My brain on Ovaltine®

Albert Einstein
Only two things are infinite,
the universe, and human stupidity.
And I'm not sure about the former.
— Albert Einstein
Lawrence Krakauer

We're a long way from understanding how the human brain works, although we're making progress that would have seemed unimagineable forty years ago. In the mid sixties, I was searching for a field of study in which to do research for a Ph.D. at MIT, and I talked to Professor Jerome Lettvin. In 1959, he had been the primary author of the classic paper, "What the frog's eye tells the frog's brain", which had shone a bright light on neural coding in a frog's optic nerve. He had since been considering how one might proceed from an understanding of signalling in the peripheral nerves to an understanding of the brain itself. Since this seemed to me to be an area ripe for advancement, I thought it might be a good field to work in.

The trouble was, the conclusion Lettvin had been coming to was that the task was, at the time, hopeless. He told me to read a book called "The Biology of Stentor", by Vance Tartar, Note 1 and come back if I was still interested. I found the book to be out of print, but I was nevertheless able to buy a used copy. It was a thick tome that collected everything that was known about a particular animal, the stentor. This included traits such as an ability to develop conditioned reflexes, like the salivation of Pavlov's dogs. One might expect that this would require some critical number of neurons and synapses in the animal's nervous system.

Except the Stentor had no nervous system. It had no neurons and synapses. The stentor is a single-celled animal. Lettvin's point was that if a single-celled animal could exhibit that much complexity of behavior, what hope did we have of ever understanding the human brain?

Well, he sure scared me off. I went back to the Artificial Intelligence group to work with computers. They're simple. Of course, in a sense, the Artificial Intelligence group was also trying to figure out how the brain worked, ultimately. They just thought it might be better to work from the bottom-up, instead of from the top down (so to speak).

But I still harbor a feeling that when we do figure out the human brain (if we ever do), it will prove to be simpler than we now expect, despite its vast number of neurons (about 100,000,000,000 of them). How else can I explain some of the things I remember thinking as a child?

Sticks of punkFor instance, I recall once asking my father the following question: "How can punk be sold for only a penny a stick?". "Punk" is long sticks of compressed sawdust, used as the base for incense by adding aromatic perfumes. Children used to buy it just to light one end and watch it smolder its way down to the other end. Don't ask me why - perhaps this was some sort of novelty in the fifties. Maybe we just had a lot less to do.

I don't know how old I was when I asked this question, but I was old enough to understand that the store purchased the punk sticks at a given price, and sold them at a higher price in order to make a profit. Yet it was not immediately obvious to me how they could buy them at less than one penny a stick. My father replied that they might buy the punk at half a penny a stick, to which I noted that the penny is the smallest US coin, so how can you buy something for half a penny? When he then suggested that they could buy TWO sticks for a penny, or 1,000 sticks for five dollars, the light finally dawned.

Now, perhaps I should stress here that I'm a very smart person (see my blog entry Being smart), who later went on to receive a Ph.D. in Computer Science from MIT. So the fact that I had to be specifically taught the above concept, and couldn't figure it out on my own, seems to be a rather telling commentary on the brain. Or maybe it's just my brain.

Want some more? Here's one that seems almost embarassing to admit: I recall as a child wondering how actors could play the roles of a couple in an on-stage wedding. If they went through the ritual on-stage, why didn't the actors themselves end up married to each other?

The next one requires some setup. Some of you youngsters may find the following information absolutely staggering: in my youth, there was no television. I was ten years old when we got our first TV receiver. On the other hand, radio dramas were rather important in my life. I used to listen to many of them regularly - The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and so on.

Although it would not normally be of great interest to me, I would sometimes listen to the show Pepper Young's Family, because we knew, slightly, the actor who played the title role, Mason Adams. His distinctive voice served him well in that series, and it would later be even more lucrative for him when he became the spokesman for Smuckers Preserves ("With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good"). Note 2

The malty milk flavoring product Ovaltine once sponsored the radio drama Captain Midnight, and at some point, they offered a secret decoder device that enabled their listeners to be privy to assorted coded messages that they dictated at the end of each show. Of course, I sent away for one, and upon receiving it, eagerly awaited the first secret message, sent as a string of numbers.

And I promptly ran into a problem: I couldn't write the numbers fast enough to keep up with the narrator. More specifically, I had trouble with the number five. I wrote it meticulously: a short downward bar, stopping midway down the line, and then a half circle to the right. Lift the pencil, and then add the horizontal bar at the top. And it took too long. By the time I was done with it, I had missed the next number.

I complained to my mother about this problem, and she volunteered to take down the message for me the next day, which she did. And she kept it up until I tired of the silly messages I was receiving, usually some sort of preview of the next show.

