Gray Matters

I still marvel at how my mind-brain works. I’m convinced each brain is different and that there is no such thing as a “normal” brain. But you would think after so many years my own would at least be familiar to me.

Not so. It still perplexes, sometimes seems downright alien. The difference in my more mature years (my mother said Hubschman men mature late, but this is ridiculous), is that I do marvelNIA_human_brain_drawing or at least am bemused rather than angered or depressed by its fickleness.

What I’m talking about is the way I seem to experience one kind of mind for a period of time – a few days or a week – and then pass on, quite unexpectedly, to a different one with all the appetites and aversions a new mentality involves.

It’s tempting to say what I experience is a matter of one side of my brain taking over for a while, then losing interest and yielding to the other side. What puzzles me is why this happens. Why am I enthusiastic for a new piece of writing I’ve just started, thinking about it the last thing before I go to sleep and the first thing after I wake up in the morning, and then suddenly become apathetic about it? How can I spend a day busily taken up with that new project and wake to find it may as well be something someone else is writing and about a topic in which I have no particular interest?

What do I do when this happens? Well, apart from the self-recriminations I used to plague myself with, what I did in my younger years was listen to music. And not just listen, but listen. I would find my mind as eager, as hungry for musical sounds as it had been for the written word. I devoured one symphony after another.  I found pleasure in jazz performances that used to leave me cold.

This would go on for a few days, and then something would switch off in my gray matter and the next day another part of that organ would switch on. I’d be back to making sentences, or at least rewriting them, and taking pleasure once again in reading someone else’s.

The difference is that nowadays, since I’ve taken up the piano, instead of just listening to other people’s performances I make music myself – sort of. I experience that delicious feeling thathuman brainresults from hearing Chopin or Brahms come out of the tips of my fingers and then reach deep inside and massage my soul the way nothing else can. Then, in a few days, I’m back to making sentences again.

Does my right (or is left?) brain just get tired of words, overdose on them, and turn off in favor of the left side the way it yields up consciousness to a different state when it has had enough of the real world for while? And then does the left side feel glutted and switch off in favor of its other half?

These alternating brain functions obviously have a restorative function. Ideas for a story work themselves through even as my pencil (virtual or otherwise) lies dormant and I worry it will never rise again. And despite the old saw about the need to practice every day, I find after a couple days away from the piano (also virtual) I not only remember better the few pieces I can play than if I had taken no time off, I play them with more understanding and deeper feeling.

I know, of course, there’s nothing unique to me about any of this. I have friends whose habits are not as up-and-down as my own, who do the same work each day without any loss of will  as far as I can see. And I know almost everyone has their ups and downs, their periods of enthusiasm and despondency. My own alternations simply occur in areas of activity that are easily identifiable and open to theorizing (in words, of course).

To put a positive spin on it,  my brain may just belong to a subset typical of artists. No doubt it served a function in the evolution of the species, as has the brain of my neighbor whose apartment is never clean enough or clutter-free enough to suit him.

Hopefully, it still does.

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About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on August 21, 2014, in Other Thoughts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Tom — How refreshing to read your version of my own cognitive functioning. My own shifts are not as clear as yours, but I have learned that one of the most productive things I can do when I am writing is to step away from the computer, turn on some music, and exercise. I need to exercise daily to keep my osteoporosis under control, but in the process in recent years, I have discovered that it is when I am exercising that my brain seems to come up with some of its best ideas.

    They say that only about 10% of our brain processing reaches consciousness. We do know we often wake up after a night’s sleep having solved some problem or reached some decision. But even though I’m a cognitive psychologist, it has never occurred to me before to ask whether certain alternative activities – like music or exercise – are particularly helpful in bringing some of our most important mental processes into consciousness.

    But now that you’ve brought the subject up, I bet we’d discovered that, as you suggest, neither of us is unique.

  2. It feels to me like exhaustion of that part of my mind. Or satiation. One more bite, so to speak, and I won’t be able to swallow it. What’s surprising is that I’m not disgusted with the work at hand, and I assume I will take up where I left off just at soon as I get a brief respite. But, after said respite, the usual rest of the day off, I find a reluctance that amounts to repugnance to going back to the work I was doing. Then it’s all reading for a while, and/or music. I can’t tell you how much I’ve read in the last couple weeks, for instance. It becomes almost a mania. I gobble it up like a starving man. Then, usually when I least expect it, I find myself back at the computer (yellow pad until recently), feeling that it’s either get on with it or lose my sanity, or at least my equilibrium, such as it is.

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