"One day, in the foothills of middle age, Robert took a long hard look at himself in the mirror. The reflection sent an unequivocal message. Life was running out and he was going nowhere. He was stale: bored with his job, out of love with his wife, stifled by his family, disenchanted with himself. But what struck him much harder, gripped him and shook him to the core of his being, was the thought that at the end of this dreary line of days, there was oblivion. It was time for a change.
"That day on his way to work he stopped at the newsagents, as usual, to buy a newspaper. He paid for it but, on the way out, when the shopkeeper wasn't looking, Robert took a chocolate bar from the shelf and slipped it into his pocket. This little act of theft was curiously energizing. His senses felt stripped and raw and he ran back to his car in a whorl of elation. He drove faster than he should, but, instead of going to work, he travelled 320 miles from Yorkshire to Cornwall. By early evening, he found himself sitting on a beach, in the face of a warm sea breeze. Robert was profoundly happy.
"The sun set, it grew dark and chilly, but he stayed there all night, conceding to sleep only as the sun rose in another part of the sky...He returned home late in the day with no explanation except the truth and spent another sleepless night placating his distressed wife.
"Life reverted to routine for a couple of weeks...The next day, out of nowhere, he announces to his wife that their marriage is over and he leaves her, the house, the children, and his new guitar, never to return...Two years later, living alone in a threadbare bed-sit in the suburbs of a northern city, Robert can scarcely recall the Cornish interlude...Robert's fourth seizure happens in the middle of a supermarket and, afterwards, he's taken to hospital. The doctors...investigate with head scans and find a large mass in the orbitofrontal region of the brain. It turns out to be a meningioma. This is a tumour, intrinsically benign, which has invaded the outer coverings of the brain. It has been growing for several years. By distorting the frontal lobes of Robert's brain, it was reshaping the very person he felt himself to be. They operate. Tumour excised, Robert enquires of his nurses most days 'When are my children coming' and 'Can I go home now?' "
This is an extract from Paul Broks's brilliant and haunting book 'Into the Silent Land', and concerns a real case-study. Broks is a neuropsychologist. He points out that "some people grow old and die never knowing that for half their life or more they were harbouring a benign brain tumour. Perhaps they never know who they might have been." This is, indeed, a disturbing thought, although leaving one's job to drive down to the beach might well be considered a sign of mental health, rather than a symptom of brain cancer!
In addition, is there not a sense in which the stream of experiences to which we are subject, determines our personalities? Whilst our personalities can be changed by changing the hard-wiring of the brain, as a tumour such as Robert's does, our personalities can also be changed by our experiences. It is our experiences which partially determine the software of our brains, and the data stored within. Hence, we can ask who we might have been, if only our experiences had been different. Sadly, there is, as yet, no operation to excise tumourous parts of our memories.