Monday, December 7, 2009


What this whole experience (brain surgery and recovery) is making clear to me is how much our thinking and behavior is dependent on the way our brains are "wired" more than anything else.

My brain was swollen before the operation because of the "mass" that was irritating it and which they took out. That was followed by swelling from the operation itself and from the "handling" of the brain—an unnatural experience for it and which it reacts to with what feels and seems like a kind of cellular panic.

On top of that the brain's reacting to the heavy doses of steroids to help reduce the swelling and various other drugs to prevent infection and reduce the initial pain etc. So all that contributed to my brain functions being extremely abnormal for me.

The great news is that these operations are even possible, something unheard of not that long ago, and that they succeed on so many levels. My "mass" turned out not to be cancerous, but I have read about (before the operation) and spoken to about (before and since the operation) many people who have had numerous malignant tumors in theirs brains and are still alive and functioning for the most part as good as ever and have been for four, five, seven and even fifteen years!

I feel unbelievably fortunate that my experience was so much more benign in comparison. But as my brain returns to its more "normal" state and I go through the stages of recovery (which can last up to a year I'm told before it's completely recovered) I can see so much more clearly how the ways our brains work individually influences so much of what we think and how we behave.

For instance, in the first days after the operation, I couldn't read or add or multiply simple numbers or understand directionally where things were (some of this is still true though improving) etc. which made me realize what it must be like to struggle with some of these simple ways the mind ordinarily works.

My twelve-year-old struggles with some learning problems that it's been a trial to get the school to recognize because he is so obviously bright and capable in so many other ways. Teachers often ascribe his problems to "not making the effort" or even as one recent science teacher said (pre-operation) "He's just lazy"—which I had to restrain myself from overreacting to. This is a boy who spends hours with tutoring sessions and on homework etc.

But I now realize that this is a common mistake. Obviously a lot of learning disabilities have been identified since I was a kid when they actually just called kids stupid or dunces and punished them or kept them back or expelled them for not keeping up etc.

Interestingly, as I became able to read some later in the first week, I noticed that what gave me the most trouble were simple words, especially if they were repeated in a short space. So an instruction on the hospital room wall that used some complex terms in a short sentence without any repetition was easy to get. But one that had two or three "the"'s or "to"'s in it was make me stumble and have to look it over a few times before I understood it. Very much what happens to my younger son sometimes.

Another thing I noticed right away after the operation, almost as soon as I came to, was "how did we get here"—meaning, who did we go from the world I knew as a kid and young man where for the most part logic and reason and scientific evidence and even simple reality were relatively universally recognized as basically consistent to one where obvious lies and delusional interpretations of "reality" that are based on lies etc. are now accepted as versions of some kind of accepted and even objective reality.

There were a handful of people when I was young who still believed the world was flat or the moon walk was faked or the world is only a few thousand or hundred thousand years old etc., but they got no credence in the mass media or the schools or public forums where reality was general agreed upon based on, as I said, logic, reason, scientific proof, etc. My mind couldn't believe, when it began functioning again after the operation that I was actually alive in a world where someone like Sarah Palin could be taken seriously as anything other than either delusional or an outright liar.

But also realized pretty soon afterwards, that it's the wiring. Yes, some politicians and media personalities and ordinary citizens manipulate the "facts" and reality to suit their own selfish or self-centered or whatever nefarious ends, but many more I believe actually think their version of "reality" is true. Reagan probably did believe that he fought in WWII even though he never left Hollywood and mistook movie experiences for real ones.

Just as I am now able to read much more than I was capable of only days ago, but do so somewhat haltingly, having to reread some words and phrases to understand what I'm reading, I understand that that is "normal" for many people. And my inability to do much simple math or figure out which direction a local landmark is facing it etc.—something that came to be without eve thinking before—a lot of people have trouble with all the time.

It's like musical ability. I used to have a certain fluidity with my fingers when I played piano that is lost to me (but will hopefully return as I recover), but my current lack of that kind of musical facility is relatively common for many folks. As is, it's clear to me now, the capacity to use logic and reason to see through the lies and misrepresentations and delusions of so many political and media personalities.

