The Dyslexic Astrophysicist, Dr. Matthew Schneps | EXPLORING DIFFERENT BRAINS Episode 22


In this episode, Harold Reitman, M.D. speaks with Dr. Matthew Schneps, an astrophysicist and visiting scientist at M.I.T., and founder of the Laboratory for Visual Learning. Matthew discusses his own diagnosis of dyslexia, the importance of flexibility in educational methods, and how neurodiverse conditions can help make people accomplish great things.

For more information about Dr. Schneps and the Laboratory for Visual Learning, visit: labvislearn.org

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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR)

Hi, this is Dr. Hackie Reitman, and we have a real treat for you today on Exploring Different Brains. We have Matt Schneps. He’s an astrophysicist, a visiting scientist at MIT, the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology, a founding member of the science education department at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics founded the laboratory for visual learning to carry out research and cognitive psychology to investigate how individual differences in neurology, including those associated with dyslexia, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders affect how people learn science. He also, just as an extra value added, himself happens to be dyslexic. And so I’m honored to be talking today with Dr. Matthew Schneps. Matt, welcome! How are you?

MATTHEW SCHNEPS (MS)

Good, thank you, I’m honored as well, and just a quick correction on my very nice introduction you gave me, it’s not that I just happen to have dyslexia, it’s because of my dyslexia that I’ve done these things. So it’s a bit different.

HR

I would like you to repeat what you just said and expand upon it. What I heard you say is, the way my brain works, is that, Hackie, it’s not just that I happen to be into this and I happen to be dyslexic–I am into what I’m into precisely because I am dyslexic. Did I get that right?

MS

You got it 100% correct.

HR

Then tell us how it all began–this is fascinating. I may write a book about you.

MS

Well, how it all began–I mean that’s a very long story. How can we make it succinct–let me think for a second. I mean, at some level, I’ve ended up here because of accidents of career, right, I mean that happens to everybody. You think you’re going to do something in life and, you know, the ball bounces this way and that way and before you know it, you’re someplace different from where you thought you would be. And that’s very much the case with me. However, what makes me a little bit different is that I was always obsessively interested in certain things and I followed through on them. So, for example, when I was very young, I just loved astronomy, I mean I really did. I just thought everything astronomical was fascinating and very, very interesting and beautiful, and I kind of knew from the age of, I don’t know, seven, eight–whenever you’re kind of conscious of these kinds of things–that I wanted to be an astronomer. And so I spent the early part of my career just trying to become an astronomer, but you know how the accidents of these sport game go.

My attempts to go this way and that didn’t work, because I couldn’t do standardized test–there were I lot of things I couldn’t do. It was very disappointing to me, and I didn’t get to where I wanted to go, even though I was very good at the things I was doing, so I nevertheless kind of made it all the way up to MIT and got a PhD in astrophysics, but once I was there I realized there was a lot of stuff I just can’t do; I can’t read papers that I have to read–it’s really hard for me to go to meetings and sit in meetings–there are a lot of things that just made it difficult for me to keep going as an astronomer, so rather than feeling bad about myself, which is what often happens when you’re sort of kicked into a corner and you don’t know what to do, I started to think, how–you know, what are the things that I’m good at? And how can I really maximize those things? And so I was very good at dealing with images, that’s why I loved astronomy, I was very good at telling stories–I decided I wanted to go into filmmaking, I did that–I started a group that created educational television programs for science learners, I then became very interested in how people learn, so I started looking at the neuroscience of those things and, you know, on and on and on, and that’s kind of how I ended up where I am, and it’s all because I was very curious about how my own brain worked. And also I followed the things I was interested in, and really tried to make the best use of the things that I was good at. I started ignoring what other people expected me to be good at, and I started focusing on the things that I’m good at. So that’s a very long-winded answer to your short question.

HR

That’s a great answer, and you hit on so many points that’re actually chapters in the Aspertools book. Harnessing the hyper interests. We as a society have to stop focusing on saying stop talking about that, you have to be like everybody else. No, if you love the stars, if you love dinosaurs, if you love music, go for it. Figure out a way to make money with it and you’ll never work a day in your life. And it sounds like you have really, really at an early age found your niche. Now tell me what your daily activities are now, like right what you’re doing now in Boston there?

