Being Brainy

I have spent a lot of time over the last year or so contemplating brains. There is something very circular in using the organ that creates thoughts to have thoughts about brains. Just think: these command centres of ours are in our heads, getting feedback from and sending messages to all the trillions of cells that make up our bodies. Moment to moment, our brains are processing information, making sense of our world, making judgements about everything we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. This is malodorous, this is beautiful, this taste is gag-worthy, this song thrills the very essence of me. The judgements we make are completely different from those that someone else makes. Our brains are all incredible, and incredibly unique.

This uniqueness gives us our gifts: one person has an excellent memory, another a true gift as a painter, another is a violin prodigy, another can tell a hilarious joke. You may be saying to yourself, I seem to have been overlooked in the gifted department. Yeah, well. Most of us have. Most of us will not be winning Olympic medals, directing Oscar-nominated films or hatching plots for world domination.  We are just normal folk, going about the daily business of our lives and largely ignoring our brains.

But if something should go wrong in the command centre – that’s when we suddenly pay attention. Our brains are so fragile. We are so vulnerable to head injury, strokes, chemicals, tumours. When I suspected, pre-diagnosis, in a very deep-rooted place, that something terrible was the cause of Gavin’s illness, the alarm bells that went off in my own system sent me into a panic. I have made a certain peace now with the fact that Bean has had a tumour. In the early days though, it was the fear of the unknown that ruled me. How would he fare post-op? Would he speak to us? Would he ever be the same? Would his chemo treatment have irreversible effects on cognition? The stats and information that we found were not cheering. In fact, they were downright dire. The medical team prepared us for the worst with pessimistic efficiency.

It would have been very helpful for me if, in those early days, there had been someone who had given me some hope for Gavin’s full recovery. Someone to help me understand just how adaptive and malleable the brain is. Oddly enough, the only person who gave me that hope was a reiki practitioner named Claudia, who urged me to consistently believe in Gavin’s complete wellness. I now believe, as do many in the medical community, in the neuroplasticity of the brain. This means that your neurons are not hard-wired for life. Our brains have an immense capacity to grow and evolve, even into old age. But like any other part of the body, if you want to strengthen your brain, you have to work at it.

I have been so personally inspired by a book called My Stroke of Insight by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. It tells of her long and successful struggle to recover the full function of her brain after a massive stroke that left her without the ability to speak, understand speech, read and walk. Through enormous effort and perseverance, and with the support of family and friends, she eventually made a complete recovery, although it took many years. She tells her story simply and without self-pity, as the experience revealed to her the fundamental natures of the hemispheres of our brains and left her with a lasting peace and feeling of connectivity. (Please watch Jill’s TED talk, it cannot fail to move you.) The book also details the best method of helping someone who has suffered a brain injury, it’s invaluable reading for the families of post-op or post-stroke patients.

Now. With our Bean, we were told that Gavin would most likely have learning disabilities, the severity of which were impossible to predict. The numbers and data we were given were enough to make Craig and I break down on many occasions, as we grieved what we thought had been lost. I feel I should mention that both my husband and I were smarty-pants kids in school who always did pretty well without making a massive effort. I am actually a bit dim but smart enough to hide my (math) deficiencies from the world.  I realize now, of course, that if Gavin should acquire learning disabilities, our world will not come crashing down around us. We have amazing resources at our fingertips in Toronto, and we as a family have worked hard with him every day to keep him on track and at the same level as his peers.

At the moment, we have no reason to be concerned about Gav’s cognitive development, but we are very watchful.  He can count, (except the number 15 for some reason) can identify all the letters of the alphabet and is learning to read. He has a vivid imagination and inner life. (All those hours of creative role-play in isolation, thanks to Bubby.) He loves books, painting and drawing, cooking and fixing things with tools. He is a very thoughtful and observant kid. Not much gets past him. Our work for his little brain is to help him make some more physical connections. He is much sturdier and more agile than he was after his most recent surgery in June, but he still needs to work hard, and needs constant encouragement to do so.

Further reading and resources:

The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge – The organization founded by Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who discovered methods to overcome her own profound learning disabilities.



5 Responses to “Being Brainy”

  1. Aunt Karen says:

    Super article Erica. You should publish these somewhere else. Ever contemplated a book? (I know…where would you get the time with such an active little boy..maybe someday) Gavin is only 3 and I’m amazed at all the things he can do. Love you.

  2. Anonymous says:

    such a thoughtful post .. really insightful, and so beautifully written! though i do beg to differ with your assessment of yourself as being a bit dim!! If Gavin’s doing his alphabet & can count that well he’s ahead of most 3 year olds I know … not that I’m comparing or anything 😉

  3. Meaghan Roche says:

    I’ve just caught up on all your recent blogs and have really enjoyed reading them. I loved the blog about your camping trip and the great photos. It looks like you had a really nice time.

    I agree with you. The brain is absolutely incredible. I read “The Brain That Changes Itself” too when Gavin was first undergoing treatment. It really gave me confidence to believe he could fully recover. I’ll add “My Stroke of Insight” to my t0-read list!

    I also believe in the power of positive thinking in assisting in recovery. To that end, you and Craig deserve a lot of credit for being positive throughout Gavin’s treatment. I believe that in itself has greatly assisted his recovery.

  4. Mette says:

    Dr. Taylor’s TED talk is sooo inspiring – I saw it quite a while ago when Zoe was still essentially non-verbal (her tumor was on the left side/language area). It made me cry – not from sadness, but from relief at having some insight into what Zoe’s inner world might be like.

    I can attest to the neuroplasticity thing. Though this isn’t the case for every patient, it is the case for many, but the timeline is loooong and the changes so incremental that sometimes you can’t tell how much progress someone has made until years have passed.

    Our Zoe is changing all the time. And she has this information-processing delay where it’s almost like you can SEE the re-wiring happening. It’s incredible, and we’re so grateful.

  5. Kelly says:

    Great post Erica! What an unexpected education you’ve had this past year and a bit. The brain is amazing and I do agree with Aunt Karen – your writing is great!! K xx

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