Mar 052014

Listening is a skill, an art, can be learned or unlearned due to abuse; but it’s also something your brain is wired to do — unless you have a brain injury.

In the last few days, I began to wonder if my listening skills were improving. I decided to test them out during brain biofeedback this week, specifically during the tDCS portion.

I had talked to Dr. Lynda Thompson and had (re-)learnt that Wernicke’s Area is involved in integration of language, in understanding what you read and hear so that you know what you want to say and can link that to what you heard. If you can hear and understand better, then it’s easier to know what you want to say and more obvious to you how to link your part of the conversation to theirs. (The expression of that is done by Broca’s Area in the frontal lobes, so that has to work too to actually speak.)

In addition, I have a great deal of trouble understanding the other in a conversation when they cover up their face, especially their mouth, because they’re hiding the non-verbal part of language. I must rely on the gestural, prosody, and and facial expressions parts of language much more than pre-brain injury because my ability to understand spoken words is so lousy. I also unconsciously lip read, which helps me focus and so sink into the conversation better.

By talking during the tDCS, I’m using conversational networks, the ones involved in spoken communication, and so the tDCS stimulates them. And that’s probably why the first time I conversed with my trainer during tDCS (instead of reading during it), I didn’t have to “warm up” later that day to a group conversation. That usually entails listening for awhile then pulling hard out of my blank mind what I want say. For once though, on that day, I was able to plunge right into the conversation — I heard and generated related thoughts in real time — rather like a normal person.

So I thought if Wernicke’s Area is about hearing, then if I tried to actively listen, maybe that would help repair my listening skills.

I decided I needed to face my trainer fully during our conversation to pick up on all that non-verbal language. I didn’t expect the rather powerful connection that created and found it a bit overwhelming. Also, at first, it was effort-full to say the least. The problem I finally realized was that I was putting my focus on listening itself instead of on the content of what my trainer was saying. Focussing on content instead of on the act of listening makes listening easier. But that means you also have to have some modicum of curiosity — no curiosity equals lots and lots of effort to stay connected. Little curiosity and bad focus post-brain injury means listening ability sucks majorly. So you need to have your attention and curiosity treated to some extent before trying to listen. Mine have been.

Anyway, I relaxed into the conversation, remembering to listen more than talk, trying to also recall my old listening skills which included relating to what the other is saying. That felt effort-full too! But I guess it’s like riding a bike again. If you focus too much on the act of riding, you’ll fall off. When you focus on where you want to go, you’re a bit wobbly at first, but eventually muscle memory kicks in and after a little practice (or maybe a lot with respect to cognitive skills) it comes back.