TomBroussard
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TomBroussard, April 8,  2021  9:35pm EST

Stroke and Aphasia Recovery: Metaphors Help Us Mend…and Learn

Dear AHA/ASA friends,

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things that provide the hidden similarities between them. I had used plenty of metaphors in my life (before my stroke) but I never thought of it as a “thing.” I knew that they provide a useful linguistic tool that helps people solve difficult problems but I didn’t know how powerful they could be.

The doctors had told me that the brain contains about 100 billion cells (or neurons) and I had lost the function of hundreds of millions of them. Given that they were destroyed, I assumed that a certain percentage of word entities were destroyed too.

Assuming that was the case, I went searching for the words that I thought were gone. As I walked around town, I looked at everything: signs, stores, cars, trucks, trees, and clouds, but by the end, there still weren’t any words that were really gone. There were still plenty of words that I couldn’t pronounce or found too difficult to say but I could tell that they were still “there”.

At that point, I realized that my first assumption was wrong. I had lost all the brain matter but the damage to my language wasn’t the loss of an equivalent number of words. The damage was the accumulation of the destroyed neural pieces scattered across the many and redundant networks that collectively shouldered the work of my language. The words were (neurologically) faint but still perceptual.

As I rethought my approach to my language problems, a shipbuilding metaphor surfaced. I had several jobs at Bath Iron Works, a shipyard in Bath, Maine but the one I liked most was Director of the Mechanical Engineering & Design Department. I enjoyed watching teams of draftsmen working at their drafting boards creating drawings (it was just the beginning of using CAD so there were few computers) to build every facet of a ship.

A ship starts with raw steel that becomes small pieces and parts that are built up into sub-assemblies, assemblies, larger assemblies, and finally components and units that become the ship.

My language was built (and subsequently repaired) in much the same way. When words appeared “lost” they weren’t really lost as much as a small portion of a huge learning field (trillions of synapses) were destroyed, and that is why pieces of one’s language are damaged but not completely destroyed (depending on severity).

Metaphors add to the cognitive stimulus that subsequently add more capacity. As a result, they are better able to handle the additional cognitive load with more habitual work and less energy required over time. Mental exercises create new mental muscles. Metaphors are designed (albeit accidentally) to think hard (and learn) about whatever problem you are facing including losing your language from a stroke.

Metaphors help us mend and learn with more “fuel” in the form of cognitive activities, more plasticity (and more neural matter) which allows us to become increasingly ready to handle more cognitive activities and the resultant learning as the mothership of my language sets sail again.

Please see the full article and associated video, https://youtu.be/zQTlJWUOfwk

Thanks again and have a great day!

Tom

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