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Creative Flip-Flopping: A Thought on My Neurodiverse Brain

  • Posted on October 26, 2011 at 3:04 AM

I was sitting in my journalism class, trying to find a way to sit that would allow me to concentrate better by making me less conscious of my body when my professor said something that struck a chord. It wasn’t a chord of similitude, but a chord of difference. The lecture was on overcoming writer’s block. I’m not saying I’ve never had writer’s block, but I’ve read few descriptions of the phenomenon that really matched up with my own experiences. My professor’s rendition was no different in that regard—it didn’t fit with my own experience.

This is by no means meant as a comment on my professor’s teaching. Aside from the obvious bias towards neurotypical processing and skills, he’s a great teacher. He really cares, he’s interested in learning our interests and helping us to develop them, and he’s got some great insights to share. In a way, even his neurotypical bias is intriguing. I love reading about how different people think. How else—unless someone describes their own thinking—am I supposed to learn what really goes on in people’s heads or how their brains work?

Sure, yeah, I’ve done Cognitive Empathy 101, but, frankly, I think the theory is baloney. People assume they understand what’s going on in each other’s heads, but there is a lot more variance than such assumptions account for. Some of the more obvious things, like whether someone is sad or troubled, provide insights into someone’s emotional state. But you don’t really know what’s going on in their heads, nor do you really understand how their brains work. Just look at all the fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and various other art forms that try to express and/or explore the differences between male and female brains. Throw in autism, bipolar disorder, ADHD, child abuse, depression, addiction, personality types, sexual orientations, cultural differences, racial differences, intelligence differences, and just about anything else you can think of—and, guess what, you’ve got a lot of different brains working in a lot of different ways. Sure, some of those ways overlap and some differences are greater than others, but the thing about cognitive empathy is that it is based on an assumption of similitude that is, more so or less so, inaccurate.

Back to the classroom. Back to my professor’s description of the work he does (and has generalized to others) to flip between the right brain and the left brain in order to produce creative works. Hm. He described in considerable detail his process of pushing through left-brained (or conscious) writing to right-brained (or unconscious) writing. Hm? I mean, really? That’s work? It takes effort? Really? Apparently it does.

My brain doesn’t work that way. I flip-flop between right- and left-brained thinking/writing almost at will. Sometimes—rarely—I’ll need a jolt. And by “jolt” I mean a few minutes to stand up and pace to unwind the right-brained rant going on in my head so I can get back to the more critical, more responsible left-brained point I was trying to make. The switch, for the most part, is fluid. I can do it at will. It’s not work. But that’s just me. Well, I’m sure there are others, but I don’t assume everyone’s brain can or should be so fluid. But, I also didn’t know how much work, and how much crap, some people have to go through to make the switch.

I have no idea whether this quirk of my brain indicates that I’m closer to the autism spectrum, or if it indicates something else entirely. The point is that individual brains work differently. Each person is different. My brain is not some standard model issued out of some cognitive-empathy-friendly box. Few people I’ve talked with understand the seething layers of discourse and distraction going on in my head and only my head almost constantly. Few people understand why writing is so much easier than talking for me: because writing forces my brain to work consciously on one and only one level at a time, while talking does not.

In fact, when I described this internal noise to someone who had a limited knowledge of psychology (Psych 101, without independent and supplemental study), they told me it sounded like I was schizophrenic, except they just used the word “crazy.” Of course, due diligence being what is and knowing enough about schizophrenia to know that it’s not something I want to experience without professional help, I told my psychologist exactly what I told that individual. She laughed (in a friendly way, not as if she were laughing at me—and yes, I can tell the difference). No, I’m not schizophrenic and no I’m not delusional. I just think too much.

Yeah, well, I knew that.

So, back to the whole brains thing—differences make for different brains, different thought patterns, different thought styles, different coping mechanisms and different internal realities. I greatly admire and appreciate Rachel’s efforts to tackle the myth that equates autism with a failure to empathize, but I’ve really, really got to wonder about the people making these claims and their ability to empathize. While Rachel is making the distinction (and it’s an important one) between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, I really have to wonder if the first step to true cognitive empathy isn’t the ability to recognize that other’s people’s brains may not (probably don’t) work like yours does. What “gets” other people—what makes them laugh, or cry, or smile, or dance, or whatever emotional response you want to insert here—isn’t necessarily going to be what makes you do the same.

We’re different. It’s not a bad thing. It really, really isn’t. If we were all the same, we wouldn’t need fiction or nonfiction narratives. If we were all the same, we wouldn’t need art or poetry or memoirs. If we were all the same, we’d bore the life out of each other—social contact would suck us dry and leave behind lifeless, boring husks of numbness. We wouldn’t need to reach out, because the only people to reach out to would be others who were just like ourselves. I shudder to think of it. Different is good. Different is right. We’re different for a reason, more so or less so, but all different. And I’m glad for those differences.

Now if we could all just figure out that communication—not some magical, inaccurate “knowing”—is how we connect.