Lately, I’ve been pondering TBI-based stupidity. You know the deal — when you do all sorts of really stupid and ill-advised things after a head injury. Things like insisting on going back in the game after a concussion and getting injured all over again. Things like taking unnecessary risks… picking fights with cops… staying up till all hours, eating junk food… saying ill-advised things to your significant other… doing dumb things that other people notice and ridicule you over… getting words and ideas all jumbled around without realizing it, and then announcing your supreme denseness to the world…
All that and more. What a great way to make yourself out to be an idiot.
But see, here’s the thing — “stupid is as stupid does” sure enough, but with TBI, stupid tends to pass. The frayed synaptic connections may not ever get put back together, as originally done, but the brain is amazingly plastic — that means, it changes and grows and molds itself around new experiences, new thoughts, new ways. The brain changes. The brain changes itself. And it changes to match the things that we really focus on. If we focus intently on being idiots, then even if we aren’t, we can subtly turn ourselves in that direction. If we focus intently on being good people who are doing our best, despite our human limitations, we can turn ourselves in a completely different direction.
When it comes to remapping the neural pathways of our brains, in many ways, the outcome is up to us. Oh, sure, we may have lasting attention and working memory deficits (I sure do), and we may have problems with balance and words and coordination (raises hand). But those things can change — and they can change much for better, if we are not totally focused on having suddenly turned into blazing idiots.
See, here’s the thing — it’s been said that “neurons that fire together wire together” and it’s very true. When we focus on certain things over and over and over again, our brains become physically habituated to paying attention to those things. We are literally creating the wiring that identifies and fixates on and acquires skill at doing those things. The first time you do anything — like riding a bike or criticizing yourself — it can be a little difficult. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You get used to it, you learn how to do it better. Your brain adjusts physically to acquire that skill. The more practice you give your brain doing those things, the better it does them — and the more it WANTS to do them. Because it likes doing what it can do well and easily.
So, you become a self-fulfilling prophecy, walking around in the world, looking for opportunities to do the things you are most comfortable doing. And if beating yourself up over being stupid is something you do well, you’re going to unconsciously look for chances to do that. Because it’s so easy. And so many other things are so very, very hard… We like easy. Our brains like easy. The seek it out, whether it’s good for us or not.
Now, I’m not saying that we intentionally mess ourselves up. This is an unconscious process that just happens naturally. It’s just how we’re built. And we have to put some effort into keeping it from happening. But we can do exactly that. And have good results.
Right after TBI, things can start to get really mucked up, and you can end up wondering WTF?! all day, every single day. Or maybe the little mess-ups come irregularly, and they catch you by surprise. Still, there’s the WTF factor. You can spend a lot of time trying to figure out why things went wrong, and try to fix those things. And then, when you can’t see the real reason for them — because your brain has been banged up and is not reasoning properly about these things, to begin with — you can end up just reaching the conclusion that you’re stupid, you’re an idiot, you’re a waste of space, and that’s that.
End of story, right?
Well, not exactly. See, if neurons that fire together wire together, then it’s just as possible for you to re-wire your brain in a positive direction. And you do that by NOT getting caught up in the stupid stuff. Some of it, even if it seems totally justified, you have to let pass.
Because if you don’t, you can get all worked up, all riled, all adrenaline-pumped, all fight-flight. And what do we know about fight-flight? It cuts down on our ability to reason in a level-headed, complex way. That is, our systems — pumped up on all the stress hormones — selectively pay attention to only part of the stimuli we’re receiving. “Non-essential” details — gray areas, nuances, subtle distinctions in ideas, all get lost along the way. Our systems are telling us they don’t matter. Only the most obvious ‘facts’ matter — and those ‘facts’ often include the belief that we are stupid, idiotic, retarded, whatever.
So, here’s the thing — if you’re going to re-wire your brain, you have to give your body the resources it needs to do this. And you do this by taming the fire-breathing dragons in your mind. You need to cut down on the stress and the anger and the anxiety and the frantic crazy over-doing of everything that’s a lot like Grendel coming out of his cave and cooking you to a crisp. You need to not turn your synapses into toast, everytime something gets messed up. ‘Cause trust me, things do get messed up a lot after TBI. You just can’t let it get to you, so that your synapses are building up big connections that spell out STUPID!.
You need to be able to rest. You need to be able to think. You need to be able to do new things — or do old things a different way. And you can’t do that, if you’re stuck in a fiery, narrow-minded loop telling yourself that you’re an idiot. You’re going to be strengthening connections in your brain that weren’t strong before, and you need to have plenty of options about what connections to strengthen. You have to get a little creative with how you live your life — find new solutions and new ways of doing things… and if you’re all wired on adrenaline, you literally don’t have access to those new neural pathways. When that happens, you’re cutting yourself and your recovery off at the knees, because your system is looking for the easiest, most basic, most obvious options available to it — usually the belief that you’re dense.
Think of it like this — you’re driving to work in the morning in rush hour traffic. All of a sudden, you come around a bend, and the morning sun hits you right in your eyes. BAM!!! You can’t focus. You’re blinded for a few moments. You know that you’re in rush hour traffic, and you don’t want to get in an accident. So, you have to slow down, take your foot off the gas, look away from the sun, and let your eyes adjust, so you can make out the movements of your fellow commuters, as well as watch out for any pedestrians or wildlife that might cross your path.
Problems that come up after TBI can be just like that morning sun — blinding and panic-inducing. And in order to get where you’re going, you have to look away from the problems, adjust your vision to other aspects of your life, and then pay close attention to what’s there, so you can get where you’re going without a lot of trouble and pain.
So, look away from the “sun” of your TBI-induced issues, and give yourself a chance to catch up with yourself. You have a lot of work to do, and you’re really best served by accessing as much of your synaptic connections as you can — not getting mired in the swamp of logistical issues.
Cut yourself a break. Everybody does stupid stuff, now and then, TBI or no. Head injury or no head injury, in the end, we’re all human. Let yourself be that — and be all of it. Give your fight-flight system a break — and watch what happens.