Try to guess his name

I spent years trying to understand how the brain works, from a memory standpoint. It has been mostly a useless pursuit of knowledge.

Expect for this one day, where it brought a touch of magic to a sad family.

(…)

On my mother’s side, my grandfather has always been a strong, symbolic figure. His 12 grandkids, me included, grew up loving him and admiring him. He was funny, he was kind, he was curious.

By all means, he wasn’t perfect, and we loved him even more for that.

At Christmas, when we would all gather around him, he would invent codes that we had to decipher in order to know which gift was meant for who. Usually, my grandfather would have confused himself during the implementation of this code, making each gift label undecipherable. We would mock him, he would justify himself endlessly.

When playing board games with my grandfather, you’d have to keep an eye on him, because you knew he would find a way to cheat if he saw an opportunity. When getting caught, he would blame his old age: « Oh, I’m sorry, with my poor eyes, it’s hard to distinguish the 1€ and the 1000€ bills. »

At age 80, he insisted on receiving a special gift. He wanted to try paragliding.

Somehow, he made us believe he was immortal.

(…)

Then he had a stroke. Not a deadly one. But a bad enough one.

I arrived at the hospital, where most of my brothers, sister and cousins were already. The mood was down. They warned me before coming into the room: « He won’t recognize you. »

(…)

During the previous decade, my grandfather had taken care of my grandmother, who had developed Alzheimer. It had been a long journey from her first, barely noticeable symptoms till her peaceful death. Slowly, very slowly, we had seen her brain losing its ability to form new memories, then its ability to retrieve old memories, then its ability to function at all. It felt like someone was turning off switches, one by one.

The younger grandkids were using it at their advantage. When our grandmother would scold them, they would run away in the garden, hide for a couple of minutes, and then come back with an innocent face. My grandmother would still be angry, but wouldn’t remember why. « Why are you angry, Muty? », they’d ask. « It’s your naughty cousin that did something bad, I’m looking for him. » I was grateful to Christopher Nolan when he shot a similar scene in Memento, capturing perfectly the aimless panic that we would see in my grandmother’s eyes.

As we grew up, becoming younger adults, it became harder to laugh at the situation. Our grandmother stopped talking. She stopped walking. She stopped eating, unless my grandfather would feed her.

My grandfather’s appetite for life didn’t seem impacted one bit. In front of us, he would never, ever complain about anything. He took the challenge on, becoming this invincible grandfather figure that no event could shatter.

(…)

In the hospital bed, my grandfather is awake. He seems old. He is old, but it’s first time that I see it.

He’s mumbling stuff. He’s happy we’re here. We look friendly. One my cousins told him we’re his grandkids. He’s really sorry about not being able to recognize us. He looks at my face intensely. He wants to give me a sign that he knows who I am. « I think we have met before, haven’t me? »

My heart breaks.

As a counter-mechanism, my brain instantly comes up with an idea. Maybe he hasn’t lost his memories. Maybe he just can’t access them as easily as before. Maybe I can help him find them.

I ask my brother to come close to me.

Calmly, I talk to my grandfather. « Papily, listen to me. I’m going to say 3 names. Listen to them carefully. Look at him, and listen to my voice. You ready? »

He nods. The room goes silent. I try to take the most neutral possible voice.

« OK. Listen. Mathieu. Brice. Emmanuel. Mathieu, Brice, Emmanuel. Which one is his first name? »

My grandfather can’t find the answer in his brain. He knows what it’s like to retrieve an information from his memory, and he can’t do it. His face is despair and shame.

« Papily, make a guess. Mathieu, Brice, Emmanuel. It’s just a game. Make a guess. »

He thinks for a second. « Brice? »

A huge smile appears on my brother’s face, Brice.

« Yes! That’s correct! »

My grandfather is happy to see everyone smile, but he doesn’t want us to get false hope. « It was pure chance. I chose the name randomly… »

At that point, I’m still not sure of what happened, but I decide to push my luck. I ask one of my cousins to join me. « What about him? Look at him. Jules, François, Nicolas. What’s his name? Jules, François, Nicolas. »

My grandfather is not convinced. He doesn’t know. « Jules? »

The room goes wild. « Yes! Two in a row! »

This time, I don’t wait. Another cousin: « Listen again. Marie. Julie. Sarah. What is her name »?

« Sarah? »

« Yes! One more time. Emeric, Olivier, Jean. »

« Emeric?

« Yes! »

And we continued until my grandfather pronounced everyone’s name in the room. He didn’t make one mistake. (I mean, he did make one, on the last attempt, when trying to put a name on my face. But at that point, the magic had already happened, and it made the entire trick even more real.)

(…)

There are many occasions where my introverted personality has been a burden, from a social standpoint.

That day, being a geek about brain quirks was the best contribution I could bring to that room.

(…)

Are you wondering what the trick was?

It’s a misunderstood and undervalued feature of our brain. The most advanced data scientists have not been able to replicate anything that comes close to it. Like my grandfather, it’s not perfect, it has its flaws, but it is the source of 90% of the decisions we make. Without it, the energy consumption of our brain would be so big that we would have no choice but to eat all day to compensate for it. It’s incredibly powerful, yet mostly invisible.

It’s called intuition.

The biggest mistake

Simplicity, radicality, playfulness

Les Huit Montagnes

The world is working against you

No magic wand

Simplification of simplification

Life is the sum of what you obsess on