'Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening' (8 out of 10) by John Elder Robison. Published by Random House Publishing Group. Available March 22, 2016.
John Elder Robison is an interesting man. You've likely seen his work as an engineer from the 1970s and '80s, though you wouldn't know it was him. You more likely know him from his previous books, "Look Me in the Eye" (2007) or "Raising Cubby" (2013). If you happen to know him through his work with the National Institute of Health or any number of Autism research groups, then you probably are already familiar with his latest work, "Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening."
I first heard of Robison through a book written by his brother, Augusten Burroughs. This was the second time I had heard of Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism, in as many weeks and the topic immediately peaked my interest. While I have never had an official medical opinion or diagnosis in regards to myself, I have had cause to believe that I live along the Autism spectrum. Odds are, readers of this website fit somewhere on that spectrum or are close to someone who does. John Elder Robison has Asperger's and that is the subject of his first book, "Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's."
Robison's latest book, "Switched On," is a mind-boggling recitation of his experience with an experimental “cure” [the quotes are my own] for Autism on the neurological level. Robison's first-person recounting of his experience with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is moving, inspirational, and terrifying. For those unfamiliar with the term, TMS may sound an awful lot like electroshock therapy. Robison explains the differences (pain, for one) and similarities (electricity and brains) quite well in the book, something I am not likely to do as well here so I'll skip it.
Robison's first-person recounting of his experience with [TMS] is moving, inspirational, and terrifying.
In addition to that explanation, Robison also explains how TMS is currently an FDA-approved treatment for depression. The neurological implications of what it can accomplish also lead scientists to believe, but have not proven, it can be used to treat other mental disorders: dyslexia, traumatic brain injury, stroke damage, addiction, and others. Robison also does not shy away from the potential pitfalls of a technology this powerful. Can it be used to prevent Orwell's “thought crimes” or correct dangerous thinking? Is advanced brain imaging capable of literally reading minds (spoiler alert, it is)? And can that be combined with TMS to actually change our opinions or the very way our brains work to create thought?
These are not the only dangers Robison discusses. He does an incredible job explaining his own choice to participate in this experimental study. His “suffering” [the quotes are not mine] from Autism and his feelings of being an outsider may not actually be a shared experience with other Autistics. As such, there are ethical and social dilemmas associated with any kind of treatment for what appears to be a naturally occurring difference in the brains of millions of individuals – differences that likely account for major advancements in civilization.
Despite the perils and potential pitfalls of this procedure, it's important to note that in Robison's case TMS has made a lasting and incredible difference. His “emotional intelligence” is increased. His ability to understand others and communicate is changed. These changes are not without cost, but they are remarkable, and at times unbelievable.
To understand more of TMS treatment, Robison's personal experiences with it, and what could potentially be coming in light of these studies, I highly encourage you to read the book. Robison's style can be dry at times, but his use of analogy and intricate understanding of the mechanical aspects of TMS (if not the neurological ones) makes this study of the brain incredibly relatable. Personally, it left me equally intrigued and terrified – with not a small amount of hope for the future thrown in for good measure. "Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening" by John Elder Robison is published by Random House and will be available everywhere March 22, 2016.
Click to preorder "Switched On" from Amazon.