08 March 2008

My brain on Insomnia

It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’m awake – again.

What do you think about at 4:30 in the morning?

My mind was floating over snippets of a fascinating book I’ve started reading, A General Theory of Love. In it, the authors were explaining the triune brain – the reptilian (what I call lizard brain), the limbic, and the neocortical, each with its different spheres of responsibility.

The authors explain that the limbic brain “collects sensory information, filters it for emotional relevance, and sends outputs to other brain areas thousands of times a day. … Human beings are immersed in a sea of social interchange, surrounded by a subtle communications network that most do not notice. The limbic brain is our internal cryptographic device, allowing us to decipher a flood of complex messages in an instant.” They then went on to describe a young man whose limbic system was malfunctioning, noting that he “didn’t acquire social conventions naturally; even with monumental effort they persistently eluded him. … Emotional signals remained obscure hieroglyphics to him.”

As I’m reading along the description of this young man, I’m thinking: Asperger’s. And, when I turn the page, sure enough, there’s the diagnosis. Aha! I think. So, Asperger’s is related to a weak link in the limbic system.

Back to 4:30 this morning. I’m rethinking this Aha!, and recalling a conversation I had about a client scenario (the clients remained anonymous – only the situation was discussed). My colleague is setting the stage, explaining that both parents are very bright engineers, and my mind jumps ahead to: the kid has Asperger’s. Yep, sure enough, that’s where the story goes. And then I remember an article I read a few years ago (maybe from The New Yorker?) about Asperger’s, and how it’s called the geek syndrome because it’s showing up noticeably among children where both parents are engineers, and maybe the increase is somehow related to more smart women pursuing careers and meeting smart men, who wind up combining their smart genes…

And then I have a 4:30 a.m. Aha! and get up to share it with whoever is actually reading my ramblings. The engineers aspect of Asperger’s is significant. Because doesn’t engineering (and other “geek”) smarts reside in the neocortical brain – the analytical, logical, sequential, executive-function brain? So Asperger’s must be related to an imbalance in the checks and balance system of the brain – too much power in the executive branch, not enough in the emotional.

(Okay, my brain just linked to our governmental system and current politics. Would it be accurate to say that our country is out of whack because too much power has been taken by the executive branch, while the congressional and judicial – which would they be? Limbic? Reptilian? – has been weakened and isn’t functioning properly? Oy, the ramblings of insomnia…)

Anyway, back to Asperger’s and on to ADD. In her latest email, Jennifer Koretsky, author of Odd One Out: The Maverick’s Guide to Adult ADD (see the articles section of my web site for a review), listed ten great things about ADD. These included compassion, creativity, a sense of humor and comedic flair, and intuition. (Why I love my ADD clients!) Notice that these traits all belong to the limbic realm. And ADD has been shown to be a weakness in the pre-frontal cortex. So again, we have a shift in balance between two parts of the brain. (The lizard brain is staying out of the power struggle, plugging along with basic operating procedures and survival, letting the newcomers hash it out.)

I don’t have any conclusions here; I’m simply sharing my realizations as they appear. The last piece I realized while reading A General Theory of Love is that my own intelligence is strongest in the limbic area. (Coming from a family that values neocortical intelligence, I’ve historically struggled with feeling less intelligent, not valuing my intelligence.) People expect me to be logical and analytical because I’m an organizer (and hell, I’m a Virgo). But I work very intuitively and on an emotional level with my clients. I also am able to know something – to “read” a person or situation – in an instant. (This was an on-going disagreement I had with Anthony. He refused to believe that I could do this and thought I was being judgmental. But if you read Blink, you’ll learn that our brains can and do work that quickly.) Anyway, I realized that my strength is in my limbic brain.

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts… Leave a comment?


Witandwisdom said...

I enjoyed these thoughtful refections on "A General Theory of Love". I have also read this book. I thought it was an important book for my own understanding of why I'm drawn to the people I am. It was one more book that got me thinking about what feels familiar might not be in my own best interest.

laura said...

Hi Claire, Very interesting. I have been thinking over all this right- and- left thinking stuff a lot since reading Shlain. I realize that a reason i love Jim is that, although he is extremely analytical and can talk any fine point to death, he is a poor writer, and doesn't enjoy reading. But he is extremely socially perceptive, obviously intelligent, very physical also... a right-brain to match my "anal" left-brain! (He also happens to be a leftie, which apparently not only reverses the halves, but makes the border more fuzzy, the functions and areas more interchangeable.) I will send you more in a Facebook message!