Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

The Kottage Khronicles: A voice from the Stupid Lobe



By G.D. Maxwell

Jokes and homeownership owe their popularity and longevity, in part, to the amazing human ability to forget.

In the case of jokes, it may be their trivial quality that dooms them to being flushed long before they take root in the deeper memory cells of our brains. Jokes are like sickly, weak sperm cells; they just can’t fight the sheer volume of faster, stronger, more important information – where I put my car keys, for example – for shelf space in long term memory. That we actually remember any of them is in itself a miracle. It explains why we only remember we’ve heard a joke just before the joketeller gets to the punchline. I do not know what perverse twist of human nature is responsible for what comes next, blurting out the punchline, but if human nature wasn’t as twisted as it was, how would you explain Gordon Campbell and the fact we elected him with such an overwhelming majority?

Homeownership is different. Its roots of forgetfulness lie deeper in the brain’s primitive cortex, near the part responsible for occasionally dredging up painful memories like the refrain from Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree or the first time you ever attempted a French kiss. Homeownership – a socially driven phenomenon to begin with – relies on a very large node of the brain whose sole function is to deeply and successfully repress any memory of the worst things you’ve ever experienced.

It’s the part of the brain that lets skiers remember the perfectly carved turns they were making but not the fall that came next, the one resulting in several weeks of traction followed by half a year of physio. It explains why golfers talk at length about the hundred and fifty yard five iron they left 18 inches from the pin but don’t mention the other 118 strokes it took them to get around, including the three putts immediately following their storied stroke.

Of all the truly astounding features of the human brain, it is quite possibly this selective forgetfulness that allows humanity to move forward. Left to its own devices, the brain will forget all the bad stuff. Up to a point. There are clearly some experiences too horrific, too traumatic to be overcome by this coping mechanism. The Holocaust is probably a good example. Or perhaps the searing memory of your older sister’s friend pulling your swimsuit down around your ankles at the beach. Wow! Wonder where that came from.

When this part of the brain goes haywire – medical jargon – you remember all the bad stuff all the time. Psychiatrists like to call this condition The Gravytrain. It’s what puts you on the couch a couple of times a week for years and years and what puts their kids through college. A more benign variant of this malady is, as it turns out, actually a prerequisite for motherhood. The key difference between it and The Gravytrain is you only remember the bad stuff your kids did so you can remind them of it when they get too cocky.