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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2001 / 27 Teves, 5761

Norman Doidge

Norman Doidge
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Consumer Reports

Why geek geniuses
lack social graces -- THE Massachusetts Institute of Technology, perhaps the finest post-graduate school for mathematical and computer minds in the world, has a course that teaches its entering geniuses the most basic social skills -- often at a rudimentary level. MIT students wittily dub it "charm school."

Many of the best and the brightest minds in science, math and computers are often physically and socially clumsy, and they know it. They've been teased mercilessly for being "klutzes" of one sort or another most of their lives.

Ten years ago, Dr. David Forrest, a psychoanalyst who had studied schizophrenics, turned his research attention to those who are designated "nerds," "geeks" and "space-cadets," to understand why so many with superior mental abilities are uncoordinated, come with plastic pen packs in smudged shirt pockets, have an often whiny voice with a mechanical timbre, and a sudden loud, peculiar, foghorn laugh and snort. He wondered why a "nerd" stoops to take such a close look at what interests him, sniffing his food if it smells funny, placing his nose right in it, "locking on" with his eyes. Forrest wondered if there was some special relationship between certain kinds of intelligence and the absence of physical and social graces.

Now there's a book, Shadow Syndromes (HARDCOVER), (PAPERBACK) that begins to answer Forrest's questions, and many more. Shadow Syndromes, by Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey (co-authored with Catherine Johnson), sets off a cascade of "aha" reactions that significantly alter one's conception of oneself and others.

It's only in the last few decades that we have learned that most of the major mental disorders have "shadow syndromes" or milder versions. Ratey's and Johnson's book brilliantly describes numerous shadow syndromes -- masked depressions (that show up in those who are always "being difficult"), less severe manias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, rages, and attention deficits, all of which influence our work and love lives.

For instance, Shadow Syndromes builds a powerful case that many of us "nerds" are at the mildest end of a spectrum of autistic disorders. Till recently, autism was believed to exist only in a severe form. Autistic kids have profound difficulty connecting with people, and always appear "out of it." But many have neurological difficulties as well. Autistic infants, when startled, can't turn off the startle response. They are hypersensitive, and are well-known to spend hours rocking or moving their hands rhythmically, to soothe themselves.

But 10 years ago, Edward Ritvo of UCLA, in an attempt to study autistic children, went around Utah, and spoke to the parents of every known autistic child in the state. He discovered that a number of the parents were mildly autistic themselves. Some were socially isolated, had autistic ways of walking (were "odd ducks") and spent long hours rocking.

Suddenly, it seemed that along with some well-known physical causes, there was likely a genetic component to autism. As well, the psychoanalytic observation that some autistic kids had parents who could not connect with them seemed not so far-fetched: Some of these parents were autistic.

Mildly autistic people have a characteristic, Mr. Spock-like way of speaking -- overly formal, with little emotion. They have trouble understanding the meaning of tone changes in speech and can't easily make small talk. They can't read people. One of Dr. Ratey's patients, Aaron, a socially awkward computer programmer and a 34-year-old virgin, who might have passed for neurotic, couldn't empathize at all. Never having known what empathy was, when others understood him, he felt they had invaded his mind. He showed the signs of physical awkwardness and couldn't dance unless someone physically guided each step. (Many autistic kids can't skip, or clap in time to music, and have problems with rhythm and balance.) Co-ordination of movement and balance are known to be regulated by the part of the brain called the cerebellum. We now know, from brain scan studies by Eric Courchesne, that the cerebellum is significantly underdeveloped in autism. It has also recently been shown, to the surprise of many, that the cerebellum co-ordinates both physical movement and the shifting of attention.

This finding is momentous. It led Courchesne to ask, "What would happen to the infant who comes into the world with cerebellar damage, and a clumsy attentional apparatus?" Courchesne showed that it took these kids six seconds to shift attention, and hypothesized that this was not fast enough to make out the fleeting sweeps of emotional expression and social information. A smile erupts and disappears in a moment on a mother's face. The child who cannot catch it, or who can't shift his attention quickly enough to see what the mother is smiling at, feels "out of it." At best, he catches the shadow of her smile. Thus, he cannot "tune in" to people, or share in a moment of joy. Later on, he may learn to tediously calculate what others are feeling, but that is hard work, indeed.

This cerebellar slowness may also explain some of the intellectual feats of the mildly autistic "computer nerds" that are now reorganizing the planet. (Bill Gates, according to Shadow Syndromes, is reported to rock himself, spend hours on the trampoline, not make eye contact, and have trouble making social conversation.) It is not just that computers provide an alternative to direct contact with people. Many mildly autistic people are right-brain types, often with great visual-spatial skills. Silicon Valley is filled with shy, awkward geniuses, who are able to be obsessed with certain interests or ideas; never letting go of them, they are able to make connections and discoveries the rest of us cannot.

But more importantly, because attention shifting is slowed, autistic people experience life as a series of freeze frames. Thus, they have trouble perceiving the whole. But they are far better than "normal" people at perceiving the parts. Some autistic artists can reproduce, in perfect detail, a building only seen once; the "normal" artist starts from a sketch of the whole, then fills the details in. Autistic people can see things out of context -- the starting point for invention.

Ratey and Johnson state that neuroscience "is proving Freud right: probably none of us is 'normal' -- normal in the sense of possessing a brain in which every part and system works as well as every other part and system -- and all functions lie well within an optimal range." In Shadow Syndromes you may just recognize your own "noisy" brain and the way it, for evolutionary reasons, biases how you process information. It's not too early to recommend Shadow Syndromes as one of the most fascinating books on psychiatry, for the general reader, of the past decade.

JWR contributor Dr. Norman Doidge is a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Comment by clicking here.


©2001, Dr. Norman Doidge