Margot’s Brain Shelf

by Kevin Ferguson

I’m currently writing about how the cinema affects memory, looking at how writers have invoked specific spaces—such as the attic, boarding school, or riverfront—to function as sites of memory in cinematic ways.

Virginia Woolf got me started. Born before motion pictures were invented, Woolf in her one piece of film criticism (“The Cinema,” 1926) expresses a skepticism towards the new art of cinema that is at odds with her later autobiographical writings about the possibilities for film technology to serve as a memory prop. For instance, in 1939’s “A Sketch of the Past,” she fantasizes that in the future “some device will be invented by which we can tap” the existence of the past. “I see it,” she imagines, “the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. [. . .] I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past.”

The device Woolf imagined is common today, and even in 1939 her “long ribbon of scenes” evoked film, even if she wasn’t aware of it. Woolf’s imagining of a “ribbon of scenes” as a utopian technology of memory overlaps with the materiality of the filmstrip. Woolf intuits there and elsewhere that memories need a “base” to rest upon, and this base can be both a concrete memento as well as a general location, such as her childhood home. For Woolf, the “ribbon of scenes” is a powerful, second space where memories can be located.

Talking about this idea and how it might relate to the “extended mind thesis” Sebastian Groes wrote about for californica, Jason pointed me to Temple Grandin, who begins her memoir, “I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.” Grandin used a metaphor of video technology to explain how her autistic mind works differently from language-based speakers. But she actually shows again how easy it is today to perceive mind and memory as movie-like. In this account, the development of cinema technology changes the mediation of memoir’s central conflict between self and world as memoirists and their readers begin to internalize cinematic conventions.

So, I’ve been thinking about these things throughout my days, and reading up on them at night, and talking about them with work friends. But I was surprised to hear my four-year-old daughter answer a question by telling me, “well, I just looked at my brain shelf.” I had asked her how she knew a particular fact (something about the weather). It was actually a disingenuous question on my part; I was really fishing for information about how her day at pre-k went. Children are reticent (or maybe just unconditioned) to give the kind of summary-of-the-day adults have over dinner, so I was playing junior lawyer and trying to get her to connect some trivia with some event from the day. I had assumed she would answer something like, “Mr. Tse taught us about clouds” or “Ms. Francis had us do an experiment with water,” but instead there was this wonderful conception of the “brain shelf” as a source of information that otherwise could not be accounted for. Was she describing something like “intuition,” or was she becoming aware of rational thinking as something that requires mental effort? (I bet a child psychologist could answer this for me.) And then: what was her mind like before she had her brain shelf?

Margot's Brain Shelf, by Margot. Ink on paper, 2014.

Margot’s Brain Shelf, by Margot. Ink on paper, 2014.


Margot:  My brain shelf tells me lots of information.

Kevin:  Like what?

Margot:  Like, um, like books tell me information that I want to know.

Kevin:  What kind of information does your brain shelf have?

Margot:  Like if you ask me what the weather is my brain shelf knows.

Kevin:  What’s your brain shelf look like?

Margot:  It looks like a rectangle.

Kevin:  Is it big?

Margot:  Yeah…a big rectangle.

Kevin:  When did you first learn about your brain shelf?

Margot:  I don’t know, but I forget. I learned it on a crazy, wacky day. *Margot talks in a goofy, deep voice, imitating her Brain Shelf*

Kevin:  Where is your brain shelf?

Margot:  In my brain.

Kevin:  Where’s that?

Margot:  Where in my brain?…In the middle of my brain.

Kevin:  Does everyone have a brain shelf, or just you?

Margot:  Everybody.

Kevin:  How do you know everyone has one?

Margot:  Because my brain shelf told me. My brain shelf can talk.

Kevin:  When is your brain shelf most talkative?

Margot:  At nighttime.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  Because it sleeps in the morning and not in the day.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  It’s nocturnal.

Kevin:  Your brain shelf’s nocturnal?