But what surprises me, thinking back, is that it never dawned on me write a shorter symbol, such as an "S", or a dash, to substitute for the number 5. My mind seemed to be hung up on the idea that if the narrator said "5", a "5" had to be exactly what I wrote, and neatly, too. Why didn't I think to write, for example, a horizontal dash at the top of the line? I could have even filled in the rest of the "5" underneath it later, if I was so obsessive as to require that the final copy be neat and complete. Yet I was somehow incapable of thinking of that simple idea at the time.

Actually, what's really surprising is that my mother didn't seem to think of that idea either. I at least had the excuse of being a child. I must have been seven or younger, because the Ovaltine decoder offer only ran through 1949. Of course, maybe she just liked the idea of helping me out by taking down my messages.

I didn't need premiums to get me to buy Ovaltine - I love the flavor of malt. According to its Wikipedia entry, Ovaltine was "originally developed in Berne, Switzerland, and marketed as Ovomaltine (from ovum, Latin for "egg", and malt, originally its main ingredients). It was a misspelling in the trademark registration that led to the name being truncated to Ovaltine in English-speaking markets." Hey, Berne! I've been there!

A stainless-steel milkshake cupWhile I'm on the subject of malt, here's another powerful recollection from my youth: when I was still attending public school in Brooklyn, New York (first or second grade, around 1948 - 1950), my mother would occasionally pick me up for lunch, and take me to a nearby delicatessen, where I loved to have a malted milk for dessert. These were blended in a large stainless-steel cup like the one on the right, and then the ice-cold, thick concoction was poured into a tall glass. The blender cup, which held more than the glass, was also served to you, with moisture condensing on the outside of the stainless steel. Thus when you finished the contents of the glass, you poured yourself a second serving. It was heaven.

One day in the first half of the fifties, I woke up sick, and had to stay home from school. I set myself up in bed, as I always had in the past, with a table by the side of the bed containing reading materials, water, and the all-important radio. Although I felt achy and feverish, I was actually looking forward to being able to spend the entire day listening to all my favorite radio shows.

And they were all gone. Television had arrived, and the radio shows had all been wiped out. I had nothing to listen to. Move the television set into my room, I hear you say. Yeah, right. It was a black-and-white vacuum-tube set, very heavy, and in fact, it was a bare chassis without a case - it was built into a wall.

Stories of my stupidity are not limited to my childhood, alas. After I married and had a family, we one day visited my sister Phyllis's family, and we all went off to a local farm to pick blueberries. Arriving at the site, we needed to drive through a gate, and I got out of the car to open it up. After the car passed through, I of course closed and latched the gate. And found myself on the outside (with everyone else in the car on the other side laughing hysterically). Of course, I had to open the gate again, walk through it, and re-lock it from the inside, where I belonged.

I don't think this was really a matter of stupidity, though. This was more like A.D.D. ("Attention Deficit Disorder"). As usual, with a non-challenging task at hand, I started thinking about something else. Who knows what - some math problem, some interesting word, I don't recall. And, not paying attention to what I was doing, I simply mechanically reversed the operation I had used to open the gate, thus closing it with me on the wrong side. I may never live that one down, as the tale has become somewhat legendary in my family.

We have enough youth,
how about a fountain of smart?
        — Author Unknown

#0038   *FAMILY1

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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted July 8, 2010, and slightly updated January 6, 2011

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

® Ovaltine is a registered trademark of Société des Produits Nestlé S.A., Vevey, Switzerland

Note 1:   The Biology of Stentor, Vance Tartar, New York, Pergammon Press (1961). Although when I went looking for it, I found it to be out of print, it now seems to be available on the web as a free download, at http://www.archive.org/details/biologyofstentor00tart.   [return to text]

Note 2:   Our connection: my mother had a close friend, from college I think, named Roberta Spitz. She later married Al Lazes, and hence became Roberta Lazes. Her sister Marilyn married a man named Herbert Abrams, who was called "Hoppy". And Hoppy's brother Mason used the stage name Mason Adams.

After concluding a phone conversation and hanging up ("ringing off", to you Brits), Roberta would almost invariably call back to add something she had forgotten to talk about. After concluding a phone call with her, my mother would wait a minute or two for the phone to ring, and then would answer it, "Hi, Roberta". This was before the days of caller-ID, so it was just a guess, but it was Roberta 99 percent of the time. To this day, if the caller-ID reveals that a family member is calling back just after having completed an earlier call, we answer the phone, "Hi, Roberta". When members of my family send an e-mail message to another family member, forget to include something, and send a follow-up message, the Subject line reads "Roberta". This is probably a greater level of immortality than I'll ever have.   [return to text]