I was wandering the internet one morning, when I came across an article called Starting Again After a Brain Injury . Always interested in brain stories, I thought I’d give it look. It was the word “delicious” that hooked me, as the fifty-year-old Jane Rossett rediscovered not only the fact of chewing gum, but also its pleasures. I cheered the brain that could take such delight in what had been made common for most of us. I sensed the irony of being forced into a point of view that many of us strive to achieve—seeing the world anew.
But Rosett’s essay is not a feel-good piece about how interesting it is to have what she calls a “broken brain.” She suffers physically, cognitively, and emotionally from her injury. As she talked about her pain and recovery, she also talked about memory and time. I was struck by her experience of people who grieve that she does not know them, though she, not knowing them, feels no grief. She noted that people with traumatic brain injury are often scolded for having “no sense of time,” and I found myself wondering what “sense” of time we expect others to have? On what basis have we achieved this consensus? I thought about Alzheimer’s and other illnesses that result in memory loss, and the frustration and sorrow that these diseases cause.
For friends and loved ones, the frustrations of brain injury and dementia are not just about forgetting, they are problems of identity. Rosett’s friends felt that they had lost her, and indeed, a great deal was lost. But what? Where does our identity reside? Is it in memory? Who do we become when memory is no longer intact? Are we defined by our connections with others? If so, where is our identity when those connections are disrupted? If I lose all of you, will I become someone else?
And what about our relation to time? We go to places that seem outside of time to find ourselves: a distant island, a quiet space. Our minds journey to timeless states, immersed in books and music and art. Yet, if we “find ourselves” outside the temporal, we can also lose ourselves outside of time. Inception-like, the architecture of our mind becomes incompatible with the stream of time our body experiences. And when our wills no longer suffice to pull us back from the out-of-time to the here-and- now, who do we become?