How brain training helped rebuild my ‘broken brain’
After suffering a cardiac arrest and subsequent brain injury, I had to ‘re-wire’ my brain to learn again using brain training. What I’ve learned is that whatever your mental capacity, you can improve your cognitive function – so don’t wait for a brain injury to get started!
Like many of you reading this, I’m in the training profession. On 27 June 2017, I’d just finished running a half-day training course for a client in London and hopped on the tube on my way home. The next thing I knew, however, I was in the Royal Berkshire Hospital. The date was Saturday 29 July 2017.
What happened to me in the intervening time, you might wonder?
I lost a number of the neural pathways and to help me get back to ‘normal’ I needed to re-wire my brain. The best way to do this was through brain training.
I suffered a cardiac arrest on the tube between Great Portland Street and Baker Street. A member of the public performed CPR on me, until the paramedics arrived and administered a defibrillator to re-start my heart.
Since my heart had stopped beating, the oxygen supply to my brain was interrupted, causing hypoxic brain injury. Until the heart is restarted by defibrillation, CPR must be performed to oxygenate the brain. CPR must start within two minutes of the arrest. The longer the wait, the worse the brain injury will be.
Luckily, CPR was performed on me, but my family had no way of knowing how soon it had been done. They faced an agonising wait until I regained consciousness to find out whether I would be ‘brain dead’.
I later suffered six further cardiac arrests in hospital, but each time my heart was restarted quickly.
Moved to reading
When I regained consciousness, I was confused about many things. At one point, for example, I thought I was still at work and the nurses were the admin team. I even forgot which football team I support (Portsmouth), which is pretty unforgiveable!
My initial assessment stated: “reduced executive skills, reduced information processing speed, reduced concentration, reduced memory, fatigue, reduced exercise tolerance, anxiety, impulsiveness, reduced visuospatial constructional skills”. It didn’t sound very positive.
The crucial point is that the brain is a muscle. Like any muscle, if you don’t use it regularly, it will get flabby and weak.
Whilst in hospital, for five days a week I spent an hour each day at physio, followed by two hours of speech and language therapy, occupational health and psychology sessions. These included numerous assessments and developmental activities. The improvement in both my neuro and physical health was incredible.
One aspect I continued to struggle with was reading. I had always been a voracious reader of both fiction and leadership/management books but my short-term memory was severely affected. When I tried to read, I would reach the end of the paragraph and forget what it said at the start. After three and a half weeks, I was able to read The Times for about 30 minutes each day and retain most of what I had read. Although my reading speed was still slow, this was amazing progress in such a short time period.
‘Re-wiring’ the brain
Once back at home, I experienced a real feeling of abandonment. I was used to three hours of rehab every day, but now I had to wait for appointments to come through and for six weeks I felt totally forgotten about.
By profession I am a management development trainer, and my memory is crucial to me in being able to deliver training. I was concerned about whether I would be able to return to my job.
Another area I struggled with was anxiety, and so to help with this, one of the psychologists recommended the Headspace app to help me develop mindfulness, which I found very useful in the early days.
She explained that due to my hypoxic brain injury, I had lost a number of the neural pathways and to help me get back to ‘normal’ I needed to re-wire my brain. The best way to do this was through ‘brain training’.
You shouldn’t wait for things to go wrong before you start to look after your brain.
Apps such as Elevate and Luminosity helped with this. It’s not just apps targeted at brain training that can help with this – Sudoku, word search and other word games became a part of my daily ritual (and still are today). Quiz programmes on TV like University Challenge or Only Connect are also helpful for this.
The crucial point is that the brain is a muscle. Like any muscle, if you don’t use it regularly, it will get flabby and weak. We are all aware that we lose skin cells – but did you know the same happens with brain cells? Therefore, exercising the brain will either replace them or re-wire it to compensate. Sadly this is not the ultimate panacea, and I do still struggle with short-term memory among other things.
One of the things that has helped me the most during my recovery has been target setting. One of the challenges with any form of rehab is that it takes time and you can often feel that you are not making progress. I had one big target that really gave me a focus during my recovery.
Before all of this happened, I had been in the final year of an MBA at Northampton Business School, with just my dissertation to complete. It was due in July 2017, but I managed to get a 12-month extension.
I set myself a target of reading one academic paper a day, so that I could complete my 15,000 word report and submit it by July 2018. Initially, I just wanted to get it done and as long as I passed, I would be happy. Over a period of time, however, it changed. It almost came to signify my recovery. In my mind, the better the result, the better my recovery would end up being.
After submitting my dissertation a month early, I achieved a distinction, which enabled me to get an overall merit in my MBA. Had I achieved this without all of this happening, I would have been very proud, but under the circumstances, I am fit to burst!
If there is one thing I hope you take away from my story, it’s that you shouldn’t wait for things to go wrong before you start to look after your brain. Give it the attention it deserves now and you will reap the benefits.
Interested in this topic? Read Neuroscience: rewiring the brain to learn more effectively.
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Matt Brown is a highly experienced facilitator with a passion for developing people specialising in Leadership and Management Development. More details can be found at www.developyourpeople.co.uk.