I have written and spoken about the tremendous potential for changing one’s life in a positive way through brain plasticity. All of us have and use brain plasticity to some degree. It’s a natural part of life. We rewire our brains every time we learn a new skill, make a new friend, take a new job, or do anything at all that requires new ways of thinking and doing.
Brain plasticity is what allows you to play the piano instinctively after years of practice, when in the beginning you struggled to pick at the keys. Your brain reconfigured itself to make something that was difficult or impossible into something totally natural. The same thing happens much more quickly when you get fitted for a new pair of eyeglasses. At first, the world moves in a weird way. But within an hour or two, it’s as if you’d worn those glasses forever. That’s how fast your brain can adjust the way you process visual information.
Interestingly, recent research suggests that Aspergians like me may have considerably more plasticity than most people. It's possible some of us get life advantages from this trait, but it's also possible that excessive plasticity leads to mental disorganization or confusion in autism. Studies I participated in this summer suggest my brain may respond to changes very quickly, but it's slower than normal to return to it's original state. So when I put on a new pair of glasses my vision might adapt and normalize very quickly, but if I took them off, my vision might be slower than yours to return to the "pre-glasses" state.
It's hard to know how tests like that - measuring plasticity in a lab over a few hours - relate to larger reconfigurations like I describe here.
Significant rewiring takes place whenever one learns a new skill, so it’s no surprise that my brain underwent quite a bit of change as I’ve gone through the process of writing, publishing and discussing Look Me in the Eye. I’ve acquired many new abilities and insights, most of which are good. There’s no question that I’ve changed in ways that make me more acceptable to a larger number of people.
The TMS experiments I’ve participated in may have taken my brain rewiring even further, but I was well on my way on the basis of life changes alone. In total, the developments of the past two years are certainly one of the biggest packages of changes yet in my life.
I always wanted acceptance from other people. I wished I could overcome my lifelong shame, and the feeling that I was a fraud waiting to be exposed. I wanted to be able to engage others in the ways I observed, but could never do myself. I believe I’ve accomplished those things, in large part. Five years ago, I’d never have dreamt I’d be where I am today.
That’s a major change . . . it reaches far beyond adjusting my vision for a new pair of glasses, or acquiring a new technical skill. Learning to engage people differently brings with it the potential for a whole new way of life. But there’s a downside . . . what happens to everything that came before; the life one leaves behind?
Suddenly, I find myself in middle age, and it’s as if nothing I’ve done before matters. All my previous achievements – especially my work life - seem like they focused on machines, and it’s as if they’re for naught. And so much of my life is organized in support of those machines . . . I’m surrounded by them. I’ve made a huge shift in direction, and my life work so far was following a different path. What do I do now? This is one of the first times in my life that I’m really at a loss.
It’s almost feels unnatural to go down the old paths, and I have yet to find my way on a new one. I’m really not sure what to do, or how to do it. I’m usually pretty focused and decisive so this situation is sort of unprecedented for me.
I’ll let you know what I figure out.
Causes John Robison Supports
I support Asperger and autism advocacy groups. I also support the University of Massachusetts