The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo has a Rainforest Brain

Hands up if, like me, you spent the summer immersed in reading the Millennium Trilogy?  The first novel introduces us to Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Lisbeth Salander is a most unusual lead character and heroine.  She spends most of the 3 novels under a Guardianship order – in other words Swedish law deemed her incapable of managing her own affairs. She is variously labeled autistic, psychotic, mentally ill, paranoid schizophrenia, pathologically narcissistic and dangerous to herself and others.  Yet to everyone's surprise and the bad guys' demise she is a computer genius, brilliant detective, high financier, martial arts expert, caring daughter and passionate lover.  Sure she has a unique and 'odd' Pippi Longstocking personality but that is likely the cause of the voluminous sales and various movie versions already in theatres or under production.

This mixture of perceived vulnerability, multiple talents and unique personality are common traits and trials of those who bear labels, diagnosis and our mis-judgments.  The label of Down syndrome tells us no more about an individual's gifts than being gray and balding.  Neither does the label autistic.  To help you and I better understand Lisabeth Salander and millions of people like her I recommend the following article from Ode magazine:  Your Brain is a Rainforest

The author, Thomas Armstrong, puts to rest the fallacy of normalcy making the point that just as there is no such thing as a  normal flower or normal cultural or racial group, there is no such thing as a normal brain.  We recognize the importance of bio-diversity (thus the rainforest metaphor) and cultural and racial diversity.  He argues we also need to recognize the importance of neuro-diversity.  

Instead of medicalizing and pathologizing the diversity of human brains, we need to recognize that the 'differences among us are as enriching – and essential – as differences among plants and animals.'

Armstrong is not a romantic brushing away conditions or ignoring the importance of treatment and support.  He does however lament our disease plagued culture which is increasing the number of diagnosable mental disorders by leaps and bounds.  For example we have tripled the number of psychiatric illness classifications in the past 50 years. With this mind set the calla lily flower, he suggests, would bear the label, petal deficit disorder.

Today 25% of American adults now have a diagnosable mental disorder.  I call this an epidemic of classification disorder.  At this rate we will all have a label.  As a cyclist I could soon be diagnosed with, 'pedal deficit disorder!'  Perhaps
that's a good thing.  We can all be united by our diverse classifications and stop this madness.

Armstrong recommend an emphasis on the positive dimensions of people who suffer from the stigma of labels, something most individuals and their families would agree with. He offers 8 Principles of Neuro-diversity which I am copying in some detail (skip to the bottom if you wish):

