Monday, January 21, 2008

Hope/One Word 1973

The first Mahavishnu Orchestra. The greatest band that ever was, playing as well as it ever played.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Fascinating Meeting With a Neuroscientist

I recently met with a prominent local neuroscientist to discuss with him whether I could be a research subject and perhaps receive help for my learning difficulties. The website of the institute where he works says this about him:

[He] is a pediatric cognitive neuroscientist. His research focuses on the neural basis of cognitive impairments seen in genetic disorders that produce mental retardation, developmental disability and psychopathology. Building on his influential theory of the foundations of numerical competence, [he] investigates how dysfunction in specific neurocognitive processing systems, such as attention and spatial cognition, can generate a range of cognitive and behavioral impairments. His goal is to develop remedial intervention programs that will minimize such disability. [His] current projects center on studies of visuospatial and numerical cognition in children with chromosome 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, also known as DiGeorge and VeloCardioFacial syndrome. He is also engaged in similar studies of children with Fragile X, Williams, and Turner syndromes. Besides cognitive processing analyses and psychometric testing, [he] uses cutting edge neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Voxel Based Morphometrics, and Diffusion Tensor Fiber Tracking in order to study the structure, function and connective patterns in the developing brain.

This sounds pertinent to my situation and impressive, and I found the man it describes to be extremely impressive in person. This is one brilliant and tremendously knowledgeable guy! We talked for over an hour. Actually, he did most of the talking and I listened with utter fascination. I don't claim to have understood most of what he said, but here is the essence of what I think I understood:

He works mostly with children but has been approached recently by several adults close to the same age from different parts of the country. We all report similar symptoms. That is, there seems to be an uncommonly large gap between our relatively high verbal facility and low nonverbal ability. He characterizes these symptoms as probably resulting from several factors.

First, we are like computers connected to much lower resolution digital cameras than most people are. In other words, our visual-spatial representations of the world are so much less detailed than most people's that when we try to focus on and thoroughly understand some part of our representation, we get a blurry image when most people get a much clearer one.

Second, if attention is likened to the narrow beam of a flashlight in a large, dark room, while most people's attention moves fairly smoothly and systematically from one portion of the "room" to another until they're able to piece together a coherent perspective of the entire room from all of the areas the "flashlight" illumined, the attention of people like me tends to flit haphazardly from one portion of the room to another, and we're subsequently unable to reconstruct a coherent image or representation of the entire room. This makes it much more difficult for us to understand with visual-spatial thinking the structures and functioning of various places and systems. In my case, it makes it exceptionally difficult for me to conceptualize the filing system where I work. I can't visualize or mentally represent to myself the flow of files into, through, and out of the file room to various units and departments., and I can't readily conceptualize how to perform various tasks involved in the operation of this system.

Third, not only do we take in less visual information than most people and in a more unsystematic manner, but we also process this information more slowly, making us markedly slower at tasks affected by our disabilities.

I've been told and have long suspected that my difficulties probably stem from perinatal brain damage. However, this neuroscientist believes that they may result from genetic anomalies. At least two of the other adults who've approached him have shown unusual duplications or deletions in the base pairs of certain genes in certain chromosomes, and he's curious to know whether I have this same anomaly.

So, he'd like me to submit a blood sample that will be screened for these and other genetic anomalies that could be related to my learning difficulties. He'd also like to subject me to a functional MRI scan and to much more specialized psychometric testing than I've received so far. Finally, he thinks that the human brain exhibits a high degree of what he calls "neuroplasticity."In other words, he thinks it has a remarkable ability to change itself as a result of experience and to compensate for injuries and malfunctions. He's currently working with other researchers to develop video games to train the brains of people with various nonverbal learning difficulties to increase their visual-spatial "bandwidth" and to improve their attentiveness and processing speeds, and I might be included in this research. In the meantime, he speculated that some kind of occupational therapy might help me to either accommodate better to my current job or to find and keep a more suitable one.

