Monthly Archives: July 2015

Using Stories To Aid In List Memory

The human brain is fascinating for so many reasons.  One of these reasons can be seen in the expression of its preference for different styles of memory.  The brain generally has a preference for remembering stories as opposed to random lists of information, even though there are many more words in a story to remember than there are in a list.  It can be demonstrated though that this preference for stories can in fact be used to help bolster the memory for lists of items.

Individuals generally encounter lists of items in areas of daily life related to shopping, school, work, and other like activities.  You may have a list of items that you need to buy at a supermarket.  Your boss may ask you to pick up a list of items from the stockroom to place on shelves.  A teacher may ask you to bring in certain items for a class project.  Although it is of course advisable to write down or record in some manner any such list of items, you may not always have a pen and paper or other recording device available.  If you take such a list of items and turn it into a brief story though, you might be surprised by how much easier it becomes to remember.

Let’s say you have three items to remember to buy at the store: milk, cookies and napkins.  You can use to your advantage the brain’s natural preference for having these items organized as components of a story over simply having them listed one after the other.  It takes little effort to come up with a brief, one-line story that uses these words.  For example, the story in this instance could be “I like to dip my cookies and milk and then wipe my mouth with napkins.”  Most people will find it easier to remember this short story than to remember those same three words in list form.  A similar scenario could be encountered working at a large store like Wal-Mart or Target.  Your  boss may ask you to bring out light bulbs, toilet paper and paper cups.  This is a pretty random list of items which may be difficult to remember in its current form.  Turning this list into a short story may be beneficial.  For instance, the story here could be “There is no light bulb in the bathroom so he tripped over the toilet paper and knocked over the paper cups.”  Again, by putting the list of words into a brief story, the brain will find it easier to remember the information.

There are a few handy pointers to keep in mind when turning a list of items into a story.  First, the story should be relatively brief.  If you are trying to remember three or four words, the story should not be much longer than a single complex sentence.  Five or six items may require a story to be two to three lines long.  A story cannot be so long that it becomes itself difficult to remember.  The story should also create a visual image in your mind.  If you can “see” the story in your mind, then chances are that you’ve succeeded in creating a story useful in achieving the objective of bolstering memory in this way.  Using one of the previous examples, you may be able to imagine someone in a dark room tripping over toilet paper and knocking over cups sitting by the sink.  If you can see this happening in your mind, then the story worked for you.  It is very important that the story be one that is functional for you.  You should not concern yourself about whether others would like your story or find your story odd.  Too often, brain injury survivors using this method will self-censor their stories because they feel that others might not like those stories as they initially occur to the survivors.  These stories exist only to aid our memories.  The opinions others might hold of them therefore are not truly relevant.

This method of improving memory takes practice but once you get comfortable with the method, it can be very useful!  Please leave me a comment below with any questions, thoughts or ideas!

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: tlcrehab.org

Attention Process Training

Attention is a foundational skill that lays the groundwork for much of our cognitive functioning.  For instance, absent sufficient attention paid to your supervisor’s directions, it is impossible for you to remember and then follow those directions.  Similarly, without proper attention given to driving one cannot solve critical problems that may come up (such as avoiding a potential accident).  These examples of how attention affects other cognitive domains such as memory and problem-solving are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the importance of attention.  One research-demonstrated method of improving attention after a brain injury is through Attention Process Training.

