All my life, I have been able to feel, to sense, my brain thinking. I feel the electronic energy of synapses firing and the chemical releasing of neurotransmitters. I don’t know how many other people feel this–it’s a tricky thing to talk about.
I’ve googled it, and the results aren’t that encouraging (see this post on Quora, for example). I’ve asked my family members, both when I was a child, and, more recently, as an adult. None of them can feel, in their brain, brain activity, and they all attributed my claims to my imagination.
When I’ve explained to my boyfriend that I can feel the regions of my brain that are active when I play music, when I read, when I daydream, when I play video games, when I write, and when I practice brain-training games at Lumosity, he doesn’t scoff, even though he doesn’t share a similar sensory experience of brain activity.
I read recently about a study led by David Sulzer at Columbia University Medical Center which indicated that autistic people, both children and adults, have “too many” synapses. I’m wondering if it’s the abundance of synapses that allows me to feel my brain activity, and I’m wondering how many other neurodivergent people have this type of sensory awareness.
Sulzer’s study reports that neurotypical children experience synaptic pruning, trimming back some of the synapses, through a developmental process called autophagy. This pruning, the researchers believe, is inhibited in autistic children, resulting in brains with multi-branched synapses.
“What’s remarkable about the findings,” continued Sulzer, “is that hundreds of genes have been linked to autism, but almost all of our human subjects had overactive mTOR and decreased autophagy, and all appear to have a lack of normal synaptic pruning. This says that many, perhaps the majority, of genes may converge onto this mTOR/autophagy pathway, the same way that many tributaries all lead into the Mississippi River. Overactive mTOR and reduced autophagy, by blocking normal synaptic pruning that may underlie learning appropriate behavior, may be a unifying feature of autism.”“Children With Autism Have Extra Synapses In Their Brains.” IFL Science.
One direction, terrifying to me, that some are exploring as a result of these findings is the development of drugs to artificially prune the “extra” synapses in autistic children and adults–to make us “normal.”
Our problem is not that we have “too many” synapses. Our problem is that others have issues with our divergent perceptions, thoughts, responses, and actions. Create a world that accommodates divergence and diversity, and having more synapses becomes a gift, rather than, simply, a disability or difference that makes us weird.
Any ecologist can talk at length about the value of diversity. Healthy ecosystems depend on biodiversity. (In fact, the greatest threat and tragedy in conjunction with the climate crisis is not the direct inconvenience and hardship experienced by people; it is the threatened extinction of millions of species, having tragic impacts on the biodiversity of our planet.)
Diversity serves an evolutionary purpose. When environments change, the more genetically diverse a population, the better the chances for adaptation and survival.
In the human species, too, our diversity is our greatest strength. We should not want to achieve a population that consists solely of the neurotypical. Health is important, of course, as is creating societies, cultures, and a world that accommodates, appreciates, and welcomes diversity and divergence of all sorts, including neurodivergence. But to administer drugs to prune synapses so that autistic or other neurodiverse individuals can learn “appropriate behavior?” That seems dangerous and insidious.
Likely, an abundance of synapses leads to rich, abundant perception. For several years, I’ve been following the blog of Helen White, an artist who’s recently self-identified as autistic. Even the name of her blog, Spinning the Light, describes the experience of a synaptically abundant person, and looking through her artwork is seeing through the eyes of someone whose mind is lit up by firing synapses. She paints the way the world looks to me.
I discovered her blog looking for someone who shared my physical sensations of spikes in the Schumann resonance, during the first time I identified the tingling buzz throughout my electronic fields as being connected with this. I found this post by her. That post led me to discover the rich accounts and insights which she shares throughout her blog, wisdom drawn from enhanced perception.
The increased sensitivity experienced by those of us with abundant synapses shifts our perception, allowing us to make connections and notice things that might escape others.
I am guessing that many of my awkward feelings in social situations, especially in large groups, comes from this excess of synaptic activity. I perceive “too much,” and that often causes me to miss what others are perceiving. It often feels to me that others connect with each other through synaptic synchronicity, whereas I experience the same firing of synapses that they do, plus more, and I don’t always know which synaptic activity to pay the most attention to. Sometimes, it seems to me that the important perceptions are the ones that are not shared. This causes me to respond to impulses or to make comments that seem odd or out-of-place to the others. To me, I am stating what seems most important, given the specific input that I am making sense of at the moment. But to them, these observations seem out-of-the-blue, disconnected to the shared experience of the moment.
But I have always valued the out-of-the-blue more than the mundane, for that’s where the magic lies.
Postnote: Helen White continues this conversation with some beautiful insights into “Being the unpruned tree” over on her blog. Take a look!