Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening
By John Elder Robison
2016 Spiegal & McGraw for Random House
A Book Review by Sheila Gazlay
“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” – Sir Isaac Newton
At first glance at the cover, Switched on: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening by John Elder Robison looks like it might be a fun read about a guy who rides motorbikes but it is much more. It is about success – whether defined by money or personal passions, love, family, science, and social interaction.
Switched On is really two stories in one. The underlying story is of a scientific study of individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and other atypical neurologies. The other story is that of the outcomes for those that participated in a study at ng Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, especially the effects for one man. With this book, Robison explores how being part of the study changes his strengths, abilities and perceptions. He also takes the reader on a journey of discovery of how the therapy has changed the way he perceives himself, his life, and those in it.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation – TMS- was used on John and a few other participants at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston in 2008 by a group of researchers. The aim was to see, if applied to certain areas of the brain, how and for what duration participants had any reactions. cues. Researchers weren’t sure what specific reactions might occur but were curious to see if the participants had any changes in the ability to communicate or understand social cues. Though all participants had objectively positive reactions, none had the residual effects John did.
The bulk of the story is about how TMS awakens John’s ability to make emotional connections with music, art, and the people in his daily life. Also how his new self-awareness elicits mixed emotions from his family. He begins to understand the emotions others present to him in his daily interactions. In the book, he acknowledges that he may never fully appreciate how emotional people can get about their cars for example, but he develops an ability to empathize with the customers in his car shop.
Robison tells the story of how he learned of the TMS study he participated in, how his participation in it affected his immediate family, and what he learned along the way. His natural curiosity and ability to understand and work with complex concepts helps the reader to follow along as he muses and learns more about the brain, neurodiversity, and even the possibility that relatives may have also been touched by Asperger’s.
The term neurodiverse is relatively new but it is a perfect description for people who fall within the Asperger’s continuum. It allows people who are wired differently to not be pigeon holed with labels that may be more well-known such as autistic. Neurodiversity connotes an understanding that different does not mean limited.
At the heart of the book is an understanding that people who have learned that they can use their brains differently and have full and successful lives are to be celebrated and respected not despite of but because they are non-average.
Robison talks honestly and openly about concepts such as “autistic emotional oblivion” and about the reshaping of his memories caused by TMS- that he can understand his past emotional reactions better.
The author muses about how learning to detect the emotional impact in memories lead him to understand how he’d remembered past events not as they were and made him see the truth about not only what had happened but how his reaction to it might have been colored by his autism.
In a gentle, respectful and sometimes humorous way, Robison uses care in explaining the concepts he learned on his journey, even using such visuals as trucks and highways. Along with these visuals he uses his great outlook and sense of humor as in when in explaining 3D imaging of the brain, he uses the phrase, “there be dragons” for further illustration.
Switched On encompasses 6 ½ years post study. It’s interesting to read how Robison feels he has changed and is perceived by people after the study and how his professional life has changed. It is as though because of the changes in how he views the world and the world views him, he can see opportunities for personal growth such as his photography and art. He also comes to feel that admitting our differences and pointing out the differences of the people we interact with who are neurodivergent in order to have a dialogue and promote understanding and possibly enhance the neurodivergent person’s life is not, put plainly, a bad thing to be avoided.
In the postscript of the book while describing some of the things he is involved, Robison remarks, “How did I ever leap from being a car mechanic in New England to doing those jobs on an international stage.” It is precisely this type of leap that shows – even if within your neuro diversity - you are as successful as Robison, you are able to see – almost to draw to you – chances to enrich the lives of others that possibly people who are average – those that some may differentiate as “normal”- may not see.
Though Robison sees, and outlines like a pro- the benefits of this kind of research – he speculates that the ability to scientifically find differences that some may see as hindrances to a full life and try to “fix” (my word, not his) us might lead to a neuro-homogenization. He ponders if it is really necessary that we all have the same strengths and abilities or is it necessary we do not.
Robison is a gifted storyteller, no doubt about that. With great honesty he tells of his mother’s mental illness, his marriages and their failures and life trying to be a role model to a son with Asperger’s.
In Switched On, John Elder Robison makes fascinating connections and weaves them back into the story, learns how to appreciate his life, the people in it, and ultimately himself. Switched on: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening by John Elder Robison is an insightful, fun read and stream of consciousness writing at its absolute best!