Different Brains (12/11/12)
Different Ways of Thinking
Different people, different brains. But as George Orwell might have said, some brains are “more” different than others.
People with “mental illness” or “learning disabilities” like dyslexia often experience lifelong reproach, ostracism and discrimination. Tell an employer you are “bipolar” and you may lose that job. No matter what your capacities or lack of costly medical treatment, you may find disability insurance unreachable. Health insurance might – might – be obtainable. But thanks to America’s unique cherry picking health insurance “system” it will often proves so high cost as to be unaffordable.
Instead we have a nationally recognized fall back position: we let people lose their jobs and livelihood so they can get Medicare or Medicaid benefits.
It’s much smarter to recognize that societies are communities. Disenfranchise or discriminate against one part of the population – whether it’s women or blacks or Asians or gays or Tea Partiers – and you hurt the whole.
The same thing goes for brains. Here are a few notes on how people with different brains fundamentally enrich the whole:
A lot of the most creative, inventive people in human history would merit today’s clinical moniker of “bipolar disorder”.
Poet Robert Lowell provided a more encompassing term – “manic-impressive”.
If there were a vote for the “greatest” artist of the 20th century, the plurality might select Pablo Picasso.
Picasso was said to work for 20 hours, sleep for two, then return back to drawing and painting. He was known for his extraordinary energy, but often would “do nothing.”
I saw the results of one such period of “doing nothing.”
In 1946 France had been laid bare. The shellshocked guardians of Antibes castle had an idea. The castle had become a ruin. Post-war tourism was practically dead. What can you do with a ruin in a ruined economy?
Invite Picasso to stay, they thought.
And he agreed. He was there for about six weeks for “vacation.” He spent lots of time on the beach, horsing around with family and friends. Art was an afterthought, a pleasant part-time sideline from idle daytime pleasures.
The castle keepers were hoping Picasso might “honor” them with a piece of art. He left them with the results of his part-time amusement.
The 80 pieces now fill the castle’s Museum of Art – perhaps the town’s most prominent tourist attraction.
Picasso was famously mercurial, generous, funny, cruel and deeply moody. He could be your best friend or your enemy, with emotional changes that flashed like waves.
Today, the families of bipolar people are notable for possessing high socio-economic status. Whatever these genes are, they can let you get a lot done.
So much is accomplished that many of a nation’s CEOs, artists, politicians, filmmakers and inventors are “functional hypomanics.”
They work longer, faster, need less sleep, and are often far more productive than most of the population.
And their mood switch is stuck at “Up” – but not so far that social and economic life become unbearably difficult.
Sometimes categories become defined in ways that are too inclusive. Many people reading popular books on Attention Deficit Disorder flood into their doctor’s offices demanding stimulants so that their brains will finally “work.”
Some feel they now possess “the answer” as to why their lives have been so much less successful than they wished or expected.
Only some of these folks will have what clinicians now agree – until the criteria change again – is clinically defined attention deficit disorder.
People with ADD like to do five things at once. Their minds are really distractible. They walk into a room planning to get their wallet and leave carrying a book.
As students they to bring finished homework assignments. They lose textbooks, laptops, phones and keys. They move so quickly from topic to topic their parents can’t keep up.
And folks with ADD do have very different brains – with very different capacities.
Unlike most of us – who can only do one thing at a time – people with ADD often do several. Their speed and multitasking capacities can sometimes prove phenomenal.
Yet for them school and conventional education is sometimes a terrible trial.
The result is that many ADD students work hard at sports, dance, or the arts. Adults with ADD work “different” kinds of jobs. They are highly overrepresented among entrepreneurs. Unable to do certain “conventional” actions, they delegate that work to others while operating simultaneously on multiple fronts.
And as in other “illnesses”, the trick in treating them is getting the areas of conventional “deficits” operating at “adequate” levels without losing the “different” capacities and capabilities.
Most autistic children cause extraordinary heartache to their parents, relatives and communities. They may cause even more to themselves.
Many autistic kids have profound intellectual deficits. They don’t navigate social life well – or at all. They have to be taught what a smile means – and when to use it.
But autistic savants are among the most studied – and gifted – human outliers. Some hear a musical piece one time and play it – like Mozart did. Others remember everything the rest of us forgot. And then there are people like Temple Grandin, who realized she had an understanding of animals that people lacked. She used it to change the way animals are fed, reared – and killed for food.
The Difference Engine
Einstein talked about the “optical delusion” of individuality. With 7 billion of us on the planet we still tend to listen to our internal, virtual reality self. Often we fail to reflect on the thousands of people we are dependent upon – for food, education, safety, health, shelter, energy.
The same principle plays out for people with different brains. Different brains mean different capacities, different capabilities. In information terms they think “out of the box” – which can help us innovate the changes we will require to survive on the planet.
So it’s time to look at the strange flip side of “mental illness and disability.” The trick in treatment is providing sufficient capacity for conventional thinking and behavior so that individuals and communities may enriched. We may also benefit by learning how the brains of people with bipolar illness and ADD and autism work, so that we may start to use some of those varied capacities ourselves.
Even if our brains are rather conventional.
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