcerting to look at the residue of your own mental activity from a few months back and realize you could treat it as a found object, the seed of a short story, perhaps, just as if you’d found it on a slip of paper someone else had tucked into a library book.

For some reason this reminded me of a quote I ran into when I was first beginning to grasp how unreliable the brain can be, not just memory but the way that consciousness and identity are assembled out of forgotten or hidden sources. It was from a book by Timothy Ferris, probably one of the first books I read when I was getting really interested in the brain. The quote captured this idea nicely, but I didn’t think I had it written down anywhere (although obviously I am not a reliable guide to what I have written down and where). I Googled around a bit but couldn’t find it. However, I did identify the book it was in (The Mind’s Sky) and found it on Google Books. I was even able to find part of the quote in the book, but I couldn’t see more than a couple of lines, and I would have had to buy the book to see the whole thing. Even I draw the line at buying a book I’ve already read just to get a quote for a blog post. The public library didn’t have it; neither did the university library. Desperate, I Googled an exact quote from the bit I found in Google Books, hoping someone might have quoted the whole thing, even though I hadn’t found it with my original search terms. Sure enough, someone had quoted the whole thing. There it was waiting for me, thoughtfully placed there by none other than my mysterious former self, in a blog post from August 2007. Perfect! I think I hear my past self saying, “You’re welcome.”