Relativity

I have my own theory of relativity, with respect to learning, and I think I can use it to explain what you need to do to move forward from a head injury.  It might take me a bit to get to my point, but if you’re interested, read on.

Here is a theory of relativity in relation to learning after brain injury, according to someone with an injured brain:

If that title makes your head spin, then you’re the right audience for today’s post.

I described the treadmill of work in my last post, that treadmill that is constantly on and really hard to step back on after an injury. Well, we all know the feeling of going to work with a bit of a cold or fever when you just have no other choice. You show up and do your best, but you really would have been more effective staying home. A few days later, you’ll start to feel like yourself again, and somehow you begin to catch up and don’t even notice that the treadmill is moving.  That’s the relative nature of work, and the normal process of recovery from being sick. No matter how much you might want it to, an injured brain doesn’t work this way. A healing brain has to figure out how to do all the things that used to get done pre-injury, by bringing in replacements for injured brain cells. Luckily, we have billions of neurons to take over for damaged ones, but all of the things that you used to do now have to be learned, just as if they are novel experiences. (As far as the replacement neurons are concerned, these are new experiences!) New connections have to be built to replace the functions of the injured neurons. Just as it took you a while to learn how to walk, talk and ride a bike, it will take you some time to learn to do what you used to do. It took me a year to get to this point in my own understanding of brain injuries. So, if you have had a head injury and you’re hanging on to the idea of feeling normal again, let that go and focus on new learning.

The secret to new learning is timing. I learned this years ago,teaching math. Anything presented either too fast or too slow makes learning more difficult. You can’t control the rate at which you learn, but you can be more effective as a learner by controlling the timing of incoming stimulus. This is where my thoughts on relativity come into play. Having a brain injury causes you to be much more aware of the rate at which things happen.  Mostly because everything happens too fast for an injured brain to process easily. The body’s hyper sensitivity can cause pain, dizziness and confusion when you’re overwhelmed by incoming information (stimuli.) These reactions are all meant to protect the brain from the onslaught of too much new learning happening all at once. So, my theory is that if you can control the timing of demands in new learning, you will allow your brain the time it takes to learn the millions of new procedures required to do all of the things you used to do.

I think relativity is just about perspective. Things that are overwhelming (or too fast for) you are just at normal speed for anyone who hasn’t had a head injury. Give a new task to someone (like learning a new language) and they too will feel overwhelmed if the information comes too fast for them to process it.  Your challenge will be in realizing how much new learning it will take for you to do the things that you learned in your past.

Controlling timing requires planning. While you’re learning how to be you again make a daily plan and stick to it. I know, it sounds tedious, but it really helps.  Planning works because it causes you to become more aware of the relative demands of any task. When you sit down and try to make a plan for your day, it makes you assess both the complexity of any task, and the length of time a task will take. It also forces you to complete one task before starting another. If you allow yourself the time to focus on one task, you won’t get as tired and you can actually learn. Don’t be surprised if you’re way off in your estimates at first. Little things like getting ready to leave the house aren’t all that little. But if you write a plan, and actually follow it, you won’t go into system overload mode nearly as easily. This is a less is more time. If you finish a task sooner than you had planned, don’t skip ahead to the next task, reward yourself with something restorative, a nice bonus activity like a walk outside with no purpose at all. Planning allows you to learn faster, you’ll have fewer mess-ups, and your head won’t hurt as much.

There will still be things you can’t control-like other people, but you can gradually increase your exposure to chaos. If you have to attend a meeting or even just a social event, give yourself more than enough time to get there and make a plan for downtime to process right afterwards. If you’re used to accomplishing a lot in a day, you have to let that expectation go for a while, and make planning and re-learning your top priorities.

I’ve written a lot today. If I were to read this myself, I wouldn’t be able to digest it all in one reading. It took me hours to write it, and I had to take several breaks. Planning so that you can control timing is a lot of work, but even if you just attempt to plan, you’ll have an easier time focusing your attention on one task at a time. You might stop bumping into things, forgetting what you were going to say, and you may even find your car keys without a panic the next time you go out. There is no surgical procedure for getting your brain to work efficiently again, no breakthrough medication, just a whole lot of healthy living and a deliberate approach to taking it one day at a time. Good luck, I’m there too and I’m happy to continue to share everything I learn. If you’re having a hard time, get help with this, and if you do nothing else to day, get outside and breathe. I’ll leave you with a view of my outside, that’s where I’m heading now.DSC_0244

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