Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Paving the Way

I was in a blissful, meditative state experiencing blue shift as my fingers glided across the keyboard of my MacBook, an action movie playing on my desktop as Guns N' Roses pounded in my headphones. Part of me noticed a disturbance in the air as someone opened and closed the door entering the room. However, I continued typing assuming that if someone wanted my attention, they'd let me know.

Twenty minutes or so later, I turned around to see Iris standing behind me in a trance-like state, her eyes fixated on the cinema display as the action movie played on. I spoke to her, but there was no reply. I stood up and walked over to her, but nothing. Then I walked over to the desktop, clicked the trackball and stopped the movie. Voila! Iris emerged.

Compatible or Not?
Iris and I are amazingly compatible from a practical perspective. Both of us are easy with changing anything and everything simply because we want to. Neither of us requires time to wake up or prepare in the morning; if we decide in the moment to do something, we just pop out of bed and go. I like to cook; Iris likes to eat. We both love to pursue and wrestle with philosophical constructs, but only insofar as we can see a practical application for them.

There is however one area where we are amazingly incompatible. Our sensory systems appear to operate at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. For me, the more the stimuli, the better. For Iris...

I love driving in densely packed, fast moving traffic. Iris prefers roads on which she is the only driver.

I become totally relaxed in crowded environments with lots of sensory stimulation and activity: sights, sounds, smells, textures. Iris tends to be overwhelmed by too much sensory input and prefers to shut herself off from stimuli when she wants to focus.

If I want to fall asleep at night, I start a movie and usually don't make it through the opening credits. Iris can be asleep when I start the movie, but will wake up and end up staying up until the movie ends.

When it's quiet (aurally, visually and otherwise), I pace and find it hard to focus. Iris becomes serene and highly focused.

Blissful Coexistence
Of course, over time we've become aware of the ways in which our sensory systems operate and how to reconcile the incompatibilities. I've learned the joy of really comfortable headphones that don't allow even a hint of sound to escape into the air. Whenever we sit in a restaurant or bar that has a television, we position ourselves so Iris is facing me and I'm facing the TV. Late at night, I start movies with my headphones on and I take my Adderall before driving to Boston or New York. If I'm having difficulty focusing while Iris is talking, I'll wash dishes or sweep or walk as we continue the conversation.

It's been working.

Sensory Systems and Relationships
Today I was talking with a friend who's been working a new job that he's really enjoying. He's found smart people and great camaraderie. He likes the work and feels really good about what's he's accomplishing. Everything is great... well almost everything.

He has one colleague that he really likes and who really like him. They respect each other and get long well. However, there are instances where their conversations seem to simply run off the rails. As he described the situation to me, it occurred to me that he and his colleague are experiencing a sensory gap.

My friend is a great conceptual thinker. He has the ability to look at a lot of seemingly disparate and independent facts, find the common threads, piece them into a cohesive framework and then determine what the most useful next steps would be. He can see the forest and the trees.

As he described various scenarios with his colleague, I realized that the colleague is a trees guy. He understands and remembers many independent details and bits of information, but isn't great at establishing and maintaining context. Instead, each detail floats along side all the others. When my friend begins extrapolating and explaining things that require a forest perspective, his colleague sees what appear to him to be giant leaps in logic and unfounded conclusions. The communications break down.

A Bit Autistic
As I've been learning more about sensory systems, I've come to understand that oftentimes children with autism have a tremendous capacity for specifics and details, but have difficulty with abstraction, extrapolation and context; they can see the trees, but don't know that there is a forest. Apparently, this has nothing to do with cognitive ability, but instead with the communications among various regions of the brain. It's a networking problem, not a computing problem.

One can first see this in terms of sensory processing. Children with autism will often focus exclusively on activities that involve stimuli from just one sensory system (e.g., flapping their hands in front of their eyes or spinning in circles or making sounds). The thought is that this is due to the child's inability to coordinate the activities of the various parts of the brain required to process and integrate multiple, simultaneous sensory stimuli. When they are faced with too many simultaneous stimuli, they can react quite strongly and emotionally. The inability to coordinate the processing of various sensory stimuli or multiple diverse concepts is essentially due to a brain that lacks synchronization.

By understanding this, parents can help their children by creating activities that take into account the child's sensory processing challenge (meet them where they are) and by conducting activities that help improve their child's sensory processing capability (growing their skills).

The lack of synchronization is not an either/or phenomenon, but instead varies dramatically in terms of degree and scope. It's probably the case that each of us experiences it in one form or another. So my theory is that we might better understand and work with people who's brains are synchronized differently than our own by taking into account what their sensory integration challenges might be.

So What?
So, is there someone in your life who seems to get caught up in details losing sight of the big picture? Perhaps they even get rigid and resistant when you try to bring them back to the broader context, insisting that details and specifics are what matter the most. My thought is that you might begin to approach them in a manner similar to the parent of a child with autism equipped with an understanding of sensory integration and brain synchronization.

First, recognize that their basic neurology has a limiting effect on their capacity to process multiple, simultaneous concepts and to maintain context or the big picture. Therefore, when you want to communicate complex ideas, you'll want to present each concept a step a time and then help build and maintain the context for them as you go.

Second, you might want to undertake exercises that are designed to improve brain synchronization. From what I've learned, the brain has an amazing capacity to rewire itself based upon activities that require the rewiring.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking about this morning.

Happy Wednesday!



  1. Wow. I love the way you think, and share Tef.
    I see this with those labeled with 'scitzophrenia' too.
    Dang those so called experts that insist on straitjacketing beautiful minds with drugs.....simply for expediency. bw Larry

  2. BW, you're such a wonderful and consistent inspiration. Thank you!


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