With Big Brains Come Big Responsibilities

With Big Brains Come Big Responsibilities

When our brains function properly, we are able to lump a group of tasks together into one label and comprehend and complete all of the tasks under that label. This is truly impressive stuff!

I could say, "go take a shower" and lo and behold, the vast majority of you would understand all the tasks involved to complete the project. But let's actually look at the sequential tasks in this activity:

  • Remove shoes
  • Unzip hoodie 
  • Remove hoodie
  • Remove tanktop
  • Remove pants
  • Remove socks
  • Remove undergarments
  • Place items in laundry
  • Walk to the bathroom
  • Shut the door
  • Turn on the fan
  • Turn on shower faucet
  • Check temperature of water
  • Turn on shower
  • Step into tub
  • Close the curtain
  • Wet hair
  • Grab shampoo
  • Pop the top
  • Place a bit of shampoo in hands
  • Close eyes
  • Lather hair with shampoo
  • Rinse hair of Shampoo
  • Open eyes
  • Grab conditioner
  • Place conditioner in hands
  • Close eyes
  • Coat hair with conditioner
  • Grab soap
  • Grab washcloth
  • Get washcloth wet
  • Rub soap and washcloth together
  • Rub washcloth all over body
  • Close eyes when washing face
  • Rinse body
  • Open eyes
  • Rinse washcloth
  • Rinse hair
  • Grab shaving cream
  • Spray shaving cream into hand
  • Lather shaving cream on body
  • Grab razor
  • Get razor wet
  • Position blade at appropriate angle against skin
  • Move blade against skin maintaining angle
  • Rinse razor
  • Rinse body
  • Rinse conditioner out of hair
  • Rinse out shower
  • Turn off shower
  • Turn off water
  • Step out of tub
  • Grab towel
  • Dry body
  • Brush or comb hair
  • Wrap hair in towel
  • Apply face moisturizer
  • Apply body moisturizer
  • Remove towel
  • Hang towel back up
  • Style hair
  • Turn off fan
  • Turn off light
  • Leave bathroom

There are more than 60 tasks listed here, and it's STILL lumpy. Do you turn on and off the water flow as a means of conservation? I do, but this list is long enough already to make my point without additional but steps! Also, notice my sequence varies from yours.

Let's talk about instructing kids to "Go to the Bathroom"

Do kids commonly clog toilets? Yes! They are excess toilet paper grabbers.

These tasks do not come to us naturally. Each and every one of them was learned, and not all at once. Pieces and parts, retention easier as we grew up, until eventually we mostly had a routine. 

Have you ever asked a young child to brush their teeth? Another label for a series of tasks. 

I don't have children but when I used to babysit in my youth, I remember one kid who used to get the toothbrush wet, take the cap off the toothpaste, apply the toothpaste to the bristles and then suck the toothpaste off the bristles and call it a day. She was trying her best with the information she had and without a sense of consequences for failing to do this correctly.  

(A child was here last)

They are trying their best but still have things to learn -- like how much toilet paper is necessary, and how to unroll only a little at a time.  Do they often fail to flush the toilet? Yes! I cannot tell you how many times at work that kids have used our bathroom and I've walked into a disaster after them. Is this their fault? No! Along the way, it was assumed they understood this sequence when they did not. Some kids do know all the steps but the loud sound of the flush is scary, especially in a new place. Especially when they don't have support, and so fear overrides their ability to complete the task. And finally, some toilets nowadays have the flush function out of reach on the lid. If the kid has only ever used a lever flush and now they're using a toilet with the flush button up top, well...

Do all men remember to put the seat down after use? 

You get my point. Moving on. 

Sometimes, breakdowns have nothing to do with the immediate environment. 

When I'm really tired, I have sometimes rinsed my conditioner out only to again grab my conditioner and repeat the process by accident. I glitch. 

Sometimes activities become so sequential we rely on their consistency and glitch when the order breaks: 

More than once I've paid for gas inside the station while grabbing a quick snack and then drove off before pumping only realizing my mistake a few minutes later. The routine I normally followed broke and so did my ability to complete the task. 