Margot:  Yeah.

Kevin:  Does it keep you up at night?

Margot:  No

Kevin:  Why not?

Margot:  Because it whispers.

Kevin:  Tell me something bad about your brain shelf.

Margot:  It never does bad stuff.

Kevin:  Only good? How come?

Margot:  It never hits me.

Kevin:  So how does it work?

Margot:  There’s a red button that you have to push, like three times.

Kevin:  No, seriously, you just made that up. Tell me how it works.

Margot:  No, I tell my brain, and my brain pushes the button. It’s sleeping in the morning so I whisper to it and I wake it up. It can also tell me math questions. In *goofy voice*: “What’s two plus two?”

Kevin:  Is your brain shelf cranky in the morning or happy?

Margot:  Happy. Because his mom always makes him dinner. And he loves it. It’s always his favorite dinner, but it’s always the saw thing.

Kevin:  What does he have to eat?

Margot:  All of his favorite stuff. Like Brussell sprouts, macaroni and cheese, and he also has chickpeas. [Margot refuses to eat the first two things]

Kevin:  Your brain shelf’s a boy?

Margot:  A girl.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  Cause it talks like a woman. It’s a woman.

Kevin:  Do you think your brain shelf is going to be any different next year?

Margot:  Yeah. Because it’s stretchy, and whenever I grow it stretches and goes. Actually, it likes to do Legos.

Kevin:  Could you name your brain shelf?

Margot:  Yeah. Dick. Sally. The Cat in the Hat. Lucia [school friend]. Lucy [cousin]. Margot. John Robert [cousin]. Baby Jack, I mean Big Jack [cousin]. Nana and Pa [grandparents]. Mimi and PopPop [grandparents]. Computer. Getting Videos Taken Away from You. [We go on a digression here because she had “videos taken away” as a punishment, but then realized she has more fun without them: “Daddy, It’s fun when I lose my videos. It’s fun when I have my videos, but it’s even funner when I get my videos canceled because I do other stuff and sometime I get to make Legos.”]

Kevin:  Anything else you want to tell me about your brain shelf.

Margot:  No. That’s it.

Kevin:  Thanks.

Margot:  You’re welcome.

* * *

Dear Kevin and Margot,

I wish I could have been there for your brain shelf conversation. I have so many questions:


This nineteenth-century engraving from an edition of Goethe’s Faust, the homunculus captures a perennial confusion about where the mind is. Is it inside the person who thinks and feels? Or outside? Or nowhere at all, as the fantastical element of the engraving might suggest?Illustration from Goethe’s ‘Faust’ depicting Mephistopheles creating a homunculus, 1854 (engraving). Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library. 

Has Margot been reading extended mind theories that suggest that some of the tools we use to think become so integral to our thinking process that they should be thought of as aspects of our minds? What does Margot think of Paracelsus’s sixteenth-century alchemy writing, in which he proposes the idea of a homunculus–a little human in the brain who controls our consciousness?

Margot seems a little impish about her brain shelf, like she knows she’s confabulating. She takes an image of a bookshelf and transports it from the external world into her brain. It seems possible to me that a four-year-old might not yet have absorbed the interiority metaphor.

For most adults in the western world, it’s almost impossible not to think of our mental states and the narrators of our consciousness as “inner” phenomena. We talk about our inner selves and interior monologues–and when we locate them this way, we mask the mystery of their origins. Many religious traditions solve this problem by locating them in a soul–usually conceived as a substance that transcends the human body but resides within it. So it’s both inside and outside. But if you don’t believe in a soul, where do you find consciousness? Woolf seems to do something similar by ascribing memory to a “ribbon of scences,” like film reel.

You should also know that while Margot is four, she’s got the personal style (and poise) of a Godard heroine. Godard, I would argue, locates consciousness outside his stylish characters’ bodies, whose nonsensical behavior seems motivated by their cars, glances, dance moves, and well-tailored clothing.







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