Yesterday, my daughter and I went to spend time with her fraternal grandmother and my mother-in-law. Our lives have been in constant reassessment ever since the 4th of July holiday that started our exploration into brain injuries, cerebral aneurysm understanding and stroke rehabilitation. I had just finished a chapter in Jill Bolte Taylor’s first-person account “My Stroke of Insight” where she talked about the gifts of the right brain and the challenges with the over-critical left brain. She described how doing jigsaw puzzles helped in her recovery from a serious AVM aneurysm at age 37 and described both how and why that particular cognitive process helped both her right and left brain functioning.
A quick overview of how our left and right hemispheres work and to debunk some of the old assumptions about being “right-brained” vs. “left-brained” might be helpful here. We tend to think of the right brain as our artistic and feeling side and our left brain as the reasoning and analytical side. This is not entirely untrue, but the two hemispheres do not work independently, but rather transfer cognitive bits back and forth to create a holistic, or perhaps a 3-D view of our world and our assessment of that world. Ideally, if both hemispheres are working in balance and partnership, the human brain is truly the most amazing creation ever made. When these cerebral hemispheres are out of balance, one side can become dominant, or in the case of a brain injury, compensate for the missing and/or injured parts. Since Bolte-Taylor is a brain anatomist, she was able to document how her brain was functioning from the inside out, truly a rare occurrence and her experience has changed our understanding of how the brain in both healthy individuals and those in repair operates. She described how her brain had to relearn the various ways one might attempt to tackle a jigsaw puzzle. Since her left brain was severely injured the analytical method of solving a puzzle or completing a puzzle wasn’t an option. For example: she could not relate the photo on the box to the physical manifestation of a completed puzzle. She could not use a deductive strategy to do the puzzle as her mind interpreted the puzzle pieces as colorful pixels unrelated to each other. Her mind did not automatically ask questions like “what do these pieces have in common” or “what if we approached this by shape”. In short, her brain didn’t have a clue on how to go from a pile of puzzle pieces to a finished result. Most of us would put the puzzle aside and determine that the task was too daunting or unachievable.
Bolte-Taylor’s mother was not willing to accept such an outcome. She suggested strategies that she knew would tap into the right side of Jill’s brain. She started with describing what a border piece or straight sided puzzle piece not only looked like, but felt like. The right side of the brain could distinguish images and tactile feeling. Once the suggestion was made, the right side of the brain not only could find those pieces and assemble them by shape and relearn how a corner piece helped make the shape of a rectangle, but it remembered that visual for future puzzle strategies. Next, the idea of color sorting was made. Jill’s right side of the brain didn’t know what the term “color” meant. It had lost the definition on the left side of the brain. But her right side of the brain could distinguish the pictures and hues. Once the idea of color was explained, all of a sudden she was able to use that to sort pieces into color groups and she recaptured the ability to “see” color. Bit by bit, they found pieces that fit together and made the correlation that the image on the puzzle table duplicated the image on the puzzle box. The simple task of understanding the shiny side of a puzzle piece vs. the cardboard side was key to the objective also had to be relearned. The right side of the brain could not distinguish that strategy by stored knowledge but it could by tactile feel. Eventually, all these capacities of the right brain not only helped connect pieces that had lost their passageway in the left brain, but gave Jill a way to solve the puzzle by relearning left-brain strategies in a right-brain way.
Here’s what is so inspirational to me about that account. I often feel like my life is one large jigsaw puzzle. Like many of us, I use my left rational and data-driven brain to make sense of it. But often the left brain is so astute and discerning, it also creates a long list of criticisms, opportunities for failure, and is impatient to get on to the next task or problem at hand. It almost feels like the goal is to solve the puzzle as quick as one can to get to the next one. If 500 pieces isn’t challenging enough, let’s go for the thousand piece version. If straight edges aren’t enough of a challenge, let’s create a puzzle in the round, and for the real glutton, let’s make all the pieces the exact same shape. But if you think about it, solving or completing the puzzle only gives you a moment’s satisfaction. The real satisfaction comes from a totally different place: the process.