  1. The Human Brain Works More Like an Ecosystem than a Machine.
     Up until now, the most often used metaphor to refer to the
    brain has been a computer (or some other type of machine). 
    However, the human brain isn’t hardware or software, it’s
    wetware.  The characterization of the brain as an
    unbelievably intricate network of ecosystems is much closer to
    the truth than that of a complex machine.  We should devise
    a discourse that better reflects this new conception of the
  2. Human Brains  Exist Along Continuums of Competence.
    Rather than regarding disability categories as discrete
    entities, it’s more appropriate to speak of spectrums or
    continuums of competence.  Recent research, for example,
    indicates that dyslexia is part of a spectrum that includes
    normal reading ability.  Similarly, we use terms such as
    autistic spectrum disorders, to suggest that there are different
    gradations of social ability that merge ultimately with normal
    behavior.  This suggests that we are all somewhere along
    continuums related to literacy, sociability, attention,
    learning, and other cognitive abilities, and thus all of us are
    connected to each other, rather than being separated into
    "normal" and "those having disabilities."
  3. Human Competence is Defined by the Values of the Culture to
    Which You Belong
    .  Categories of disability often deeply
    reflect the values of a culture.  Dyslexia, for example, is
    based upon the social value that everyone be able to read. 
    One hundred and fifty years ago, this wasn’t the case, and
    dyslexia was unknown.  Similarly, autism may reflect the
    cultural value that suggests that it’s better to be in
    relationship than to be alone. We should recognize that
    diagnostic categories are not purely scientifically-based but
    reflect these deeper social biases.  
  4. Whether You are Regarded As Disabled or Gifted Depends
    Largely on When and Where You Were Born
    .   In other times
    and other places, there have been different disability/ability
    diagnoses depending upon cultural values.  In pre-Civil War
    America, for example, there was a disorder called “drapetomania”
    said to afflict blacks. Its meaning was “an obsession with the
    urge to flee one’s slave masters” and reflected its racist
    roots. In India, today, there are people who would be labeled in
    the West as schizophrenic, but who are regarded as holy beings
    by the local population.  We should not regard diagnostic
    labels as absolute and set in stone, but think, instead, of
    their existence relative to a particular social setting.   
  5. Success in Life is Based on Adapting One’s Brain to the
    Needs of the Surrounding Environment
    .   Despite Principles 3 and
    4, however, it's true that we don’t live in other places or
    times, consequently the immediate need is to adapt to our
    current contemporary culture.  This means that a dyslexic
    person needs to learn how to read, an autistic individual needs
    to learn how to relate to others socially, a schizophrenic
    individual needs to think more rationally and so forth. 
  6. Success in Life Also Depends on Modifying Your Surrounding
    Environment to Fit the Needs of Your Unique Brain (Niche
    .  We shouldn’t focus all of our attention on
    making a neurodiverse person adapt to the environment in which
    they find themselves, which is a little like making a round peg
    fit in a square hole.  We should also devise ways of helping an
    individual change their surrounding environment to fit the needs
    of their unique brain.  
  7. Niche Construction Includes Career and Lifestyle Choices,
    Assistive Technologies, Human Resources, and Other
    Life-Enhancing Strategies Tailored to the Specific Needs of a
    Neurodiverse Individual
    .  There are many tools, resources,
    and strategies for altering the environment so that it it meshes
    with the needs of a neurodiverse brain.  For example, a
    person with ADHD, can find a career that involves novelty and
    movement, use an iPhone to help with organizing his day, and
    hire a coach to assist him with developing better social skills.
  8. Positive Niche Construction Directly Modifies the Brain,
    Which in Turn Enhances its Ability to Adapt to the Environment
    In experiments with mice, neuroscientists have shown that a more
    enriching environment results in a more complex network of
    neuronal connections in the brain. This more complex brain, in
    turn, has an easier time adapting to the needs of the
    surrounding environment.

Steig Larson, author of the Millenium trilogy must have understood these principles intuitively because he surrounded Salander with allies who enabled her to surmount her labels and go on to play with fire and kick a lot of hornet nests.  If only others labeled disabled could be so lucky.


1)  Those who live in Toronto have the opportunity of attending the premiere of a film about Aaron and his search to become a master Caribbean drummer.  "Just Because" explores Aaron's experience of autism, life and his passion for drumming.  Their motto: Normality is whatever the majority decides it to be.  Gladstone Hotel, evening October 7th.

2) The article Rainforest Brain was excerpted from Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences, by Thomas Armstrong, published by Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group.© 2010

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One Comment

  1. John

    Hi Al,
    Another great post. I have by co-incidence just picked up the first of the millenium trilogy in the local airport bookstore – you’re right, it’s good.
    But also I have started reading Richard Dawkins latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth”, about the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin. Maybe you have sampled it already but I am struck by the parallels here. In his early chapters he outlines the paradigm of “essentialism” by which the scientific community was/is ruled, and which treats the myriad variations of species in nature as variations of a “true” specimen. His example is rabbits where the thousands/millions of infinitely variable rabbits were/are defined as having “longer ears”, “whiter fur”, “thicker coats” etc etc than the (mythical) true rabbit. Of course in his inimitable way he goes on to ridicule this notion and link it to the origin of the species by natural selection……we are all infintely variable and ever evolving, and the “mutations” (terrible word) that are successful for the society of today are reinforced etc…we all know the story. But I was struck by your words above….yes, 100s of years ago illiteracy was prevalent and dyslexics (ironically) due to their often greater spatial skills (builders, stonemasons, craftsmen, farmers, artists, warriors, leaders)ruled the linear thinkers (accountants, writers). But researchers in the UK (BBC WORLD NEWS podcast dated today – check it out on their website) have identified how multi-faceted our senses are. We literally taste with our ears….stale biscuits (crackers to you – you can tell I have been here too long already)actually have the same taste as fresh, but we don’t think so – enhancing the “cracking” sound can change the person’s perception of the taste. There are similar parallels with processing hearing, seeing, smelling etc.
    So what’s going on in an autistic person’s head when they “sense” differently from others? Clearly a lot more than the labelers you identify can appreciate today.
    Keep it up Al – love the blogs.

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