How psychology can help us understand brain injury better

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I’ve always been fascinated about what makes people tick. In my role as Litigation Executive at Novum Law, I’ve worked for many years with clients from all different walks of life who’ve sustained severe brain injuries. Many have been hurt following serious road traffic accidents; others have been injured in accidents at work or suffered due to medical negligence. But what many of them have in common is that their brain injury has resulted in changes to their personality and behaviour.

About eight years’ ago, I stumbled across a magazine article about a young railroad construction worker, Phineas Gage, who was severely injured in an explosion at work in 1848. He was using an iron rod to pack explosive powder into a hole when the powder detonated, driving the iron rod completely through his head, damaging his brain and blinding him in his left eye.
The accident destroyed his left frontal lobe and changed his personality so much that his friends described him as ‘no longer Gage’. Such was the extent of his personality and behavioural changes that the railroad construction company he worked for, which had considered him to be a model foreman, refused to take him back.

This true story of a young man injured at work whose personality changed overnight due to a severe brain injury really piqued my interest in psychology and neuroscience. His case reinforced to doctors at that time just how significant a role the frontal lobe plays in personality, emotion, decision-making and determining overall behaviour.

Out of the blue, I decided there and then to study for a degree in Psychology at the Open University part-time while continuing my personal injury litigation career at Novum Law.
My studies have been hugely beneficial in my professional life helping me to understand what our clients are going through emotionally and psychologically following a major, life-changing injury.
Brain injury survivors often experience a range of neuropsychological problems. Depending on the part of the brain affected and the severity of the injury, the impact can vary greatly from individual to individual. Personality changes, memory problems, judgement deficits, lack of impulse control and poor concentration are all common.

Some changes can be striking. For example, a brain injury survivor who used to be easygoing, energetic and caring can seem quick to anger, self-absorbed and unable to show enthusiasm post-injury. Even a person who makes a ‘good’ recovery may go through big personality changes.

Until I embarked on my degree, I didn’t quite realise just how complicated we all actually are and how important our sense of ‘self’ is.
Nor did I understand the extent to which other people impacted on our sense of ‘self’ and how social interactions are vital to our own personal growth and understanding of others.
A person who has survived a brain injury may struggle with their sense of ‘self’ and have difficulty seeing things through other people’s eyes. This can seem self-centred and thoughtless and may result in survivors making hurtful comments or making demanding requests. I’ve learned in my studies that this behaviour is completely normal and stems from a lack of abstract thinking which comes from the frontal lobes of the brain.

In order to help brain injury survivors, we need to understand the impact their injury has had on them and their families. As brain injury support charity Headway argues, being able to come to terms with lasting personality and lifestyle changes is essential for survivors to form a new, post-injury identity. Put simply, if you cannot adjust to the changes your injury has brought, it reduces your ability to participate in and benefit from rehabilitation.

Studying for a degree in psychology while working full-time has been extremely hard but it has also been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Psychology is the most fascinating, enlightening and thought-provoking subject I have ever encountered and it has certainly made me better understand the nature of brain injuries and how best to help and advise our clients and their families.

To learn more about the psychological and emotional effects of brain injury, visit:

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