My eureka moment... or a little bit about the basal ganglia

It happened again. I was in a bookstore and picked up a book that I thought sounded really interesting, and added it to the small pile that I was buying with a gift card. I get home, happily pick the book up and start reading. And as I'm reading, I have the vague feeling that I've read it before because I know what comes next. No, I didn't suddenly develop ESP, perhaps just the opposite. I had read the book before and had completely forgotten it. It's one of the reasons that I started keeping track of my reading again, in the hopes that writing down the title, will help to cue my memory enough so that I don't purchase books I've already read. Don't hold your breath about that, because it turns out that not only did I previously read this book, but I blogged about it as well!

So much for my brain. Let's talk about someone else's and why I'm glad I had forgotten I read this book and bought it.

It's funny how you gain different things from reading books at different times. This time around I am completely overwhelmed with the information about the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is a small bunch of neurons at the base of the brain, and it seems that one of its primary functions is to house our habits. When we chunk (and yes, this is actually the correct and scientific term) groups of actions together into one, and when this chunk of actions has a trigger followed by some sort of reward (and the reward can be as small as having successfully completed a task), then those actions have become a habit and the instructions for this habit are housed in the basal ganglia. Since the basal ganglia is housed at the base of the brain, this makes it pretty far away from the frontal cortex (the rational, thinking part of the brain) and the middle of the brain where much of the memory functions are housed.

Now the interesting story in the book is about a man who had brain damage that wiped out some of the memory centers of his brain. He couldn't form new memories, and only had access to older ones. Yet this man, it turns out, could create new habits which he then performed unconsciously. He could go for a walk around the block and make it back home even though he couldn't point out his house or tell you how to get there. However, if something on the block looked different (the triggers for his walk around the block habit), then he would becomes completely lost and not make it back home (the reward). It's a really crazy thing if you stop and think about it too long. Which is precisely what I did, because deep in the workings of my own brain this was starting to sound far more familiar than just having read it before.

It felt as though it was talking about someone I knew.

And then it came to me. I had the answer for why R.'s world was so totally and completely rocked when she joined our family. I had the answer for why she suddenly was functioning at such a significantly lower level than anyone in China had described. A small bit of R.'s brain suddenly made sense. Here's my hypothesis.

R. has some significant issues with her frontal lobe, both because of her basic brain structure and because of the resection surgery she had which involved removing some of the frontal lobe. Her rational thinking is impaired in many ways. Also because of natural brain structure, other parts of her brain are also compromised. Working memory is, well, let's just say it's not a strength. We knew all this going in, but her reported functioning seemed to indicate that she was still pretty functional, so something in her brain had to be doing at least a minimum job. Well, it seems, if my hypothesis is correct, is that her basal ganglia is doing just a bang up job. I posit that the reason she functioned so well in China is that she had developed enough habits, housed in her basal ganglia, that allowed her to get through her day. When she came upon the certain triggers in her world, then that chunk of neural action fired, she did that chunk, and received her reward, whatever that might have been... doing something successfully, food, love, whatever.

And then we brought her here. There were no triggers because nothing was the same. Not the same language, people, landscape, nothing. Thus there were no habits to fall back on to get through her day. She was a child untethered from literally everything and this is what we experienced. A child at sea and completely lost. We were baffled by it for a long, long time and could never quite reconcile the two R.'s together.

This would also explain how difficult it is to move her out of what is familiar and what she is used to doing into doing something, anything new. We are working against not conscious thought, but against habits. If you've ever tried to break a bad habit, you know how difficult that can be. I often joke that she doesn't have myelin coating her neural connections but concrete, because it felt that difficult to move her from point A to point B. (Myelin is the coating that covers and helps to solidify often used neural connections and which facilitate speed of thought.)

To my mind, this explained everything. It allowed me to make sense of what we had seen and why it seemed so disconnected to her behavior in China. I cannot even begin to express how exciting I find this. It feels so hopeful to have some insight into how she works. With this little bit of insight, we can harness it and help R. to function even better. We can be careful about what habits we encourage and it gives us tools for changing habits we don't want her to have. This is a great big huge deal.

This doesn't mean that we won't continue to hope for better frontal lobe functioning. I believe she can attain it. I believe that with continued therapeutic parenting and education that we can help her gain greater intellectual functioning, but this will help us help her in the interim.

I love brain science.

Oh, and for those who didn't click the link at the top of this post, the book is The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg. Highly recommended.


Carla said…
What an encouraging post after the struggles mentioned in your one-year home post!

Yea, God, for providing the encouragement just when you needed it!

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