To understand multi-attending problems after a concussion, it is key to understand not the specific deficits, but the drain those deficits make upon the brain’s attentional resources. As I have done elsewhere on BrainInjuryHelp.com, I will use a computer analogy to help teach this lesson.
RAM, what is RAM? RAM it stands for Random Access Memory. It’s a computer term which essentially is telling us what is the computer’s capacity to hold things in its electronic storage. By electronic storage I mean held in the active processes of the computer, without actually being saved to a hard drive. What is remembered only in RAM will be lost if not saved before a power loss or crash. RAM is what the computer can actually do in real time. A similarly useful computer concept is “bandwidth”, which is the capacity of a computer to download files from the internet.
Computers have a fixed capacity (which is growing rapidly between generations of computers) to attend or “multitask.” With the computer we use the term multitask. With the brain the term usually used is multi-attend. The two are essentially equivalent. Each program that you have on your computer will require a certain amount of RAM, minimum and maximum. Each deficit or distraction in your mind, will create multi-attending problems.
Some computer programs require a whole lot more RAM than others. At the light end, are old fashioned text based word processing programs. At the other end are programs which process large files, such as movies or high definition photos. If a laptop computer is editing a movie in a high definition program like they would use in Hollywood, all of its RAM will be occupied. The more RAM a task requires on a computer, the longer the task will take. If you are doing something beyond the RAM capacity of your computer, it will either crash, give you the spinning wheel of death, or take an inordinately long time. It can be said in such a situation that your computer had multi-attending problems.
When I first started with sound and movie files on a computer in the mid-1990s, things took forever. You simply could not print and do anything else at the same time. To do what is called “normalize” a sound file would take an hour. We used to work through the night on our earlier versions of our webpages and would take naps while sound files were being saved. It took that long. Now my computer can do that same process in a few seconds, and the RAM capacity of my computer, my current laptop, is a thousand times greater than what the best desktop that Macintosh made in the mid‑90s.
See http://www.wimp.com/theinternet/ for a great look back at how far our RAM and bandwidth expectations have changed since 1981.
Now to analogize your multi-attending problems to a computer, we have to assume some completely artificial RAM constraints. But doing so will be helpful.
Attentional Demands of Normal Life
Let’s assume that your brain has 16 gigabytes of RAM capacity. Doing normal things will usually not occupy all of that capacity. For example, let’s assume that participating in and remembering a conversation might require 4 gigabytes of that 16 gigabytes of RAM. So in a normal non-stressful situation, normal people can talk and do other things with their mind.
Attentional Demands of Anxiety
Now, if the person who is participating in the conversation is anxious, the added stress on the brain of the anxiety program running at the same time as the conversation program, might move the RAM meter from 4 to 6 gigabytes. The more anxious the person, the more the brain’s attention capacity will be taken by the anxiety program. While the anxiety program is running in the background without a volitional act to involve it, it is still requiring attentional resources.
Depression Consumes Attentional Resources
Likewise depression, can consume the significant proportions of the brain’s RAM. Depression is a vague term that gets tossed around. Most often it is used as roughly equivalent to “sadness.” But in the context of depression as a RAM occupier within the mind, I define depression as follows:
Depression – A person’s concern about his or her current, past and future well being, and concern about his or her relationships with other people.
Now obviously there is a certain redundancy between saying “well being” and concern about relationships. But relationships are such an important sub-part of emotional health that I think it’s important to separate it out.
Depression in normal day to day life, takes very little RAM. But as soon as something which impacts a person’s concern for his or her well being arises, then the depression program can start to demand RAM. Making it worse is that depression in an anxious person, can start an upward cycle of multi-attending problems.
When things have gone well and the future is bright, attention doesn’t get preoccupied by concerns about well being. When you’re in a happy marriage, when your children are doing well, you don’t spend much time worrying about your relationships. But when things start to go bad, or if you are the kind of person who could loosely be called a “worry wart”, you will spend more and more of your brain’s attentional resources on concerns about well being.
Now some people are just naturally going to be more emotionally volatile. Some people are going to spend more time worrying about their future, worrying about what mistakes they’ve made in their past. Proper frontal lobe development, proper maturation creates a balance between remembering the lessons of life and spending too much time worrying about the bad that could happen. If you don’t learn from experience, you never mature. If you concern yourself too much with those lessons, you haven’t learned them at all. Those who focus too much on the bad, lose some native capacity to do the other things. That is because worrying and anxiety require too much of the brain’s RAM and create multi-attending problems.
With thanks to Gordon Johnson