When we got to the rehab center where my mother-in-law has been for the last month, I came with a bit of a plan. This is not a comfortable place to introduce your teenage daughter to, nor is it a place where my mother-in-law ever expected spending what will be her 80th birthday next week. There are those that are there permanently suffering from dementia and other permanent physical and cognitive ailments. Their plaintive calls for help and companionship are unsettling. But I feel as a parent, it is just as much my job to help my daughter learn to navigate the unexpected and uncomfortable world, even if I am in the learning mode as well, as it is to teach her about the pleasantries of life. We came with a plan. We would take my mother-in-law outside to the courtyard and give her a bona-fide afternoon manicure. My daughter and I worked as a team. I clipped and filed, and she did the artistic painting and shellacking. We started with her right hand, fully functional yet with a slight tremor. I held her hand while my daughter painted and it was easy to admire our successful handiwork. Her left hand was the bigger challenge. Her left side has until a week ago, been unresponsive. Her left hand is just starting to have some functionally although sporadic and not on demand. I stroked and patted as the muscles seized up making a perfect manicure more challenging. But as a team and allowing for a couple of “re-dos” we accomplished the task. We were quiet, feeling little need for chatter, but found lots of opportunity for stroking, touching, massaging and taking in the visual transformation. My daughter was patient and focused on doing a good job. I felt the giving and receiving in this simple task in a way we rarely allow ourselves to be conscious of. Being together under a blue sky accompanied by a caressing breeze was enough, enough for this moment, enough for now.
As the heat of the sun moved overhead, we moved from outside to inside and I suggested going to the puzzle table and doing a puzzle. My mother-in-law gave me a look that was somewhere between “are you crazy” to defeat. We found a puzzle already in the early stages of work, with some of the edge pieces completed recreating an image that was dear to my mother-in-law’s heart: bouquets of flowers surrounded with sunny apricots and bright red currants. In silence, we started. I handed her the box and asked her to find the rest of the border pieces. She did. We talked about how we used to do puzzles together at their get-away house in Leavenworth, WA. My daughter diligently worked on a certain section of the image, while I used shape and pattern to skip around the puzzle. My mother-in-law found a few pieces and then decided to focus on grouping pieces by color. I remembered that this was the role she played in the past, pre-injury, pre-stroke. My father-in-law appeared and he was noticeably agitated that we were attempting such a task. He doesn’t like to see his wife’s weaknesses and I think he totally underestimated what we could accomplish with a bit of teamwork. We ended up spending an hour and completed the puzzle with each of us attending to different tasks. I gave the final piece to my mother-in-law to fit in and although it took her several tries due to her compromised dexterity, she accomplished the task all the same. We discovered there were a few pieces missing, but it didn’t really make any difference. The power of the experience was the giving, the receiving, the acceptance at all levels, and the familiarity of doing something we had all done together before.
This is an experience that I hope will remain with me as a cogent symbol of how to fit the pieces together in this puzzle that is called my life. Let me remember how multiple strategies can accomplish the same goal. I will strive to not let myself get lost in the end result, but to enjoy the process of discovery, of trial and error, and of savoring all those individual moments when the pieces fit together. I hope I remember how sometimes the picture and color of the puzzle is just as important as the shape. I will remind myself that some people will help you find the pieces and some will walk away because your puzzle is not to their liking or not their challenge. I will remember that it is more enjoyable to solve the puzzle surrounded with those that are just as willing to give than to receive. I will remember that the last piece of the puzzle should always be given to someone who has deserved the honor. And I will remember that missing pieces of the puzzle aren’t the end of the world and you can feel just as complete with those missing parts if you focus on the experience.
My daughter and I ended our afternoon feeling both satisfied and at ease. I think my mother-in-law did, too. After dinner, my daughter invited her boyfriend over. Instead of spending time as they often do playing on the computer or watching a movie on the television, they went to our puzzle shelf (facing dust bunnies and all) and chose to work on a jigsaw puzzle together. I was once again reminded that life’s lessons are truly a gift.
©Kelly Tweeddale 2012