Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Picture This: A Big Corporate Office Building

Lately I've been thinking a lot about brains.

Which is ironic, you see, because I have to use my brain to think about said brains. About how we use them, and how different each one is, and how different each one works.  Like Temple Grandin's.

I'm currently reading her book, titled Animals in Translation.  The simple description on the book cover, "Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior," quickly caught my eye as I was searching through discounted paperbacks at the book store a few weeks ago.

I had learned about Temple in a graduate course that I took last semester called Success for All Children and Adolescents. Another book of Temple's, Thinking in Pictures, was one of the choices on a list for a book circle assignment.  (I chose her book as my first choice, but the professor placed me in a different group.  Yep, I'm still bitter!)  I have since read Thinking in Pictures on my own and have seen the recent HBO movie, Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes (such a FABULOUS performance!  So spot on.  Bravo, Claire).  I could go on, but I think you "get the picture" that Temple is a pretty important person nowadays, and lately I've taken an active role in learning all that I can from her.

And if you ever have some free time and you're interested, watch her here (it's kind of long, but worth it!):

Specifically, I've become fascinated with learning more about the autism spectrum, because if you aren't yet aware, Temple has a high-functioning form of autism.  I'm interested in the way that Temple's brain works because she is a highly visual thinker.  The more I learn about the way she thinks, the more connections I start to make about how my own brain works and the way that I think.

I've learned that just like other brain disorders, the characteristics and symptoms of autism vary for each individual.  Take ADHD, for instance.  My traits are different than those of some other people's who are also blessed with ADHD (See what I did there?  To an extent, yes, I do believe I'm blessed with it.  Umm...a considerably small extent, but blessed, nonetheless.).  What intrigues me about both autism and ADHD are the similarities between some of the possible traits.  For example, these pretty much describe me in a nutshell:  the ability to hyperfocus, sensory sensitivity, can be easily overstimulated, tendency toward both learning disabilities and giftedness (I know, sounds like I'm tooting my own horn, which is hard to admit.  I'm obviously not gifted in math, but I think that in certain creative areas, I can hold my own, ok?) and a vulnerability to depression. 

What sparks my curiosity the most about Temple is how much of a visual thinker she is.  I always knew that my learning style was more on the visual side, but I didn't really realize the extent until I started grad school.  Now, I certainly don't think in pictures as often or as vivid as Temple, but I can definitely relate to the way she describes some of her thought processes.  This one is my absolute favorite (from Animals in Translation, pp. 89-90):

"Of course, no one knows why an autistic grown-up has trouble making connections, since our frontal lobes are normal-sized.  All we know right now is that researchers find "decreased connectivity among cortical regions and between the cortex and subcortex.  

The way I visualize it is that a normal brain is like a big corporate office building with telephones, faxes, e-mail, messengers, people walking around and talking -- a big corporation has zillions of ways for messages to get from one place to another.  The autistic brain is like the same big corporate office building where the only way for anyone to talk to anyone else is by fax.  There's no telephone, no e-mail, no messengers, and no people walking around talking to each other.  Just faxes.  So a lot less stuff is getting through as a consequence, and everything starts to break down.  Some messages get through okay; other messages get distorted when the fax misprints or the paper jams; other messages don't get through at all.  

The point is that even though autistic people have a normal-sized neocortex including normal-sized frontal lobes, our brains function as if our frontal lobes were much smaller or not fully developed."

I searched Google Images for a brain / office building drawing so I could insert it in this post, but couldn't find one.  I found this instead, which I think is super cool, that depicts right and left brain function.  I'd imagine Temple's office building might have been drawn in a similar fashion:

Anyway, what a fantastic way to describe it!  Wow!  I totally get what she's saying, and am thankful for the visual because now I have a point of reference when I'm trying to explain what happens to me sometimes when I'm having a difficult "brain day" as I like to call them (this should explain it).

Well, the frontal lobe that Temple refers to is a subdivision of the neocortex.  And yes, I definitely had to look that up, because I slept through, or at least daydreamed through, most of my biology classes in high school and college (focus issues, remember?).  The neocortex is responsible for specific cognitive processes like working memory, speech, language, sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spacial reasoning, conscious thought, etc.  Basically the only reason why I'm referring to this part of the brain (because as I first stated, I've been thinking about brains a lot lately!) is because I playfully like to call it the "neato-cortex" (it does so many cool things, does it not?). 

Now I will certainly have to do some more research to be sure of my facts, and so I can sound like I know what the heck I'm talking about, of course.  BUT... I suspect that there may be some form of connection issue in my own personal neato-cortex.  Hmmm...it just might be to blame for the stupid anomia I experience from time to time...  I'm on to you, neato-cortex!  Not so neato anymore, huh?!

Finally, I referred to Temple as my first "official unofficial" spiritual guide in my last post.  It's understandable to be confused about this, because with Temple's form of autism, social interactions and abstract thinking are both very difficult.  However, she has inspired me to seek out how I function best, even if it is completely scientific, so I can be the best form of myself as possible.  And there's definitely something spiritual about that for me, and that's what matters.

I was, however, searching for just a little bit more out of my "pretend" spiritual relationship with Temple -- more than just noticing a connection because we are both visual thinkers, and we both love animals.  Well, I found it (to my surprise!) in what she says here:

"But my favorite of Einstein's words on religion is 'Science without religion is lame.  Religion without science is blind.' I like this because both science and religion are needed to answer life's great questions.  Even scientists such as Richard Feynman, who rejected religion and poetry as sources of truth, concede grudgingly that there are questions that science cannot answer."

Well, I used to automatically see a picture of a synagogue when I heard the word "temple."  Now, I admirably see Temple Grandin. Doctor of Animal Science. Professor at Colorado State University. Bestselling author. Consultant to the livestock industry in animal behavior. Autism advocate.  A pioneer.  Influential.  Inspiring.  Fabulous!

Little does she know how much I respect her...

Thank you, Temple.  I think ALL of your cortexes are neato.


I want to be very clear and state for the record (whatever record that may be), that I, in no way, know what it's like to have autism.  I can't even imagine.  On a much, much, much smaller scale though, Temple has provided me with a tiny glimpse of understanding by explaining one of her mental pictures (the office building) in a way that makes sense to me. Because of her, I can explain to others what it feels like when information often takes its sweet old time to process in my brain.  Thanks for reading!    

1 comment:

Single Mom in the City said...

I love the picture of a big corporate office building. That makes a lot of sense!

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