Listen to the story:
My parents and I are sitting in the waiting room of the Thames Valley Children’s Centre in London, Ontario. I am three years old. We are waiting for our appointment with Dr. Fox, my developmental pediatrician. My curiosity draws me to a doll house sitting on the floor in the corner of the room. I want to explore it. I bump my head and jam my fingers in the small windows, but I’m still on the outside trying to get in. There’s no way I can get into this doll-sized house. Dr. Fox calls us into his office and my parents carry me, kicking and screaming, into the room.
I would say this was my first major visual-spatial challenge. A vision of a three-year-old trying to get into a doll house may seem funny and indeed, I see the humor in it now. But, even as an adult, I understand that three-year-old’s frustration when things aren’t as they seem. Things that seem obvious to others sometimes elude me. Over the years, I will continue to be perplexed by visual-spatial challenges. I may not be trying to squeeze into doll houses anymore, but I still get frustrated with math, and sometimes when I want to join a line, I find it difficult to know where the end is. Visual-spatial challenges are one of the effects of Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) which I was diagnosed with when I was nine.
My parents and I are sitting with Madame Kavanagh, my kindergarten teacher. We’re discussing my progress over the first three months of the school term. Throughout the meeting, I have only been speaking in French. My parents don’t understand so Madame Kavanagh translates for them.
“I’ve never had to translate for a student’s parents before,” Madame Kavanagh says.
My parents shoot a surprised look at each other. As for me, I can’t see what the big deal is. It’s a French immersion school. I’m in school and there happens to be someone at the table who can speak French, so I will speak French.
Columbia University Medical Center describes people with Nonverbal Learning Disorder as showing deficits in visual-spatial abilities (like the dollhouse), but also showing a predisposition to learn languages. I have found a skill I understand and excel at, and I will use it every chance I get.
Author and linguist Michael Erard has travelled around the world in search of gifted language learners called hyperpolyglots, to discover whether language learning really is a gift or something else. In his book Babel No More, he says people who find it easy to learn languages are an enigma.
Erard explains, “Some hyperpolyglots are human sponges, able to absorb or inhale languages unbelievably quickly. Others are human cranes who can lift many languages all at once. Others are human slingshots, using their experience in a few languages to fling them further.” Erard defines hyperpolyglots as people able to speak, read, or translate anywhere from six to 11 different languages. I don’t fulfill that definition — I only know four (English, French, Low German, and Spanish) — but I love to learn languages. I am a sponge that absorbs languages quickly and easily.
Erard sees hyperpolyglots as, “avatars of the will to plasticity”— people who are highly skilled at learning languages have somehow learned to reshape their brains. He believes our changing environment is constantly challenging us to adapt our way of thinking and being. He says, “linguistically, [hyperpolyglots] are out of time, place, and scale. They tell us what we must do to make our peace with Babel.”
The story of Babel that Erard refers to comes from Genesis chapter 11. The Babylonians, trying to make a name for themselves, try building a tower that reaches heaven. Their single language makes progress on this tower easy. God doesn’t like this idea and confuses their languages. The resulting miscommunication between the builders causes the tower to collapse in a heap of rubble and the builders to scatter. It’s “the curse of many languages,” as some call it.
I wonder what Erard means when he says, “we must make our peace with Babel.” Although I find it easy to learn languages, I feel that I’m always trying to make my “peace with Babel.”
What do you mean by that?
Why did you say that?
I don’t understand!
I often need an explanation when interacting with people because so much communication is non-verbal.
What lies behind the words people say? What’s their intent? What’s their tone? These are aspects of language that can cause me a great deal of frustration. This is NLD.
Understanding the intent behind words, Erard says, involves reshaping our brains. He makes it sound easy — like I can reshape my brain as if it’s a lump of Play-doh in my hand. Living with cerebral palsy and having done physiotherapy my entire life, I’m very familiar with the process of “willing my brain to plasticity.” Many movements are not innate for me. I have to force my body to move and do things that it doesn’t want to do; I have to force my brain to communicate with my muscles to move in ways they don’t want to. I know my brain is not as malleable as a lump of Play-doh in my hand.
Every evening I do the same exercises. Since I was two years old, my mom has stretched my muscles. I’ve had the same routine: heel cord stretches, hamstring stretches, hip abductor stretches, knee extension stretches. Sometimes they hurt. When it’s too much, my mom lets up. Willing my brain to plasticity is painful.
One of the people Erard comes across in his search for gifted language learners is six-year-old Christopher who was diagnosed with brain damage shortly after birth. Erard describes him sitting on his couch watching the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The Spanish commentary fascinates Christopher so much, he learns Spanish over the course of the games. He playfully trots around the house wearing a white towel like a matador’s cape.
