It was my son, Ben, who first alerted my to the works of Temple Grandin, an autistic agricultural equipment designer who has written extensively about both her own experiences, and our general understanding, of the autistic spectrum.
One area she highlighted was that the human brain is in a constant state of redevelopment. Where neural pathways are underfunctioning or otherwise blocked, other connections get made. These biological adjustments to the circuitry of the brain enable signals to be re-routed, directly affecting a person’s cognitive abilities.
It isn’t just autism where synaptic re-routing takes place. In a recent conversation a neighbour, who works in rehabilitating drug addicts, explained new research that addiction has physical consequences — essentially, new pathways are created to reflect the ’normality’ of drug use. Once made, pathways cannot be told to cease operating, which starts to explain why addicts can’t “just stop”.
The parallels between addiction and autism don’t stop there. Temple Grandin has highlighted the importance of learning social skills for people on the autistic spectrum, even if this means they are operating outside their comfort zone, as they enable people to interact and function in society.
“In the 1950s, social skills were taught in a much more rigid way so kids who were mildly autistic were forced to learn them. It hurts the autistic much more than it does the normal kids to not have these skills formally taught,” she remarked.
Meanwhile UK journalist Johann Hari, himself on a journey out of a pit of his own creation, was researching drug addiction. His findings surprised him — that more isolated people were more likely to become, and stay addicts. “What I learned is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” he commented. “The opposite of addiction is human connection.”
Given how the technology revolution has made us more connected, and yet more isolated than ever, both Temple Grandin and Johann Hari’s observations may be of profound importance. External connections are vital to our well-being, for sure, and these may well be reflected in synaptic connections which, once created, cannot simply be un-knotted.
Perhaps we shall find that our belief systems also exist as neural pathways, which could explain why the stances we take are so difficult to change — our views may, quite literally, be hard-wired into our brains. Changing minds may also require modifying the cell structures upon which they depend, which cannot take place on demand.
If we do learn that we are what we think, it will have profound consequences on how view such difficult topics as addiction and indoctrination. On the upside, perhaps it will also give us a better understanding of humanity’s all-too-frequent inability to act rationally.
Just a thought — or is it?