Awareness, Insight and Impaired Brains

I like to believe that there is some purpose for the things we go through in life. As I find myself now surrounded by people I love, who for different reasons and with some variety in expression, have impaired mental functions, I am wondering what it is I am supposed to be learning from this. Of course, there is the obvious patience, of which much more is required than I naturally have, along with tolerance and compassion. You would think that one impaired brain would be sufficient to teach me, but apparently I am in need of more.

Sometimes I wish for more associations with intelligent, educated people with which to have deep conversations and share great insights. I find myself pondering about how the brain works, and sometimes doesn’t work, and how that relates to the human quest to learn and understand. So I will share some of my “insights” about things like insight and understanding.

A Continuum

There seems to be a continuum of awareness, understanding and insight, among us mortals. How much our place on that continuum is due to our own choices and actions and how much is out of our control is something I try to understand. Maybe that is not as important as I like to think. Because I am the kind of person who seeks learning and understanding, I can lack tolerance for those who don’t seem to have any interest or desire to put forth the effort to learn. I heard an interesting thought which kind of hit me in the head. It was stated as though God was speaking to us saying: “Compared to Me, you are all about the same.” Maybe it doesn’t matter so much where we all are – at least not in terms of making comparisons. Maybe some of us need to learn to be more accepting and compassionate of those who, for reasons they may or may not have any control over, have limitations. Our individual and personal focus can still be on increasing in learning and understanding without frustration that others “don’t get it” or attempting to force learning on others and drag them along our path to enlightenment.

An interaction between three general factors:

1. Physical biology – This involves sensory and brain function. Sensory defects or limitations, along with brain injuries or conditions affecting brain function, influence basic awareness and can limit understanding.

2. Personal choice, effort and action. Learning, insight and understanding do not just come to us without these. Even with properly functioning brains and physical senses, we need to focus and pay attention. It is possible to see without perceiving or hear without understanding.

3. The Holy Ghost. It may be possible to learn and understand many things by our efforts alone, but certain kinds of knowledge and understanding only come through the Spirit.

A Process Toward Insight & Understanding

My husband suffered a severe brain injury in a motor vehicle accident. Through his recovery I observed a process of becoming alert and aware. Initially he was comatose. It was interesting to observe as he began to respond to sensory stimuli, much in the same way a newborn infant does. Eventually he became more responsive to people, but remained far from showing any real insight or understanding for a long time.

The spiritual equivalent to unconsciousness has been described as “deep sleep”(Isaiah 29:10; 2 Nephi 27:5; 2 Nephi 1:13). Coming out of this is a gradual process, which can be described as an “awakening” (Alma 5:7) because of the similarities to waking from sleep.

Increasing awareness builds upon wakefulness, but adds purposeful (with intention), focused attention. My husband’s speech therapist frequently used the term “attending.” This was very difficult for him at that time and required great effort because of the injury. It requires the physical ability to filter out distractions and intentionally focus on one thing, which brain impairments can mess with. This is also where our choices and actions play an important part. We need to choose and consciously act to pay attention and focus. We must make some things a priority while ignoring others. Sometimes we try to multi-task and focus on so much that we don’t effectively focus on anything.

We can, through our physical senses and a well functioning brain, perceive our world. Making sense of what we perceive is much more complicated. In preparing a Sunday School lesson, I came upon a formula which I think is helpful:

Initial input + ponder + further study + application/experience + insight = understanding

Initial input – This can be sensory perception, an idea or principle taught, or initial inspiration. With a brain injury or impairment, sensory perception can be diminished or confused. Those with normal functioning brains still need practice to focus attention to really see or hear to come to understand.

Ponder – Some intentional thinking about what this new knowledge means helps us to interpret this input. This and subsequent steps add an active process to what might remain passive. Asking ourselves questions such as “what does this remind me of?” helps make connections with previous learning. Further “why?” questions deepen the process. Mindfulness is putting our mind to work, focusing thoughts and exploring ideas.

Further study – Seeking out additional information and studying can answer questions and help us understand underlying principles and related ideas.

Application/experience – This adds a more active step. We learn best by doing, so an intentional application of principles learned gives us needed experience. This is the experiment phase where we test out ideas and see if they hold up in actual practice. We make connections between principles learned and personal actions – “that’s what I am doing”. Sometimes learning comes as we have new life experiences and see things in a different context. We can also learn from failed attempts as we keep trying.

Insight – Many terms have been used to attempt to describe something that is real when it is experienced, but may be hard to explain. “Something clicks” and we just “get it”. We “see things as they really are” as “the eyes of our understanding are open” (D & C 110:1;D & C 76:12) . We gain understanding. We become enlightened. There is something in this that most recognize comes from outside ourselves. We can gain awareness through sensory experiences, then add to that by thought and study and experience. This is the basic learning process using our brains. This last phase though, adds to our physical human abilities something beyond ourselves.

The process can also start with such “inspiration” or “revelation” from a divine source and is definitely enhanced by study and pondering with the spirit, but this final enlightened understanding comes only through the addition of the spirit to our own efforts. This result is more sure knowledge than we can gain on our own. Remember this is a process. Insight and understanding usually come a little at a time, but can come more often with practice.

Those with impaired brains have difficulty with some of these steps – sensory issues, cognitive processing and reasoning. I have wondered if there is a way to gain insight or understanding when sensory or reasoning abilities are lacking? Do we not understand if this happens because of difficulties with communication?

I also wonder about those with highly functioning brains, but who resist the spirit. They may have the ability to gain great knowledge through learning and experience, but the ability to really understand may be lacking. Some may remain “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7)

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