Your Brain is a Rain Forest

This is a great article explaining Neurodiversity with an awesome analogy which conveys that the human brain functions as an organism versus its typical comparison that it functions like a machine. The article is an excerpt of the book Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences, by Thomas Armstrong, which I plan on reading at some point.

Some salient points:

  • The human brain works more like an ecosystem than a machine.

    The primary metaphor used to describe the workings of the brain for 400 years has been the machine. The problem with this kind of approach is the human brain is not a machine; it is a biological organism. It is not hardware or software. It is wetware. And it is messy. Millions of years of evolution have created hundreds of billions of brain cells organized and connected in unbelievably complex systems of organicity. The body of a neuron, or brain cell, looks like an exotic tropical tree with numerous branches. The electric crackling of neuronal networks mimics heat lightning in a forest. The undulations of neurotransmitters moving among neurons resemble the ocean tides.

  • Human beings and human brains exist along continuums of competence

    The point here is that people with disabilities do not exist as “islands of incompetence” totally separated from “normal” human beings. Rather they exist along continuums of competence, with “normal” behavior simply a stop along the way.

  • Human competence is defined by the values of the culture to which you belong.

    In America, for example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder appears to violate the Protestant work ethic. Dyslexia violates our belief that every child should read. A hundred and fifty years ago, in an agrarian society, only the privileged few were expected to be literate. But with the advent of universal education came a mandate that everybody learn to read, and those who had difficulty were seen as aberrant.

  • Whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely upon when and where you live.

    In ancient cultures that depended upon religious rituals for social cohesion, it might have been the schizophrenics (who heard the voices of the gods) or the obsessive compulsives (who carried out the precise rituals) who were the gifted ones. Even in today’s world, being in the right place at the right time seems to be critical in terms of defining whether you will be regarded as gifted or disabled.

  • Success in life is based upon adapting one’s brain to the needs of the surrounding environment.

    We have to do whatever we can to fit ourselves into the surrounding environment if we want to survive. Many of the conventional approaches used to treat these disorders are essentially of this adaptive type. They help individuals with diagnostic labels fit in as much as possible with the “neurotypicals” among us. …What’s often missing from this picture, however, are strategies that seek to discover surroundings for neurodiverse individuals that are compatible with their unique brains.

  • Success in life depends upon modifying your surrounding environment to fit the needs of your unique brain.

    While it is true that individuals have to adapt to the world around them, it is also true that the world is very large, and that within this complex culture of ours, there are many “sub-cultures,” or micro-habitats, that have different requirements for living. If individuals can discover their particular “niches” within this great web of life, they may be able to find success on their own terms.

  • Niche construction includes career and lifestyle choices and assistive technologies tailored to the needs of a neurodiverse individual.

    Just as niche construction for animals consists of a wide range of strategies—nests, holes, burrows, paths, webs, dams, migration patterns and more—so niche construction for human beings is likewise diverse. Choices about lifestyle or career may be among the most critical in determining whether a person suffers as a disordered individual or finds satisfaction in an environment that recognizes his strengths.

  • Positive niche construction directly modifies the brain, which in turn enhances its ability to adapt to the environment.

    Caregivers should regard niche construction as a form of “special handling” for the child’s brain, to help maximize its positives and minimize its negatives in both adjusting to the world and fulfilling its highest potential.

  • For all those rolling their eyes at the Neurodiversity movement Armstrong says:

    The term neurodiversity is not a sentimental ploy to help people with mental illness and their caregivers “feel good” about these disorders. Rather, it is a powerful concept, backed by brain research, evolutionary psychology, anthropology and other fields, that can help revolutionize the way we look at mental illness. …Seeing our own inner strengths builds our self-confidence, provides us with courage to pursue our dreams and promotes the development of specific skills that can provide deep satisfaction in life. This creates a positive feedback loop that helps counteract the vicious circle that many people with mental disorders find themselves in as a result of their disabilities.



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