Attention Process Training (APT) is a multi-session exercise designed to help improve the brain injury survivor’s ability to focus on relevant material while ignoring irrelevant distractions.  Further, it helps improve the speed of processing information.  Speed of processing is a very important factor to success in areas such as driving, as the driver must pay attention to a myriad of information (even more so at high speeds).  The APT version used by the Transitional Learning Center consists primarily of the patient listening to audio tracks presenting a variety of information and then being asked to press a buzzer when information previously identified as relevant is given.  For instance, the audio track may consist of a long list of numbers and the patient must press the buzzer every time he or she hears the number 5.  These tracks are always first read slowly, and then repeated at an increased speed.  The therapist listens for errors of omission (missing the relevant information) as well as errors of commission (pressing the buzzer as an indication of having heard distractor information).  The APT tracks become steadily more difficult as the tasks progress.  After completing the tracks without any background noise, the tracks are repeated but this time including a different voice reading newspaper articles in the background.  Again, the patient must press the buzzer for the relevant information and ignore the distracting information (now including that background voice).  This skill is important since most life tasks involve some form of background distraction.  As example, a parent may cook a meal while his or her children are watching television.  If the parent is not able to sufficiently ignore the background noise of the children and the television, there may be a large kitchen disaster.  When a patient demonstrates good skill on these first tasks, he or she will be moved to a more difficult version of APT in which he or she must not only listen for relevant information but also alternate between sets of information to which he or she must pay attention.  For instance, a patient may have to alternate between listening for names of sports and names of animals.  This alternating attention is also important in our daily lives.  One common example of an alternating attention task would be found at a cookout, when a cook has to alternate between watching the meat grilling on the barbecue and cutting vegetables for condiments.  A failure to alternate attention adequately could lead to a charred dinner or a lost finger.

By working with Attention Process Training, patients can strengthen these vital attentional skills and thereby be more successful in their daily lives.  TLC has seen many patients improve in their overall functioning through this training program.

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: tlcrehab.org

July 4th Fireworks

Every July 4th, Americans across the country light up the sky with fireworks.  This patriotic spectacle is commonly enjoyed at large outdoor celebrations, though often fireworks are also set off at private homes.  This circumstance brings to the fore an issue that we as a society may not generally afford sufficient attention.  Namely,  how do our family and neighbors react to fireworks?

After a brain injury, many survivors are highly sensitive to loud noises.  Fireworks can be quite disturbing to a survivor, even if he or she enjoyed them in the past.  Fireworks may lead to agitation, frustration and acting out.  Prior to attending a fireworks celebration (whether public or private), loved ones should check with survivors and their therapists as to whether those survivors would do well at a fireworks display.  If the survivor chooses to attend a display event, loved ones should have an exit plan prepared just in case the event goes poorly for the survivor.  Neighbors should check with survivors and their families prior to setting off fireworks.  Fireworks are not truly a “private” matter, since everyone in the nearby vicinity will be hearing them whether they wish to or not.  It is not fair for the survivor to be put in serious distress just because a neighbor likes to set off fireworks.

This issue may prove even more pertinent when a survivor is a combat veteran.  Many combat veterans who suffered injuries in battle also have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  PTSD symptoms can include flashbacks in which the veteran feels like he or she is back contending with the relentless stressors of life in combat, painful memories of the trauma of friends dying and serious sleep disturbances. Fireworks can trigger all of these symptoms and more.  Additionally, many in the South have a custom of shooting guns in the air on July 4th.  If fireworks are a bad idea around combat veterans with PTSD, then shooting guns is a horrible idea.  (As a sidebar this practice is simply remarkably dangerous.  This writer knows a woman who was hit by a bullet that was shot by an unknown individual in the air to celebrate a holiday. The bullet fell into an open restaurant area and lodged in her lung.)  The combined effects of a brain injury and PTSD can make these situations especially tricky for veterans.  Loved ones should check with survivors and their therapists as to whether these veteran survivors may have a PTSD-type reaction around fireworks or guns.  Again, neighbors should check with combat veterans to ensure that the neighbors’ celebrations do not harm the psychological well-being of these individuals.  Some combat veterans have taken to putting signs on their lawns identifying themselves as combat veterans and asking others to be courteous with fireworks.  These signs should be taken seriously and neighbors should not shoot fireworks or guns near these veterans.  Again, no one should be forced to suffer in service of a neighbor’s idea of “fun.”

Wishing everyone a Happy July 4th!

Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: tlcrehab.org