Brain Plasticity and how it affects us

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.


Cindy said…
What an exciting path you have been taking -I'm proud of you!
Polly Kahl said…
Could it be that now that you have achieved financial and intellectual maturity, you are evolving in more emotional ways? Maybe, as exemplified in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, you are now reaching a place of higher emotional or spiritual intelligence. Going beyond being vocationally successful to become fully human in all ways. After all, machines are great, but we're human beings, not machines, and we humans are emotional, social animals.
jess said…
We all leave certain aspects of our lives behind as we change and grow. Maybe your life with machines was necessary to give you the time and the space that allowed you to do the work necessary to take you to where you are now. If that's true, then it wasn't wasted time, it was productive time. It lead you to this wonderful place where you can say "Five years ago, I’d never have dreamt I’d be where I am today."

You likely weren't ready for all of this back then. Perhaps if you'd taken it all on too early, you wouldn't have been the amazing success that you are now.

There's a flipside to the crossroads ..


So many times in my life I've found myself humbled by the overwhelming number of paths I could take and the striking disparity among them. Looking back on those periods, I tend to see them very differently. I realize in hindsight that they were incredible opportunities to redefine certain aspects of my life in any way that I damn well pleased. That doesn't mean that it's not still scary when it happens, but I have a sense now that those inflection points in life are at least as auspicious than they are daunting.

You have the dubious distinction of being incredibly self aware. That's a wonderful gift, but it cuts both ways. You don't ride blithely along through life (me either) but instead you analyze your every move and emotion (me too).

The country singer, Tracy Lawrence sings, 'It's all how you look at it. There might be more than the side that you're seeing. Turn it upside down and shake it up a bit. It could be a good thing. it's all how you look at it.' When all else fails, leave it to the men in the cowboy hats to show us the way :)

You'll find your path. You may already be on it. If your journey so far is any indication, then I'm pretty sure it's going to be nothing short of miraculous.
The Anti-Wife said…
Welcome to the world of emotional intelligence as a primary force for living! I have confidence that it won't take you long to figure out how to appreciate all it has to offer.
~ ANNE said…
John your writing -
"But there’s a downside . . . what happens to everything that came before; the life one leaves behind?" in reference to your brain plasticity and the changes that have occurred as a result of that process. That is a very real fear of many autism parents as they embark on "therapies" for their autism kids. When for example a therapy is implemented such as a positive reenforcement behavioral model (IE Skinner verbal behavior) the fear can be at least for me that my son's wonderful gift of singing might change , that the seemingly wonderful essense of his personality may change as folks work with him on not "perseverating" or "stimming" lyrics to increasing his spoken language , developing longer utterances to be "normal" more "functional" and perhaps better understood by others to get his needs met. There may be a price we pay for more functional behavior. We try to find balance with our goals but often it is not the child deciding what the goals shall be. I too am working that out. ~ ANNE
Anonymous said…
Welcome to middle age. Others have Midlife Crises. One of the great things about Aspies, IME, is that we have a great set of tools for making ours Midlife Course Corrections.

Take a long driving vacation as soon as you can get away, preferably alone. Go to places you've enjoyed in the past and to places you've never been to before, in about equal numbers. Eat as many new foods as things you've enjoyed in the past. Listen to everything in your collection and spend an equal time with other people's suggestions and radio stations you've never considered before.

Court serendipity. Question everything. Hope for suprises. Expect miracles.

Worked for me.

Roll on!
Sandra Cormier said…
Reminds me of stroke victims who must retrain different parts of their brain to do simple tasks. The brain really is more flexible than we give it credit for.

Regarding looking back at the past -- even when I was a child, I looked out my window and imagined what it would have been like to fly into my past, knowing what my future would have been.

Would I have done things differently? Would I have taken a different path in order to avoid mistakes I knew would have caused me pain?

All I know is I'm happy where I am now, but the road was pretty bumpy.
jess said…
one addition, courtesy shakespeare (quoted wihtout attribution last night by joe biden) ..

'what is past is prologue'

mind if i borrow a 'woof'?
... said…
Go watch Donnie Darko.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
I'm surprised you've felt like a fraud, John. I would have *never* *ever* guessed that.
The Muse said…

If you watched the Republican Convention, John McCain said in his acceptance speech that he was “blessed by misfortune." He went on to say very eloquently, "To achieve REAL happiness we must serve a greater purpose than ourselves." I was deeply moved by this thought. I think that when we reach a certain point in our lives we reflect on our achievements and we contemplate our TRUE purpose on this earth. Aspiring for a creative life is really expressing a yearning for immortality, a deeply felt need for purpose and meaning in one's life. It’s not about money. And it’s not always logical. I think that what you are feeling, John, is more than just emotions or the result of TMS. Whether you realize it or not, you are on a spiritual path. Moreover, it is the journey and not the arrival that matters….
Amy MacKinnon said…
I understand completely.
As you were once concerned about being so different from everyone else, and deperately wanting to fit in, you discovered that there are far more people were like you than you ever thought. One of your llifelong goals, both past and present is written in your epilogue. Please re-read it. This may remind you when you feel lost.

