President Donald Trump has once again pulled off another feat of political strategery that Democrats can’t possibly match: He has created another news cycle that’s largely concerned with whether or not his brain is broken.
It’s the sort of tactical high-wire act that your average James Carville or David Axelrod couldn’t dream up in a thousand years: eleventh-dimensional chess of the highest caliber. Let’s face it, folks, if we’re all talking about the fact that Trump has bragged once again about being able to complete a cognitive function test, drawing the mockery of a Fox News host, then we are, perhaps, necessarily obligated to consider how Joe Biden can be pretty inarticulate as well. Also, we’ll forget all about the pandemic, and unemployment, and so on and so forth. That Donald Trump, he’s a master media manipulator, with tricks that will definitely never get stale.
But this news cycle has personal significance for me, beyond the pure joy of seeing the president of the United States insist to Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that the host would struggle to “answer many of the questions” on a test designed to gauge whether a person has dementia. You see, I, too, have taken the “Babe, Is Your Brain OK?” test, and unlike Trump, who claims he got “all 35” questions right (the test is scored out of 30), I missed one. Or two! I don’t remember. (Maybe I should take it again.)
This is my story. After years of trying and failing to secure an appointment with a psychiatrist in my ever-changing insurance network, I finally obtained one at the end of January 2020. The Medstar hospital system in D.C. has an outpatient psychiatry clinic in the Glover Park neighborhood, but it only accepts new patients who are also under the care of another Medstar doctor. Luckily for me, the neurologist I’ve been seeing for migraines since 2014 also works for Medstar. Waiting for a psychiatrist outside Medstar would have taken until March, but thanks to the arbitrary fact of my existing relationship with this hospital system, after just a couple weeks’ wait, I was (movie hacker voice) in.
In the spirit of oversharing that might make me unhireable to an even greater degree than my previous body of work, I feel like I need to offer some context for my less-than-perfect score. One of the problems I was seeking help for could well be described as “cognitive function.” More accurately, I was worried I was becoming dumb—sort of like Lisa Simpson when Grandpa Simpson tells her it’s her genetic destiny to become stupid, but without the reassuring ending. I was having trouble concentrating, and my memory had deteriorated from pretty good to not being able to remember things I just said. I told the psychiatrist that I felt like I could no longer think of good ideas at work (please do not email me and say you agree) and that it felt like there was just something in the way whenever I tried to think through an idea for a story.
At the time, I was constantly worried that my internet habits had impaired my ability to think and remember things: Spending hours on Twitter, training my brain to absorb and quickly purge thousands of tiny pieces of information, is probably not that healthy. I held out hope, however, that the answer would involve my medication, and that a doctor might recognize my symptoms and suggest some obvious alternative cocktail of SSRIs that would fix the problem.
Specifically, I was worried that Wellbutrin was doing something to my brain: Since I had started taking it in 2018, I noticed myself mixing up words. If I was talking about two concepts—say “pizza” and “football”—they’d be swapped by the time the sentence came out of my mouth; suddenly we were ordering a football for the pizza game. In December 2019, I did something deeply inadvisable that a lot of people inevitably do when they can’t get mental health care: I tried managing my own medication, and tapered myself off Wellbutrin slowly. This failed to fix my problem with speaking words aloud and dropped me into a deep depression to boot. I spent much of January in throes of a migraine. It was a relief to finally get in to see a doctor.
Most of my first appointment was pretty standard. I answered questions about my life, my childhood, and my migraines. It was more than two hours long. And because I mentioned this fear about my cognitive abilities, the doctor gave me the MOCA test. When she suggested it, I said, excitedly: “The one they gave Trump!” They should have committed me on the spot.
The test is, as Wallace said, not hard. You draw a clock face. You’re shown a picture of a lion and you say, “That’s a lion.” While Trump insisted that his doctors told him that “rarely does anybody do what you just did,” that makes little sense: The point of the test is not that those who get a perfect score have a perfect brain. A perfect score merely indicates that your brain is functioning within normal parameters. Rather than detecting some superior intellectual agility that might enable a person to paint like Picasso or discover the secret of cold fusion, the MOCA test attests to the possibility that you might be able to open a can of beans without hurting yourself. It confirms “mild cognitive impairment,” not very stable genius. A passing score is 26 out of 30.
I had a couple of stumbles. On one part of the test, the doctor reads a list of five words, whereupon the patient is asked to repeat them immediately and then repeat them a second time after a few minutes have passed. During my second recital, I forgot one of the words. I also got tripped up on another section where the test-taker is asked to list as many words as they can that begin with the letter F in a minute’s time. After saying a few, I found myself taking an increasingly painful amount of time to think of new words to list. I was also thrown by the fact that “France” didn’t count. I didn’t realize the MOCA test follows Scrabble rules.
Looking back, I feel like I was struggling with a form of stage fright. I can still recall feeling anxious about the test, and I remember how I questioned everything I did while I was doing it, right down to whether the minute-hand on the clock is the big one or the little one. (It’s the big one.) Perhaps I was correct that my brain wasn’t working too well at the time; it could also be the case that this extra caution was my brain properly routing its way around the anxiety I was feeling.
As I said and would hasten to emphasize before The New Republic reconsiders my employment, I did pass the test. My psychiatrist’s conclusion was that my body was under a lot of stress from persistent migraines and that I was “severely” under-medicated after ditching the Wellbutrin. As I’d hoped, she came up with the right pharmacological cocktail and while I can’t say I feel that my Internet Brain symptoms have totally subsided, I feel much more chill about them, and I do feel as if I might be able to get a perfect score if I had another go. All thanks to the magic of SSRIs, and possibly also deleting Twitter from my phone.
And yet here I am, left with the fact that I did not get a perfect score on a test that Donald Trump claims to have aced. This is a man who recently seemed to suggest that President Barack Obama deserved a share of blame for the coronavirus outbreak, despite the fact that it didn’t exist until he’d long left the White House. Prior to that, Trump suggested that we should inject coronavirus patients with bleach and that the key to lowering the rate of infection was to stop testing to see if people were infected.
It is often suggested that almost anything Trump does is part of the president’s mad genius; his ability to control a narrative and dominate a news cycle. And yet, this is a man who stared straight at an eclipse and who is obsessed with how toilets don’t have enough water in them anymore. A man who once said the phrase “local milk people.” A man who cannot get through most sentences without ad-libbing, because he can’t remember where he began. The man is, uncontroversially, dumb. And if what I’ve been told about this test is false, and it really does measure Smartitude, I might be even dumber than he is. This is an unsettling thought. One, or both, of us should possibly have our phones taken away.