The day my laptop died

As soon as I pressed the power button, the Windows logo appeared on the laptop’s screen with the familiar assurance: “Starting Windows.” But nothing else happened after that. For the first time in its brief mechanical life, my barely one-year-old computer failed to say hello. It was as if it found itself in a daze, desperately grappling with the sudden loss of its own memory. Finally, a blue sky with a little white bird and a twig approaching a faint light appeared on the screen. “Oh no,” I muttered in horror, almost certain that my poor machine had been attacked by a virus. The hard disk drive itself had crashed.

Frantic calls to my daughter Nad, who understands the quirky life of computers far better than I do, helped me boot the sleek black laptop on “safe mode.” She then came over to back up all my files on a USB flash disk. Aghast that I had not taken the precaution of creating a “recovery disk” for use in case of system failure, she promptly made one for me. You can always replace the hard disk, she said, but if you lose your files you may not be able to retrieve them.

In the next few hours, I coaxed my poor ailing laptop into performing a diagnosis of its own state of health. It offered to “defragment” bits of memory belonging to the same files or programs that appear to have been dispersed across different sectors. It checked the condition of the application programs, and, finally, it cued me to check the hard disk. With an air of certainty, it then announced that it had detected errors in its hard disk drive, and offered to repair them.

I was thoroughly impressed by this machine’s capacity for self-analysis and self-healing, and I quietly wished there was a way for the human brain to detect and repair its own occasional malfunctions. But, my hopes were quickly dashed. There is a limit to what even the most sophisticated computer can do once its hard disk is damaged. My computer appears to have reached that limit—it was unable to heal itself. The blue sky and the white bird reappeared, an image I took to mean as signifying that my laptop had passed on to the next world.

The operating system of a computer has been likened to a human being’s nervous system. It is lodged in the computer’s vast circuitry and hard disk, just as the nervous system is controlled from the brain. “This (the brain) is the mission control center that drives the whole operation, gathering dispatches through small portals in the armored bunker of the skull,” writes neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of “Incognito: The secret lives of the brain” (Vintage Books, 2012).

When my laptop’s hard disk faltered, my daughter helped me transfer its memory into a little storage stick the size of a finger. You may need to replace the hard disk inside your computer, she told me. But the rest of the machine would be all right. Wow, I thought to myself: As far as I know, that can’t be done (yet) with the brain. You can’t extract the memory of a human being from the billions of cells lodged in his brain tissue, and store this somewhere else outside his brain, until it is time to put it back in a restored or totally new brain. The movie “Inception” imagined that a thought could be intentionally planted in a person’s brain to serve as the spawning ground of a dream. But that was as far as it was prepared to go. Transferring a person’s entire memory from one brain to another is another matter.

“Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them,” Eagleman tells us grandly. “Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. And each one contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundreds of times per second….  A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.”

Neuroscience has tried to figure out how the brain works, and findings from this field have produced fresh insights into the enhancement of learning abilities and the treatment of various behavioral and perceptual disorders. The wonder of it all, however, according to Eagleman, is that this marvelously complex machinery remains largely unexplored.

When my laptop’s hard disk crashed, I was in the middle of writing a column like this. I took a deep breath and made myself a cup of coffee. I worried about the fate of my files, but I consoled myself with the thought that I could still reconstruct from memory the few paragraphs I had just written. All I had to do was borrow my wife’s old laptop. I suppose one can’t do that with a damaged brain.

That is why nothing terrifies me more than losing one’s mind. If a small part of the brain is impaired, Eagleman writes, “this might change your capacity to understand music, name animals, see colors, judge risk, make decisions, read signals from your body, or understand the concept of a mirror—thereby unmasking the strange, veiled workings of the machinery beneath.”

But, not everything is necessarily lost. Neuroscientists now speak of the existence of a “cognitive reserve”—the ability of robust brain cells to take over the functioning of damaged and degenerated cells, albeit not as well as the original. The key to maintaining this spare neural circuitry appears to lie in a person’s being able to stay mentally active. The supercomputer that is the human brain never ceases to amaze.

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