Saturday, January 21, 2012


I am always surprised (and sometimes shocked) by things my brain can remember.

Jerry and I were in the local library picking up a book I had on reserve. I quickly thumbed through it to make sure it was what I wanted, when my eyes landed on the name of a doctor: Dr. Dupuytren. When I read that name, I stopped dead in my tracks, turned to my husband and pointing to the book page said, “Ah, this guy had something to do with either a finger or a penis.”

That caused Jerry to stop in his tracks. But as if to clarify matters I said, “The other one’s name was Dr. Peyronie.” Jerry looked at me like I was crazy, but then it happens so often that he’s just not surprised by anything anymore. What rumbles around in my head may be useless nonsense, but it had to get there somehow.

The only time I heard of these names was back in the late ‘80s when I was on a temporary secretarial assignment working for a firm that handled medical malpractice claims. I was typing from a Dictaphone tape and I needed to look up these two medical conditions in the course of transcribing the tapes onto the computer. I had not heard of them before, nor did I ever hear of them again.

Both doctors were French; both conditions deal with fibrous tissue that shouldn’t be where it is. And a quick check through Google connected Dr. Peyronie to the penile problem, now known as Peyronie’s disease, and Dr. Dupuytren to the finger problem, also known as Dupuytren’s contracture.

What I’d like to know is how, in late 2011 did my brain, unbidden, offer up this information when I glanced at the reference to Dr. Dupuytren in a novel I intended to read (I think it was a novel about Sherlock Homes)? My brain doesn’t tell me something simple like where I set my car keys, or where I kicked off my shoes, or worse yet, give me the name of an old friend I run into. Why then will it bring up Dupuytren and Peyronie?

I’ve experienced the same kind of thing in other ways too. While living Turkey and taking lessons to learn the language, quite often my brain offered the Spanish version of the Turkish word I was looking for. Yes, I had two years of Spanish in the 1950s, but we spent those two years translating novels, not learning how to converse in the language. Did my brain really retain all those Spanish words I learned?

But again, this all makes me wonder why I can’t remember where I put things in my house. Well, that’s not quite right, Jerry says, because if I would put them where they belong instead of just dropping them somewhere I wouldn’t have to wrack my brain trying to remember. And I also do know that as we age it is the short term memory that goes first, which explains a lot of what I can’t remember. But I’ve read that EVERYTHING we’ve ever known rattles around in our brain forever and is there for recall if the stars are all aligned or for some other reason.

I think I’ve mentioned before the writer Mary Roach who in her fine book “Stiff” told about Thomas Edison, who believed that there were little things he called “life units” in our brain that existed in every cell and operated in shifts. He wrote in his diary “We do not remember. A certain group of our little people do this for us. They live in that part of the brain which has become known as the ‘fold of Broca.’...There may be twelve or fifteen shifts that change about and are on duty at different times like men in a factory….Therefore it seems likely that remembering a thing is all a matter of getting in touch with the shift that was on duty when the recording was done.”

I don’t particularly follow Edison’s beliefs in this matter, but I do know Jerry and I often poke fun at each other’s lapses and admonish the other to wait for the next shift to come on. Since I most always find what I have lost, I trust it more to luck than life-units.

Nevertheless. what I still don’t understand is how come if I can pull up Dupuytren and Peyronie so easily, why can’t I do it with the easy stuff?

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