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Rewiring Amnesia: Emotional Intelligence


My name is Ella Dorner.

As you may know, March is Brain Injury Awareness Month! I’ve never really done anything that significant for it.. So this year, I thought I'd contribute by sharing some of my experiences recovering from a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and how it affects my life today.

For those of you who know me and are familiar with my story, feel free to skip down to the article.

For those of you who don’t, let’s quickly catch ya up:

Motivational Speaker. Traumatic Brain Injury Survivor. Amnesiac. 27. Minnesota.

At age 15, I took a fall and landed with Retrograde Amnesia (a fancy way of saying I forgot my life). Like, my memory was gone. I was forced to relearn everything: colors, numbers, foods, objects, the difference between animals and humans, friends, family and my boyfriend at the time. Everything. Gone. I had the brain function of a 5-month year old, but I was trapped in a 15 year old’s body.

Have you seen the movie "Groundhogs Day" or "50 First Dates"? Yeah, it’s like that. But instead of a romantic comedy, it was like a low budget horror film. For a better idea of what happened, visit my website at Or read one of my “long story short” articles from the Pioneer Press:

Rewiring Amnesia: Emotional Intelligence

Ella Dorner

While recovering from Retrograde Amnesia + TBI, it was difficult for me to understand the meaning within conversations/interactions between others (including my own).

When either having or watching a conversation, I found myself relying on everything except the words being said. While my brain was healing, I didn’t know what half the terms/phrases even meant. The context itself didn’t help. Seriously, you could have read me the Panera Bread menu or confessed your love to me.. I wouldn’t have known the difference. However, how one says the words… that, I picked up on.

You know, like the tone of someone’s voice, their facial expressions, appearance, physical gestures or lack thereof. The way they approached, the rhythm of the words they preached, or the eye contact made available. The hundreds of little clues lightly hinting at the motive behind what they are saying and the emotion attached to each word.

I studied the non verbal communication of humans to debatebly an unhealthy level.

But in my defense, it was the only way I learned how to act/react/understand human interaction. I needed it to know when someone was serious or sarcastic; what the appropriate way to respond was or why some people respond the way they do. I needed it to know how to live and keep myself alive without understanding the verbal directions to do so.

Example: I didn’t know a birthday candle (yeah, no, like actual fire) was hot. So, when I stuck my giant hand out to touch it.. The look on my mother’s face combined with the tone in her voice was enough for me to understand not to do it - without needing a full history lesson about fire and why in fact, one should not try to poke it. (Believe it or not, the full history lesson was given immediately. I have the most incredible parents, but that’s a story for another day.)

When humans talk, we tend to hide our true feelings and intentions during most conversations. A majority of the time, we do this to respect someone/something, be professional, not hurt anyone's feelings, for business purposes etc..

I found this incredibly interesting.. Because over time, for me, it became so evident when someone would be verbalizing one thing, but their nonverbal plug-ins would be shouting another. I hate to say it.. But sometimes, when that happens, I can’t help but find it comical. Like lady, YOU don’t even believe what you’re saying. I can’t believe I’m watchin' this but sure, I’ll play along.

Based on nonverbal communication alone, It became second nature to experience what the person standing in front of me was feeling. The only way I can really describe it is.. It’s like seeing the words on their body. Like the world's most elaborate (and easiest) game of charades.

Once my brain recovered, I regained my ability to understand everyday conversations and written words like “normal”. But, once I finally had that back.. I was unable to ignore that nonverbal communication piece (which remains much louder than words will ever be for me.)

When combining both the verbal and (my over studied) non verbal communication of others.. every conversation, interaction, and situation became almost effortless to understand and identify from all parties perspective.

As goofy as it sounds.. My body perceives the energy of a situation faster than it can recognize a change in the weather. It takes nothing for my brain to pick up on all the emotions in a room. It’s a simple glance for me to be able to sense how an individual feels about something or a 30 second conversation to hear the actual intention behind what someone is saying.

Of course, as you can imagine, there are several benefits to my strange ability to read others. And I’m grateful for that. But at the end of the day, being THAT in tune with everyone else’s emotions is incredibly exhausting. It’s rare that I get to experience my own feelings before seeing/sensing others and it’s just psychologically draining.

Sometimes I wish I could just dismiss everything nonverbal and only listen to the spoken word. And sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if my brain didn’t rewire with this emotional intelligence-y focus.

I bet I wouldn’t be so tired.

I bet I wouldn’t have gotten myself into half the dicey situations I have in the past.

But, if that was the case, I bet I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that have given me some of the best moments of my life.

So yes, it’s a blessing and a curse. Honestly, my entire TBI could be described as such.

But at the end of the day.. I’m a betting woman, and I’m good with those odds.


The nonverbal piece directly links to my learned empathy. But man, this article would get SO long if I explained the two of them in one post. So, for the sake of everyone’s time, I’ll be covering that connection in my next entry.

I hope this post sheds some light on my personal experience but also, opens the conversation to Medical Professionals, Caregivers, the curious humans, and of course, my fellow TBI Survivors.

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