The black hole where my brain used to be

At exactly 5:15pm, Japan time, on Friday 9th March 2018, an unknown cosmic event zapped my brain and erased a chunk of my memory. I forgot my PIN number.

I know exactly where I was at the time. I was standing in front of an ATM in the basement of a shopping complex in Tokyo, where I had gone on my usual Friday evening journey to meet my wife.

On that Friday I arrived early, so I decided to head up to the bookshop at the top of the building. Having gotten there, I realized I didn’t have enough money to actually buy any books, so I looked for an ATM. The building map told me there was one in the supermarket on the basement floor, so down I went again.

I walked up to the ATM, punched the withdrawal key, slotted in my card, and confidently began to type in the number I’d typed in hundreds of times before over the past ten years.

02, I typed, and then I stopped short. Something skittered away like a neuron-agitated neutrino. I could not for the life of me remember the other two digits.

Now, before you start writing this down, it turns out the problem was a psychological one. “02” is wrong. My pin number does not start with “02.” I had begun confidently with entirely the wrong set of numbers. My brain had gone half way along its erroneous journey and then my imagination failed. I couldn’t complete the sequence because the sequence was wrong.

But in the midst of this, whatever small and precise corner of my brain had stored my real PIN number blinked out for good like an expiring filament light bulb. I could not for the life of me remember what my actual number was.

Gone. Completely gone. A number that was so commonplace, so everyday, that I had used it literally unthinkingly for that last decade. A number that was engraved so indelibly in my brain that I never had to worry about it. Slot in card, punch in PIN. No cognitive engagement at all.

I drifted across the supermarket like a man who’d just survived a class 7 earthquake. A man in shock. I ended up sitting on a set of empty stairs gazing into this hole in my head where I used to have the most important four digits in my life.

When I finally arrived at our meeting place, the first thing my wife said was that I needed to get my head checked for Alzheimer’s. Both my wife and my son still look curiously at me, as if I’m suddenly going to start squirting ketchup up my nose.

My mind played tricks on me all the following weekend. I discovered that I could remember every number I’d ever known.

All the PIN numbers for all the cards I’d ever owned back in England. All the convoluted chains of numbers I’d needed once upon a time as access codes or security codes, like those 3 digits on the back of credit cards. The post codes of everywhere I’d ever lived.

I even started remembering the phone numbers of girlfriends I’d had in high school, numbers I could not normally have recalled under penalty of torture.

I remembered my British National Health number, my passport number, the number of some old health insurance policy I’d once held. I remembered impossibly obscure numbers from long ago and far away.

All those lost numbers were squirreled away in the crevices of my brain, but not a number I’d used hundreds of times over the past ten years. That was gone for good.

Instead, other numbers rushed in to fill its place. Heading home on Friday night, I suddenly decided I knew the number was 2163. I kicked myself. Of course it was. I detoured to an ATM and punched it in.

It wasn’t 2163.

On Saturday, other numbers presented themselves to me as absolute certainties. I knew for sure I was right this time. The correct number was 0162. The correct number was 0612. I would stake my life on it.

At one point, deep into the dregs of Saturday night, I became absolutely convinced that my PIN number had five digits, not four. I could have sworn on my life that it did.

What you’re supposed to do when you forget your PIN number is blank your mind and visualize the movements of your fingers on the keys.

Well, I could blank my mind for sure. But every movement of my fingers seemed right to me. And for good reason: most ATMs in Japan have touchscreens, and even though Japan is amazingly safe, the Japanese are scared of somebody watching them plug in their PIN. So the virtual keypad on the touchscreen is rearranged every time.

One time the 1 is on the top left of the grid. Next time it’s on the bottom right. You simply cannot remember the number by the virtual movements of your fingers.

But you do, I discovered, know instinctively when it’s wrong. When typing in my number at the ATM, I would get two or three digits in and know that my fingers weren’t moving in the right way. Something survived, deep in the cauterized ruins of that missing memory cell.

