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The Brain

I worked hard at gymnastics as a kid, and could barely lift myself up onto the low bar, or walk across the high balance beam. I practiced all the time, but I could never do a back walkover, or hold a handstand for the requisite ten seconds. My body is not smart in that way. My body feels like a group of people who are shouting to each other over mountaintops miles apart. It’s as if the communication system between my various body parts is crunchy and static filled, instead of clear and smooth.

Cricket, on other hand, is an athlete. If she were human instead of canine, gymnastics coaches would be clamoring for her. She’s compact (aka small), and she can run fast and jump high and stretch into unreasonable positions, just like a world class gymnast. I would not send her into rhythmic gymnastics (with the ribbon, and the ball, and the hoop, etc.), because she cannot be trusted with toys, but artistic gymnastics, especially floor work, would be ideal. Butterfly would love to run around the edges of the mat, ready with a bowl of water, or some paw chalk, when her sister needed it.

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Cricket can fly!

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No, really. Butterfly is my witness.

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Butterfly has to work on her flexibility to keep up with Cricket.

The lack of clear communication in my body has always disappointed me. I am in awe of dancers who can speak, and sing (!), with their bodies, never needing words to tell a story. I feel almost mute, physically, and it really bothers me.

My social work internship for next year will be with traumatic brain injury patients. Some will have motor difficulties, speech and reading difficulties, and pain, but all will have some kind of dysfunction in the connections in their brains. Even if every distinct brain region is working fine, the communication between the areas will be muddled in one way or another, and I think that being able to see the varieties of this will be good for me. I have never been diagnosed with a TBI, even a mild one, but while the brain can be shaken up physically, it can also be shaken up emotionally, with similar results.

I took a class called Brain and Behavior a few years ago and was fascinated by the idea that you could identify specific brain areas where certain types of information are processed. There is a biological basis for the things we consider ephemeral and wispy, like emotions, and knowing more about the brain gives more weight to all of those things people have pooh poohed for years as silly and unprovable. Studying the impact of brain injuries on different areas of the brain helps us understand how much who we are, and how we behave, is physiologically caused.

The work I will, eventually, be doing at my internship, comes after the physical therapists, and occupational therapists, and speech therapists have done as much as they can to stabilize the TBI patients, but I will get a chance to observe their work, and I’m very interested in seeing the different methods people have come up with to try and retrain our bodies and brains. With one kind of injury, practicing speech patterns and walking skills can really bring you back up to close to normal, but with another injury, no matter how hard you practice, the brain connections just aren’t there and can’t retain the information. There’s some relief in the idea that you could know which goals are reachable with hard work, and which ones are just not possible.

I can watch Cricket and Butterfly walking next to one another and see clearly how their different physiques control and limit how they walk. Butterfly will never be as flexible as Cricket is, because her rib cage is too big and her legs are too short. And Cricket will never “walk like a girl” because her hips are slim and refuse to sway. Butterfly’s brain can’t begin to imagine the number of horrible dangers Cricket believes are right outside the apartment door, and Cricket’s brain cannot fathom the Zen-like calm that Butterfly feels when she hears bird song in the distance.

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See, they’re completely different.

I wish I could accept my own limitations for what they are, but I still hold onto the dream of plasticity, that my brain will change and grow over time and allow me to be something more. It’s not impossible, actually. Someday, Cricket’s brain might rewire itself inexplicably and allow her some peace.

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Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

74 responses »

  1. Quite interesting and also made me smile.

    Thanks

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  2. I liked the interweaving of your fascinating observations about brain-body connection and the comparison to your dogs. I have 4 dogs and can write endlessly about my pack 🙂 I used to say that I had the Great American Novel in my brain but it wouldn’t connect to my hand and come out on paper (obviously pre-computer days). Great post!

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  3. I can see Cricket on the big screen. She has that presence. They’re both so adorable though. I did a cartwheel recently and I’m telling you I was not ready for the pain that came later. Lol

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  4. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    Your internship should be fascinating!

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  5. In the last couple of years I’ve discovered for myself that neoplasticity is real and it’s changed my outlook on life. Having ME/CFS means I have been more physically uncoordinated for many years than I actually realised, and living with episodes of ‘brain fog’ as well makes me able to identify very clearly with those who have much more severe difficulties. The brain is such a fascinating thing! Thank you for such a very interesting (and delightful) post.

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  6. I have worked with TBI patients. You will find it fascinating.

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  7. Age and maturity comes to dogs also.

