Recently a client jokingly asked me, “Can you give me a pill so I can instantly recover from my stroke and I don’t have to come to therapy any more?” Unfortunately, this pill has not been invented yet! Until it is invented, the best way to recover from a stroke is – practice, practice, practice.
Twenty years of experience as a speech language pathologist has convinced me that the brain is like a muscle – the more we use it, the stronger it gets. Luckily, the brain does not get bigger when we use it, the way a muscle does – if it did, we would all have “big heads”! But the brain does get faster, more accurate, and more efficient, the more that we use it.
Think back to the time when you were learning a new skill. It could have been a sport like baseball or basketball. Or it could have been learning a musical instrument like the piano. It could even have been as simple as learning to ride a bike or drive a car. You can remember that when you first started practicing, you were very slow and had to think about every move that you made. You could only do the simplest things, and even those with great difficulty. However, the more you practiced, the easier it got. As your skills got better, you could make more difficult maneuvers, move faster, and you didn’t waste as much energy. Eventually, you didn’t even have to think that much about what you were doing – you could do it “automatically”.
It took a lot of practice to become good. You probably had to practice 2-3 hours a day if you wanted to become really good. In fact, researchers found that to be a true expert in any field, you have to practice about 10,000 hours. That’s the equivalent of 20 hours a week for 10 years. So if you only practiced one or two hours a week, you probably didn’t get very good at what you were learning.
Relearning a skill after a stroke is similar to the process of learning it in the first place. Fortunately, after a stroke you usually have all the knowledge that you had before the stroke. The information is not “lost”, it is still there. The problem is that the connection to the information is broken. So you have trouble getting hold of the information that you already possess. You may “come up blank”, or your ability to do it is slower and less accurate. The only way to make the connections stronger is to practice doing the activity over and over again.
The skill of a therapist is to organize your practice. The therapist needs to know what your present abilities are, and what you would like to be able to do. The therapist has knowledge of what activities will get you from where you are to where you want to be. The therapist must also select activities that will be difficult enough to be challenging, but not so difficult that they will be discouraging or even impossible to do.
Whether you are currently in therapy or not, you can continue to improve your abilities for as long as you live. Scientists recently discovered that giant redwood trees, the largest trees on the planet, continue to grow bigger for as long as they live. The human brain also can continue to learn for a whole life time. Have you heard the old expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” ? Well, it is not true. Regardless of your age, you can keep learning every day of your life.
Keep on looking for activities that challenge you, but are not impossible for you to do today. In a few years from now, you will be amazed to see what you have accomplished!
Dorothy E Ross, PhD, CCC-SLP