There are a few things that I had to figure out in order to interpret the bizarre world of BIs (brain injuries). I’m going to try and sum them up in two blogs.
The focus of this blog is the discovery that:
Emotions and thoughts make up only a tiny part of what the brain is and does.
Up until I got brain damage I thought I had a clear idea of what my brain was. My brain was the thoughts that I had, the emotions that I felt and the copious amount of daydreaming that I did. I was aware of other stuff going on that I had no control over – my dreams for example – but I saw those as small blips in an otherwise logical organ over which I had fairly good control.
When I got the BI I realised (slowly) that my emotions and thoughts were a tiny, and largely powerless, part of an organ that was extremely busy doing lots of things that I knew nothing about.
Some neuroscientists describe the conscious part of the brain (the thoughts and emotions, the ME part of the brain) as being like the CEO of an large corporation. As in, it thinks it has complete control, but for the most part doesn’t know about what’s going on in the rest of the brain. The CEO doesn’t know how to operate machinery on the factory floor for example, and doesn’t read all the emails sent. Most of the actual decisions happen without the CEO’s knowledge. So that’s us, we think we’re in control because we make a few executive decisions, and strut about looking important at meetings, but our sense of total awareness and control is largely illusion.
Some things that helped me realise that what I thought of as my brain was not my brain (some of these things due to PTSD, some due to BI, some I don’t know, it was all weird):
- My emotions no longer bore any relation to what was happening, even to what I felt. Emotions happened to me, like a freak storm might happen to me. Panic attacks, mood swings (including intense rage), anxiety attacks and phobias would turn up out of nowhere and without seeming to have any specific triggers. They could all vanish as quickly too
- I started developing bizarre paranoid delusions – that I was dead, that people from the future were following me etc. When I worked out these may not be truths, I tried to trace their origin back, and found lots of faulty wiring in my head. I realised that my brain was taking small, real events and constructing complicated and nonsensical interpretations of them, leading to intensely held beliefs. I was not consciously aware of this, until I had spent hours figuring it out; I had simply known that people from the future had put cameras in my bedroom in order to watch me.
- For about a year, whenever I tried to explain something, the words wouldn’t be there, especially nouns. Missing nouns makes communication tricky, I would say things like, “Please could you pass the thing? You know the thing, on the thing, next to the thing, with the thing that looks like a thing.”
- I would suddenly lose abilities that I took for granted – eg being able to recognise faces or smells. They would often return again later.
- I no longer felt like I was myself, but couldn’t really work out why. My memories were there, but I didn’t feel attached to them anymore. I didn’t know how to act like me anymore. And mostly, I felt like an alien inside my head, the texture was wrong, the feelings were wrong. It was someone else’s head.
I came to realise the following (more on all of these in future blogs):
- Emotions mostly follow set routines that are automatic and worked out in childhood. They are a little like programs on a computer that are always running in the background. We all feel that our emotions are automatic because they are a sensible response to a situation, but we each have different routines. For example, my instant, emotional reaction to realising someone is lying to me, is to get angry and confrontational, and that feels like a normal reaction, but other people might react by feeling guilt or doubt. BI and PTSD interfere with these routines, either with extreme or with blank emotions – these too feel completely normal and ‘right’ at the time.
- Our brains sort through information collected during the day/week/lifetime, connecting pieces of information (from life, TV, games, daydreams etc) to other pieces of information, making sense of it. It’s happening all the time, but we don’t know about it. In order to do this the brain needs to scan the data, mix it up and play with it a bit to see where it fits – I believe this is what dreams are, and also explains why inspiration suddenly happens when we are concentrating on something else. Trauma can cause the cataloguing to get stuck on a loop, as the brain fails to move on from the event.
- All images and sounds have to be processed by various different parts of the brain in order to be understood, this is different to the cataloguing process, it is instantaneous and enables us to see, hear and understand. Anything you see when you open your eyes is composed of complex information: colour, depth perception, texture are the more obvious details, but there are many more. For example, when you look at a cat, you are aware of fluff and whiskers, but you are also aware of whether you know the cat, whether you like it, whether you need to get it dinner. All of this is information that must be processed so quickly that you don’t notice any time between seeing it and knowing what it is. Any point in this process can get corrupted, either by emotion or damage, leading to the wrong information reaching our awareness.
- Memory is complicated, it is not stored in just one part of the brain and there are many different types of memory. Understanding and communicating language is so complex, using a number of different types of memory, that many different things can go wrong and it is possible to lose a small detail of language, while the rest remains intact.
- Who we are is not fixed. We are all changing slightly all the time, depending on mood, events, hormones, time etc. However, the sense of ME, the belief that I AM is very strong, it takes something drastic like BI, mental illness or drugs to shift it. Once shifted, the feeling is so unfamiliar that it can be difficult to process.
Important Note: something I’ve become aware of since I started writing about this, some of it comes across as quite extreme. I believe any illness can seem that way when reduced to the most dramatic events, the actual reality tends to be quite mundane. Most importantly, my life during these years was not all terrible, I still experienced joy, love and laughter. In fact, since many of the symptoms were kind of ridiculous in nature, I (and people close to me) laughed at them a lot.