Chapter 9: The conductor (bear?) and the orchestra

You may recall that back in Chapter 6, I set myself the goal to be more instinctive – both in the activities that I seek out, as well as how I do them – in the hope that it would help me to find a way of living that is not quite so exhausting, cognitively speaking.

As we approach the mid-year point, I thought it was about time I took stock of how things have been going in this respect.

From the outset, the main change that I sought to make was to reduce the amount of planning and decision making involved in getting basic household chores done. I had noticed that – in my eagerness to stick to Rule 1 (Only fight the bear when you have to) and avoid overreaching myself by doing too much – I had fallen into the habit of analysing every task to determine whether I had sufficient cognitive resource to complete it. Whilst in many ways this was the prudent approach, somewhat ironically, I was using up most of my available cognitive resource in making the assessment and deciding whether to take on the task, with the result that actually performing the task was all the more fatiguing.

So instead, I elected to adopt a more instinctive “see it, do it” approach, meaning that I would move from one task to the next as and when I noticed it, quite often chopping and changing back and forth between a number of activities. Initially, this seemed to work pretty well – by taking the decision making step away, I was managing to flow fairly seamlessly between tasks and was certainly feeling less fatigued by the tasks themselves.

Unfortunately, as my confidence increased, I found myself taking the theory to its logical extreme and pushing on with more tasks rather than taking a break – taking the “see it, do it” approach too literally, with the consequence that even though I was continuing to abide by Rule 4 (Fight 1 bear at a time), I was now breaking Rule 1 by fighting too many bears in a row.

With time, I have gradually adapted my approach to be one of “see it, do it or don’t do it” – with the decision made in the moment, without deliberating. To be clear, that doesn’t mean rushing – but slowing down, in fact, so that I can tune in to how I feel and what my brain is trying to tell me. If I opt for the latter course of action, I then have to forget about the task and trust that I will notice it again later – not always easy to do. This approach seems to be working a bit better. It still keeps decision making to a minimum, but reduces the risk of overdoing it – plus it brings Rule 7 (Use the element of surprise) back into play, which is a valuable tool in the armoury.

From a practical perspective, to help me avoid overdoing it, I have taken to leaving my phone in my bedroom when I go downstairs. This has a double benefit – it removes the temptation to automatically look at my phone when I have finished my set tasks, which then reduces the cognitive resource that I would otherwise expend on unnecessarily processing information during the day. Additionally, when I think of something that I want to blog about, I am forced to step away from what I am doing in order to capture my thoughts before I forget them, helping to ensure that I take more frequent breaks.

All in all, it’s a tricky balance to get right – adhering to one rule without breaking another. In many ways, I feel that all I have really done is go round in a loop, breaking my rules and then re-learning them again. Hopefully by writing this down and reading it back periodically, I will avoid replicating the same mistake again. If we’re being honest with each other though, that’s pretty unlikely – one of the features of a brain injury (or mine, at least) is repeatedly discovering what seem like new insights and then realising that you already knew them! A bit like being in a very disappointing version of Groundhog Day.

To summarise, I think the main learning from this last period has been that if you want to live more instinctively, don’t try to. You see, by actively thinking about how to be more instinctive, you are no longer being instinctive. Somehow, I feel I ought to have known that already.

And therein lies the nub of the issue really – I have a propensity to overanalyse. Always have. What was a strength before my accident has become the thing that is holding me back. It appears that the way my brain functioned previously was unduly reliant on the frontal lobes and now they are not to be trusted – indeed, at times they are a downright nuisance.

Which brings me neatly on to an analogy for my brain injury that I came up with some time ago and have recently developed further – the conductor and the orchestra.

For a while there, before I fully understood my cognitive challenges, I would describe my brain injury as like having a conductor (frontal lobes – responsible for managing the orchestra) who was completely on it and a group of musicians (rest of brain – responsible for carrying out the conductor’s instructions) who couldn’t keep up.

Subsequently, I came to realise that the conductor is actually a mad man and the reason the orchestra can’t keep up is because his instructions are wild and incoherent. Instead of working with the musicians sympathetically to get the best out of them, he growls and snarls at them – giving too many instructions at once, which they find utterly bewildering. A little like what might happen if the conductor was a bear, perhaps?