All in all, I was very pleased by our meeting, and I'm grateful that such a busy man, who is currently in the middle of seeking a grant from the NIH so that he can continue a promising line of this important research, would take over an hour of his precious time to meet with me and then propose that we go forward with the steps I just listed. I'm now waiting to proceed with my blood and other tests and to find out all that I can about what ails my brain and what I might be able to do about it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Decisons, Decisions

My back is stiff and sore. My knees are stiff and sore. My hands are stiff and sore. My wrists are sore. I've woken up several nights recently with cramps in my hamstrings so severe that my wife has had to massage them; I never had these kinds of cramps before. I feel like I've aged years in just two months. Much of my job feels like torture with no prospect of relief. I'm not getting any faster at doing what I started doing two months ago, and, now that I'm being given more to do, I'm staying an hour to an hour-and-a-half later than everyone else to complete my tasks.

I want to find another steady job I can do better and that pays benefits and doesn't destroy my body, but I need to upgrade my typing and computer skills to improve my chances of getting and keeping it, yet, I have no time to develop these skills, if I even can develop them, as long as I spend so much time each day at this job. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before I'm let go from underproduction and inability to learn the new tasks that I'll certainly be asked to perform in time, but I'm wondering if I should quit before that happens and start full-time preparing and looking for another job, or if it would be better to hang on and endure the torment until I'm asked to leave. And if I quit first, how should I do it? What should I tell and not tell my boss about the reason for my decision?

Yet, even after I leave from resigning or being fired, what job do I seek? What decent job can I, at my age and with my sparse background and all my learning impediments and slowness, reasonably expect to be hired for and to be able to keep?

It would be easy to surrender to total despair, but I'm trying to keep hope alive and make the right decisions and follow through with them.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Wise Discrimination

The Buddha, the most practical of teachers, defined the wise man or woman in a thoroughly practical way: "One who will gladly give up a smaller pleasure to gain a greater joy." That is discrimination, the precious capacity to see life clearly and choose wisely. When it is understood, every choice becomes an opportunity for training the mind.
--Eknath Easwaran, Conquest of Mind, p. 66

Easwaran has written that he loves great symphonies, novels, and other works of art but that what he loves most is the "perfectly crafted life." That to him, and to me, is the supreme work of art, more beautiful and inspiring even than Michelangelo's David. Indeed, it seems to me, we can look at how we live our lives as a process of sculpting. Every choice we make chips away a piece of the precious stone we've been given. Every bad choice makes it that much harder to craft a great work of living art; every good choice fosters our effort. Sooner or later, we will run out of stone, and the potential we once had to sculpt a moving, breathing David will have crumbled into dust. Why waste time when we don't know how much we have left? Why make bad choices that undermine the most important project of a lifetime?

I have made countless bad choices, and I'll be fifty-five in March. I don't know how much stone I have left, and I have many, many mistakes to overcome to forge my modest masterpiece from what raw material remains.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Baring It All

Almost everyone who's read my blog has never met me, and I think I've always rather liked it that way. Just as the only people an exhibitionist wants to see him naked tend to be his lover and those who'll never know who he is, so I'm a little shy about people who aren't very close to me reading my blog and knowing me outside the blog.

However, I casually mentioned to my wife's friend's husband the other night that I have a blog, and he promptly asked for the URL so he could check it out. With some hesitation, I gave it to him, and I believe that he will get around to reading some of my entries, including some of my more intimate posts about my learning disabilities and struggles at work and home. I feel a little anxious about this.

I see this guy only two or three times a year, but I respect and like him and would like to think of him as a friend. Yet, do I want this particular friend to know as much about me as I reveal in this blog?

Yes and no. Or, rather, part of me does, and part of me doesn't. Part of me doesn't want him to know anything about me that would make him think less of me, to the extent that he thinks of me at all, than he does now. And another part of me wants to stop worrying about what others think of me and to stop hiding my flaws from them and just bare it all and let the proverbial chips fall where they may. If they know all about me and like me, fine. If they know all about me and don't like or respect me, I can live with that. In fact, I can live with it better, in the long run, than I can live with trying to maintain a false front and have people like or respect a persona I know is not really me. I've spent too much of my life trying to cover up, and what has it gotten me? A life of being uneasy and guarded around others. A life of not trying new things in public because I was afraid I'd fail and look stupid and make people think less of me.

So, letting my friend read my blog may be one of the best things I can do. Maybe it can help to set me free to be myself not just in a blog or with my closest friends but with everyone. And if I still find it difficult to do this, I can contemplate the fact--at least I believe it's a fact--that our bodies, minds, and personalities are only the tiniest, most insignificant portions of who and what we really are.