TBI: Many commonalities, some issues are most common
By John Hatten, TBI Coach & Counselor, Survivor of TBI
Some types of problems with TBI are common because many areas of the brain are ‘hard-wired’, so if that area Is commonly damaged by an injury, the functions that the area controls will be affected. For example, visual images are processed primarily in the occipital lobe (at the back of the brain), so damage to either or both occipital lobes will affect your vision. But even there, some parts of vision are processed in other areas. My left occipital lobe doesn’t work: this is where some of my brain damage is – it shows up black on a PET scan (no activity), so I don’t see out my right side. But once I ‘felt’ something moving towards me on my right: I turned and looked: sure enough, a car was coming fast at me (luckily the car was braking). What happened is that I ‘saw’ the car (I believe it was really the movement I sensed) using other ‘vision centers’ besides that left occipital lobe. These similarities in function due to the structure of the brain and injury are good for our recovery because, if every TBI was completely unique, figuring ways to help us would be impossible. Keeping our focus/attention on something is also a problem: I still have problems with this: thoughts jump out of my consciousness as fast as they came in. It’s much better now, and it’s continuing to improve, but it’s still a problem for me now and probably in the future.
Now a great question everybody wants to know is, How do I get better? More importantly, what can you do to help yourself get better faster and more completely. The first is working at it. Consistent and sustained effort to ‘exercise’ our brains will reap benefits. We have to learn new ways to think: for example, we need to actively focus on something to ‘force’ it into our memories. Most often the connection between very short term and short term memory is disrupted, so that putting an event or a fact into our short term memory doesn’t come naturally as it did before. We need to consciously focus on something to get it to make that jump into the short term memory ‘banks’. This requires considerable mental energy and is not easy, especially when we have to do it with everything we want to remember later. But it can be done (and it does get easier with practice). Putting out this energy is, I believe, preferable to just sitting back and not improving.
‘Memory’ is a very common complaint. We just can’t seem to keep things in our brain. I put the word memory in quotes because the problem isn’t really memory. Yes, believe it or not, our memories are just fine (except maybe around the time of the injury). I’ll bet that your memory of your early years isn’t changed much. That is called Long-Term Memory, and it usually stays intact. But our brains have two other kinds of memory: Immediate Memory (what was the last sentence you read?) and Short-Term Memory (what happened yesterday or last year?). Our problems seem to be with the connection between Immediate Memory and Short-Term Memory: there’s some connection that usually happens in our brains that is more difficult after TBI.
That was the bad news: The good news is that this can be improved and “worked around.” This is because, despite what I heard after my TBI and what you have possibly heard as well, our brains can and do recover. I’ll repeat my earlier statement: we not only improve, we improve throughout our life. I’m nearly 38 years post-TBI, and I find that I’m still improving. I may not be physically recovering, but I’m increasing my ability to organize my life and reach my goals.
And it’s the same for you! If you decide to work hard on your recovery, use the tools that are now available (more on this in another blog, stay tuned!)