Can a head injury make you smarter?
August 12, 2009 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Can a head injury possibly make you more intelligent?

When I was younger (around the age of 7 and 8), I suffered a nasty spill while jumping on the bed. I hit my head pretty hard against a wooden post on the way down and had to get huge stitches; the scare largely faded away only recently, 8 years or so later. I ended up in the hospital because of that spill for a short period of time.

At that time I was currently enrolled in a public elementary school. I was a very mediocre student. I had trouble reading and was enrolled in a special program. I was destined to be a Bs and Cs student, most likely.

After that point I seemed to rapidly improve. I'm now upwards near the top 1% of the readers in my grade, with a relatively high Lexile (I forgot what it was exactly, however). I'm a Straight A student, but with the rare "high B" once in awhile. I'm a sophomore in high school at the moment. I'm not saying this is some miracle that turned me into a genius, that's ridiculous; just that my overall learning skill and intelligence seems to have improved more rapidly then anyone expected.

Could the two events I've described just be a happy coincidence? Or could the head injury have been involved? Maybe the reading program just really turned me around? All answers appreciated in helping me explore this, and I'm more then willing to provide extra info.
posted by Askiba to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Were you held back? There's been recent buzz about the phenomenon where students/athletes with minor developmental advantages accumulate large gains in a snowball effect (see Gladwell's Outliers).

IOW: do you know how old your classmates are?
posted by gensubuser at 10:32 AM on August 12, 2009

Could the two events I've described just be a happy coincidence?

That's certainly what it sounds like.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:35 AM on August 12, 2009

Or, let's say the head injury was actually very temporary. You were enrolled in the program, which outlasted it. This program gave a boost to an in actuality not-disadvantaged student, and you were soon offered more positive praise, opportunities, and even more extra instruction in a feedback loop that continues to this day.
posted by gensubuser at 10:39 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is such a thing as being "scared straight." Maybe you just started realizing actions had consequences. By the time the lesson faded in your memory, you were already a habitual student.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:39 AM on August 12, 2009

It's possible that you received extra attention from teachers after the head injury. So not so much that you got smarter but that your education got better.
posted by Mitheral at 10:42 AM on August 12, 2009

Response by poster: I was not held back; in fact I am one of the youngest students in my group (15 this last July, and going into Sophomore year).
posted by Askiba at 10:43 AM on August 12, 2009

Could it be a coincidence? Of course. OTOH, brain injuries sometimes lead to dramatic personality changes, and a shift from a recalcitrant to a cooperative personality could easily improve academic results (e.g.).

What we need are some numbers. How often do 8-year-olds placed in "special programs" wind up at the top of the academic curve 7 years later? If the probability is very low, that tends to lend credence to your theory. If it's pretty high, coincidence is the better theory. I wish I could be more specific.
posted by grobstein at 10:51 AM on August 12, 2009

(There are some therapies that are perhaps best thought of as inducing brain injury in the hopes of good effects, viz. lobotomy and ECT.)
posted by grobstein at 10:58 AM on August 12, 2009

That's where the phrase "knock some sense into him" comes from, according to my mother. And only semi-jestfully.
posted by Benjy at 11:29 AM on August 12, 2009

Best answer: Correlation does not equal causation. You're probably overthinking this.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:30 AM on August 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Possibly, but I think it's more likely that you're just an above-average, bright teenager excelling in an unchallenging public school. It's awesome that you're a straight-A student and that you are excelling (keep up the good work!) but I doubt it's the result of some brain injury.
posted by at 11:33 AM on August 12, 2009

Response by poster: Chrisamiller: That sounds about right. I knew that phrase would come in somewhere.

Thanks all, again.
posted by Askiba at 11:40 AM on August 12, 2009

When I was younger (around the age of 7 and 8)


At that time I was currently enrolled in a public elementary school. I was a very mediocre student. I had trouble reading and was enrolled in a special program. I was destined to be a Bs and Cs student, most likely.

Did your parents spend much time reading to you or doing other education-related activities up until that point? If they didn't, that could be one explanation.

