How many times in this life have we forgotten where we put the keys, that piece of paper, that book to read, and we can not remember. We can “rack my brain” to try to remember, but, really, do we rack our brains? When I think of rack, I think of slots I can put my papers into — remember, I write, I deal with paper, I need a place to put my paper, so I think of racks. I can understand how I can “rack my brain” when I am looking for a misplaced object because I imagine my brain as having compartments where I store differing information. I must have racks (not rocks) in my head! But this is not where the term came from.
Some time ago I went to London, and while there I went to Madame Tussauds Museum. A fabulous place to visit; if you ever have the chance to go, go. In the museum there is a room of horror — a room filled with contraptions and racks that depicted how people were tortured. Freaked me out, but it was good to discover how far we have come as a civilization. (That may be questionable.) There was one rack I vividly remember — it looked like a wheel and there were places to strap the wrists and ankles to — but, where “rack my brain” originates is the racks they used to put people on to stretch their body, thereby, stretching their limbs from their sockets. OUCH!
According to James Rogers in his book “The Dictionary of Cliches”, in 1680 William Beveridge said, “They rack their brains…they hazard their lives for it.” A term was born.
So, when we rack our brains, we are stretching those neurons to remember where we put those keys, that piece of information that was so neatly tucked away in the racks of our brain. No wonder we feel drained after a session of racking our brains! For me — I am still racking my brain where I put my paper dolls when I was a child. I never could find them.