Brainy Books, Part II

Hallucinations book cover the autistic brain book cover

I hope everyone had a happy and safe Independence Day!

Today I am posting the second and last installment on books about understanding the human brain.

Oliver Sacks is a prolific writer.  He uses his medical training to investigate and report on the brain through unusual cases and conditions. He, too, makes neurology accessible through his accounts (In addition to the two books discussed in last week’s post).  For some reason, I was really attracted to Hallucinations, and this random book tour of the brain brought me right up to it.  Many people reported that it does not have the oomph than some of his previous writing, but I liked it, and I liked how it demystified the process of having experiences that are not shared by others.

In Hallucinations, Sacks only deals with non schizophrenic hallucinations, ones based in other neurological functions, like drug use and reactions, seizures, Parkinson’s, migraines, half sleep states, etc. He mainly deals with those that the person having them understands is a hallucination and not real. It also demystified experiences that many people have had and chalked up to being spiritual or supernatural, like déjà vu and out of body experiences, or feeling as though one is being spoken to by God. So, if you don’t want to be challenged on some supernatural beliefs, skip those parts. Sacks discusses how overactivity in parts of the brain lead to specific kinds of hallucinations that teach us about the intended function of the overactive system.  For example, when the parts of the brain responsible for perceiving lines and grids are overactive, the person will see lines, patterns, and grids.  Did you know that we have mechanisms in the brain specifically for seeing lines and grids? People can hallucinate in only part of their visual field as well.  The book readily explains how all of this can happen in a way that enhances knowledge of how the brain works.

Probably my favorite fact from this book was how seizures have more complex hallucinations than migraines because they take place in the cortex, rather than in the more basic functional areas in the brain, like migraines do.  Added bonus about this book is it is good for research if you want to add in characters in your fiction writing that have hallucinations and neurological conditions.  Illness can be a good source of tension and I am thinking of having a character with a neurological abnormality in a story that is kicking around in my brain.

All of this brain talk, especially the two books dealing with how brain damage can be circumvented with the use of less favored pathways in the brain, makes me think about how all these advances in understanding could help people with autism.  Specifically, I wonder how science could strengthen underactive or weakened neurological connections that would help people with autism to increase functioning.  Thinking Across the Spectrum by Temple Grandin was a good place to start in conceptualizing how the deficits and gifts of autism manifest in the brain. This book is in the positive symptoms post because due to the less typical development in the brain, some structures are larger than usual and lead to the extraordinary abilities that people with autism can have. Some structures are smaller and are not wired as efficiently, true, but it is the enhanced abilities of the brain which make this disorder truly fascinating.  And while Grandin takes a very strengths-based approach in her discussion of how people with autism can fit in with a larger neurotypical society, she also cautions that some deficits are not going to be overcome and must be managed. I feel this is an important lesson, because sometimes people believe that an invisible disorder can be changed with enough work on the part of the sufferer.  A person cannot change the structure or function of his or her brain just by thinking about it hard enough.  The neuroplastic changes discussed in the previous post are from specific exercises that a person performs, often with the help of a device that changes how sensory input enters the brain in the first place.

Other than being strengths based and addressing how the larger brain structures enhance functioning, Grandin also adds to her earlier work by determining the different ways in which a person with autism can think. The trouble with diagnosing autism, which is one of my roles, is that once you see one person with autism you now have…met one person with autism.  Deficits and strengths differ between people who have to manage this disorder. She talks about the different kinds of thinkers, the different ways they see the world and get from A to B. She admits herself that she thought everyone with autism thought in pictures like she does, but then with further investigation determined that some people with autism think like scientists (like her) and others with autism think like artists. Some think in pictures, some think in patterns.

However, if the topic of autism is a lot to think through, the main strength of this book is the list of jobs in the back whose requirements align with the strengths that people with autism can have. The nice thing about adulthood for anyone with a neurological, mental health or physical difficulty is that in adulthood a person can choose their optimal environment and engage in it fully.

A brief survey of brain books written for the lay public has encouraged me to seek out and read more, especially a weathered tome that I picked up at a library book sale, The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by a Dr. A. Brill, copyright 1938.  I have the B&N edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, but that book, procured for about a dollar, is just more…authentic.  If anyone has suggestions for further brain readings, please feel free to comment below. Or with any other thoughts/feelings/feedback.

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