This is completely anecdotal, so take it with a grain of salt, but in my experience in "gifted"-type programs growing up, the kids that excelled early on (up until maybe 6th grade) were the ones that had the most engaged/demanding/crazy parents that pushed them to learn things faster than everyone else outside of school. By the time those kids got to high school though, parent-related influence seemed to have a much smaller impact (in some cases the impact was even negative, because those kids had a tendency to rebel against their parents at that age) and performance became much more on inherent abilities. One side-effect of this was that in early grades most of the high achieving kids were better at everything than everyone else, whereas later on it was much more common for kids to be good at one subject (such as math) and average or below average in other subjects.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:06 PM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was a mediocre math student until I got the right teacher, at age 13. Perhaps his habit of writing your name on the chalkboard if you got 100 on a test had something to do with it. (I have a nerdy strain of competitiveness...)

Point being, performance can change dramatically for other reasons.
posted by yath at 12:26 PM on August 12, 2009

I had a similar academic history minus the head injury, so yeah it could be (and probably is) a coincidence. Academic achievement is as much about attitude, behavior and environment as innate intelligence. Arguably more so. Unless you were diagnosed with a bona fide learning disability which went away, I wouldn't put much thought into it. It's possible the injury effected change in one or more of those areas, but probably not with "intelligence" in the strict sense of inherent mental ability.

That said, I imagine it's possible -- the brain is a tricky thing. But the problem with this question is that as far as I know, we don't even have a good definition of what intelligence is, much less know exactly what differs neurologically between people of different perceived levels. The seemingly hereditary nature of intelligence makes me skeptical it can be knocked into you, but IANA neuroscientist.
posted by cj_ at 12:28 PM on August 12, 2009

Your brain changes a lot as you grow. You probably matured, and that's that.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:30 PM on August 12, 2009

I remember reading, I'm pretty sure it was Oliver Sacks, talking about someone who'd had a brain injury or hemorage (details are entirely fuzzy-I could be making this up) who became obsessed with music later in life and ended up studying music composition. So I'm not entirely sure this is not possible.

As another poster mentioned, Electro Convulsive Therapy (electric shock) stimulates a seizure and can help some intractable mental illness issues. I'm not sure if that's a brain injury exactly but it's pretty interesting.
posted by sully75 at 1:56 PM on August 12, 2009

There seem to be two different questions here - whether an injury can have positive effects, and whether your early reading ability was personally affected by a head injury. There definitely are examples of people whose brain injuries were at least interesting, and may have enhanced abilities, but it is usually in a noticeably different or striking way.

Your development sounds normal - it's not uncommon for children to have some trouble adjusting until a certain point and then get into a groove - and your abilities now, while improved, are unremarkable, i.e., you would not be categorized as a savant or anything, so it seems more likely a coincidence.
posted by mdn at 2:26 PM on August 12, 2009

Interesting question! Because you are one of the younger kids in your class you may have been developmentally lagging. When you are a kid, 6 months is a huge difference. As you grow older you "catch up" with your peers. This is why a lot of people enter their kids into kindergarten late, so they will have more time to develop before starting school. I second reading Gladwell's Outliers which starts by focusing on the age of kids who do well in sports compared to their peers in the same grade. A few months makes a world of difference.
posted by CoralAmber at 3:48 PM on August 12, 2009


I study traumatic brain injury (TBI). It's definitely never a good thing to have.

If you weren’t knocked unconscious, and you didn’t experience cognitive symptoms in the weeks following the incident, then your injury was minor. And that's good, because moderate to severe brain injury results in a pathological profile that’s very similar to Alzheimer's disease: inflammation, neuronal death, and the build up of neurofibrillary tangles and plaques. The hippocampus, which is vital for learning and memory, seems especially vulnerable to TBI.

I've tested many, many, many mice after TBI—probably over a hundred at this point. The vast majority perform far worse on cognitive measures after TBI, and the drop in performance is correlated with severity of injury. I've also dissected the brains of these mice. There's always a visible crater or hole at the injury site, often with dead veins or scar tissue surrounding it, even a full month after injury. While the brain does learn to compensate for deficiencies over time, the missing tissue never grows back.

Consider yourself lucky that the injury happened to you while you were young; the brain grows tremendously in the first 10 years of life, and the young brain is much more adaptable to injury.

Other fun facts:
- Repetitive minor brain injuries may be cumulative over time. So if you care about your brain, you should probably avoid a career in boxing or football.
- People with the APOE4 genotype have a poorer prognosis after TBI, and are also much more likely to get Alzheimer's disease. If your family has a history of Alzheimer's, you may want to stop crushing beer cans on your head.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:47 AM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

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