Cogs in the Machine
We Don’t Need Most of Our Conscious Brain to Function in Today’s World
‘All you need in this life is a tremendous ego and sex drive. Brains don’t mean a shit.’ -Captain Tony, Key West
Every once in awhile Jimmy Kimmel or another talk show fellow goes out on the street and asks random passersby easy questions that nobody ought to miss. Or a video will go viral of some college students not knowing who Lincoln was. You look at clips like that and think, ‘My God, how is that possible?’ We watch someone not know, for example, the capital of the nation, and suddenly there’s 2 worlds sliding side by side. Ours, in which we know certain things — the first President, the location of Mexico, the meaning of ‘dime’ — and this other world where such knowledge seems lost or non-existent. And this other world exists right next to us, embedded and threaded through and through.
It’s a world where people who can talk, who earn money at jobs, who pay bills and have responsibilities — functioning adults — college students, accountants, managers — all seem to be missing fundamental components of things we consider necessary to function. Knowledge, in particular, but other things as well.
For at least ten years my wife’s mother had little short-term memory. Near the end of that decade, she had virtually none. This would be unremarkable but for the fact that nobody knew. It would be unremarkable but for the fact that she ran her rental business, did her taxes, lived alone, drove, shopped, ate out with friends, paid the bills.
She didn’t do all of this very well, which in retrospect caused tension and unhappiness, loneliness and depression and anger and fear. But her absence of short-term memory did not affect her navigation through her world, only her emotional response to it. By any monetary measure of success, she was extremely successful. She even bought and sold a few houses in that time.
History — daily event, memory of today and yesterday — were effectively gone and it did not matter to her success in the world. Hell, we didn’t even know it was happening.
What she had eaten for breakfast, who had visited an hour ago, where she’d been or who she’d spoken to: Gone. She functioned — not happily, mind you, but successfully — for years as her memory of each day grew dimmer and dimmer.
Simple, really. Her brain wasn’t needed as much as we thought. In fact, it wasn’t even needed to interact with us!
Looking back, it’s easy to wonder how we missed it, if the fault was our own. We would dine with her one night on steak and the next she would exclaim self-pityingly that she hadn’t had steak in years. She complained that nobody ever called her and she never saw the grandkids, yet my wife called her several times a week and we had extended visits (being teachers) several times a year. A litany of complaint and grievance that we dismissed as character or personality. She pushed us away, for certain, but those complaints did not appear to function as memory gaps at the time — they acted to build a sense of grievance that she’d had for a long long time before. If anything, her lack of short term memory actually HELPED her build the world she’d been living in for decades.
We think we NEED some fundamental unit of reason, of knowledge, memory, fact, data, in order to function, but the truth is that we fit rather seamlessly into whatever world we’ve created around ourselves. Sometimes, I suspect, we don’t create that world at all; it’s created for us.
For example — statistically proven: a rich kid is far more likely to go forth and finish college than a poor kid. Completely regardless of intellectual ability, work ethic, morality, intelligence, grades or test scores. The most significant factor to a kid’s future success in society is the money they inherit. There’s an injustice to this, of course, but there’s also a less political lesson. Namely, success is not nearly as under our control as we would like to think.
The fact is, not only CAN that rich kid function, he more than likely will, because the simple truth is you don’t fundamentally NEED any of the things we consider essential parts of ourselves in order to find a place and perform. We like to think that people mostly earn their place, through hard work, intelligence, knowledge, expertise, but it isn’t true. Even a profession as complex as medicine becomes rote and instinctual with enough repetition. Most jobs, after a few decades, are as much (or more) muscle memory as they are conscious acts of choice.
It’s easy to dismiss other people and their experience, to compartmentalize them and their function. It’s easy to put my mother-in-law in a special kind of box, unique to her. But that deliberately misses the point: our own skill set has little to do with what we consider fundamental components of a purpose or value. Our utility — our ability to earn money, for example, has nothing to do with understanding history or reading or understanding the scientifically proved truth of things. Our ability to raise our children, to drive, to manage a bank account, to do our JOBS, is apparently completely independent of most of what counts as a ‘mental foundation’.
There’s a famous Key West character — Captain Tony, friend to Hemingway — one of those crusty seadog kind of men. He died a few years ago a millionaire several times over. Mayor for a few years. 50 or more kids, or so the rumor goes. There’s a poster they sell in his Key West bar, with this quote: ‘All you need in this life is a tremendous ego and sex drive. Brains don’t mean a shit.’
And it’s true. The truth standing opposite the power and value of the achievement of our brains — our literature, our music, our architecture and automobiles and movies and politics and medicine and fashion. Our restaurants and sports. Our Money! Above all our money. Most of us slot into the machine of society with surprisingly little effort and construction and impact. We slot into the machine despite gaping holes and missing parts. Despite astonishing absences of what might appear to be fundamental necessities for the proper function of the work that defines us. We think we need these things, but it’s simply not true. We don’t need any of it to function.
We build for ourselves, from early on, an idea of the foundational requirements for function: literacy, number sense, vocabulary, a smattering of history, common knowledge. School itself is predicated on the assumption that a person must have certain basic skills in order to navigate the adult world on their own. But beyond that, there are other elements of our minds that we assume one needs to function as an independent adult, such as memory, a sense of the past, recognition of others, a moral code. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ve always had the assumption that these basic skills and attributes scale up with authority. The more responsibility a person has, the more power they hold, the more money they earn — the stronger those fundamental mental capacities must be. But I am wrong.
Brains don’t mean a shit. But Tony was also wrong. You don’t need an ego either. Or a sex drive. You don’t NEED anything for certain. I used to live in Colombia and managed to function without knowing the language. I have students who appeared to be functionally illiterate and who have gone on to successful, productive lives. My mother-in-law made a million dollars buying and selling real estate even as her memory of the day to day vanished from her mind.
We live in the world thinking we have agency and control, imagining that our movement through it is a product of our conscious thought process. We imagine that our training and knowledge, our past experiences, and especially our thought-out opinions are the driving force. We imagine we have earned our place, or have been treated unjustly if we are unsatisfied with that place.
But none of this is true.
I think of this often these days, as I listen to our President bumble his way through the world. Because after the outrage, a profound confusion consistently follows. A ‘How is that possible?’ bewilderment similar to my reaction to great magic. Nearly 40% of the country still supports this man, but it’s impossible to do so if one has in any amount the things I consider necessary for daily function. In fact, he himself is missing many of them. He stands, or sits, or lounges on a mattress, or something, at the pinnacle of worldly power, having passed already through other pinnacles, of wealth, of fame, of social circles and influence, building hotels and slapping his name on all manner of actual things in the world. He lacks memory, knowledge, wisdom, grace, morality, and yet there he is, The President.
One is supposed to reach a conclusion after a realization like this, find some gem or germ of wisdom, but there really isn’t one. The world is not what we think it is, and doesn’t function the way we think it does. It seems to have no mind at all, nor need our minds within it.