I was speaking to my friend, Farmboy, yesterday. After a peculiarly arduous turn of events at work I had reached a more-or-less comfortable steady state. I had time to take a breath and look around. I had time to think about what had been going on all day. The act of reflecting prompted the question:
Which problem do you prefer to tackle—the difficult technical problem with concepts you know very little about or the difficult social problem with the people you know very little about?
For several minutes I thought only about that particular question. I had asked it; Farmboy had answered it providing his opinion on the matter. When my turn came to do likewise I hesitated some more and then weakly conceded to the answer Farmboy had given. I did not like my answer. I do not know why I did not like my answer—I did not like it. I attributed this distaste to the wide variety of problems with which over the course of the day I had had to contend. I was sullen. I was churlish.
I wanted to answer, “Fuck off!”
I went home late. Whirl had arranged for Mick, Brian and Melissa to come over. They were waiting for me when I walked in the door. I told them about my day with some excitement. Brian suggested that I write the whole set of stories down. I may do that at some point, but for now I will reserve the right not to publish such a screed here.
We ate pizza. We drank some beer. We went about doing what we had intended to do, trying one of the boardgames for which Mick is famous. We had a good time together. That was the goal; we achieved it.
Brian and Melissa were the first to head home—this left Whirl, Mick and me to talk with each other. For a good half an hour I tuned out. Do not misunderstand me, I had a good time and was grateful to have friends over to our house. I had reached a limit. As I write this, now, I suspect I had reached my limit at some point earlier. I suspect the seed of that idea had been planted in my mind earlier this morning when Brian wrote a message saying about last night, “I think that’s the first game I’ve played with Sean since the day of the accident–aside from cards.”
Before Mick left for the evening I rejoined the conversation. He was asking me about the lasting effects of my injury. I answered with an explanation of the fatigue—how most of our mental energy is spent ignoring things. Ignoring is my word. It carries a pejorative tone to it. Neuropsychologists describe it as filtering: the mind’s ability to discern what is important from what is not. Before the injury I had always thought of this as a passive task and not paid it any attention. I know now that it is an active skill that is developed over several years. Brain injuries require you to retrain your mind to do this skill all over again—and usually with a shortened timeframe and higher stakes. That is the source of the fatigue. It takes more mental energy to filter your day to day life. Too much light, too many conversations, too many people—all of these things become more difficult tasks, because you are spending more energy to do them. And you cannot not do them.
Executive function is the other area in which I notice significant lingering effects from the injury. Executive function is a difficult concept to understand. One description I read put it this way:
I usually find that the easiest way to explain this concept is to begin with an analogy. You can think of your brain as an integrated organ, yet one in which has individual jobs. Compare the brain to an orchestra. An orchestra is comprised of many different types of instruments, such as violins, flutes, clarinets, trumpets. Though this is an oversimplification, there are parts of the brain which are responsible for different skills: cognition, perception, emotion, reasoning, language, memory, learning. Just like an orchestra, these parts of your brain can function on their own in certain circumstances. However, in order for all of these skills to work together in an organized fashion, it needs the help of executive function, which can be compared to the conductor of the orchestra. The instruments may be able to play music without a conductor, but the result is usually a disorganized mess.
A more formal definition describes executive function as the direction and organization of all behavior—emotional as well as cognitive—in order to attain goals and regulate behavior that is consistent with attaining such goals. Putting all the special tasks in order to achieve, create, accomplish—do. Some psychologists go so far as to say that executive function constitute what it is to be human.
The question I posed earlier cuts to the heart of executive function. One side of the question concerns theory, mathematics, method. The other side concerns emotion, intuition and judgment.
One, two, one-two-three-four!
Come on all you good rats we’ll send you to heaven.
You’ll find the pearly gates in the froth and the foam,
‘Cause in these vats you’ve made quite a creation,
A potion that turned the Guinness to gold!