Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Robison puts his hand up for a study offering the tantalising prospect of enhanced emotional intelligence using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.


Switched On by John Elder Robison

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It takes a singular brain to invent the rocket-shooting guitars that, along with Gene Simmons’ tongue and some bad-ass lyrics turned KISS into seventies rock icons.

But while John Elder Robison’s gift for gizmos shot him to tech stardom as sound engineer to KISS and Pink Floyd, his ham-fisted handle on human empathy meant a childhood that was, in his words, lonely, broken and confused.

Robison’s 2007 bestseller Look Me in the Eye recounts his eventual diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome; Switched On follows-up with the tale of a mind-bending scientific ride that leaves him questioning if life “on the spectrum” is such a curse after all.

No one knows for sure what causes autism but one theory points to over-abundant neuroplasticity, the brain’s perennial ability to forge new pathways in the process of learning. The overshoot creates a multitude of spindly connections but not enough heavy haulage pathways to handle the brain’s urgent messages; to borrow the book’s analogy there are lots of bumpy byways and not enough superfast highways. And B roads don’t cut it when you need to send feelings.

Robison is all thumbs when it comes to reading other people’s emotions and responding in kind; sarcastic quips leave him baffled and when someone trips over about the best he can offer is, “Get up”. So he puts his hand up for a study offering the tantalising prospect of enhanced emotional intelligence using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a technology that pulses low level electricity into the brain from a coil applied to the outside of the skull.

TMS is already an approved treatment for depression and migraine and its experimental promise in autism is to etch those crucial motorways into the mirror neurones that sense and respond to emotion.

Driving home after his first TMS session Robison gets more than he bargained for. As soul funk outfit The Tavares Brothers croons from his iPod Robison is overwhelmed with a hyperrealism that beams him back to the smoky ’70s and floods him with alien feelings.

“Perhaps I was hearing music pure, and true, without the distorting lens of autism. Perhaps others heard that emotion all along, and now I could too,” he writes.

Read the full review in the Age newspaper here

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Many people with Asperger’s or autism struggle to see the world through the disorder’s distorting lens. CREDIT:MICHELE MOSSOP