That traitor the brain

I’ve been fascinated for years by how our own minds can turn inside-out on us. Memories can and often do turn out to be slippery and even downright wrong in any “normal” individual. Brains getting eaten up by dementia lose familiar people and chunks of time entirely. Brains that are schizophrenic or otherwise split can create whole other lives out of nothing.

Stories that take those quirks of the human mind and turn them into horror tales or mysteries are particularly gripping for me. The movie Memento is just one example of a story that turned a character’s reality on its head once it played itself out. Oh, what horrors our own brains can subject us to!

But those stories generally just get me thinking about the mysteries of our minds and the reality of life and its quirks. One tale that shook me and just felt more personal, however, was the true story of mathematician John Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind. For those who haven’t seen it, skip over this paragraph. But those of you who have will know what I’m talking about: Nash is schizophrenic and ends up realizing that he’s created people and scenarios in his life that are completely fictional — nonexistent. The story here is that Nash, against all advice, decided to just will himself into getting rid of his symptoms, telling himself over and over again that the people he thought were friends simply were not there, even though he could see them.

I love how Ron Howard fashioned this film: he takes the viewers right into Nash’s “reality” and makes us believe that what he sees is real. And it’s not. It’s absolutely shocking, jarring, to find out that what we saw and accepted as truth was not real.

As I’ve learned over the years that some of the feelings I experience — depression, despair, racing thoughts, and so on — are actually just symptoms of out-of-whack brain chemistry, I’ve come to appreciate just how scary it is to be under the control of a brain that is not in itself in control. At times, I’ve been able to kind of step away from my own feelings for a bit and coolly and rationally observe that they are simply constructs of my biology. Some moments I’ve felt extreme sadness or irritability have had no logical basis in reality; they haven’t been caused by any external event that would normally make someone feel sad or angry. I’ve found some comfort in those times I’ve been able to do that; it hasn’t changed entirely how I felt, but it’s made me realize that my biology has hijacked my mind and that I don’t have to be completely a slave to it.

But it’s unnerving nonetheless to know that my brain — basically the seat of who I am — is a traitor. It takes me places I don’t want or need to go. It terrorizes me.

No, I don’t hallucinate. I don’t experience some of the particularly challenging effects of certain brain disorders. But from my own experience, and thanks to that window into Nash’s world that Howard created, I can certainly empathize with those who do experience that. It’s harrowing.

We rely so much on our mind, on our memories, on everything that we’ve stored within and taught our brains. We expect our minds to be infallible, to always tell the truth. We expect them to reflect reality. Because reality is what we think we’ve always lived. But what if our minds aren’t storing memories quite as neatly as we’d thought? What if they are reflecting to us a life in a funhouse mirror?

I guess I’d like to thank my brain for mostly getting it right (I think …). And I’d like to make others aware that some people’s brains just don’t do what they should. That reality is not always real for everyone, that even depression is a state that feels absolutely and terribly real to its sufferer but looks very different on the outside in everyone else’s reality. That sometimes we have to visit someone else’s world so we can help them leave it behind. A bridge must be made between the two realities.

I’m grateful for the people who have taken the time to try to understand my reality, to try to empathize so they can offer the right words or gestures of help. I’m hoping that in writing about my particular mind and where it’s led me, it might help others as they build those bridges.

Life of the mind

Cathy Carmode Lim View All →

I’m a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I’m a mom of four and grandma of three.

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