Individual variation also factors: 

I suffer from sound sensitivity. Things that others simply tune out and work through are often physically painful for me and cause me to have a flight response. I just want to flee the offending sound. I have a number of tools I use to try to decrease and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

(My sanity savers)

Unfortunately, it is sometimes unavoidable and can become unbearable when I can't leave and I can't mitigate it to a reasonable level. In those times, I'm much more anxious and emotional. At its worst, my output drops. 

At times our learners are literal and our teachers are abstract in instruction.

Going back to my babysitting days, one time when I was maybe 10-11, as the family was leaving, the mother said to me, "help yourself to whatever you want." Young me, who didn't have things like rainbow chip cookies and goldfish crackers and pudding cups and Capri Suns and lemonade and pretzels at home proceeded to literally do just that! Help myself to all of the above in excess. I took what they said literally.

("Whatever I want," she thought…)

Were the instructions lacking for a child? Yes! Were they pissed? Hell yes! But assuming self-restraint in me at that age was a grave mistake on their part! I, assuming this was an incredible job perk and acting as though I might never have access to such a cornucopia again proceeded to do what any kid would do and gorge myself. In fact it wasn't until my mom was called that I learned the valuable lesson that my interpretation of information could fail to account for things assumed by others. 35 years later, and I still remember this like it was yesterday. 

Other Invisible Factors

Often pain is present in the learner but undetected by the teacher. How much harder is it to focus on a task when you have a migraine? A bulging disc? Bad knees that always hurt? It depends. Things we find enjoyable are typically easier to muscle through than things we don't. Severity also factors.

Still, There are Flaws

The incredible abilities we possess at learning and labeling and lumping and comprehension come to us with relative ease in our species. This ease can hinder our ability to see our learners as they are, assuming instead they have the same knowledge we do, that they are functioning with the same bandwidth and capacity we have, that they can conclude similarities in tasks when they can't, and that one concept can apply to many environments. We even make the assumption that some information should be inherent because it seems so second nature to us. 

One thing you may not know about me is that I am also part of a caregiver's support network, and one of the most difficult challenges I see my peers face in caregiving is letting go of assumptions and letting go of inconsequential differences in behavior and perspective. Oh the parallels to this field!! 

In caregiving for humans when there is a brain injury such as a dementia-type ailment which is most commonly at play in this group, it is common for the learner to lose the ability to lump, to follow a complex sequential routine, to understand some language as context-specific in use, and because parts of information are missing, when they hit a missing step nothing after can happen. They get stuck. This is so difficult for the afflicted person. They are trying so hard, and can sometimes be met with zero understanding. Imagine the toll.

("I'm trying my best, I promise")

Later in the progression, to grasp a full series of instructions or sometimes even recall how to reply to a question fully may be broken. Patience and understanding in the caregiver is critical. In caregiving for someone with an injured brain, you learn to not sweat the small stuff. You learn to stop and ask yourself, "Is there any harm in this variation of routine or in this behavior?"

If Grandma wears a hat to bed, is she confused? Yes. Does it really matter? No. Does it matter whether Aunt Shirley uses a washcloth vs soap on her hands in the shower? No. Does it matter if the fan is turned on? No.  Does it matter if she rinses the soap off? Yes. Does it matter whether Uncle Marty uses cutlery vs. using his hands when eating? No. It matters more that he gets his nutrition. In caregiving, you learn rapidly what matters and what doesn't. If you fight every battle, both your own and your loved one's quality of life drops. Quality of life is always a priority and our obligation when caring for another is to maintain it as best we can. Breakdowns in the relationship occur when being right or being in control is prioritized over all else. 

Do you want quality of life? Or do you want to be right all the time?

When you can truly understand these things, life is easier. It's liberating. You don't need to fight every battle, and you shouldn't.

It's much easier to find understanding for the learner. It's much easier to compromise and it's much easier to provide support and appreciation within the relationship. Fight it and tension is ever present. Relationships suffer. We do things we regret. We harbor unjust resentment. 

Relationships are complicated. Understanding the state of another being at any given time is hard. When one is trying their best, how do you want to make them feel? I've provided human examples because they are often easier to understand, but my message is, if it's this hard with humans, take a moment and imagine the challenges that breakdowns in communications & assumptions cause across two species. Dogs, like us, are sentient beings and just trying to do their best in this world. As their teachers, we cannot make assumptions about our learners. They are always trying their best and our biggest responsibility is to afford them understanding, patience, and the occasional compromise. 

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