Friday, July 08, 2016

What An Hour Of Emotion Makes Visible

An interesting article. I find her insight into one area especially applicable to politics.

When she was an adult, and a doctor, Kim discovered she has Asperger's.

Alix Spiegel
July 8, 2016


Kim's brain is not great at seeing emotion. When she looks out at the world she physically sees all the things that most people see, but with much of the emotion subtracted. She sees the same tables, the planes, the trees ... the people moving back and forth. But the feelings — particularly the subtle ones — are invisible. Though for most of her life she didn't realize that.

"This is the interesting thing," Kim says. "We believe our senses, so I didn't know I was missing anything. If I'm seeing people talking and it simply looks like people are talking, why should I think that they might be feeling angry or sad or anything, if I'm not sensing that?"

This is the story of how Kim was given a window into the world she couldn't see and how that changed her frame of reference. It was a small window — it only lasted 90 minutes. But it turns out that 90 minutes is more than enough time to unsettle a life. Because all you need to do to unsettle a life is expose it to a new frame of reference.


Lindsay Oberman is an experimental psychologist and assistant professor at Brown University now, but back in 2008 she was a postdoc at Harvard and part of the team conducting research on the brains of people with Asperger's. The idea was to investigate how a procedure called TMS affected this population.

TMS stands for transcranial magnetic stimulation. Basically, TMS uses an electromagnetic coil placed next to the scalp to send repeated magnetic pulses painlessly through the skull to stimulate certain brain cells. After a very short period of time (typically 30 minutes of rhythmic pulsing) the magnetic field is thought to activate a targeted region of the brain — just an inch or so beneath the coil.


She yearned to see emotion in the same way again — in fact, reached out to the researchers to let her do more TMS. She assumed that, like before, the effects would be short-term. Researchers say there seems to be a 15- and 40-minute window of a change in perception, to the extent that it happens at all. But Kim still wanted it, and even offered to pay.

But they couldn't make that work. So, in August 2010, Kim went back to Beth Israel for another TMS experiment, and the effect of this one was even more dramatic.


She says she still thinks a lot about one of the videos she was shown during the second experiment. In the video two employees were saying mean things to a fellow employee named Frank. Kim says the first time she watched it — before the TMS — she couldn't answer any of the questions the researchers asked her about it. Afterward though, she understood not only the video, but also, one of the big mysteries that has dominated much of her life.

"It never made any sense to me as to why people would be mean to somebody else. Why would you be mean to somebody?" she asks.

"And what I saw, is that when the two employees were there and talking together, and then were giving Frank a hard time, the primary thing was not that they were trying to be mean to Frank," Kim says. "The primary thing was that they were bonding. Those two people were actually building a bond between the two of them."

Their means of doing that, she now realizes, "was to be nasty to Frank."

It made her think back to her own childhood. "Oh! Maybe that's what these kids were doing when they were bullying me. The primary thing was that they were bonding. The secondary thing was that I was being bullied."

It's much easier to live in a world that makes sense and follows a sensible logic — where people are mean, not just for fun, but because they want to belong and feel safe. That's the world Kim lives in now.


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