Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Beauty of Every Brain

     I have been thinking lately (though lately covers a long period of time) about differences in the way individuals function. Not simply about personalities or Myers-Briggs tests, though these aspects also played a part in my pondering, but about brain wiring and communication and thought processes.(Excuse my randomness for a moment, it will come together in the end.)
    I try to keep in contact with my friends around the globe, despite our distance, and I have noticed that some of my friends communicate very well on the phone, while with others much more of a connection is established through instant messaging, or emails, or paper letters. For others I have not deciphered their best mode of communication, but they appreciate my efforts and when I finally see them again they do not feel any less close for never having responded. Interestingly, I have not noticed the extrovertedness of a person to have much to do with their strongest form of communication.
   Most nights I have dreams, usually three or four. Sometimes I wake up and tell my dreams to Nathanael and then they slowly fade away, sometimes I only remember that I drempt, and every so often I have a dream that sticks with me and I can picture it perfectly from then on. There are a few dreams I still remember from when I was three or four years old. Nathanael teases me that I live twice as long as some people. He seldom remembers dreaming, and even less frequently remembers what he drempt. During our honeymoon I awoke one morning, looked at Nathanael and asked,"How was your shop today?" Completely believing that he had opened a small business...until I saw the amused look on his face and woke up a bit more. 
    One day during graduate school I mentioned to some friends over lunch how I often wonder if someone else suddenly finding themselves with my mind would know how to use it. Somehow they took it very philosophically and thought I was saying that humans are merely machines with souls, which could be interchanged because bodies do not influence a person's self. I suppose I was wondering something nearly opposite. How much do the strengths and weaknesses of our bodies and our brain wiring distinguish us and the way we take in the world or lend it input? How has my visual thinking, vivid dreaming, and synesthesia given me a different picture of the world than Nathanael, who does not think in pictures. And why is it that both of us have trouble recalling species names of plants and animals we learned very thoroughly a few months ago, while friends who are self proclaimed "C students" seem to remember such things for years.
     Lately I have been thinking that God has given everyone their thing(s). That perhaps sanity and insanity is just a continuum of millions of characteristics and everyone has their strong points and oddities distributed in slightly different areas. (But perhaps I have just drawn this conclusion from being around too many eccentric, sock-in-sandal wearing professors.)
     My wonderings in mind, I was very glad to have recently come across the book, Thinking in Pictures: My Life With Autism, by Temple Grandin.

   Temple writes about her childhood and how her mother, certain teachers, and her aunt enabled her to excel despite having been a child who was hard to reach and might have been institutionalized by others at that time. She writes of feeling fulfillment in her work more than in a social life, and feeling attachment to place more than people. How in order to express herself in words she needs to translate her thoughts from pictures, as if she were speaking a foreign language to the world, even after all of these years of being well practiced at it. In a world where academic expectations are increasingly rigid, Temple Grandin was able to find and pursue her niche with the help of mentors who encouraged her to think the way she was built to think. She worked all the way through a PhD in Animal Science and has gone on to design more than 1/3 of the large scale livestock facilities and slaughter houses in the United States. In her book she also discusses why her designs are more humane and efficient than many of the facilities that were in place; and why she is not a vegetarian, despite feeling as though she sometimes relates more to the thought processes of cattle more than of the men and women she encounters.
     The book does not necessarily answer life's tough questions, or my little ones, but it does explore a lot of them and present a perspective I think is really helpful to consider. I would recommend it to any adult interested in having a lot of things to think about, but even more especially to individuals who sometimes have a hard time understanding or connecting with their friends or family members who have autism, learning disabilities or who just see the world differently.

"It's clear that genetic traits that can cause severe disabilities can also provide the giftedness and genius that has produced some of the world's greatest art and scientific discoveries. There is no black-and-white dividing line between normal and abnormal."  --Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures

Other media I highly recommend, which also deals with unique challenges and perspectives that are frequently overlooked:
  • Like Stars on Earth/Taare Zameen Par -- Dealing with dyslexia, and also with art, though on screen symptoms also overlap with the autism spectrum. (PG, In Hindi, with subtitles.)
  • An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks -- Stories about seven individuals with different injuries or challenges causing them to see the world in distinctly out of the ordinary ways (figuratively or literally). Oliver Sacks features both Temple Grandin and Stephen Wiltshire in the chapter focusing on autism. Many of Oliver Sacks' other books are also intriguing.
  • Stephen Wiltshire's website is worth exploring either before or after you have read his profile by Dr. Sacks. Be sure to watch one of the video clips detailing Stephen's amazing artistic process.
  • And on the topic of synesthesia, Cassidy Curtis has written a detailed article, which is quite an accurate representation of what I personally experience.  Many articles and fictional books are written (by people who do not have synesthesic experiences), which make this disorder sound disturbing and disabling, but very few people find their own synesthesia anything other than intriguing or helpful. In other words, don't believe those freakish videos you see on YouTube.

Do you have any thoughts on the ways people see or interact with the world? 
Any books or articles to recommend?
Do you remember any crazy dreams from childhood?


  1. They made a movie last year about Temple Grandin that is supposed to be excellent. I have only seen part of it but it's on my list :>)

    Also, "My Stroke of Insight" by Jill Bolte Taylor is a book I've just started that was highly recommended to me. Dr Taylor is a neuroanatomist who had a severe stroke and has since recovered to write about everything that happened while she was having the stroke and afterward. One of my best friends couldn't say enough good things about it and it promises to be a fascinating read from what I've seen so far. I bet you'd like it, too. Thoughts about thinking!

  2. Sarah, I love your brain. The questions you ask always make me think about things I would never think about otherwise. I think you've helped me stretch my own brain!

    I do remember some (not all) dreams very vividly, and there are three in particular from when I was 4-5 years old that I will never forget. I wish I remembered more!

    And personally, I find my ordinal linguistic personification (synesthesia) to be wonderful. :)

  3. One thing that has intrigued me is how different people remember events. I had a colleague once describe how for her everything is remembered in detailed pictures with audio. She said she would be able to recall the specific lighting, and a lot of other small details like what was sitting on the window sill. More or less if she were a good artist, she could paint the entire scene from memory. Where as for me, I remember more the impression of things. I can remember how different objects were in relation to each other, what major objects in the scene were, some activity, and in some specific cases an impression of what was said. I don't think in pictures, and I don't think in details. I couldn't ever paint any of it, not even Sarah or my mother's face. I do have impressions of them, but not pictures.

  4. I think true communication is so complicated but each one of us speaks our own language in hopes of sharing our inner heart with others and making a connection that matters in our daily lives. Thanks for all your help and the interesting reading list.

  5. I have read this book, and I don't know if you are a NPR listener or not, but Temple Grandin did an interview with NPR that had initially spurred my reading of the book. I read it while I was studying Childhood Psychology and Early Childhood Education in college, so it was really reflective of much of the things I was studying. Good read (both the book and this post).


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