The Topic At Hand: Blank Slate

In 2004, at the tail-end of a vacation in Tampa, Florida, my mom suffered a TIA, a “transient ischemic attack,” a kind of pre-stroke. Early that morning, before she was to fly back to Missouri, she went to breakfast with my dad and another couple. Over the next hour and a half, Mom ordered banana-walnut pancakes, ate them quietly, and bid her husband and friends good-bye (my dad stayed on in Florida for another week). Mom then navigated airport check-in and boarded her plane in Tampa, deplaned in Kansas City, retrieved her car from long-term airport parking, drove an hour home, and put herself to bed. She awoke the next day in her own bed with absolutely no memory of the previous 24 hours. She remembers nothing after ordering pancakes. Pancakes and . . . blank. My dad said she seemed withdrawn at the restaurant. He thought she simply had a headache and was dreading the day of travel ahead.

Mom told me about her TIA over the phone a week or so after it happened, and the hair on my arms stood on end. Hours and hours of not-being. Where was she during that time? Where was she when her body was in the airport, on board the plane, in the car? How did she manage not to lose her way and end up in Phoenix or Cleveland? How did she not raise flags with husband, friends, the TSA? How did she not wander blank-eyed onto the tarmac? Who was present to ask and respond to questions, locate the car, unlock the house? Was there some kind of minimum self actually there all the time? Or, was she fully present, the memory of her movements, thoughts, and conversations merely swept clean, made inaccessible later by the brief interruption of blood to her brain?

Head injuries and strokes remind us how fragile a webwork of chemical and electrical circuits holds together what we call a self. That those circuits can sustain damage and even repair themselves in ways that that “bring us back” to something similar to what we were before a trauma is nothing short of astounding.

Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux have written a great deal about the neurobiological core of personality, the self-creative wiring that occurs as our brains develop normally in response to internal and external prompting. Both men refer to the late nineteenth-century railway worker Phineas Gage who survived the impalement of his prefrontal cortex, just behind the right eye, by a two-inch-diameter iron pipe.

Phineas Gage's Skull

Well, he sort of survived. By all accounts, Gage’s intellectual abilities remained intact after the accident, but gone was his ability to make sound judgments as well as many of the personal qualities that made him a reliable and likable family member, friend, employee, and neighbor. That Phineas Gage was obliterated.

I’ve never suffered a brain injury like Gage’s or even a TIA like my mom’s, but I have had minor incidents of blankness. These would seem too silly to mention if they hadn’t been so terrifying in the event—such as when I completely lost my way driving home from HyVee one Saturday last year. I was coming home along a four-block route, through my own neighborhood in a very small community (10,000 souls), moving along streets I had driven to work pretty much every day for five years, when I suddenly had no idea where I was. Not a big deal, maybe, except that the blankness lasted for several minutes. My heart was pounding like crazy. I made a couple of random turns, hoping things would pop into frame, hoping a template of landmarks would again coat the landscape with familiarity. It did.

When the mind fails to move along well-worn pathways and spark the connections that reaffirm who and what we are, when the cards in Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out Timothy Leary album cover)hand suddenly show blank faces—we falter a bit, lose faith in the reliability of our one anchor to reality, the relative continuity of our own perceptions, the stability of our patterns of neural connection. Like most things ineffable, the prospect of a blank slate, a mind wiped clean, is both terrifying and seductive. What, we seem driven to wonder, lies on the other side of being self-present, self-connected, and self-oriented? How would it be to not-be? Presumably, the urge to answer such questions has fueled various drug use, religious ritual, poetry, even musical composition over the past however many thousands of years. The commonplace of sixties-era LSD use—“tune in, turn on, drop out”—similar to some takes on eastern religious practice—highlights not the adoption of complicated creeds but a sweeping away, a thematics of absence rather than presence, as if, paradoxically, to be empty or blank were the same as being complete.

