The human brain is a magnificent feat of evolution, capable of all sorts of incredible things, such as gaining insight into the workings of the universe, developing life-saving technology and the invention of chocolate.
It is so impressive that we often only appreciate it when it becomes apparent that it has been disengaged.
For example, if someone uses the phrase ‘make America great again’, you notice their brain is switched off and nonsense is about to follow. Other phrases which usually indicate brain disengagement include ‘Don’t you worry about that’, ‘Please explain’, ‘I’m Kevin, and I’m here to help’ and ‘go New South Wales’.
Sometimes this disengagement is deliberate, such as when a person enters a theatre to watch a movie involving Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler. To leave a brain switched on in such circumstances would risk it exploding in an evolved response to toxic levels of stupidity and incompetence. Of course, if a person voluntarily walked into such a movie, the explosion of their brain may not exactly be Krakatoa…if you get my drift.
At other times, however, I think the brain disengages itself, such as when you are about to engage in a stunningly boring activity such as attending a law lecture or playing golf. No sane person could blame the brain in that situation.
I pause to point out that golf is not always boring, just when it is played by people who are very good at it; when played by people who are spectacularly uncoordinated and largely unfamiliar with the rules, it is a scream.
For example, when I was back at Law School some of us would occasionally play golf, in a sincere attempt to increase our legal experience by becoming involved in actual negligence and personal injuries actions. A couple of us had played before and had attained the level that professional golfers describe as ‘non-lethal’. Others had never played golf before, nor intentionally hit a ball with any implement, so far as I could tell. Some of the boys would swing lazily at the ball a couple of times before noticing that, in spite of their best efforts, it was still there.
They may not have known much about golf, but they were certain the ball had to move at some point. So they adopted standard teenage male procedure when failing at a task: apply more force. A frenzy of much harder, much faster swings would ensue, so many that by sheer chance contact with the ball was made.
This was great news for us playing partners because it meant we could finally get off the tee and on with the game. It was not great for people on other fairways, the clubhouse, nearby streets and in fact, anyone not standing where the player wanted the ball to go, because this was the only safe place (one of my friends once made the ball go back off the tee. Twice. In a row).
Our ventures to the golf course always featured other golfers diving out of the way, things getting broken, and the occasional club slipping from an enthusiastic mate’s hands at the end of the swing and flying in random directions at life-threatening velocity. We played an exciting brand of golf with more action than a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, but with much better acting. Today, it would be the world’s top-rated reality TV program.
You might expect that golf clubs would encourage us not to come back, or even call the police, but they never did. I think I know why: golf balls are expensive. Our crew could be guaranteed to lose about 73 balls per round, in large part because many of our playing group had no idea whatsoever where the ball had gone. Unless it was lying beside the unconscious body of a golfer from another group, we had a better chance of seeing Elvis than the ball.
I suspect that the golf club employees discreetly followed us and – in between providing first aid to wounded golfers, passers-by and wildlife – collected our errant golf balls, gave them a polish and sold them back to us again the next week. Given how infrequently the balls were actually struck, probably even the ACCC would say that was fair enough.
Anyway, back to the brain switching itself off (assuming it hasn’t already done so in response to this column). I think the brain also has a whimsical side and sometimes doesn’t so much switch off as decide to play tricks with your mind, just for its own amusement and to get revenge on you for killing all its cells with alcohol (maybe that’s just my brain).
For example, my wife has several dozen empty jam jars, nicely cleaned and stacked in our pantry, in case she is seized with the impulse to make preserves. She has done this once when her dad showed her how to make his marmalade, but that was around 20 years ago. Despite this, every time we end up with another empty jam jar and she considers throwing it away, her brain goes, “Wait! What if we decide to make marmalade and 30 jars aren’t enough?”
My wife is very smart and under normal circumstances would simply throw it away (into the recycle bin of course) but her brain is in charge and so another jar is added to the stack.
Ironically this is a good thing because of my own brain’s devious ways, as I too have a collection of jam jars, but they are at least full. Unfortunately, they are full of things I will never use – screws, nails, Allen keys from Ikea products that only fit that particular product, and of course the bits that are always left over after building Ikea stuff which we hope are non-structural.
Every guy in Australia over 30 has a similar collection, even guys who have never successfully driven a nail through anything other than their own hand. We say we are keeping them just in case they are useful, but in reality, our brains are just getting even with us for making them spend so much time watching Test cricket.
Heck, I even have enough wood off-cuts to build a 1/5th scale model of the Taj Mahal, despite the fact that the biggest structure I have ever crafted was a birdhouse, back in manual arts at high school, and it was no Taj Mahal. In fact, it was the sort of birdhouse mother birds would use to scare baby birds (“if you don’t get up early and get the worm, you’ll end up living there!”).
So the brain certainly can damage us, despite being fairly useful. Of course, it can’t be too smart because here I have written a fairly critical account of my brain, and despite it knowing everything about me it hasn’t taken control of my hands and typed anything embarrassing about me – HE ONCE HAD A PERM BACK IN UNI!
© Shane Budden 2020. Shane Budden is a Queensland Law Society ethics solicitor.