MS

Well right now, obviously I’m speaking with you. And I do a fair bit of that. I kind of make it a personal mission to speak out to help support people with various kinds of cognitive disabilities who become marginalized because of the way society treats us. And so I do a lot of work just doing outreach, similar to what we’re doing here, to try and get people to understand that if you have something that’s different about your brain, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a productive citizen, that you can’t make important contributions, and furthermore, that in many cases, the unusual perspective you bring can open up new ways of thinking that’s very valuable to society. So the fact that our brains are different makes it possible for us to do things that other people can’t because they don’t have our perspective, they don’t have our skills, they don’t have our ways of thinking, and I’m trying to get that message as broadly as I can. So a large time of my day is spend doing writing, talking to people like you, whatever, anything I can.

I started a New Institute at U-Mass, Boston, where I have an appointment called the Institute for Compassionate Technology, and we have a parallel initiative at MIT called the compassionate tech lab, where we’re trying to use technology to further some of these aims, because I feel technology is a tremendous tool for people like us. It helps us make it through life in ways that might be difficult otherwise, at least it was for me. And so I’m trying to get that word spread, and so we’re doing that kind of work, and there’s a lot of things I do, and unfortunately a lot of them has to do with reading and writing, which I’m not very good. I mean I’m pretty good at writing but I can’t read my own writing, so it’s very difficult for me and it’s very frustrating. And you know, that’s part of the story too just because you’re successful and you make it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not hard and it’s not painful and that you don’t have lots and lots of bad days, and that’s why what you said is is important: you won’t work a day in your life if you’re doing something you’re passionate about. it’s true, you know, it’s like playing soccer or something. you know, your team loses–you don’t stop playing soccer because your team lost. You love soccer so you keep playing. It’s the same with these kinds of things. You know, you have trouble, you don’t get grants, people reject you, you don’t get into programs or schools that you want–you don’t stop and give up. you keep playing and you keep going. And you can only do that if you’re passionate about what you do.

HR

That is great, that is–I tell you what, that’s going to be a great soundbite at this one. I’m going to play that at night to inspire me. That’s really good.

MS

I’d play music if I were you.

HR

Now, what’s your favorite music?

MS

That’s a good question. I listen to a lot of music. I actually love pop music, you know, right now I’m kind of in love with Adele and her voice is so incredible–I find music very inspiring. It could be something sophisticated like Boch, or it could be something, you know, that’s more pop-rock or something, but somebody who’s really good at their craft is inspiring, okay, and I draw from that inspiration. You know, I can’t sing like Adele, but the fact that she can do what she does, inspires me to do something I can do and I try to do it as well as Adele can in that medium. And so, you know, I’m not claiming I’m an Adele, but these people inspire me and keep me going. So I listen to a lot of music.

HR

You are an Adele of astrophysics and all of this other stuff that I can’t pronounce, Matt. You’re an Adele.

MS

Well thank you, but I don’t know if the astrophysicists would agree, I mean I stopped doing that kind of stuff a long time ago.

HR

But you’ve applied it–you’ve applied the principles to what you’re doing here.

MS

I’ll take the compliment, thank you.

HR

Okay, good. Do you see neurodiversity the way I do, that it’s–were all on kind of a spectrum of different stuff, different ways of wiring in our brains, our do you see it as like dyslexic is over here and Asperger’s over here and ADHD’s over here–how do you see neurodiversity?

MS

Yeah, the way I see it is that–you know, I very much subscribe to the ideas that a friend and colleague of mine Todd Rose, he’s an instructor at Harvard in the education school and he worked with me for a number of years. Todd has ADHD and he wrote a book that was just published called, oh I forgot the exact title, it’s essentially about the myth of average.

