Write me a Verbal

About the brain connection between verbal and written communication…

Until a few years ago, I had no idea that verbal and written communications are controlled by different parts of our brain. For example, I can give a verbal presentation on a subject, and follow that with a written report that should be the same. Right? Not if that part of your brain is injured.

Sarah called me one night a few years ago, after she was done with her classes for the day. She started by saying, “Dad, I had a very interesting and puzzling day today”. During her Intellectual Assessment Writing class, she had to give an oral presentation for which she had previously prepared and submitted a written assignment. Following the class, her professor invited Sarah to her office. Once at the office, her professor went straight to the point of describing how she was impressed with Sarah’s verbal presentation, but felt that her written paper did not measure up. Looking at Sarah for an explanation, she asked, what’s going on?

Sarah looked down, took a deep breath, looked up, and told the professor about her AVM and her long battle with brain injury, Gamma knife surgery, etc. She described how she was a good writer at a younger age, but how difficult it has been for her to write in recent years. Her professor asked for more details about the history of the brain injury, the treatments received, and other factors. After a long meeting with a very caring professor, who is also an expert on the subject matter, the professor asked Sarah if she was familiar with the school’s learning disability program. After Sarah replied, the professor asked why Sarah wasn’t taking advantage of such a program. This exchange describes another challenge for people with brain injury. They just want to feel NORMAL, and sometimes asking for help takes away from the normalcy they are reaching for.

After listening to Sarah’s story, I gently reminded her of my repeated hints and remarks to take advantage of programs for learning disabilities. I asked her why she was working so hard to power through all this alone without seeking help. She chuckled and said, “Like father, like daughter, dad. Are you not aware that you do the same?” At that moment, a light bulb went off in my head. She was right. That’s what I do, working harder to compensate. That evening, I sat for a moment recalling and remembering, only to realize that powering through was a natural instinct, and not an intended choice. And here is the cool part of this story. Last month, during a visit, Sarah was working on her dissertation, and I noticed something unusual. Sarah looked up in the air and away from her computer, mumbled a few sentences, then looked down and typed what she had sounded. As I stared at her for a while, unknown to her, it came to me. She actually had found a work-around solution to her verbal and written disconnect. I was amazed and mesmerized, and waited patiently until she was done to have a conversation about what she was doing.

As she took a break, I told her what I had witnessed and asked her to tell me what that was all about. Sarah was a bit surprised, and we both discovered how she had slowly found a way around her disconnect. We both learned something valuable that evening. Slow but definite progress.

Brain injury progress is possible and plausible. It may take years, but repairs and new paths in the brain are possible. I am reminded of three things here. First, how Sarah’s determination has helped her find a way to continue playing the flute after her brain hemorrhage at age 12. (See “Sarah’s Brain Injury”.) Second, I am also reminded how Sarah’s brain tried to fix problems, by switching brain function from the left side to the right side. (see “Left to Right”.) Third, by writing and sounding out words, there might be a work around, in order to deal with her verbal and written disconnect. Fascinating!

With one year left to complete her PhD, Sarah joined the Learning Disability program. Yes, it took over 15 challenging years before she did, and I am sure there were great things that came with those years of struggles. Anyways, the next semester, she moved on to become the president of that Disability program for her campus, and a member of the council for the University.