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Honey, I Shrunk My Brain

Why frequent travellers are playing mind games aloft and losing their minds.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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I'D LIKE TO TELL YOU ABOUT my recent trip to Bangkok. Problem is I can't seem to remember a thing. Well, I do recall I arrived in Bangkok, got caught in traffic, checked into the Conrad, raced to an appointment, sipped some green tea and then, BAM, a four-hour gap in the cassette. That's right, fours of my life seemingly erased and no recollection of what happened and nary a convenience store video to fill in the blanks. Avid scans of World's Wildest Police Chases indicated I was not concussed by diligent cops mistaking me for Rodney King, nor was I anywhere near a transvestite with drug-laced nipples. There was nothing. Zilch.

A mickey in my drink? Not likely. So I turned to that one true authority, the Internet, and there it was - Transient Global Amnesia. This is slightly different to an Incontinent Global Transient (which describes most visitors to Bangkok). According to one medical tome, "Transient global amnesia (TGA) is characterised by an abrupt onset of both anterograde and retrograde amnesia." WOW.

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Anterograde amnesia is a frightening thing. Studies prove that 99.99 percent of the world's population has no clue as to what anterograde means. I read on. "Patients with TGA are unable to retain new information and repeatedly ask orienting questions such as 'Where am I?'" However, should you be in the habit of enquiring, "Where the heck is eye-rack?" you do NOT have TGA. Chances are you are the president of the USA.

I had not been concussed by cops mistaking me for Rodney King, nor was I anywhere near a transvestite with drug-laced nipples

TGA is hitting stressed out travellers on the road. "Precipitating factors include emotionally intense or stressful events, sexual intercourse, bathing or Valsalva's manoeuvre." Who? Briefly, Valsalva's manoeuvre means holding your breath and straining. Apparently this happens a lot in the toilet. It can kill you or cause TGA. Fortunately there is no such thing as Anterograde Valsalva.

Well, I was getting somewhere. I then keyed in the words "Where the hell am I?" This unleashed a torrent of 6,720,000 results. The first page on Google brought up a Texan blogger's diary, a T-shirt store and a white supremacist site. It would have been simpler to call my mother, and confront her with my deepest fear: "Is Michael Jackson an alien?"

Then, to ensure my research was scientific and carried comparative data, I accidentally typed in "George Bush is a ninny". This produced 908 results, I kid you not, all deeply informative. As the US president revealed in Washington on 3 October, 2001, "I am here to make an announcement that this Thursday, ticket counters and airplanes will fly out of Ronald Reagan Airport." Travellers take note. Here's another thought provoking quote: "We need to stop the exquisite sex and wholesome violence that underscore our children." I couldn't agree more.

So there I was, sipping green tea, without the foggiest about what I was doing in Bangkok and now I had to worry about whether I had had sex on the aircraft or been involved in a near-death Valsalva's manoeuvre. How on earth can you have sex in the air (or strain while holding your breath) when aircraft toilets are always occupied? It would be gratifying though to choke people to death for simply causing such long toilet queues (I-Gotta-Go manoeuvre) - but not on US-bound flights where such congregation is now disallowed. Excuse me sir, are you going to New York? "I've no idea where the heck I'm going lady. I've held my breath and strained to keep it in for 14 hours."

Females are more susceptible to memory loss due to jetlag. To find out if you are going gaga simply measure your right temporal lobe

In the mid-Eighties travellers popping Halcion suffered from short-term amnesia. Vietnamese Boat People rowed into L.A. claiming to be Swedish. Jetlag causes disorientation too. Hongkong is two-and-a-half hours from Bangkok but it can be reasonable argued that China's great entrepot is light years from Thailand.

Research has shown that chronic disturbance of bio-rhythms can actually cause the brain to shrink and impair memory. One study compared the size of the brain's temporal lobes (these deal with short-term memory) of two groups of flight attendants. "Researchers found the group which had less time between flights had smaller right temporal lobes." This group became increasingly forgetful and had difficulty concentrating. In other words, their memory had shrunk. Presumably this is why soft-focus Singapore Girls sit atop places like Ayers Rock gazing moodily into the middle distance when they should be in a soft-focus cabin performing critical inflight chores - like gazing moodily into the middle distance. The study did not include far more important research on the correlation between breast size and frequent travel.

Apparently, female travellers are more susceptible to memory loss due to jetlag. These findings can change your life. Invest in a small measuring tape. If your boss is a frequent-flier lady with normal breasts but smallish temporal lobes, this may be a good time to ask for a raise. "Oh, did I really promise to double your salary?" If she has humungous breasts and incredibly small temporal lobes, well, if no one's looking, then...

The chances of your encountering a bewildered TGA nut like me (or being one) on your next flight are about 30 in 100,000. Doctors' advice for gaga travellers is to eat more "brain foods" like salmon or boiled soybean (the latter perhaps not on locked-toilet US flights). An alternative is "neurobics" which advocates changing your normal routine (like brushing your teeth with the wrong hand) to stimulate neurons. Or you could try mind games. But, wait... where the hell am I?

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