The brain and the heart are two organs that are typically thought of as opposites. The brain is for logical thinking, and the heart is for feeling. Although the heart is certainly important for the brain as it supplies oxygen and other important nutrients, it has nothing to do with feeling, emotion, or empathy. This fact that your heart is in your brain became abundantly clear in the books “Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Changes and Emotional Awakening,” by John Elder Robison.
The author lived with autism. He could not read the emotions of other humans, nor could he understand sarcasm. He could not understand many personal insults. His shortcomings in interpersonal skills contributed to his dropping out of school. But these shortcomings were in some sense compensated for with other extraordinary talents. He had extraordinary ability with electronics. He had perfect pitch and could tune a guitar with both perfection and ease. These talents led to his working with rock groups in creating and setting up their sound systems and video effects. He worked for the group Kiss and was one of the leaders in this area.
HIs specific type of autism, there is an autism spectrum, was Asperger’s syndrome. He wrote a book about his condition, “Look at Me in the Eye,” which was quite successful and led to his giving many talks at organizations interested in autism. Nevertheless, he was aware of his deficiency and very much wanted to be able to cure or compensate for it.
So at the age of 50 he volunteered to participate in research using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This involved placing an apparatus that generated magnetic fields that were targeted for certain areas of the brain. This procedure had had some success in treating depression. However, this was a research project designed primarily to learn about the brain rather than as a cure or remedy for autism. John was doubly excited about this procedure as it involved electronics, which he loved, and because he wanted to see if it would have any effect on his autism.
As it turned out, it did. In the past when he listened to music he understood the electronics producing the music, but the music had no emotional effects on him. For the first time he actually cried from the lyrics of a piece. Now he was able to have emotional feelings. He was also about to read the expressions of others and to make inferences about how they were feeling and what their true intentions were. In most cases he found this to be beneficial. He owned a car repair shop, and was now able to have a better understanding of how customers felt.
In the past, he would miss most insults and any sarcasm from other people. However, now he did not miss these comments. And in reviewing past relationships, he realized that certain people had been routinely putting him down and insulting him without his noticing it. He ended up ending most of these relationships.
So all the effects were not beneficial. Sometimes ignorance can be bliss. His wife had a serious problem dealing with depression. In the past, although he was aware that his wife was depressed, he did not suffer any emotional effects. After TMS he did suffer the emotional effects of his wife. He felt her pain. Unfortunately the end result was a divorce.
In addition to John’s talks on autism, he participates actively non only in research, but also in review panels deciding which proposal should be funded. This is remarkable when you consider that John did not finish even rudimentary schooling. Yet he is a good choice for reviewing these proposals and for helping decide the future of research. After all, he is an author, and an author who writes quite well. This book should be of wide interest not only for people interested in autism and TMS, but for the general reading public.
The research points to a bright future in brain science. As for where TMS therapy stands today, as of early 2016 TMS is an FDA-accepted therapy for depression at hundreds of hospitals in clinics across the United States. It is also available in Canada, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.
TMS is not yet an FDA-approved therapy for autism or ADHD, but it is believed that this will come in the next decade.