And, you know, he and I worked together for a number of year and he influenced my think quite a bit, and basically the idea is very simple. It’s the idea that if you look at a pool of people and you try to make an average of them, you’ll end up with a representation that doesn’t actually represent anyone, because there is no average person, everybody is different, everybody is unique, and I see, you know, “so-called,” and I put “so-called” in quotes deliberately, disabilities in this camp. People are just different. It doesn’t matter what the issues are. We think, the average person, whatever that is, and doesn’t really exist–the average person thinks that they’re okay. They’re fine. But you know what, they can’t do so many things. I mean they’re actually totally impaired.

Think of this as a population that lives on the planet. Were stuck on this blue marble, and we think were free, but gravity binds us to the surface of this ball. If we travel out even a little bit into space, we die immediately–you know, were not free at all. Were completely bound up by who we are, where we are, how we were born, all these things, and yet we think that being normal is the best situation you can be, and it’s not true. We all have our limitation, every single person no matter how intelligent, successful, they all have their limitations; there are things they can’t do. So why go and single out certain people, like people with ADHD or dyslexia or autism and say, “Hey, these people are really in trouble, you know, they’re not like us at all.” That doesn’t mean they’re not as good as you. But there’s that implication, you know, they kind of imply, “Well, you’re not like me, so you’re not as good.” But you know what, Charlie? You’re stuck on this ball with the rest of us and you can’t get off any better than we can, and if your space suit leaked when you got up into space, you’d be just as dead as anybody else, and don’t tell me that you’re so special. So you know, I just feel that we have to get away from looking at people as averages and as groups, you know, all people with dyslexia are like this, all people with autism are like that, all people who are blind are like that–it just isn’t true.

We all are people and we all have differences and we all have things we can do well, we all have things we can’t do well, and lets start focusing on making the best of what we’ve got. That’s my view. So if somebody is very good at certain kinds of things, but they’re not good at others, don’t dwell on the things they’re not good at. Dwell on the things that they’re good at, you know, take advantage of your skills and really amplify those. So I get very angry with school systems because schools tend not to look at people that way. They tend very often to look at people in terms of averages, normals, and it makes life for children going through school, hell. You know, all of us who are different and have been through the educational system have bad stories to tell. It is very sad. It shouldn’t be that way. Right? School should be a time of excitement and exploration; so I–you know, I have a beef with schools, and you know, I’d like to see that change. Anyway, we’ve kind of gotten away from the question–

HR

No, no, no! That was–that is so eloquent and so we’ll put, and I think a corollary to that is, and once we recognize that everyone’s brain is wired differently, let’s give people who need a little help to achieve their maximum success, let’s give them that help instead of beating them down. Because all of us need some degree of help to varying degrees. I haven’t yet met the person who is the whole package, because it usually takes a team to achieve success and I’m sure that as brilliant as you are with everything you’re doing, you’re the first one to give accolades to your colleagues and the other people who make what you achieve possible, and there’s varying degrees of that, you know?

MS

You know, I have been fortunate, like you, to have met many people, and I’ve worked with lots and lots of different kinds of people. And at a place like Harvard or MIT where I’d spend a lot of time, you once in a rare while actually encounter people who the world calls geniuses. Okay, these are intellectual giants, people are capable of ways of thinking that are beyond the pale of what the average person thinks about, and I’ve known people, I’d say, who are geniuses, and it’s amazing to meet these people, and I’ve worked with them, and I always feel very small when they do something–when they think in ways I just can’t even get close to, and yet, you know–when you look at the whole package, these people have lots and lots of things they can’t do that, you know, you’re sort of going, “My God, why is this person so bad at this and how come they can’t do that,” and so forth. So, you know, society tends to sort of focus on things that it thinks are important, but I think the bad things is that it often does it in a way that makes people feel bad who aren’t the way that you’re expecting them to and I think that’s wrong. I think people shouldn’t be made to feel bad because they’re not a member of this club or that club. So you know, these are the kinds of things I’d like to change and I think you’re doing similar things.

HR

Well that’s great, and I agree 100%. Now, you know, you’ve made me feel better, being a graduate of Boston University, because I’ve always felt bad I did not go to MIT and Harvard, so you’ve made me feel better Matt, because I know how you Harvard/MIT guys are.

