Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by John Elder Robison (Spiegel & Grau 2016; ISBN 978-0812996890)

I recently read and blogged about Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison. It turns out that he also wrote two other books before this one came out this year: Be Different and Raising Cubby. (Must read those too.) I am fascinated by his descriptions of life with autism, much as I was by Temple Grandin‘s and Daniel Tammet‘s. It’s like reading about how life is lived in an alien culture; if you’ve read much of this blog, you know how cultural differences fascinate me. Autistic people’s way of experiencing the world is so different from most people’s, and their unique abilities are so remarkable.

This book briefly covers some of the autobiographical material in Look Me in the Eye, but what it is really about is Robison’s participation in a research project at Beth Israel Hospital near Boston in 2008. The study, by neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone and psychologist Lindsay Oberman, explored the effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on people with autism. (TMS involves “using an electromagnetic field to induce signals in the outer layer of the brain.”) The goal of the study was to assess whether TMS might be able to increase autistic people’s emotional intelligence–their ability to read emotional signals in others, which they are famously bad at.

The upshot of the research study is that in Robison’s case, the TMS did radically transform his ability to sense emotions in other people, which in turned engendered major changes in his behavior and human relationships–not all of which were positive. He writes openly about his post-treatment experiences, what he learned from the study, his fears and insecurities, his relationships with family and friends and researchers, and his feelings when his new-found abilities fade with time.

Robison also considers the question of whether using therapies like TMS to “cure” autism is in fact a good idea. He admits that the loneliness and bullying he endured as a child and his difficulties with human relationships as an adult were painful, but considers that the special abilities that enable him to understand machines better than other people provide a kind of counter-balance to this pain. He writes, “Sometimes, a touch of disability makes us great.” (p.274) Many of humankind’s quantum leaps forward have been made possible by the minds of people who, when we look back, seem to have been on the autism spectrum: Einstein, Beethoven, da Vinci, Mozart, and others. What if their eccentricities had been “fixed” when they were children? Would they have gone on to greatness anyway?

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in brain science and/or autism.

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