Saturday, September 1, 2012

How Does a Brain Store All that Info?!???

Back in 2006, I took a psychology course at the local community college and, much to my dismay, I was one of the oldest students in the class. This particular class was a night class, so it was safe to assume that most of us had day jobs. Out of about 50 students in the room, about a 1/3 of us were, shall we say, older than the other 2/3. (You know you're old when you and the teacher have A LOT in common!)

One day, the professor asked how many of us remembered where we were when Kennedy was shot? Giggles all around, as two of the students, who just happened to be grandchildren of the professor, said, "Geez, we weren't even born yet!"

But about 1/3 of the room (the Medicare-eligible crowd) raised their hands. She asked me. I shared my story which bewildered the "not-born-yet" crowd and I feared they were mesmerized because I hid my age so well. (Give me a break! It makes me feel better, okay?)

I was in Mrs. Butler's First Grade Class at Lonoke Elmentary School, Lonoke, Arkansas (home to the now infamous Paula Jones, thank you very much), when I looked out the window to see the U.S. flag being lowered to half-mast. Then the principal's voice came over the intercom telling us the President had been shot and we were to go home immediately. (Tell a bunch of first graders to go home from school and it's a vacation...not a national emergency.)

The next three days my sister, Libby, and I sat in front of the family's black and white television and watched all the pomp and circumstance from Washington as we lay the President to rest. Felt like a vacation to me. It was many years before I realized just what had happened.

The teacher asked me then about Martin Luther King, Jr. I felt like a movie star. I had these kids eating out of my hands. They just couldn't believe that there were people in the room who had first hand knowledge of "history in its making".

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his entourage were to march from Memphis to Little Rock and our little town was in the path. My dad owned a restaurant on the main drag of Lonoke at the time and the guys who worked the railroad ate there. The day before the march, a train pulled into town and stopped at depot. One of the workers took me across the street to sit on the caboose (I thought that was the neatest thing ever!!!) and we watched as storefronts began to be boarded up, in case of riots and looting.

That night, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Coming from the South, during the time of the Civil Rights movement, I had heard every racial slur known to man. Some of the white people rejoiced, some, like me who never understood how people could be judged on the basis of their color, cried. Some of the African Americans quietly acquiesced to his death, others became so angry. Growing up in that climate, I saw the South burn in so many ways other than just fire. Overt racism, hatred, vengeance, destruction of property and society were all a part of that time. I didn't understand it then; I don't understand it now.

As I told the story I wondered how much information my brain could possibly store. I recalled where I was when Robert Kennedy was shot, where I was at the time the first shuttle exploded, where I was when the subways in New York City were riddled with shots that hot summer of 1981 (I was actually in Manhattan that day visiting in-laws), what I was doing when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in 2001.

The kids in the class, though young adults, were spellbound. It was then that I realized what a miracle the human brain actually is. We can pull from its recesses at any moment and recall information we haven't thought of in years.

How does a brain store all that info?

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