Friday, May 13, 2011

I Like Big Brains



You wish you had one too. I know I do.

I only have a little brain. It’s a good brain in the sense that it is sensitive, compassionate, patient, and expressive in writing (after only a million words fine-tuning that particular skill) and usually courageous when I need it most, which is a family trait.

I love movies and TV shows about big brains and I always have. I find them fascinating. The plot can even be crap so long as the main character is brilliant beyond normal human norms and I will still love the story. Stories like Little Man Tate, Good Will Hunting, Sherlock Holmes, The Social Network, Nerds, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Lie to Me, etc., I love them all.

I think this is because I have always had a little brain and as a child had never understood the kids with big brains. When I was in fourth grade I vividly remember paying rapt attention to the teacher and still didn’t know what was going on. She randomly asked a hard question to the kid sitting next to me who had been doodling and daydreaming. Without even looking up from his paper he answered her, correctly, and continued doodling.

What the…? How do you do that?

In high school it continued. I had friends that never reviewed notes yet they got straight A’s. My father taught chemistry and I took it. He tutored me at home and I still couldn’t grasp it. I finished the year with a solid C- average.

In college, I had the same pathetic grades until I switched to a curriculum focused on writing. I enjoyed that and worked hard on the reading and writing assignments. I overcame my little brain with lots of hard work.

The people who have big brains rarely understand or appreciate the gift they have been given. They remember people’s names. They remember geography, history, directions and trivia on a scale I can never hope to match. All of it comes easily to them. And they seem to think everyone is like this, and are surprised and sometimes irritated when we’re not. Those of you with small brains like mine know exactly what I’m talking about.

I wish that there was some way I could “work out” my brain in much the same way as I work out my body. Sure, I could memorize a bunch of history or state capitals or anything along those lines. And a week after I had learned it, and didn’t use it, it would disappear. You have to use that knowledge constantly or it fades away to be replaced by other things. On top of that, none of that actually helps my memory, like remembering a place or directions or a person’s name. Like a computer with limited RAM, anything that isn’t needed is discarded to make room for more important things like which metro line to take to the doctor, or which day a TV show is on, or remembering to clean the terrace or “buy milk and bread when you walk home from the gym.”

“I need to remember that I have a doctor’s appointment on July 15th.” And the state capital of Arizona vanishes from my memory.

Like my body, my brain is limited to what it can learn and achieve. I have an ectomorphic body type (Thank God for the internet; I had to look up the names of the three different body types) so the amount of muscle I can pack on is limited by that without the use of heavy steroids. It is physically impossible for me to look like a bodybuilder without the use of illegal substances. My brain is the same way. I found Algebra I easy. I grasped it long before others in the class did. Algebra II I struggled with. Geometry was a nightmare. My math classes stopped there. Leigh Guptil and I made a very nice computer game that I am proud of to this day. We wanted to continue doing such work but my math skills weren’t up to the challenge of doing anything more complex. That was my brain’s limit.

This isn’t to say that those of us with little brains can’t become programmers or doctors or lawyers or nearly anything else we want to be. It just means we have to work a lot harder at it. Med school might take ten years and passing the bar might take three years of preparation and ten attempts before finally succeeding.

My wife, on the other hand, bestowed with the biggest brain I have ever known, passed the bar for the two most difficult states in the union in three days. On her first try. (She will humbly tell you that “It is not that hard. All you need to do is study and not be nervous. Most people fail because they are too stressed about failing.” While it is admirable to be so humble, those of us with little brains know better.)

I’ve known a few people blessed with a big brain in my time. My friend Rob breezed through high school and college without studying a lick. He conversed with me on an adult level when he was 13 and I was 19. He found his peers boring and was even impatient with me when I couldn’t grasp something he was trying to explain. He went into hospitality when he got out of college, got bored with that and worked as a manager at Blockbuster for a while. He quit that after a while and looked for another job. Six months later he got a strange phone call from a guy who asked him obtuse intelligence questions like “There is an all white cylinder spinning in a room. You can paint two dots anywhere on the cylinder. Using this, how would you figure out where Bin Laden is hiding?”

I would have painted two dots on a random wall and answered “the moon?” and received the response of “no, I’m sorry, the correct answer is yellow.” Because I have a little brain.

Rob answered nine out of ten of these questions correctly and was then given directions to his new job.

At Microsoft.

Two years later he was the head of his division.

Even he is not smarter than the person with the biggest brain I have ever had the pleasure of encountering; my wife, Wendy.

As I mentioned before, she passed the bar, twice, in three days. When we watch movies she instantly knows from the scenery where the movie was filmed. Three seconds into The Hulk she said “That’s Brazil.” (She’s never been to Brazil.) Wendy lived in NY for five years so any movie based there she can instantly tell if the movie was before or after 9/11. How? Because she can look at the opening street shot and tell you “The twin towers should be in the distance from that street.” Or “Hey look, that’s fifty-seventh street, I had a dirty water hot dog there one day, eight years ago.”

“How do you know that’s fifty-seventh street?”

“I remember that red townhouse on the right.”

Without owning a car she has the entire map of Madrid in her head and can direct tourists to the street they need, no matter how obscure, and tells cabbies the best route to our destination depending on the time of day. She came to Madrid with no training for her new job and in three years had contacts and contracts with the highest level employees at the largest companies in Spain that asked her to vet hundred million dollar contracts. And when she did, they weren’t just pleased – they gushed like infatuated school boys.

I feel I should add... none of this is writer's license. There is no embellishment here. Wendy made contacts/friends with the highest level businesspeople in Spain. They came to trust her, and it is no lie she actually verified that a hundred million dollar project was valid and worth pursuing for a particular company. Not only that, she saved this extremely important and expensive project from the verge of being terminated by one of the parties involved.

In closing:

I could have gotten straight A’s all through college. All I had to do was give up dating, socializing, drinking, eating and sleeping. (I worked very hard in college and graduated with a 3.14 average which I think is equivalent to a B+)

I like my little brain for the patience, determination, insight, and kindness that it has.

But boy, I really wish I had a big brain.


  1. I don't think you know all the incredible burdens that having a big brain brings with it.

  2. You're right, Jamie! This is one of the smoothest best essays you've written. What an easy and entertaining read. :-)

  3. Joe makes an excellent point.

    Adam Carolla elaborates:

  4. Oh yeah, you should also check out this hour long feature on the man with the highest IQ in the world, Rick Rosner. Really fascinating stuff and by the end of the interview you actually come to feel sorry for him.

    Chris Langan is pretty much in the same boat. It's pretty interesting that with all that potential they both ended up working as bouncers for over 20 years. It really reinforces Carolla's point that the most successful people aren't the most intelligent. And the most happy people especially aren't the most intelligent.

    Marlyn Vos Savant, to her credit, actually seems pretty well adjusted. I'm assuming she had a happier childhood.