Friday, November 17, 2000

You must remember this

The human brain is an amazing, complex, and sometimes perverse instrument. It’s capable of astounding calculations and leaps of creativity and thought, but can also be a black hole where important bits of information--from high-school algebra to your ATM number--can vanish without a trace. Whenever we feel we have it figured out and can predict somebody’s capacity for learning or growth, we’re liable to find that we don’t know as much as we thought. The brain is unpredictable, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And memory is perhaps the most treacherous aspect of all.

Think of the way you can remember the lyrics to every chart-topping song you heard in high school, but nothing you learned in class. Please tell me I’m not the only one. Think of how your moments of glory fade, but your moments of extreme humiliation run on an endless tape loop, ready to rerun in any idle hour. Think of how two witnesses to the same event can remember it entirely differently, and be entirely certain they’re right. Think of how my daughter can retain the name of all 22 classmates, but not the result of 17 + 5.

The condition and potential of my daughter’s brain has been an item of interest to doctors and educators since we brought her home from Russia six years ago. And of dispute, since it always seemed to me that the potential part was greater than anyone wanted to admit. We could always agree that she had learning disabilities, and language delays, and a not particularly stratospheric IQ (though with the learning disabilities and language delays, it’s hard to tell). But were these a result of brain damage at birth, and more or less intractable? Or more a combination of damage and neglect and lack of stimulation and late-starting therapy, and could she make up the difference, though maybe at a snail’s pace? I tend toward the latter, though the jury is still out; there are nights when I’m doing homework with her when I feel we should just set up the reservations at the group home right now, she’s never going to make it out of 3rd grade.

But consider this conversation I had with her at bedtime last night. We’d just finished studying for a reading test, in which her comprehension of the text was mostly based on getting me to give her hints and then making lousy guesses. The ideas of stories are slippery stones that slide instantly out of her memory banks. Then, when the lights were out, she asked: “Do you want to know how many different kinds of pencil boxes we have in our class, and who has the same ones?” And she proceeded to detail which kids had which box in common, and moreover which color each one of them had. If her teacher ever gives a quiz on pencil boxes, my girl will get an A+.

So why can she remember that, and not anything useful? Maybe this just proves that her brain is more normal than we thought. A thorough grasp of trivia seems to be worth more these days than solid academic information, and our heads all seem to be more full of it. It’s clear, anyway, that she does have the capacity to absorb information and memorize it, when it interests her. Too bad math facts and grammatical irregularities are so much less colorful than plastic boxes.

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