As Christopher grew older, the brain damage manifested itself in characteristics such as a speech impediment, clumsiness, and poor eyesight. It also meant he had an obsessive interest in one topic — languages. He learned to communicate in Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, modern Greek, Hindi, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Welsh. Although he could pick up languages quickly, he wasn’t particularly interested in socializing, and spent most of his time gardening.
The will to plasticity for Christopher meant his brain adapted by creating new circuits. These new circuits gave him the propensity for language learning and memory.
I’m at my weekly physiotherapy session. I bend down, pick up the plastic frog, and drop it into the coffee can. The burning in my hamstrings subsides when I stand up. “Une autre grenouille entre dans l’égout,” Jane, my physiotherapist says.
“Oh, oui en effet,” I respond.
Each exercise — the treadmill, the stepper, the balance beam, the stretching, and the walking up and down steps — is designed to commit new movements to my memory so that my body can repeat them automatically, or at least, more easily.
I am willing my brain to plasticity.
Branches in my neurons reach out like fingers to touch, connect, and communicate with other finger like branches at a meeting point or synapse. Repeating these movements makes the neurons communicate with each other and form new connections — connections that are strong enough to be encoded and committed to my memory.
My seahorse-shaped hippocampus, buried deep in my brain’s temporal cortex, saves these memories and transfers them to the posterior area of my brain where they are stored so they can be retrieved by my prefrontal cortex when needed.
I am willing my brain to plasticity.
Jane and I make up stories in French while I’m doing my exercises. She plays along with my games. She responds to me in French, and that makes all the difference. I can bear the pain of stretches and repeated exercises if I can combine it with something I love doing.
I started seeing Jane when I was five. Now I’m 11, and things have changed. Jane thinks I have outgrown stories, so she stops playing along. The experience of physiotherapy sours for me. My imagination and love for storytelling and language doesn’t turn off as I get older. I’m confused. I don’t understand why she suddenly won’t play along. Speaking French is what motivates me to stretch my body and make it do things it doesn’t want to. Suddenly Jane doesn’t understand my language. I don’t see her again after that.
Until writing this article, I had forgotten about Jane. I had to dig deep to recover these memories. Neurologically, the process of forgetting is the reverse of the process of remembering, says Scott Small in, Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering.
Forgetting is not always failing to remember, he says. Instead of the neurons reaching out to neighboring neurons to make connections and memories, they carefully shrink away from each other and the memory disappears. Contrary to what some people might think, forgetting is the brain’s way of protecting us and helping us deal with our complex world. Forgetting is a cognitive gift. It demonstrates the brain’s plasticity.
But what happens to me when my brain can’t forget?
It’s the middle of the afternoon in my classroom at École Viscount Alexander. My Grade 7 social studies class is studying climate change. The only light in the room comes from the projector which is showing Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Everyone is quiet. “I like documentaries,” I think.
How are my classmates interpreting Al Gore’s doom-laden information and statistics? Is it just information to them or are they feeling as anxious as I am feeling? Every doom-laden statistic about weather or population growth is a knife cutting through my brain. Polar bears are losing their habitat and drowning because of melting ice, the world’s natural resources are being depleted and are unable to sustain human life. Everything Gore says is mind-blowing and makes my heart beat faster and my palms grow sweatier. Nobody notices.
When we finish the documentary, I’m a tight bundle of nerves, ready to explode. That night in bed, my anxiety comes gushing to the surface in a fit of screaming and crying over the imminent doom my family and I surely face.
This is no doll house. But, like my three-year-old self, my mind is once again inundated with a profusion of sensory information I can’t process.
My brain is going into overdrive. My body releases stress hormones and prepares for battle. My amygdala mobilizes all security systems, activating fear, rage, and anxiety. This is how Small describes the fight or flight response.
I lose the strength to will my brain to plasticity.
Over the next few weeks, I obsessively recycle the documentary in my mind until its predictions of doom and gloom consume me. This is what Daniel L. Schacter describes in The Seven Sins of Memory as the sin of persistence. The impact these “sins” can have on our lives can be disastrous. But while these flaws cause us a great deal of grief and inconvenience, evolution deemed them necessary so the human mind could adapt to immediate risks like the risk of climate change.
I walk down the narrow, fluorescent-lit hallway leading to my new therapist’s office. We exchange introductions and Erna invites my mother and me inside for my first appointment. We go over the forms my parents have already filled out. Erna knows about my anxiety about the world ending after watching the documentary. She assures me that she will try her best to help me.
Erna listens patiently. My anxiety is like a weed. It grows taller as I water it with worry. It takes months, but slowly, I’m able to let go of my worries. The persistent weed withers.
No more incessant babble — I’m willing my brain to plasticity.
My memory can be bothersome and debilitating. It also gives me such a delight for stories.
As a child, stories were predictable and safe. They gave me a context I could relate to and control.