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  8. I can’t even keep track of the left side of my body and right resulting in all sorts of mix-ups during yoga class! I wish I were more coordinated too : )

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  9. It sounds as if your own frustrations will make you uniquely positioned to understand the challenges of the people you will be caring for. We all have gifts, and maybe this is yours. Turning challenges into blessings is one of life’s great challenges. Maybe this is what you were put on earth to do.

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  10. I understand how you feel. I tried gymnastics in college, but have absolutely NO upper body strength. I don’t think it is from lack of trying. It just is what it is.
    I took a graduate class on pattern recognition. The professor was great and talked about brain injuries and how they affect people. I was intrigued to know that some injuries prevent people from “seeing” inanimate objects, or animate ones. I’m sure their eyes see it, but the brain doesn’t process it. I think you will learn a lot in your internship. What are you studying to become?

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  11. Have you ever considered doing agility with Cricket? I did one class with Max, just for fun. (I’m forever grateful no one had a camera while I was on my hands and knees trying to get him through the tunnel!) I bet Cricket, and you, would love it!

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    • Cricket does not like to be told what to do. She failed out of two basic obedience classes, and when I asked if we should try again, the teacher sort of cringed.

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      • ah, she and Max are soul mates! He looked at the tunnel and said, “no. I think not. You may have your butt in the air and try to entice me with cheese, it will not work.” Oh, but we love them anyway!

      • Cricket would SPIT OUT treats in obedience class. I could have put a whole roasted chicken in front of her and she would have just stared at me. Nope. Not gonna give in.

  12. Reading this post made me so grateful I don’t have to learn how to walk or talk again due to an injury. I also love the comparison to Cricket and Butterfly’s brains and their thoughts and fears.

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    • I remember watching a special on Gabrielle Giffords and her intensive therapy. I was so impressed by her therapists and all of the creative ideas they came up with to help her make progress. I especially loved the guy who followed her around playing guitar!

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  13. Your word gymnastics makes up for all the other physical stuff I say! As always I just love reading your words.

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  14. I love your transferrence of human traits to canine. We do with Maggie……….. she’s looking at me right this minute with ‘that’ expression, you know the one I mean. Do not disturb, nap time!

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  15. Aw Rachel…never fear…your words sing and dance to us. No need to get on the balance beam. ღ

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  16. Ah but each of our brains are wired with its own special things/gifts…as you have yours and our/your pups have theirs. As I have learned over time, I must simply honor those that I do have and appreciate the ones that others have been given and see them all as miracles. The brain is one of the most complicated things I know, so who knows…maybe you are right and someday we’ll figure out how to use it differently. Until then, appreciate that there are many out here that feel you use yours in beautiful and amazing ways! 🙂 ❤

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  17. “My body is not smart in that way. My body feels like a group of people who are shouting to each other over mountaintops miles apart. It’s as if the communication system between my various body parts is crunchy and static filled, instead of clear and smooth.”

    Thank you, finally a much more poetic definition to replace all the words I’ve been told regarding my gymnastic abilities……or rather, disabilities – which however had a certain entertainment value. For others, that is.

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  18. Yep, it’s sort of like not jumping off a cliff because we know we don’t have wings and can’t fly, as opposed to learning to play the piano even though we have no aptitude for it. Got it.

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  19. I found out a long time ago that in a physical emergency, I wasn’t exactly calm, but I thought logically (and fast) and acted accordingly. Later I found out this was probably a matter of body chemistry (not overloading with adrenalin). The same result can, though, be achieved to a degree by training, which I suppose makes the threat seem less threatening. Conversely, I’ve long had difficulties remembering people’s names unless I knew them very well, even if I can remember all sorts of other stuff about them. Then I read that there was a specific part of the brain that linked faces to names. That made me less embarrassed about it.But I don’t have the same problem with places, animals…

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  20. This was a lovely piece Rachel. You wove together the two threads of the girls’ brain and bodies with you coming work. I have a friend with TBI from a car accident a few years ago.On top of PTSD from childhood abuse it has made life difficult for her, mainly because people have lost the ability to be patient. You will be wonderful in your internship I am sure, because you are observant and understand suffering. PS I did OK in soccer and ballet but never in my life could I do a cartwheel or a back flip.

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    • When I went for my interview, my soon-to-be-boss said that the number one thing she’s learned form her job is patience, because people can only do what they can do, getting angry doesn’t change it.

