Orderly Disorder

A model of the human brain sits on the shelf in my office at home, a plastic testament to the well-ordered anatomy inside the human skull. Cerebrum, cerebellum, medulla oblongata; telencephalon, metencephalon, myelencephalon—the litany of consciousness, the seat of the soul.

Neuroanatomists can pinpoint those areas of the brain responsible for controlling the movements in our limbs, the muscles of our mouths and, most recently, facial recognition. They have mapped the visual and auditory pathways, and defined the speech and language centers. We now know that the seat of emotion lies within the limbic system, orchestrated through the amygdala. Yet despite our anatomical expertise, we still have not succeeded in determining just how and where individual bits of knowledge are stored.

A casual visitor to my home office would have little idea where specific pieces of informational data are kept. There’s the filing cabinet—certainly a good place to start—that houses folders containing important documents such as birth certificates, insurance policies and bank statements. Then there’s the computer, with its massive hard drive—certainly data stored there, albeit password protected, is in some semblance of order, enabling easy retrieval.

Beyond that, the file system seems somewhat scattered. Stacks of envelopes appear on top of the printer and at various places on my desk. Cubbyholes and pasteboard boxes house magazine articles and old newspaper clippings; photographs rest in one of the desk drawers, on top of my bureau and in several shoeboxes on the floor.

Road atlases and maps cover the top shelves of the book cases. I started stacking books in piles on the floor when I ran out of space on the shelves years ago. To the untrained eye, all appears in disarray; yet when I need to retrieve a crucial piece of data, I generally know exactly where to look—most times I’m successful on the first try.

In my office as in the human brain, there is an orderly disorder. The arrangement works fine, until my wife decides to clean, relocating piles of papers in the process. Afterwards, it’s as though I’d had a minor stroke: I find myself hopelessly lost in attempts to navigate through what were once familiar waters. Like those afflicted with senile dementia, it takes some time for me to get my bearings again, some time for the silt to settle out.

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