Two days ago I was swimming backstroke with fins and banged my head against the side of the pool quite hard. I saw the backstroke flags which signified the end of the pool, but somehow thought that it was the penultimate set of flags and not the final set (the pool was configured long course) so kept going. I was swimming 50 meter repeats in about 32 seconds, which means I was traveling at slightly less than four miles an hour. That may not sound fast, but that pool wall brought me to a dead halt, and the lifeguards could hear the crack from the other side of the pool.
My first thought, as always when such occurs, was: Goddamn it, I just lost another couple IQ points. I felt quite stupid afterward, both for the dumb mistake and also at the thought of those lost IQ points.
But is that how it works? Boxers who receive repeated blows to the head have long been known to become punch drunk, i.e., suffer brain damage. Muhammad Ali is Exhibit A for that phenomenon. As a young man he was mentally quick and at times even witty, but by age 42 he was slurring his words and was obviously no longer all there. I can't compare my single 4 mph collision with the best that Ernie Shavers, Joe Frazier, and Ken Norton each had to offer over the course of 15 rounds. But it was enough to make me worry.
Then I thought of people who survive auto accidents and survive. Some of these people didn't wear seat belts and hit their heads against the steering wheel or windshield at, say, 30 mph. What is the long term effect on their brains? Is it possible that a one time hit causes damage, but that it's so minor that nobody (including the person who got banged up) notices? If you lost, say, two points of IQ, or the functional equivalent, would you notice? How?
Then I thought of Jon Corzine, my former boss's boss's boss at Goldman Sachs. While Governor of New Jersey, he got into an accident while his SUV was traveling at 90 mph, and he wasn't wearing a seat belt. Did he suffer brain damage? He's now working again at a financial firm, and I haven't heard anybody say that he's not as smart as before. But if he lost a few points, would anybody notice?
Who would be able to tell the difference if someone was just slowing down a bit because of age or because he had gotten knocked in the head? And how much of "aging" is actually caused by things like knocks in the head?
I've been monitoring myself fairly closely for the past two days. Yesterday I beat my daughter at chess, though just barely. And this morning I did the crossword in the usual time. So far so good. But neither of those prove that there wasn't some minor diminution in function.
Also, a knock to the head hurts, but is the actual shock to the brain any greater than, say, when you jump down from a height of four feet and land on your feet? When you do that, you feel the impact with your feet and legs as opposed to the top of your skull, but is there any less squishing of brain against skull wall?
One would think that evolution adapted us to accommodate to a certain amount of impact without any measurable brain trauma. A caveman lifestyle must have necessitated a fair amount of getting banged up (against cave walls if nothing else).
I guess I'll never really know if any damage was done.
Those of you who find my opinions too extreme can hope the impact knocked some sense into me.
Just don't get your hopes too high.