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Book Summary: The Brain- The Story of You

Author: David Eagleman

Substory: The Social Brain

Often, the best way to appreciate something is to see what the world looks like when it’s missing. For a man named John Robison, the normal activity of the social brain was something he was simply unaware of as he grew up. He was bullied and rejected by other children but found a love of machines. As he describes it, he could spend time with a tractor and it wouldn’t tease him. “I guess I learned how to make friends with the machines before I made friends with other people,” he says.

In time, John’s affinity for technology took him to places his bullies could only dream of. By twenty-one, he was a roadie for the band KISS. However, even while surrounded by legendary rock and roll excess, his outlook remained different from others’. When people would ask him about the different musicians and what they were like, John would respond by explaining how they had played Sun Coliseum with seven base amps chained together. He would explain that there were 2,200 watts in the bass system, and could enumerate the amplifiers and what the crossover frequencies were. But he couldn’t tell you a thing about the musicians who sang through them. He lived in a world of technology and equipment. It wasn’t until he was forty that John was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism.

Then something happened that transformed John’s life. In 2008 he was invited to take part in an experiment at Harvard Medical School. A team led by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone was using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to assess how activity in one area of the brain affected activity in another area. TMS emits a strong magnetic pulse next to the head, which in turn induces a small electric current in the brain, temporarily disrupting local brain activity. The experiment was meant to help the researchers gain greater knowledge about the autistic brain. The team used TMS to target different regions of John’s brain involved in higher-order cognitive function. At first, John reported the stimulation had no effect. But in one session, the researchers applied TMS to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an evolutionarily recent part of the brain involved in flexible thinking and abstraction. John reported that he somehow became different.

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John Robison wears an electroencephalography (EEG) cap just before a TMS coil is placed against his head.

John called up Dr. Pascual-Leone to let him know that the effects of the stimulation seemed to have “unlocked” something in him. The effects lasted beyond the experiment itself, John reported. For John it had opened up a whole new window on to the social world. He simply didn’t realize that there were messages emanating from the facial expressions of other people – but after the experiment, he was now aware of those messages. To John, his experience of the world was now changed. Pascual-Leone was skeptical. He figured if the effects were real they wouldn’t last, given that the effects of TMS typically persist only a few minutes to hours. Now, although Pascual-Leone does not fully understand what happened, he allows that the stimulation seems to have fundamentally changed John.

In the social realm, John went from experiencing black and white to full color. He now sees a communication channel that he was never able to detect before. John’s story isn’t simply about hope for new treatment techniques for autism spectrum disorder. It reveals the importance of the unconscious machinery running under the hood, every moment of our waking lives, devoted to social connection – brain circuitry that continuously decodes the emotions of others based on subtle facial, auditory, and other sensory cues.