Not recommended, but one effective way to explore the brain’s complexity is to observe the changes which happen following a brain injury. Changes in brain functions invariably translate into changes in behaviour. At times the bigger challenge is lacking the vocabulary to make sense of the changes. What is mental flexibility?
Recently, while being assessed by an occupational therapist I was asked about my mental flexibility. Following her explanation I realized how my altered mental flexibility was impacting many different activities. I had not understood the connection between seemingly disparate activities. Why did activities that seemed unrelated present problems? This has baffled me for some time. It would be comforting and simplify things if similar compensatory strategies could be employed in these seemingly dissimilar situations.
My general nature is one of being flexible and accommodating. I am usually fine in rolling with a sudden change of plan. It keeps life interesting. I am beginning to realize that my willingness to change plans no longer matches what I am able to do. The spirit is willing but the brain won’t stand for it.
Helping a friend
I had arranged to give a friend a hand with his flooring one day. We had discussed the arrangements the day before. I had organized the tools I needed. I had an overview of the work. And I had thought through some strategies for doing the job. When I arrived the next morning he asked me to give him a hand with something totally different. Within an hour and a half I was in trouble. I was experiencing increased fatigue, I was finding it difficult to focus and my body was giving me signals that I was approaching sensory overload.
Had I gone ahead with the original plan, I would have been good for about 4 hours. Because of the sudden change in plan, my brain was still on the original track. My body meanwhile was doing something quite simple and physically quite easy. However, my brain was out of sync with my body.
Driving a car
The first few months after the accident, driving was a real challenge. I decided at one point that my reaction time wasn’t quick enough to make it safe to drive. I remember one particular trip into town. As I approached the intersection the light turned red. I saw it turn red. I knew that a red light meant stop. I knew where the brake pedal was. But it took several seconds before I realized that I needed to apply the brakes. The incident made me realize it took my brain too long to switch gears when processing real time information.
I am able to drive safely again. However, I often find myself a passenger in the car. My endurance does not allow me to drive longer trips. At other times I don’t drive because I’m dealing with other symptoms that could interfere with my driving.
Riding in a car
Being a passenger in a car presents mental flexibility challenges. The problem is drivers that have different driving habits than mine. With some drivers I get nauseous. With other drivers I develop fatigue. Getting headaches is also not uncommon.
After having driven for more than 45 years, even as a passenger I am fully aware of traffic when I am in a car. I can’t ignore the driver’s habits. I notice lane changes, the change of speed, the space between me and the vehicle ahead, traffic slow downs, merging traffic, left hand turns at intersections and other aspects of driving. Each habit that doesn’t match my habit causes mental jarring.
Did I say my driving habits are better? Unfortunately for my wife her driving habits are more courteous than mine. Often enough she accuses me of being a backseat driver.
To my defense, I’m not a backseat driver. I make driving suggestions to avoid mental fatigue. Time and again I need to decide which is the lesser of two evils, being accused of backseat driving or dealing with a buildup of mental fatigue. Even deciding that is difficult because my ability to problem solve has also been compromised.
As tough as it is on the driver, my backseat driving should not be taken as a judgement of their driving competence. It is a commentary on my ability to cope. I see myself as the navigator riding shotgun.Somehow that defense doesn’t get much traction with Jane. But it’s actually me navigating my own mental fatigue.
Things have been improving. I don’t think it is Jane’s driving habits. (Why would she be taking notes on my backseat driving commentary?) My mental flexibility might be improving a bit. I think most of my improvement is adjusting to her driving habits. My brain is being reprogrammed.
Working with an Itinerary
Recently Jane and I made a trip to London. That’s a trip of about 3 hours. Since my daughter is aware of my mental flexibility challenge she sent us an itinerary for the three days we would be there. She described where we would be sleeping. She explained what part of the packing she wanted me to do for their up-coming move. She gave a breakfast and supper menu for each day. It was more than I needed but the thought was much appreciated.
Despite the advanced planning, which was much appreciated, the time visiting and the couple days after returning home were a challenge. Being in a new location for a few days means the brain is working overtime because it cannot rely on familiar routines. (More on that another time.)
Playing Snakes & Ladders
A new challenge presents itself when I play Snakes & Ladders with my grandson. After finishing a game he will want to switch each player’s colour as a four year old is wont to do. It’s not easy talking a four year old out of an idea. Now I’m in a double conundrum. Either go along with the colour change at the risk of added fatigue or use my problem solving skills which have been compromised. I need to find some novel reason that appeals to a four year old that it’s better to keep the same colours. Appealing to his sense of humour is the best strategy.
Dealing with mental flexibility is like driving down a road that’s as straight as an arrow. When the road suddenly makes a turn I keep going, hitting the gravel, going through the ditch and possibly into a rough field. Needless to say, that is hard on the car. Living like that is hardest on those closest to me. It requires them to be more flexible, compensating for adjustments I can’t make. Having a label is both reassuring and makes the experiences seem less problematic. It also helps when sharing with others.
The ability to be mentally flexible is just one of many fascinating functions which the brain regularly performs, seemingly effortlessly. There are so many other subconscious, involuntary vital functions that the brain performs continuously. When the brain functions according to its design, the subconscious functions don’t need to communicate with the conscious decisions a person makes. The subconscious functions simply manage to keep everything running smoothly.
It’s amazing that our brains don’t run into hiccoughs on a regular basis. No regular night time updates needed to address faulty functions that were overlooked in the original design.
The conundrum of dealing with a brain injury is that there is no backup system that can step in to make sense of what is not working properly. It’s as effective as lifting yourself up by your bootstraps. That is why support from family members and the community I live in make a big difference.