One of my favorite passages from Walden is one in which Thoreau describes how easily the familiar map of the woods around Concord, or any map at all, can fade to blank. The passage, like ones to which I am drawn in Emerson’s less optimistic writing (There’s a crack in everything …“Compensation,”) reels me in with a kind of hardnosed insistence on human frailty, only then to circle round to an attenuated sense of hope:

In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual Trees In The Woodscourse we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. (Walden, Thoreau)

Recently—maybe you saw it—a podcast on TED featured a brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, who, while doing research work at Harvard, had a full stroke that she survived and that she partially remembers. She has gone on to speak publicly about what she experienced. The upshot of Bolte Taylor’s remarks is that during the stroke the analytical portions of her brain, presumably the left hemisphere, were intermittently and progressively disabled, which allowed the usually suppressed right hemisphere to operate more freely. Though impaired, during the stroke itself Bolte Taylor remained aware of many of the changes in her perception. She recalls a kind of reconnecting with the universe, an erasure of boundaries between self and not-self. For Bolte Taylor, the stroke was epiphanic. In the podcast, she repeatedly stresses the joyousness—a joy edged with terror, to be sure—of continuity and flow, sounding much like Thoreau on the “vastness and strangeness of Nature,” “the infinite extent of our relations.”

Thoreau normalizes blankness—“for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost”—stressing that the human condition is such that the blinking out of beacons and fogging over of headlands is inevitable in this life. Bolte Taylor echoes the second part of Thoreau’s message by celebrating the blank, claiming a recapitulation of all in nothing. She calls on us to imagine the possible advantages to be gained in turning off the particular kind of awareness that she associates with the rational mind.

I respect these ideas, I suppose. They are reassuring in their way. But I am suspicious as well. The blank can also be a much darker experience.

In 1994, when I was a 24-year-old graduate student living with two girlfriends in Lawrence, Kansas, I fell asleep early one Saturday night. My roommates were both out for the evening, so I was alone. At about 11:30, I woke suddenly to find a man leaning over my bed. The next thing I knew I was on my knees, facing the door, screaming a scream that came from deep down. There could only have been a millisecond between coming into wakefulness, seeing the figure at my bed, and bursting from my back onto my knees. I wasn’t hurt; nothing physically happened to me at all. But there is this little gap. A lacuna, as I might have called it in 1994, in which I have no recollection of myself, the man, the room, anything.

Sandro Botticelli’s “Abyss Into Hell”

The little gap has always intrigued me. It is not that I think I’ve repressed the memory of an assault—I know I was untouched. But whenever I recite the story, I find myself navigating toward the space where I am not, where something came disjoined for a moment—then or subsequently. It’s enticing and terrifying, this momentary lack of self-organization, the disassemblage or failure to be. A slight too much of nothing.

Really, though, we check out all the time. Consider the scores of medical procedures, including most surgeries, that involve a disconnection of self from awareness and memory. Every night when we sleep, we dissociate for six to eight hours. Interruptions in being are mundane to the highest degree. Forget to bring a book the next time you go to the airport to fly somewhere or the next time you renew your license at the DMV. It’s neither spiritual nor terrifying: just a dull blank.

Last month, I worked as a part-time women’s advocate at an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence. I met women in shelter for whom the blanks that arise from experiences of brutality are anything but slight.

The human mind seems to adapt to extreme or chronic violence by forming stubborn gaps, trap doors for survival: these can lock up the memory, scuttle concentration, dampen and even block emotion altogether. I suspect that people who develop methamphetamine and crack addictions experience similar changes as their minds are besieged by chemicals that disrupt neural pathways and burn up dendrites. The self that was once a controlled ballet is scrambled, the stage half dim. From what I have witnessed, not much epiphany lies in these blanks and absences, just a lot of struggle and pain as one fights to resurface and then to reestablish the landmarks of personality. Victims of such trauma sometimes, like Phineas Gage, never return.

Sir John Gilbert (illus.) Daziel (eng.) “King Lear and Fool in a Storm” (1901)

Sir John Gilbert (illus.) Daziel (eng.) “King Lear and Fool in a Storm” (1901)

Fortunately, my mom had a TIA—not PTSD, not a meth addiction, not even an actual stroke. And she did return. But her brief hiatus-in-being opened up a gap. It’s the kind of gap I feel compelled to puzzle over—unproductively, alas—alternating between wonder and panic. How to conceive of this inevitable transition from millions of small circuits—from the mundane of banana nut pancakes—to the sublime emptiness of stroke, dissociation, coma, or just death? How can the electric lace-work of a whole life of presence just blank out completely, forever? For me, the question does not finally lend itself to Thoreau stumbling stoically among the birches in the dark, and especially not Bolte Taylor rhapsodizing about flow. What comes to mind instead is Ahab raging at the blank of the whale, Lear at the inscrutable storm.

View all Revolving Floor contributions by Amanda Emerson.