Now don’t get me wrong – the musicians are not the best in the world and most certainly have their own failings – but left to their own devices, they can play a decent tune, individually at least.

This is why Rule 7 (Use the element of surprise) and Rule 8 (Distract the bear) work so well – because they take the conductor out of the picture. The same reason that the medication that I take has been so helpful – as well as lifting my mood, it effectively sedates the conductor (frontal lobes) just enough to stop him getting out of hand. A bit like on the A-Team, when Hannibal used to give BA drugged milk to knock him out and stop him going crazy on plane journeys.

In terms of finding new activities that involve being more instinctive, lockdown has created a unique environment which has allowed me to try out a number of options, primarily around the theme of games with family (face to face) and friends (online).

The results have been very much a mixed bag, with some minor successes and some unmitigated disasters. In general terms, I do better when things are faster paced or there is clearly a single right answer, which you either know or don’t. That way, the conductor doesn’t really get a chance to get involved.

Most successful has been darts, which I can play with only limited fatiguing of my brain. I have to actively stop myself from focusing on my technique and just throw, or I start to feel my brain overloading a little and my aim becomes noticeably worse. I do better with games like “round the clock”, where there is no scoring involved and it is obvious what to go for next. Otherwise, planning, information processing and decision making are all involved to a small extent at least, which rouses the conductor / bear from his slumber. In any event, after a while, my right leg will start to tighten up, though that is partly due to the throwing stance requiring me to lean on that side.

Least successful has been quizzing, though this very much depends on the environment. Face to face, with a group of people who are all fully focused on the question in hand, I can largely stay in the game and hold my own in terms of providing answers. As soon as things start getting noisy, with background conversations going on, my brain overloads trying to process all of the additional inputs and I will become unreasonable / inappropriate.

Fortunately, it turns out that I am reasonably adept at the role of quiz master in these situations – assuming that the questions have been prepared for me and I don’t have to keep score. The role enables me to put my strengths as an outbound communicator to good use – or to put it another way, I have an excuse to shout and talk nonsense, without really having to process what anyone else is saying. What a treat for everyone involved!

In the middle, we have card games and word games.

Card games are usually not too bad – dependent on the specific game. Something like trumps – where it is clear what to do and so there is no real decision making involved – is easier than poker, which involves taking in what cards are on the table and assessing the likely relative strength of your own hand against those of your opponents. I have slowly learned that I should fold more often than not.

Word games (e.g. Upwords) are largely ok too, though again the playing environment is a significant factor. Playing an online game against the computer is far less fatiguing than playing a real opponent (e.g. my mother in law). Real opponents take much longer to play, which allows the conductor to get involved by analysing the board for an extended period of time to “help” me consider my next move. That’s not just a roundabout way of telling my mother in law to get a move on – honest! Playing offline – whereby scoring is involved – adds to the challenge even further. Who knew basic maths could be so exhausting!

Despite the difficulties encountered, it has been a pleasure to explore new ways in which to spend time with family and friends.

However, the reality is that my primary objective has not been met. I have not managed to find anything else – other than exercise – that I can do for free, in cognitive terms.

Nothing comes close to cycling in this respect. With the exception of weekends, when I can normally just relax and spend time with my family, days when I don’t ride my bike are so much harder than days when I do. Apart from the cognitive recharge effect, it also uses up time during which the conductor would otherwise be finding me things to do. In part at least, I sleep during the day for the same reason – that is, to keep the conductor under wraps and avoid using up scarce resources that will be needed later in the day.

So, have I reached a dead end?

A week or so ago, I was sat resting my brain in the afternoon sunshine, with our dog on one side and my youngest son’s pet tortoise on the other – unable to feel my right leg fully after having vacuumed the house and mopped the kitchen floor in the morning, then gone for my post-lunch nap – just trying to hang in there until dinner time without fatiguing my brain any further. I felt like crying – like I do most days, to be completely honest.

As I looked up at the photos of my family on the wall, I realised that I am perhaps the luckiest man alive. Yes, there are lots of things that I can no longer do and this frustrates me every single day, but I already have everything I could ever want – so why do I need to keep pushing for more, searching for a solution that may not even exist?

And therein, perhaps, lies the answer. Maybe I have already found my solution – maybe the solution itself is to stop trying so hard to find one?