I’ve been doing a lot of reading, lately. Now that I can read again — and remember what I’ve read beyond the space of a few pages — I’m just enjoying it so much. It’s awesome.
Anyway, one of the things that I keep coming across is how our brains are quite “plastic” — subject to change, based on need — and how different parts can be recruited to do the job for other parts that have been injured or damaged. Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, people believed that certain areas (and only those areas) took care of specific tasks. There was a “speech” area… “emotional arousal” area(s)… “motor control” area(s). And if they got injured, you were sh*t outa luck.
Now, of course, we know better. And we’ve found out that areas that aren’t supposed to have anything to do with speech or emotion or motor control, are actually pitching in to help out. In some cases, if a part of the brain is completely fried, other networks can jump in to take over (like the massive amount of damage done to the brain of a university professor, discussed in The Brain That Changes Itself — he re-learned how to walk and function, despite losing “all” his ability to coordinate movement, and he actually passed away from a heart attack while hiking in Peru).
So, even if there is substantial damage to a part of the brain, it still has the capacity to right itself and restore itself to functionality — some of which is about as good as before, and some of which is even better than before.
One of the things that bothers me about all the concussion discussion, these days, is that it focuses so intently on CTE and the potentially fatal results of mild traumatic brain injury. There’s a real atmosphere of critical concern — and rightly so. People suffer terribly and die miserable deaths, with their families suffering right along with them, thanks to the denial around repeat head trauma, particularly in the world of professional sports.
The thing is, CTE isn’t the only issue at stake. And while the potentially lethal effect of thousands of subconcussive and concussive hits is something to be reckoned with, all the intense & furious fear-vs-denial arguments are drowning out the rest of the conversation – about concussion and mild TBI as the rest of us experience it. And in the process, I worry that we’re not only sending the message to concussed kids and their parents that their lives could be in danger, but we’re neglecting talking about how to successfully recover from concussion / mild TBI.
After all, if we figure out how to recover from it successfully, then people might continue to bash their heads, thinking that they’ll just be able to fix them later.
In the words of that little old lady in the commercial, “That’s now how this works. That’s not how any of this works.”
There’s an awful lot of head trauma going on — there always has, and there always will be, so long as humans have heads — or we all get our consciousness transferred to robotic brains that don’t have the same organic vulnerabilities we do (that’s not something I ever want to do, but it will probably be an option, someday). Dealing with concussion / mild TBI is about more than preventing the injuries and doing immediate medical interventions. There’s a whole process involved in recovery. And a lot of that process involves reconnecting the parts of our brains and our lives that have gotten frayed or ruptured or otherwise broken.
See, the connections that get damaged are not just the ones in our brains. There’s also our social connections. And our connections with ourselves. Our brains are “central processing hubs” where information comes in, gets processed, and then directions are given for how to work with it. When our brains get injured, they don’t necessarily make the right connections — and some connections may even be lost. Our sensitivity to light and sound can change. Our coordination, which lets us interact with the physical world, can be changed. Our ability to hear or read and understand language can be changed. And our response time can be changed, as well.
It can be incredibly disorienting. And it can feel like the changes are permanent and will never get fixed. When you’re in the midst of your “acute” post-concussion phase, and everything is fuzzy and foggy and slowed-down, it’s hard to see past that initial fog bank. The thing to remember is that, with the brain — as with everything else in life — things change. Some things get better, some things get worse. The important thing is that we get involved in the change, ourselves, and do what we can to make it better — or at least more like how we want it to be.
This is not only possible, it’s probable.
We are in constant connection with the world around us — through our senses, through our interactions, through our very thoughts — and we were constantly adapting to our environment. So, to say that damage from a TBI / concussion is permanent is, well, not accurate. In fact, it’s completely INaccurate. Unless we are dead, our brains continue to change and adapt, based on what’s around us.
Our bodies don’t stop taking in sensations. Our nervous systems don’t stop transmitting stimuli to our brains. Our brains don’t stop taking in and interpreting that data. Granted, everything may work differently than before — in some cases, making us feel completely unrecognizable to ourselves, and making us behave like a different person around others. But the end of the story doesn’t come, until we draw our last breath.
As long as we’re alive, we’re connected — somehow — to life. To bring ourselves back from concussion / mild TBI, we need to foster our connections even more. And we need to come up with creative ways to do it. Because the rest of your brain is waiting for you to wake it up in new and novel ways, so it can do old (and new) things in a whole new way.
This is so, so important. We have got to keep sight of the hope and the possibility, even as the public discussion focuses on death and destruction. Yes, CTE is a real danger. Yes, repeat concussions can cause serious harm. Yes, people suffer and die from untreated TBI all the time. It’s a national issue and a national disgrace. The thing is, brain injury is not a death sentence — even repeat brain injuries, like I’ve experienced. People don’t have to stay broken after one, two (or, like me, 9+) concussions. People don’t have to accept a “new normal” of a permanently damaged life with no hope of joy left in their lives. They don’t have to stay isolated and alone, left to rot.
At the end of the day, I believe the key to overcoming TBI is connection — with others, with ourselves, with the sensations and activities of our daily lives that help re-knit the connections in our brains. There are things we can do to address our issues, things we can to do offset the initial damage that’s done. That localized damage may lasting, but it needn’t translate into permanent damage to the rest of our lives. Functionally, different parts of our systems can be trained to take on activities that some parts can’t do anymore. There’s nothing unusual or supernatural about that. It’s how we’re built. It’s how we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
What we do with that potential is up to us. What we do with our lives… that’s our choice.