My External Brain

David and his wife smiling in front of tall pine trees

Many years ago, I was introduced to a phrase that, before my brain injury, had not been part of my vocabulary: “compensatory strategies.” Why? Because prior to my injury, there had been nothing to compensate for. I was a fully formed and completely functional adult. Strategies were for board games.

So much of my journey over the last 12-plus years has been one of discovery and application … thanks to compensatory strategies. I would discover an area of deficiency, find the best mechanism I could to compensate for my newfound challenge, and apply it to my life.

Early on — sometime within the first couple of years after my injury — a doctor recommended that offloading as much as possible from my brain and instead finding external methods would be far more effective for working around my challenges. Some of those strategies still work for me today. For example, my Google calendar means that I never forget birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates. And, over the years, I’ve had several people compliment me on my memory. If they only knew!

While relying on my Google calendar helps me to plan and “remember” future events, it’s the past that I struggle the most with. Occasionally, I’ll mention to my wife, Sarah, an event that I thought was a couple of weeks ago, only to find out that it was six months (or more) ago. My linear memory remains problematic, but I’ve found a stunningly effective strategy to counteract my deficiencies: Google Photos.

Just last weekend, I rebuilt an outdoor deck at our home. Sarah and I talked about the last time I rebuilt it. I didn’t even dare take a guess, knowing that I would be probably be years off. Pulling my phone from my pocket, I opened Photos, and searched under the term, “deck,” and in a few seconds of scrolling backwards through photos and time, I found the pictures taken at the time of the last deck reconstruction. Just over a decade ago.

It’s a great strategy. Since my brain injury, I’ve enjoyed taking lots of pictures on my phone. Almost every day, I snap shots of life. Photos, these days, are no longer simply images, they’re a virtual treasure trove of information. Hidden discreetly in Google Photos are the date and time an image was taken, as well as the location. (Pro tip: Make sure “location services” is turned on.)

Since, like most people, I can’t rely on my own memories, these photos with their dates, times, and locations give me a step up, a sort of external brain. And they’re on the Cloud, so no matter how many phones I go through, all those photos will be there. I smile thinking about this strategy as a superpower. I can tell you every day I ate ice cream at our local stand last year … I dare you to do the same. 

On the 10th of next month, I will mark 13 years as a brain injury survivor. Thirteen years of the most difficult, most wonderful, most lesson-packed years of my life. And in the bigger scheme of things — if I have to pull my phone out of my pocket to check my memory — it’s really no big deal. People check their phones all the time. 

Worth a reminder: This is a strategy that has worked well for me, but there are as many types of strategies out there as there are types of people. I found a way that works for me, but if something works better for you, go for it.

And finally, I’ve come to discover that my recovery is no longer defined by getting back to who I was. Rather, I simply try to live my best life with the challenges that I have. So far, so good.