Thursday, December 17, 2009

My plastic brain?

In the department of "Man, that sounds like me," John Elder Robison writes,

Plasticity is the brain’s ability to form new paths. You might say it’s an essential component of learning any new skill. For example, when you learn the way up the stairs and down the hall to your room, you are using plasticity to make a path in your brain that tells your legs what to do to go from the front door to your nest.

The scientists in the TMS lab believe unusual plasticity is the reason I can learn things so fast. There have been many times that I’ve focused intently on some bit of arcana and become an expert so quickly that other people thought it was unbelievable.

That's me exactly. I don't really know if "brain plasticity" has anything to do with it, but several times in my life, in no more than a month or two I've mastered topical knowledge equal to (or surpassing) what other people have spent years learning. But this is me also:

But I’m afraid it’s not the whole story. Sure, if I get fascinated by something I devour all I can about my new interest overnight, but there are plenty of topics that don’t interest me much, and plasticity does not help me one bit if I have to study them. Is plasticity a kind of fair weather friend, something that only helps with things I like?

And maybe this is also me:

...scientists at the lab attribute much of my learning ability to plasticity. At the same time, they blame my social blindness in part on plasticity too. ...

Neurotypical people might have one path in their heads to recognize facial expressions. By the time they grow up, that path is well worn and familiar. People with high plasticity (referring to me) might have a hundred paths, or a thousand, and they are all smaller. So plasticity has put a lot more options inside our heads, but they are so complex that they don’t run fast like an NT person. The result – a social disability.

Again, I don't know if the theory is correct, but I'll give you an example from my experience that seems to fit it: waving at people. I see my neighbor outside every couple of weeks or so, and she's a nice lady, so she always waves at me. I'm pretty sure that when something like that happens with neurotypical people, they simply react: "Waved at by acquaintance -> Wave back." Simple.

But in my case, I don't seem to have a "Waved at -> Wave back" path in my brain. Instead, my reaction is a process something like this: "Waved at -> That's my neighbor -> She's waving -> When waved at, one should wave back -> Wave back." No single step takes a long time, but it takes a while to get through all of them, and in about half of these encounters my neighbor has already looked away by the time I wave back. Fortunately, she's a nice lady, so she hasn't stopped waving.

Does that mean that my reaction is jumping around through a bunch of different brain paths, and that's what makes it take so long? I don't know. It's an intriguing idea, and it seems like it would fit.

I can do better at waving in some cases, namely when I get used to waving at a specific person under specific circumstances. Could that mean that I've somehow managed to "groove" a brain path through repetition? Again, I don't know, but it seems to fit.

For example, when I pick up my daughter from kindergarten, her teacher, Eric, almost always waves at me. After three months, I've gotten pretty used to it, so the process goes something like this: "That's Eric -> He'll probably wave at me -> Waved at -> Wave back." Usually I manage to complete that process in a fairly timely way, before he looks away. Once in a while, I actually manage to wave first.

At least, that's what happens if I see Eric before he waves at me. If he waves at the same time I see him, it throws off my timing, and I might not wave before he looks away.

Sometimes, it's not easy being me.


  1. Learning something you don't want to is called self_discipline. Waving back is called being polite. Two NEW things you might give a try!


What do you think?