What If Telling Stories Could Fix A Brain?

What makes up a human being? If looks change as we grow, then what defines a person? Does every thought we possess add up to construct a single entity? Personality is defined as the characteristic sets of behaviors, cognitions, and emotional patterns that evolve from biological and environmental factors. What we experience in the world around us and our genes are what make us who we are. Without remembering those experiences and storing them as memories, we lose a part of ourselves that has helped shape our personality.

A human doesn’t have to have two legs and two arms to survive. They can possess an artificial heart, live without certain bones and organs, and growing hair on any part of your body is totally irrelevant. A person can even survive without certain sections of the brain. However, they say that one of the key characteristics that make us human appears to be that we can think about alternative futures and make deliberate choices accordingly. We think of ourselves in the past through memories, in the present moments that we share, and in the future by living an endless amount of possible alternate lives. But what if the way in which we think about ourselves gets destroyed, and we lose those experiences that are kept as memories? What if we are no longer able to think about ourselves and the world around us in the way in which we are used to? These were questions posed by one talented storyteller in a documentary that I just recently watched.

My Beautiful Broken Brain” is a 2014 documentary film available on Netflix about the life of 34-year-old Lotje Sodderland after she suffered a hemorrhagic stroke as a result of a congenital vascular malformation in November 2011. A few days after being admitted to the hospital, Lotje picked up a camera and began documenting some of the daily challenges that she experienced after sustaining injury to her brain through the stroke. She experienced dysphasia and apraxia, memory deficits, confusion, cognitive processing and sensory perception changes, over-sensitivity to noise, and the sensations of overwhelming fatigue, frustration, and at times discouragement about the future considering the changes in her life. The once writer initially experienced aphasia, or the complete loss of her ability to read, write, or speak coherently. It got me thinking about how we determine who we are as people and how we choose to express ourselves. 

If who we are is just a pile of memories seeking to either tell or consume others’ stories, what happens if we can’t fulfill any of these goals? Thankfully, the subject of the film, Lotje, found a way to tell her story through recorded film rather than through written words. Living her life and recording was a way for her to communicate and share her own story. It was through the documentary that she was able to redefine herself. She didn’t feel as though she was her former self, but she could determine her new self through storytelling.

Throughout the film, she compared her strange experiences with cognitive processing and sensory perception changes and over-sensitivity to noise as stepping into a new world where she could see an expanse of the universe. It was as if the hallucinatory images and overwhelming sounds gave her insight into a dimension previously tucked away from view. She saw the similarities of this strange new world with the famed American filmmaker David Lynch and his mind-bending visual work of films that juxtapose the cheerfully mundane with the shockingly macabre. Like in many of Lynch’s films, some of the effects and understanding about Lotje’s brain defied explanation. Because we simply do not know enough about the brain, we are stuck experimentally studying the grey matter. What we do find out in the film is that the constant pursuit of learning more about the mind and who we are is very beneficial.

When you know yourself and better understand your own identity, you have less inner conflict, are often happier, become better at decision making, and have better self-control. You have more tolerance and understanding of others, allowing more people to work together more cohesively, and you feel more alive. Socrates once said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom,” and when you begin to tell your own story, in whichever way you choose, you not only start understanding yourself but everything that surrounds you.

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