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Can’t help they can’t help (Part 1)

Good help can be hard to find. There are many reasons for this. Common explanations condemn unhelpful people—even friends and family—as lazy or stupid, at least in heated moments of frustration. While it’s possible those we look to for help could be unmotivated or lack intellectual horsepower, ineptitude has a universe of other sources. Consider the following discussion next time you call someone into the garage to serve as your sous-mechanic and find their performance wanting.

Let’s get one factor out of the way first: ignorance. This is not a lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of knowledge due to insufficient exposure or education. Even the smartest people don’t know things they haven’t yet learned, though they may be extra-quick on the uptake once given the opportunity. It would be absurdly unfair to expect someone to magically understand wheel bearing removal and installation when they’d never encountered the items or procedure before. While the other incompetencies that follow are not matters of ignorance, I suggest they are often similarly innocent and deserve our empathy rather than reproach. Our disappointment and frustration in the middle of an important project are legitimate because our aims are thwarted by the incompetent person’s limitations, but that doesn’t mean they can actually do better or deserve our contempt.

All of us have our inadequacies, surprisingly few of which are matters of choice or lack of moral stature. Our abilities are determined to a large extent by our neurology—a domain hidden not only to the casual observer, but also the individual, him- or herself. Since we don’t typically think in terms of neurological factors, we jump to conclusions about the person’s willful decisions and character. If I ask a colorblind person for the green part and they hand me the red one, I reflexively assume they weren’t paying attention, they were careless, or they were trying to be funny or obstinate. I imagine myself in their position, with all my capacities intact, and infer what their behavior would have meant if I’d done it. This approach, while ubiquitous, can lead to gross misinterpretation if significant contrasts between our respective capacities are unrecognized. When I realize they’re colorblind, I have an entirely different take on what happened. The colorblind person who doesn’t know they’re colorblind, and isn’t understood as such by others, is apt to internalize others’ mistakenly critical assessments of them, and conclude they’re mysteriously, hopelessly inept, despite their sincere efforts and intentions to do better—or they may decide others are making up the distinctions they can’t see; maybe others are just being difficult or hallucinating.

Typical colorblindness test grid, courtesy of the American Optometric Association.

Likewise, many would-be helpers are truly doing the best they can and have trouble making sense of others’ complaints. They may have little or no awareness of what prevents them from pleasing the person they’re trying—but failing—to help. Hence, they can feel ashamed and demoralized, misunderstood and unappreciated, and perhaps compelled to take a resentfully defensive stance, fending off negative feelings about themselves by condemning us as unjustifiably hypercritical, unreasonably demanding, or neurotically perfectionistic. To them, we may seem like micromanaging control freaks who find fault with everything they do, for no reason. Things glaringly obvious to us may be utterly invisible to them, just like the difference between red and green in the prior illustration.

Relatively enlightened (humbled) people have some cognizance of their weaknesses, and can tolerate reminders of these without getting their hackles up. They may even be grateful for another person’s correction. By contrast, those who can’t handle the reality of their limitations are likely to preserve their pride by insisting the problem lies in the person who points out their difficulties. The difference between these groups can boil down to whether they’ve been understood by others as having a limitation, versus being some version of bad. The colorblind person may be worthless as an assistant on a wiring task, but that doesn’t make them a worthless human being.

Let’s move beyond the colorblindness example. In Part Two, I’ll list other phenomena you are more likely to have encountered in your helpers, and found mystifying, if not infuriating. You know these people aren’t lazy as a rule because you see them working hard elsewhere. You know they aren’t stupid because they’ve demonstrated keen insights in other situations. You trust their intentions because you’ve enjoyed a good relationship and they clearly want to help—yet they repeatedly foul things up and create more work for you instead of lightening the load. What’s going on?

Keep in mind intelligence is not unitary. People can be brilliant in one domain and struggle ineffectually in another. It also only takes one buggy circuit to cause a multitude of problems downstream. Like a bad mass air flow sensor precludes proper fueling in an EFI system and thereby ruins the response of the whole motor, a malfunctioning neurological “circuit” can yield lots of processing errors at other levels in the brain and body. Just as the suspension may still work splendidly on the bike with bad fueling, many other areas of a person’s functioning may be completely unaffected by their neurological glitch. We often assume a person should be able to do one thing because they can do another, but such operations may depend on separate or divergent neural networks.

Older, more simplistic models of brain function portrayed different parts of the organ as governing cleanly defined operations. Medical understanding originally followed largely from observations of people with head injuries. Perhaps the most famous early case was Phineas Gage, victim of an accident in 1848 involving an explosive charge and a large iron tamping rod that shot right through the front of his skull (Google him!). Remarkably, he remained conscious and ambulatory, and recovered physically from the trauma. However, his behavior and attitude changed markedly. He had been a disciplined, upstanding member of the community, but lost many of his socialized inhibitions, his ability to follow plans or instructions, and his concern for others, descending into pariah status. Hence, the frontal lobes of the brain became associated with higher level executive functions, including self-control. Similarly, folks suffering injuries in certain other areas lost receptive or expressive language, so those sites were thought to be where those functions resided. Neuropsychology is in large part the science of identifying which brain structures are relevant to which brain functions. However, modern neuroscience has revealed tightly localized mapping can be misleading.

Twenty-year-old brain map from GPI Anatomicals.

While it is certainly true particular functions are concentrated in specific regions or discreet structures, neural networks are now understood as highly—indeed, unfathomably—interconnected. Functions are now conceptualized as distributed over much more brain geography. One area might be a hub for such a network, but far-flung structures can still play critical roles. What seems like a catastrophic injury may result in relatively little loss of functioning if the broader network is preserved, whereas what seems like a trivial insult may cause extensive functional losses if it’s in a vitally important location. Although neuroscience is one of the most rapidly advancing fields in all of medicine, it’s still in its infancy.

The phrase, “There’s an app for that!” seems applicable to the organ between our ears. Although there’s really no comparison in terms of complexity between even the most sophisticated computer and the human brain, there’s presumably a network devoted to any function you can name. Some of these are fairly well mapped out, while others remain as yet uncharted. While we like to think of our minds as somehow transcending their physiological substrate, the opposite is indisputable. Talk to any neurologist or volunteer on a brain injury ward at your local hospital if you need convincing. Even without the dramatic life-changing, personality-altering effects of closed-head trauma, strokes, and other brain disorders, congenital differences in brain architecture and minor damage—perhaps microscopic in scale—can have substantial influence over a person’s profile of cognitive and behavioral strengths and weaknesses. It all depends on which circuit is involved, and at what processing level.

Check out Part Two of this article for some examples of “circuit issues” potentially relevant as you try to understand why your garage helper is so little help. If you’re curious about this topic in general, look for books by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who wrote about especially outlandish and fascinating manifestations of such neural anomalies, starting with “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” (Yes, that really happened!)

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.