When I was a junior in high school, one morning I got picked up for truancy at the local pool hall. Recalling my brunch club visit to the vice-principal’s office, two things stand out. One was Mr. Kennedy looking at my three foot long, thin leather cue case and asking, “What’s in there?” “A pool cue,” I answered. His response, “Mighty short case for a pool cue, isn’t it?” I somehow managed not to roll my eyes at his cuelessness (sic), which I guess made him show mercy – rather than have me sit there bored for two hours, he handed me a test booklet. “Take this test,” he ordered. I opened it and finished it quickly and got a perfect score. “You know, no one’s ever done this test so quickly before,” Kennedy remarked. The test he gave me was a Spatial Relations Inventory. For me it was a very simple test to take. Nothing special, no big deal. Somehow my brain has always been able to easily rotate spatial objects in my mind.
Since the time of that test, I frequently find myself drawn to stories of people, especially children, with exceptional abilities. There is little doubt that such people have brains that are different from yours and mine. But were they always? Take for example, the Russian journalist, Solomon Shereshevskii, a man with five-fold synaesthesia who had a photographic memory capable of recalling complex mathematical formulas fifteen years later after only being briefly exposed to them a single time. This is different than how my brain works.
Or take Jessica Cox, the first person to earn a pilot’s license without having any arms! If you watch a video of Jessica flying a Piper Cub, from the perspective of a brain educator, it’s clear that neural connectivity and brain plasticity are marvels for developing human spirit. My guess is that the neural real estate we normally use for our arms and hands – and on a percentage basis, these are very large amounts – Jessica has managed to transfer to her legs and feet. Jessica’s birth “defect” has become part of her greatest triumph.
Then there’s controversial Nobel peace prize nominee, Sri Chinmoy, who’s reported to have written 1,500 books, 115,000 poems and 20,000 songs, created 200,000 paintings and given almost 800 peace concerts. Any one of those accomplishments would be more than a life’s work for most of us. Apparently, part of what permitted such accomplishment is Chinmoy’s gift of being a “lark” in the sleep research literature – his brain apparently worked at very high levels after only 90 minutes of sleep each night. This is a brain that works much differently than mine and most of the people I know.
Another exceptional example is Evy McDonald, the registered nurse I’ve mentioned before who began a course of profound self-loving and self-listening and used it to become the first person to cure herself of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the progressive neurodegenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is the same disease that has afflicted Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist for more than 40 years. Hawking wrote the runaway popular science book A Brief History of Time, which stayed on the British Sunday Times bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. Evy’s brain and Stephen’s brains are also different than mine.
The point isn’t to go on and on listing such people with exceptional brains and exceptional experiences – The Guinness Book of World Records is full of them. But we might want to consider what might allow for such accomplishments as these? If I were to offer an educated guess at one piece, it would be … increasingly well-integrated individual brains operating in an environment of connection and collaboration with other increasingly well-integrated brains. (As the operative word here, brain = heart-brain-mind-body-spirit). People and environments actively open to and able to wholeheartedly welcome and embrace diversity and divergent thinking.
Best for the Children
But there are other questions to consider as well. For example, can synaesthesia be taught to children? Is there a window in development, similar to language acquistion, during which such a skill might be optimally introduced and cultivated? Is such a skill something useful and worthwhile that we even should be introducing to our children? Should children be taught about the possibility for learning to deeply listen to their bodies and honoring what they hear, particularly things that go against the family or cultural grain? These are not easy questions to answer. Perhaps Alice Walker’s decision-making template: “Is it best for the children?” is the one we should individually attempt to deliberately apply? Might that allow us to tend to our own and our children’s development much like we might tend to a prized flower garden? Do everything we can to prepare the most healthy, fertile environment we can, and then turn it over while we simultaneously tend it with mindful compassion?