Stories still have this effect on me. I can get lost in words, stories and music.
Sometimes, these words, stories, and music repeat in my head, turning into what Oliver Sacks calls “brain worms.” I love brain worms. These repetitious words, phrases, or songs that run around in my head give me a sense of relief and distract me from the situation I find myself in, especially if it’s unpleasant. In his book Musicophilia, Sacks says brain worms have great therapeutic potential for people with various neurological conditions.
The wooden-theatre style seat squeaks under my weight and the sound echoes in the chapel classroom at Université de Saint-Boniface. What math problem is my professor trying to explain? The Konigsberg bridges problem? Derivatives and integrals? The chess board problem? I’m distracted. My mind is lost.
Je suis né tôt ce matin, juste avant que le soleil comprenne
Qu’il va falloir qu’il se lève et qu’il prenne son petit crème
Je suis né tôt ce matin, entouré de plein de gens bien
Qui me regardent un peu chelou et qui m’appellent Fabien
Quand le soleil apparaît j’essaie de réaliser ce qu’il se passe
Je tente de comprendre le temps et j’analyse mon espace
Il est sept heures du mat’ sur l’horloge de mon existence
Je regarde la petite aiguille et j’imagine son importance…
— Grand Corps Malade, French slam poet
I was born early this morning just before the sun understood
that it would have to get up and take its morning coffee
I was born early this morning surrounded by lots of good people
who looked at me a little weird and called me Fabian
when the sun appears I try to realize what’s happening
to understand time and analyze my space
it’s 7:00 o’clock in the morning on the clock of my existence
I look at the small hand and I imagine its importance…
I gaze at the small hand on the clock and imagine its importance. I’m lost in a brain worm. I’m sure Professor Bouffard is wondering why I’m smiling.
It’s funny how brain worms always squirm their way into my mind in math class, and only in math class. University math is like the doll house. My mind is inundated with a profusion of mathematical information I can’t process.
I make my peace with math babble by getting lost in my own internal babble.
A gentle bell rings as we step inside à la page Bookstore in Saint Boniface. Long shelves of French books line either side of the aisle that leads to the cash register. I’ve come to buy my textbooks for my first semester at Université de Saint-Boniface, the francophone university in Winnipeg.
“Bonjour, êtes-vous venu chercher vos livres?” asks the owner.
“Mais oui,” I respond. “Je cherche les livres pour le cours Français 1001.”
Our conversation continues until the owner shoots a look at my mother. My fluency made him assume she was also fluent.
“Sorry,” my mom says, “I don’t speak French. He was a student in French immersion.”
“He was in immersion?” the owner exclaims. “I never would have guessed. His accent sounds francophone!”
The will to plasticity, as described by Erard, is the “incessant augmentation” of circuits in the brain — among them, language circuits. Plasticity is a quality of the human brain evolved to enable the nervous system to adapt to new environments. I can adapt to new languages easily, but I can’t adapt to change. My brain still isn’t plastic enough.
Michael Brian Murphy who also lives with NLD and has written a thesis on his experience, says, NLD is most likely caused by damage to the prefrontal cortex because that’s the part of the brain that decides what to remember and what to forget. If people with NLD are unable to coordinate incoming information with information already in their memories, it’s hardly surprising that we are known for being resistant to change.
Until my younger brother Andre was in Grade 12, I didn’t mind that we were different. He’s an athlete and always has been. Every year he receives the athlete of the year award. He prefers math, I prefer literature. He can speak French but prefers not to. I love to speak French every chance I get. All of that is okay. We’re different. I can accept that.
But then the situation changes. Andre brings home his first girlfriend. I must find a way to adapt, but I feel cornered. It’s like a door closes in my mind. I have nothing in common with her.
“My French isn’t very good,” she says. She won’t even try speaking French with me.
I feel like all my differences are being shoved down my throat. I can’t see anything except the differences between me and Andre. I’m paralyzed by some emotion. I don’t know if it’s fear.
I am at a loss for words and language fails to give me the connection I need with my brother.
What’s at play within my brain? The ongoing vying for influence over me. “Remember change is difficult. Don’t forget, your survival depends on sameness!” says my overactive amygdala.
But to make meaningful connections and form relationships, I must release the fear of change, deny my hyperactive amygdala, open my mind, and expose myself to social dangers, like accepting my brother’s girlfriend.
My memory is so rich and at the same time so encumbering. Fanny Price — Jane Austen’s character in Mansfield Park describes her memory as, “sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control!” That’s how I feel.
Five years later, I’m sitting between my brother and his new girlfriend at Bridge Drive-In, enjoying a peach velvet and feeling relieved. I feel like I belong. I’m no longer a bundle of nerves. I’m not fighting to get into the doll house.
I am still willing my brain to plasticity. I’m still making my peace with Babel.