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Works Cited:
Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin, 2005.
LeDoux, Joseph. The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Viking, 2002.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden.

Timothy Leary poster via Eye Of The Cyclone.
“King Lear and Fool in a Storm” via From Old Books.
Path in the woods by the author.

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5 responses to “And… blank”

  1. Robert Swan says:

    Wonderful analysis…I find myself seeking out the blank (and what I think to be my creative and more human self) more and more, essentially freedom from analytical thought, paranoia & etc. Derrida talks about the “catastrophe of memory” and the little deaths we suffer as we increasingly fail to recall the details of our own lives…. Frankly, the catastrophe of memeory (and the work of “mourning” these memory losses) may not be such a bad thing…depending, of course, on what elements of your life you would like to be free from (sadly, I'm not sure we can pick and choose). I think Derrida would enjoy your piece…as it is clearly an effort to mourn the loss of memory (and closely related personality traits)…the fear you speak of in being free, really, is the fear that we will simply fail to exist now and forever more in our own or anyone's memory…this is the catastrophe of memory for Derrida, for me not so much if I can exist in a state of freedom…whatever that might look like in real life.

    • amandaemerson says:

      Thank you very much, Bob! I am struck by your reference to freedom. I don’t think I paid much attention to how thoroughly the essay has freedom as a concern, but it makes a lot of sense now. The wonder of not-being is a fear of absence but also, of course, a fear of freedom (of losing it or having it—I am not sure which). Weirdly, I picked up Alan Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity at Borders Friday. Are you familiar with this short, 1950s work? Watts is a philosopher, so he’s more analytical, more succinct, slightly less awestruck—does less mystifying than I do—but he treats some of the same issues. He plays the keynote of freedom much more coherently. It’s a good, refreshingly easy (which is not a jab at Derrida!), but thought-provoking read. Your comments and Watts’s work called out some elements of the essay that I wasn’t seeing before.

  2. Jerry Prentice says:

    Hi Amanda
    In this short essay you put me in touch with many of the blanks in my past, most notably trauma induced (war), drug induced (LSD), and depression induced (perhaps thyroid or legal drug). It leaves me wandering and wondering. Blank times have been both joyful and devastating, in either case enlightening in the long run. For me, the ego has relinquished sovereignty grudgingly, sometimes only when temporarily obliterated.

    The essay is masterful. Thank you.


    • amandaemerson says:

      Jerry–many, many thanks. I am gratified that the essay was meaningful for you, and I am heartened by your “enlightening in the long run.” I end the essay on such a dim (or anguished) note, rejecting such returns to hope, but that may after all be a narrow rather than courageous way to conceive of these blanks. Thank you.

  3. Kim Hughes says:

    I think the thing that scares me most about death, more than anything, is knowing that *I* will cease to be. All my thoughts, all my memories, my quirks, will be gone. All my memories that make me *me*, all the experiences I've had and the way I remember them, make up who I am and how I react to things.
    Having the slate wiped clean, having all my memories gone, would be like someone else living in my body. It would be like dying, and having a fledgling person walking around in my skin, trying to learn how the world works.

    I try to imagine what it would be like to be in the same situation as your mother, and how I would feel upon coming back to myself. It is incredible that she made it back home without remembering any of it.

    Being lost in any capacity, being a blank slate, starting a new life, can be incredibly scary, but incredibly freeing. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone and just jumping in a new city, a new experience, a new life can sometimes show us who we really are. I'm moving next week, to a new place and going back to college after a very long journey. I'm ready to see who I'll be at the end of this trip.

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The Author

Amanda Emerson

Just before the bottom fell out of the economy, in August 2008, with President Obama's injunction to contribute to change ringing in her ears, Amanda Emerson resigned a tenure-track faculty appointment in the English Department at a moderate sized state university to pursue a degree in nursing. Amanda’s short-lived academic career produced a dissertation (Brown Univ, 2004) and articles on how writers of the early Republic and the nineteenth century represented the idea of equality in fiction and political rhetoric. Her work appears in differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies; Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers; and NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. As an impoverished nursing student, Amanda now survives on happy dreams of healing bodies and spirits and writing books while traveling the world. She lives in the Kansas City-metro area with her husband Oleg, a Russian emigré, with whom she is in the process of “flipping” a house—if by “flipping” one means haphazardly disassembling. She intends eventually to relocate to within smelling distance of an ocean. View all of Amanda's Revolving Floor contributions.

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