Interview: Davis Slater’s Obsession

Editor Matty Byloos, Interview, April 5th, 2016

"...its underlying biology that informs my experience of my brain."

davis slater's obsession with cognition NAILED Magazine's obsession column


NAILED MAGAZINE: Is there something you are obsessed with that you get looped into and stuck on? How did you come to develop this obsession?

DAVIS SLATER: For weeks after my already somewhat threadbare brain suffered a concussion, simple sequences eluded me. I might find myself at the sink, water running, puzzling about how I was supposed to combine the water, my hands, the soap, and the towel. Hands on water; soap on towel? Soap on water? Have I already washed my hands, so I should use the towel to stop the water? Turn off the soap? It was, for me, the second great absence of basic cognition in my adult life, and, like the first, it absolutely shattered me.

While the miracle of neuroplasticity stitched my how-to-wash-my-hands skills back together, some of my higher functions took the opportunity to catastrophize. “You’re done, Dave. You’ve missed every opportunity you had to use your mind. You’re going to live out your life with caretakers you won’t recognize from one day to the next, staring into running sinks, reading Page 1 of some book over and over because you can’t figure out who’s onstage and who’s talking.” The worst, among these thoughts: “Forget writing. You won’t even be able to form sentences, let alone worlds.”

But I had hope, mostly because of the first great absence of basic cognition, decades earlier, when scars on and around my neurons added random delays to some of the words I thought or spoke. I would fight my brain’s stubbornness to deliver the right word, jumping instead on whatever word I could find. “The bulb’s burned out in the radio. No, the Frigidaire. No, the door opens, the light… fridge.” As I struggled, I could feel my brain working, hitting a neural roadblock on this association and quickly trying related ones instead. I might get the spelling of the word, a rhyme, or the place I learned a word instead of the word itself. It’s in this song. It’s in that book. That one woman said it when she was crying – or was it her name?

As the sclera receded over time and my arguably normal cognition returned, I decided I had to find out what was going on between my ears. I read. I watched documentaries. I listened to lectures by noted neurologists. I obsessed. I forgot much of what I learned, multiple sclerosis eating my memories with apparent glee, but I kept enough to understand a few important things about cognition and its underlying biology that informs my experience of my brain.

First, and most hope-inducing, we’re plastic to an unbelievable degree. Some brains have rewired themselves into more or less fully functioning wholes after severe injuries, birth defects, or even surgeries that removed entire hemispheres. So even if it seems like the end of the world, I try to remember that I’m working with the best self-healing technology this side of Terminator 2.

Also, “don’t believe everything that you think” isn’t just a hippie bumper sticker. Our conscious plans are often at odds with our brains’, and you can just guess who wins that battle. Many of our decisions and actions are based on faulty or counterproductive justifications, often the products of the brain’s compulsions to save energy and keep itself alive. I try to have apologies and course-corrections handy.

And knowing about your mind’s architecture powers empathy, patience, and perspective to a degree I didn’t expect. For example, when someone promotes what I see as a blatantly dishonest, manipulative political meme, I am much less likely to dismiss them as a kook or a troll. We’re all working with crappy software on ancient hardware, so sometimes, through no fault of our own, we’re going to land on “Buttle” instead of “Tuttle.”

I continue to study somewhat obsessively, despite the growing paradox that the more I know, the more I know I can’t know much. And I continue to be hopeful. A brain is very good at resilience; sometimes we just need to stare into the water for a while and wait it out.

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Header image courtesy of Adam Martinakis. To view a gallery of his 3D renderings on NAILED, go here.

writer davis slaterDavis Slater’s fiction has appeared in The Masters Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Gravity of the Thing, and elsewhere. His story “Know My Name” appeared in NAILED.


Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).