But by the time I’d come to that conclusion it was too late: the computer accepts your PIN the moment you type in the fourth digit. You don’t have to hit a fifth CONFIRM button. So every wrong number is a wrong number the moment you make it.

In the UK you get three goes at the number per day. On the third wrong number, the machine locks up and retains your card. It’s not quite like that in Japan. In Japan you get 6 attempts, period. After the 6th wrong entry, you get the card back, but it no longer works.

By Sunday I had only three attempts left. It was brain versus machine, and I was going to win.

On Sunday I got a piece of paper and listed all the numbers from 0 to 9. I decided that the PIN definitely included one or more of the following: 0, 1, 2, 3, and 6. It definitely did not include 4, 5, 7, 8, or 9. Swear to god. There was no way I could imagine punching in one of those.

And it did not have any double numbers. No 11. No 22. Definitely not.

So I started compiling lists of four-digit numbers with no duplicates containing only 0, 1, 2, 3, and 6. Maybe it was 6213. Maybe it was 6312. They all sounded right.

I went to an ATM and punched in the one that I had been most certain about. Wrong. Then I punched in the backup. Wrong again.

One chance left.

I spent the rest of the day pulling out all my paperwork, sifting through reams of old papers of every kind. I had vast amounts of old, obsolete, trivial pieces of paper. I did not have anything that told me my PIN number.

Of course not. I’m a good banker: I do what my bank says. I remember my PIN, I throw away the notification slip, and I never, ever, ever, write it down.

I went through my computer files, all that detritus of usernames and passwords and access codes you collect as a person with an online life. My PIN number was not among them.

I came to the conclusion that literally nowhere in my life did I have a record of this one vital number. Everything else. But not this.

I woke up with a big smile on my face in the middle of Sunday night. Of course. It was a flash of glorious intuition. My PIN was 2163.

On Monday morning I came to the conclusion that my PIN number had a 4 in it.

Of course it had a 4 in it. The correct number was 2164. Duh. All that worry over the weekend, and it was staring me in the face.

I went to the ATM on Monday morning and I typed in 2164. Wrong.

And that was the end: my sixth attempt. I got no more. So I would have no choice but to present myself and my useless inferior faulty foreigner’s brain to the bank and beg its forgiveness while humbly chewing the well-vacuumed carpet.

Hit me, hit me, I would beg, with your powder dye-filled baseballs.

I armed myself for a scolding and set off to the bank. I presented myself to the girl in one of the consultation booths and I prepared for belittlement.

“I’ve forgotten my PIN number,” I told her.

“No problem,” she said. She handed me a form. “Fill this in. Circle here and here. Name here. Address here. Stamp your hanko here. And I need proof of who you are.”

I passed over my Permanent Resident card. “And you’ll mail me the PIN?”

“No,” she said. “I’ll tell you here and now.”

I filled in the form. She did whatever computer work clerks do to unlock my card. Then she took out a little scrap of a Post-it Note and she wrote four numbers on it. She turned it so I could see it.

“This is your number,” she said.

I had never seen that number before. Honestly. I swear it. The number was completely alien to me — alien to anything that was in my memory, and unlike any number I’d been playing with all weekend.

I was shocked, again. Staggered, again. I gaped at her.

“Go and try it,” she said, crumpling up the piece of Post-it Note.

I stumbled over to the rank of ATM machines. I plugged in the alien numbers and they worked. They were my numbers. My familiar, hundreds-of-times-over-ten-years numbers. And yet I could swear I had never seen them before.

What is this brain thing? When a memory pops off, that’s the end of it. All the bits around it close in to obscure the gap, like a blind spot in your eyes. They tell you lies with absolute certainty. Because when you’re shown the thing that is missing, it isn’t anything like the gap it left.

And coming to terms with this new alien number in my life is a hell of a wrench. It’s like waking up and finding your wife is a stranger. It’s the realization that everything you’ve got stored in your head might be false, and that you don’t really know anything at all.


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