Cliche’ to Creativity

In Recovery, Research by Emerson Jane Browne1 Comment

What does it take to heal from a TBI?

What does it take to rebuild a life or to build a new life as the new person one has become?

In an article entitled Deciding to Show Up Barbara Winter writes:

I am reminded almost daily that entrepreneurs think differently than people who are stuck in a job. … For instance, someone who has a fixed income mentality might dream of traveling and decide to scrimp and save for some faraway trip.  Given the same dream, the entrepreneurs among us will start generating creative ideas that will fund such an adventure – and maybe even bring a profit.  It’s the enormous difference that only comes from living your life as cause, rather than effect.1

Most TBI survivors become entrepreneurs of life, if not in business, just out of necessity.  We have to become advocates for our own care.  We have to become educators because TBIs are so misunderstood and, most important, we have to think like entrepreneurs to creatively overcome the hurdles our disabilities have put before us.

In groups like the TBI Survivors Network there are many heartbreaking posts because it is a place where we can be honest about the down days and the tough times, but there are also many stories of success and adjustment.  There are many who, in hindsight, even think they have become better people from the challenges they had to address due to the head injury.  (My jury is still out on that score.  I am still adjusting.)

A friend recently sent me a great article that was, in part, about developing persistence in kids.

A firm belief that the way to bounce back
from failure is to work harder—sounds awfully cliche: Try, try again.

But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly
respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving
up—is a trait well studied in psychology.

People with this trait,
, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long
periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned
that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s
also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain.

… It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch,
it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches
on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopamine
[the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.” While
putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch
lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.

What makes some people wired to have an
active circuit?

… “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says
Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked
through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not
have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”2

Now, that is an interesting thing to think about on lots of levels when applying it to TBI survivors.  First off, the “switch” is located in an area of the brain that is commonly damaged in TBIs: the orbital and medial prefrontal
cortex.  But the key thing is the sentence “The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked
”  Even though we may have damage there, most of us have a brand new, huge, “opportunity” (read: necessity) to work through “frustrating spells” and therefore build new brain cells in that area.  We have no choice but to persist.  Well, I guess we have a choice of sitting around and moping instead of working to create a new life, but most of us do not choose that.

Most of us also have impaired dopamine production.  Since dopamine is the “brain’s chemical reward for success” it stands to reason that lack thereof is an additional reason why staying positive about recovery is so very hard in the first couple of years and does seem to improve for most of us over time.  I wonder if part of the reason is that we have to rebuild our dopamine production as well as rewired our powers of perseverance.



    1. Barbara Winter, Deciding to
      Show Up”
      Winning Ways, September/October 2009.
    2. Po Bronson, How Not to
      Talk to Your Kids; the Inverse Power of Praise
      , New York Magazine, February 11. 2007
    3. Photo Neurons is by ktsdesign purchased from


Emerson Jane Browne
I am Emerson Jane Browne. I write about Brains, Apps, & Productivity, and many other aspects of Life. I speak to TBI support groups, speak and teach workshops at tech, music, and writer conferences. I consult with organizations on strategic planning and building a strong community.