It's obvious that a lot more people than when I was a kid, or at least a lot more influential people in the public eye, cannot use logic and reason and scientific evidence to figure out what's real and what isn't, but instead rely on emotion and personality and group-think etc. to reach conclusions that make sense to them, that it's just the way they're wired.

It's been and continues to be humbling to have survived this surgery and to experience the limitations—temporary or not—that have resulted from it. And it is given me more sympathy, or maybe I mean empathy, for those who live with these kinds of limitations on their metal capabilities all the time.

P.S. I haven't been responding to comments on this blog because typing and any kind of writing as been so laborious given now many mistakes I make and have to correct just to get a simple sentence out, but that has been rapidly improving in just the past few days, so hopefully soon I'll be able to respond more directly with comments and e mails etc.

PPS: I realize rereading this post that there are several mistakes but writing this much was hard enough so I'm going to leave the ones I missed correcting.


Toby T. said...


Anonymous said...

Your comment re people being wired differently reminds me of a story I read a few years back, which stated that brain scans of liberals and conservatives reveal striking differences between their brains, with liberals being capable of more flexible thinking, and more compassion.
I am leaving a link to one story about the topic:

JIm said...

You might want to review Climategate in light of the supposed flexibility of the liberal mind. If flexibility includes fraud and refusal to debate apparent inconsistencies and deletion of contra evidence by the East Anglia and Penn State "scientists" and the defense of the fraudulent science by the liberal Democrats in power, then liberal flexibility has become synonymous with dishonesty.

Butch in Waukegan said...

I was happy to read that the operation was a success, and your subsequent posts have been really interesting.

Your past posts have dealt mainly with your struggle to relearn and recover skills you lost. The journey you are going through leads in many directions. I thought of my grand father who slipped into dementia in his late 80’s. Not exactly the same, but what “wiring” failed, leaving him cut off from what he was?

Mentioning your son in this post sort of changes the equation. Instead of rebuilding lost skills he is learning them for the first time.

At my age I realize how much easier it is for kids to learn. My grand daughter is starting to read and when we talk about words, sounds and letters you can see in her face the connections she is making in her brain. Kids are like sponges. Every kid is different (my nickname in 5th grade was “donkey” *) but just about everyone can learn the necessary skills. Yea Headstart!!

At my age I am struggling to learn a new language — new wiring. Yet I remember much from high school and college French, lo those many years ago. I am involved in an adult literacy program and see many people who are verbally articulate, very bright, and struggle with reading and writing. Harder to connect the wiring.

In this post you lost me when you connect political perspective to the way the brain is wired. Think about it. Is there a “wiring” component — genetic disposition – for African Americans to hold more advanced views on just about every issue? Social standing and class help fashion a lot, if not most, of an individual’s outlook.

Not all, though. Two books I’ve read recently discussed the “authoritarian” personality, and sociopaths. These personality traits are thought to be class independent, spread across all social strata. Authoritarians (+/- 20% of the population) seem to predominately right wing. +/-4% of us are estimated to be sociopaths.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your journey. How close are you making one of your famous lists?

* I know you, and probably many others here, thought I was a jackass during one of our heated political discussions.

Elisabeth said...

It's good to follow the course of your journey. And good too to hear that your brain blockage, for want of a better term, is/wasbenign.

I'm one of those who opt for the impact of experience on our 'wiring' more so than genetics, though I know both apply.

I also struggle with the differentiation between brain and mind. I can imagine my brain doing all sorts of things but the me that imagines this seems more closely connected to my mind and I'm not sure how to map that.

Unknown said...

I'm glad your long posts are back. Together with your wits.

tom said...

Michael, what you said about your relearning experiences and your son's difficulties is a excellent observation. Most teachers have been taught that all children can learn, but many learn in different ways. Our brains aren't all wired the same. Yet, teachers often don't teach to all learning styles. Like all of us their brains are they way they are and they don't recognize other ways. For me this was brought home when my daughters were in middle school. I couldn't figure out how they were teaching them to do math. It made no sense to me because it wasn't they way my brain solved math problems. A lot of students get lost in the system because of the inability of many teachers and administrators to recognize other ways of learning.