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  21. Gymnastics ! Great – I love them, particularly the ribbon and ball routines. Oh yes, I could watch them for hours and during the Olympic Games, I generally do. I believe you will do well in your internship because you have patience as well as understanding. As for gymnastics, that’s for “other” people that have these talents.

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  22. The brain can change- years ago it was believed that there was a 2 year window for brain recovery after a TBI, but that is not true at all. I volunteered with people who had Aphasia as a result of a TBI- it was amazing to see their progress and changes they were able to make by “retraining” the brain. I loved this post-and look forward to hearing how your internship goes- you will be great I am sure.

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  23. I hope your future brings you great satisfaction in the knowledge that you are helping people.
    P/S Loved the photos, as usual!

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  24. Rachel, tomorrow I am on a training day, to work as a volunteer for a local charity organisation, that use the art of ‘Bibliotherapy’ with great success with a plethora of sections of the community – Dementia sufferers, victims of abuse, prisoners etc – you could maybe use this in your work – it involves carefully choosing a short text (maybe around 3 -4 pages from a book – usually followed by a poem that somehow links in – always ending with a poem) And we employ the art of ‘slow reading’ (it is the practitioner who reads aloud, but the recipient / group is /are asked if they would like to read maybe a paragraph or sentence.
    Themes are gently explored and results with people with TBI have been impressive.
    Maybe you could read to Cricket x
    Lindy

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  25. I once worked at a facility for patients with traumatic brain injuries. It was a nursing-home type place for those who would never recover enough to lead a normal life. Brain injuries affect the body in so many different ways. Some had speech difficulties, some could not speak at all, but others spoke just fine. Most could not walk and often were paralyzed on one side. Some were limp as noodles while others stiff and inflexible. One had seizures. Many were there as the result of drinking and driving, more often someone else’s than their own.

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  26. Physical muteness… That’s a fascinating concept; I am mulling that!

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  27. Johnny is so excited at bedtime he does high jumps of joy. Yesterday he jumped so high he fell with a thud on the floor. Clare is much more demure and thinks he’s nuts. Perhaps Butterfly is wiser than Cricket?

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  28. Hope you enjoy your work with the speech pathologists – the most interesting of the therapies, but I would say that being one myself. Re the physiological causes of our behaviour, I’ve just seen a documentary about chronic pain, which is often dismissed as “all in the mind” if there isn’t a clearcut organic reason for it. With imaging techniques of today they can see that the nerves are indeed firing off many more and much stronger pain impulses and the brain is getting into a feedback loop where it ramps up these pain signals till they truly are unbearable. They don’t know why this happens to some people nad not others, but it does, and there’s nothing imaginary about it.

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    • There’s so much that we can’t see clearly yet, and instead of assuming that there’s more to learn, a lot of doctors assume there’s nothing there.

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      • Many doctors have been wrong. Some right.
        It is amazing how a person can sometimes prove them wrong!
        Endorphins and other things come into play.
        The WILL to try to make progress is a massive thing and can with the right encouragement make big advances.
        The mind is a powerful tool.

  29. It is really amazing what music and animals can do for humans.
    I think we are tapping into it now. We might be surprised. 🙂

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  30. I used to work at a nursing home years ago before I was ever married.
    Some people were allowed to bring animals inside.
    You should see how it lights up a humans face. It’s like a light switch being turned on. They used to have pets too.
    Sometimes babies work also.
    Things that can trigger good emotions can do wonderful things. 🙂
    Persistence, will and the mind can help overcome many things.
    People need to get into action of some sort. It does things to a brain, things we don’t even know yet. But I am sure in time we will find it.
    I love your cute dogs, they are precious and good company for you.
    When my dog is happy, I am happy. Just looking into their eyes and watch them shine.
    Loved your post and I wish you all the best!
    And thank you for your like to my blog also.

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  31. Hilarious. Or lovely. In any case loved this post 🙂

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  32. Love your writing and observations. Brain and behavior was my principal interest as a research neurologist. Wish you well in your social work endeavors. This is such important work and your interest in brain/behavior will provide wonderful insights. Keep up the good work!

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  33. Loved this post! And I did gym too as a child – unfortunately it didn’t help my lack of coordination (or perhaps it was my lack of practice and fear of failure that didn’t help). Did you ever have the urge to turn cartwheels just for the sake of it, like me? It’s a little sad when you do but can’t follow through as gracefully as your brain imagines you can! But we have other talents 🙂

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  34. Good article, Rachel! I need another dog so I can watch for their differences as well as likenesses! Take care!

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