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There are a lot of scary things happening right now in the United States government, but perhaps the absolute worst is our secretary of housing and urban development running amok threatening to drill holes in people’s heads and forcing them to recite books they read 60 years ago. Even if they’re under the age of 60,
I’ve talked about Ben Carson before, back when he was in the running to be the Republican candidate for president. He’s great on paper, in that he’s a brain surgeon. He graduated from Yale, he’s the only person to have successfully separated twins conjoined at the head, he pioneered several neurological surgery techniques, he became the youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery in the country when he was 33, and he’s written over 100 neurosurgical papers. Judging from that list, you’d have to admit that he’s a smart person who would probably never say he could drill holes in people’s heads and force them to recite books they read 60 years ago. Right?
That’s what makes Carson so fascinating — by all accounts, he is very smart in one particular realm, and at first I assumed that realm was “the brain.” Because he first came to my attention when it came out that he is a young-earth creationist. He’s a Seventh-day Adventist, a Christian sect that believes the Earth is no more than 6,000 years old and that the Universe was literally made in less than a week. Not a metaphorical week — literally, God made everything in six days. That is a dumb, dumb belief. There’s zero evidence to support it and an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that the Universe is about 14 billion years old. That means he’s about as accurate as I would be if I looked at Ben Carson and guessed that he was a fetus as opposed to a 65-year old man. Only worse.
But smart people can believe stupid things outside their expertise, so I figured Carson was just smart about medicine. But then it came out that he believes in truth serums, like something you inject someone with and then they tell the truth like in the movies. So I realized he’s NOT smart about medicine in general, so he must just be smart about neurology.
Well, I was wrong again, because he recently gave a speech in which he lauded the incredible capability of the human brain. To illustrate his point, he says that billions of neurons in the brain remember absolutely everything you’ve ever experienced. And to prove it, he says he could take the oldest person in the audience, drill a hole in their head, stick an electrode on their hippocampus, and have them recite verbatim a book they read 60 years ago.
This is exactly his area of expertise, and it is so, so wrong. It’s the wrongest thing anyone in the Trump administration has said, well, on that day. Still: very wrong, and for a number of interesting reasons!
First of all, human memory doesn’t work like that. Your billions of neurons don’t perfectly remember every experience you have. If they did, you would go insane. It’s bad enough I remember a stupid thing I said once to my crush in 5th grade. Your brain makes compromises, picking and choosing what to remember and how to remember it. In fact, not only is memory not picture-perfect, but every time you remember something, you very subtly change the memory itself and make it less reliable, like repeatedly opening and saving a jpeg.
Additionally, memories aren’t all just hanging out in the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a role in the formation and storage of memories, but it isn’t a safety deposit box where everything is neatly organized. All different parts of your brain work together to form, store, and recall memories.
It’s a little terrifying that Carson doesn’t know any of this, considering that he only retired as a neurosurgeon four years ago. It’s not like all this is a recent discovery scientists learned after Carson got his gold watch and was hanging out at home playing with his grandkids.
What’s the moral here? Well, with Carson, the moral used to be “you can be stupid about one thing and really smart about something else.” But now it’s just this: “holy shit, even the dudes poking around in our brains are fucking idiots.” And now that guy is in charge of housing and urban development for some reason. Maybe that’s the thing he’ll end up being smart about? Separating conjoined twins and urban development. But somehow I doubt it.