MY BOOK


After 20 years of research and writing, my book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses (2015) Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, is available from the publisher in a very well-made paperback edition. Initially a #1 Hot New Release in Neuropsychology and Poetry/Literary Criticism on Amazon.com, it can be acquired on Amazon in most countries, either in print, a Kindle edition, or both. If you are interested in consciousness, creativity, poetry, psychology, and/or the paranormal, I think you will find it an illuminating read. You can read the first chapter for free on the Amazon site.

The Anti-Romantic Child

Priscilla Gilman, a specialist in Romantic poetry, recently published this extraordinary book about coming to terms with her "anti-Romantic" child and the joys associated with getting to know and fully appreciate her high-functioning autistic son, Benj. Wordsworth's poetry is her mainstay, and it is artfully interwoven throughout the text to demonstrate the signposts along the way while raising her challenging, but adored son.

In the beginning, as both she and her husband were highly educated, well-read folk, she was not overly surprised when Benj started reading letters at one year old, read fluently after turning 2, and could even read her dissertation aloud with fluency and perfect intonation when he was 2 1/2. The obsession with letters is humorously depicted as he reads everything in sight, shouting out the words on all the billboards from his car seat, reading all the packaging on food products at the supermarket. He loves songs and insists on their being sung word and pitch perfectly.

On the other hand, he has trouble chewing, doesn't like playing with toys, only lining them up. He is obsessed with ritual, order and sequence, clear signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Priscilla learns that Benj's incredible talent with letters is actually a disorder--hyperlexia--which is a sign of autism. Hyperlexia is the exact opposite of dyslexia. Whereas dyslexics have trouble decoding words when reading, they have excellent overall comprehension. Hyperlexics have almost supernormal abilities in decoding patterns in language but have trouble with comprehension.  For all his talent in reading, Benj has trouble processing spoken language and getting the gist of a complex narrative. He can't initiate a conversation, but he can recite verbatim lines of the most difficult poetry, even Shakespeare!

Most of what Benj says is "echolalia," that is, repeating what he has heard his parents say. He does not know how to use the pronoun "I." But, he can repeat anything he has heard or read in the past in a context where it can make sense in the present and comfort him.

I was fascinated with this book because the author writes so well, telling her story with immediacy, intimacy, fluency, and empathy. There is both humor and moments so sad or touching that you can't help but cry.

But I was also fascinated with Benj's mind, which I tried to decode using my knowledge of left/right hemispheric differences. Here's what I found:

Benj's symptoms show to me a left hemisphere (LH) that is way overactive while his right hemisphere (RH) is underactive in some ways, over in others. While he can read at a highly advanced level, he is severely lacking in social skills as well as some motor skills, such as chewing and going up and down steps. He's fabulous with details, but doesn't get the overall context. He can recite facts with extraordinary recall but cannot relate to imaginative play. He insists on the literal at all times and cannot understand metaphor or make novel sentences. His sense of self cannot be expressed in language as there is no "I." But, he is so overly sensitive to the environment that loud sounds, textures, and tastes can overwhelm him and make him panic.

What is so beautiful about his story, though, is how his mother and father work so hard to intervene once they understand their son's problems. With a dedication beyond what you can imagine, they persevere in their own private work with him, therapies, the best schools to make him blossom. He makes incredible progress over the course of the book, finding his "I," making friends, playing the guitar, performing in school concerts, even to the point of creating his own poetry. You root for Benj all along the way and come to love this optimistic and buoyant boy, who expresses his love for his mother, his father, his brother and his grandmother with a depth and with words so moving they break your heart. Priscilla's joy becomes your own.

This is a story of maternal devotion that can serve as a model for all of us. 

2 comments:

Brendan said...

Great post. Something about a mother's devotion must help to liberate all that energy tied up in the right hemisphere. I picked up casually, from some recent airwaves (NPR, I think) this: Researchers, knowing that autism tends to improves with age, looked at the neural pathways of face recognition and discovered that it was more a matter of poor development, not absence. They theorize now that intensive face-identification exercises with an autistic child can go a long way toward developing better connections -- a trainable area of the brain. Would you call that a re-lateralization? And this: similarly, did the development of writing induce such an re-laterilization, effectively silencing right-hemispheric auditory hallucinations by "overwriting" them? - Brendan

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. said...

Brendan, that's very interesting about retraining the face recognition area. From my understanding, retraining is the key to helping autistic children's developmental issues. Priscilla Gillman and other parents use professional therapists (speech, motor, etc.) just for this purpose and it makes a huge difference. Her son has made amazing progress.

Your question about relateralization is interesting but hard to address in a small comment. The book I'm writing about poets who accessed "voices" talks a lot about atypical (right hemispheric or bilateral) dominance for language and its role in dissociative voices.

Julian Jaynes did believe that, historically, writing (with the right hand) made the crucial difference in losing the right hemisphere lateralized hallucinatory voices of the gods as the left became dominant for language. The loss of the collective cognitive imperative through natural disasters and migrations also compromised belief in the local gods.

Illiterate peoples remain right dominant and are more prone to magical thinking and paranormal events. Small children begin right hemispheric dominant (which I believe is for the emotional and bodily sense of self via right hemisphere to right hemisphere connection with the mother. Studies show that adults with right or bilateral dominance are also more prone to magical thinking.

Although, in terms of the dominant writing hand, which is usually connected to hemispheric dominance for language, I found an interesting French paper that studied the hand prints made on cave walls and compared them with those made in their student population using a simulated technique to create the hand print using the dominant hand to blow the coloring agent through a tube onto the non-dominant hand against the cave wall. They found that right handedness vs left handedness remained in the same proportion from pre-history to the present, weighted heavily to the right.

This, of course, is just one study. I don't think anything is definitive about how the mind works either now or in the past as new neurological discoveries are being made all the time. I think we have to keep our minds open and be constantly on the lookout for updated information.