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A personal experience of brain plasticity

In People, Biographies and Interviews by Christopher MichaelsLeave a Comment

After having a stroke and then acquiring epilepsy, I had to train my brain all over again. Even if you aren’t struck by a catastrophic event as I was, knowing how to manage your brain can help you to achieve your goals and live a fuller life.


On the 31st of December 2014 I had a stroke. It was terrifying and fascinating. The fascination was useful, but I didn’t notice the terror until months later. I’m still managing the terror, but at the time my brain did what comes naturally – it protected me. I was paralysed on my left side for two weeks and took another month to learn to walk and use my hand again.

I was lucky. The stroke only affected a small part of my brain; the part that controls movement and proprioception for my left arm down to my hand and my left leg down to my foot. (Proprioception is the sense that tells you where your body parts are in relation to each other and the shape of your body.)

I was lucky in many ways. My history with dance, yoga, martial arts, meditation, personal growth, mindfulness through Vipassana; and my fascination with the mind, brain, and spirit helped me recover ‘miraculously’, according to the medical rehab staff. At the time I couldn’t have known this but all these practices had taught me to manage my brain. Some months later I read Norman Doidge’s book The Brain’s Way of Healing and I realised that my experiences with Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique had also helped.

The experience of stroke

I was in the hospital for an elbow reconstruction when the stroke happened. Another piece of luck. A little after I came back to consciousness still drugged, I noticed weird sensations in my left leg. The nurses called a neurologist. Within three questions I knew she was testing for a stroke. As an avid reader of anything to do with brain science and consciousness, I knew about brain plasticity. The moment I realised I had a damaged brain I knew I had to start training my brain all over again.

Retraining the brain

I wanted to activate pathways around the damaged area. My first strategy was Vipassana, or what some might call Yoga Nidra or body scanning. While lying in bed answering the doctor’s questions I started moving around my body – activating as many parts of my brain as I could. Inflammation caused my initial paralysis and, as the doctors said, after five days small movements gradually returned; but because I couldn’t tell where my left side limbs were I couldn’t find the muscles to control them.

The physiotherapists and occupational therapists gave me lots of repetitive exercises to get control of my muscles because these could provide measurable results (they could count and time them). I was driven. I fell over a few times because I was pushing myself beyond the exercises I’d been given. I used my creativity and drive to keep ahead of the therapists, which worried them. I even made up exercises to help myself.

By the 10th of February, six weeks after the stroke, I was released from rehab. I had recovered enough that anyone meeting me didn’t know that I’d recently been paralysed, and had had to relearn how to use my left side.

Recovery continues

I still had symptoms. I couldn’t feel the shape of my left side. I could feel sensations on my skin (like clothing touching it) and the feeling of the floor under me when doing yoga, but I couldn’t feel my muscles working, tensing, or the shape of my body. It was weird. My muscles would do what I told them to but I couldn’t tell what they were doing. The sensations of my skin on my left side didn’t come together to make a cohesive whole. I couldn’t use my fingers to feel the difference between my keys in a pocket, the pocket’s cloth, or a coin. I couldn’t feel the weight of my backpack on my left side but could on my right. So the retraining of my brain and body continued.

One exercise that came from dance, martial arts, and yoga was floor work. I have never lost the ability to fall over on any surface. This helped to protect me when I’d pushed myself too far. As a result of my experience, I knew the required strength, coordination and number of muscles involved in a simple action, like going from standing to lying on the floor and back up to standing. I practised these movements, so when I fell I was able to look after myself. This was very effective in helping me recover connection to my body.

The falls I had experienced led the therapists to think my higher brain functions, like those controlling impulse and judgement, might have been damaged. They wanted to test that. By March I was healthy enough to do five hours of IQ tests. I scored better than I had five years before.

The next recovery

A year later on 30th December 2015, over the course of two days I had two epileptic seizures that attacked the same muscles as the stroke. The doctors agreed the epilepsy was caused by the stroke. I started on a course of drugs to control the seizures. But I have not taken the drugs for three months now, after gradually testing my brain management system, slowly reducing the drugs, and finding out what works. I have not had another seizure.

The lessons

I learnt some important lessons from those tests. First, that I could trust my judgement. Having your brain betray you certainly puts big question marks around whether or not you can trust yourself. Next, I learnt that every category of activity and sense perception uses different parts of my brain. In the 18 months since the seizures I’ve been studying NLP, hypnotherapy, and fine arts, which have confirmed and deepened this lesson.

Now when experiencing epilepsy I feel weird sensations, muscles tensing without movement or choice, and tingling in my body. When these sensations present, I immediately worry that I’m going to have fit. I focus on relaxing my body, and I move my attention to activities that take me to the undamaged part of my brain. I use my right hand and leg; I do balancing activities like riding my bike, walking, Tai Chi, yoga. I focus on looking. These move me to the left side of my brain away from the scar on the right side, and I settle back to the new normal created by the stroke/epilepsy.

I don’t recommend this to anyone else as a treatment. However, the process of personal empowerment and of body awareness can help you find your own way to health. Even if you aren’t struck by a catastrophic event as I was, knowing how to manage your brain can help you to achieve your goals and live a fuller life.

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