Introspect is a gift that must be opened first before you can benefit from it. You now have the INCREASED ability to exercise your self-examination.

That's pretty cool, huh?
Jerry Waxler said…
Yes, plasticity is a fabulous freedom, getting to choose your future, and also an incredible responsibility... getting to choose your future. It sounds like you've managed to make the most of it so far. Keep up the good work.

Michelle O'Neil said…
John you are ever beautifully expanding. You'll figure it out and you can't get it wrong. Might I suggest breathing for a bit?

Anonymous said…
Thanks for this post, John. It reminds me of a kind of "1/4-Life Crisis" I experienced a few years ago.

Here's my story:
I was on one path -- private schooling, strong religious community, strong family, lots of "potential" etc. up until the time I was 21. Then, I made a decision as to whether to leave a certain city by train or by car. Leaving the city by car meant that I was pulled into a miraculous adventure that left me with severe PTSD and I spent the next three years homeless. (My mom said, "I expected you to be upwardly mobile, but now you're downwardly mobile.") At the time, I was convinced that I was on a spiritual journey, and that not only was it the only course of action open to me, but that it was in fact the most productive and useful path I could have taken.

Later, when I turned my life around and started putting my life back together, it was difficult to know how to look at that 3-year period. It was as if two roads had diverged, and my "normal" life had continued in some alternate universe somewhere while the life I had lived was just a huge detour. So the question was -- should I look at it all as merely having been the symptoms of a disease? Or a spiritual gift? Or a time of great creativity and blossoming and community service? Or an opportunity to learn all the social networking skills that come with being homeless and getting one's needs met by any means necessary? Or was it just some privileged kid "slumming"?

Looking back, I feel that I've almost managed to integrate those two paths -- the "normal" life I might have had, and the "abnormal" life I did have -- and take what was useful to both of them and put them toward making a whole and balanced future. I find that I can speak with pride of the courage that it took to climb out of that situation, without necessarily saying that the situation I was in was somehow useless or something to be ashamed of.

But who knows? Maybe I've been a fraud all along, just as you've felt you were. Only time and hard work will tell...
polyrhythmia said…
Does plasticity mean that there's really no excuse for remaining autistic?
John Robison said…
Polyythmia, it does not mean that at all.

In some cases, plasticity can benefit us. But the current thinking is that excessive plasticity may actually prevent people wiht greater autistic impairment settle into a functional configuration.

Plasticity is not a path out of autism. Rather, it's a part of autism and it affects us in different ways.
~ ANNE said…
I'm fascinated by the PlASTICITY discussion. I found this, different types -Molecular mechanisms of brain plasticity: neurophysiologic and neuroimaging studies in the developing patients

Kulak W, Sobaniec W

The term plasticity, derived from the Greek word “plaistikos” meaning “to form” refers to the brain's ability to learn, remember and forget as well as its capacity to reorganize and recover from injury. There are four major types of plasticity: adaptive plasticity, impaired plasticity, excessive plasticity, and the 'Achilles heel' of the developing brain. Mechanisms of plasticity include: a change in the balance of excitation and inhibition; a long-term potentiation (LTP) or long-term depression (LTD); a change in neuronal membrane excitability; the anatomical changes-formation of new axon terminals and new synapses. Mechanisms for plasticity include activity-dependent refinement of neuronal connections and synaptic plasticity as a substrate for learning and memory. The molecular mechanisms for these processes were described in view of the current investigations. Authors presented: the role of calcium ions, calcium channels, NMDA receptors, free radicals, lipid peroxides and neurotrophins in the plasticity of developing brain. The utility of the neurophysiologic and MRI techniques were described in the determination of brain reorganization and repair in patients with cerebral palsy. Authors discussed their results on quntatative EEG and spectroscopy MRI studies in children with cerebral palsy. They have shown the existence of two processes in brain: brain damage and recovery.
Unknown said…

Interestingly, recent research suggests that Aspergians like me may have considerably more plasticity than most people.

Could you be more specific about this research?

Ie: who's it by, what did it consist of, what were it's results?

Any info would be great, and greatly appreciated.

I received your book (LMITE)as a gift and am enjoying it immensly.

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