MS

Well I have to tell you a story. You see, you’re doing what I’m saying the world shouldn’t do. Okay and please don’t take this as an aggressive gesture on my part, but essentially you’re saying, okay this guy has an MIT label around his neck, hence he’s achieved or smart or something, or he’s something I’m not, and I have to tell you–how did I get into MIT? When I was first getting my PhD, okay, how did I get into MIT? Alright. I got in because I was passionate about astronomy and I did lots of things, I belonged to astronomy clubs, I was very active when I was in high school and so forth, but the fact of the matter is, I, because of my dyslexia, I wasn’t able to get decent scores on any kind of graduate record exam. These are a required exam you need to take, like SATs, in order to get into graduate school. My scores were miserable, okay? And all the places I applied to rejected me.

The only place that took me was MIT, and the reason they took me was that they didn’t look at these scores at that time. Now it’s different. But at the time, those scores weren’t important to MIT. You go, and you interview, you talk to them, you tell them about what you did in your life and that’s how you get into the school, and they let me in, so I felt like an imposter also. But the fun thing was, once I was in there, I was normal. I was like everybody else there. They’re all strange and weird and different, and it was a really fun place and we enjoyed ourselves, and I did we’ll. I did okay, I wasn’t the best student at MIT I wasn’t the worse student at MIT. So the point is, it’s really not right to label me as high-achieving because I’m from MIT and I’m not from BU or some other place, because that’s not really the measure of a person’s worth, it’s not the labels, the diplomas, the trinkets that you wear around your neck that determine it, it’s what you do with your life, right?

HR

Very we’ll. Very good. Very we’ll said.

MS

I didn’t mean to pick on my host–

HR

No, no, no, it’s just it’s funny because I don’t think it’s possible to be an astrophysicist and do all of these other things and I’m about to ask you how you got into the laboratory for visual learning, but without having certain aspie traits, so I have to be careful when I make jokes with you, because–read my book and it’ll say–no, now listen Matt, I’m just fooling around here, but actually, there is some jealousy from us Boston University people, we know you guys got the secret handshake over there. Let me ask you about neuroplasticity, because I truly believe–and I think there’s a lot of scientific data now, that at any age, of course the younger you are, the more, the brain has the ability to literally rewire itself in different ways, and that gives everyone hope, you know? That gives us all hope. And we can discuss or argue, I would say, about what can account for more rewiring in a–what we might consider a positive fashion versus negative, but how do you feel about the neuroplasticity, do you believe that brains really capable of rewiring themselves?

MS

To ask me do I believe is really the wrong way of framing it. It’s like how is it possible that the brains don’t rewire themselves is the way I look at it, okay? You know, do your fingernails change over time in response to things? Yes, they do. They’re not the same finger nails you’re born with and they’re constantly growing and changing and it’s the same with the cells in our brain. every time we learn something, were rewiring. it’s not that were putting chinks of information into our brain with little tags on them like some kind of a file cabinet. We’re rewiring our brains and that’s the basis of learning, and if we weren’t able to rewire our brains, we wouldn’t learn anything. wed just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. So imagine there’s some bottleneck in some part of your brain and you’re trying to do something–maybe you’re trying to play basketball and you’re trying to shoot a certain kind of shot and your brain just won’t allow your muscles to be controlled in the way that you want to, you just can’t figure it out and it just won’t happen easily the way it does with somebody else, we’ll if you keep practicing and practicing and practicing and you really make this your goal, eventually you kind of rewire your brain–you use different circuits to make that shot, and you do it. And so–you know, this happens all the time, this is not conjecture in my opinion. I think this is just a well-established part of neuroscience. The brain rewires all the time, so the brain is plastic. That’s why it’s so bad to label people, because it kind of says okay, this person is stuck with this brain and they’re not going to be able to change anything. That’s not true. How do I read? You know, I can’t read, I was not born with the kind of wiring that lets me read the way other people do; I had to come up with different ways of doing it and I have to work much harder to do it because I’m using parts of my brain that really weren’t optimized for these kinds of tasks, but I do it.

HR

So Matt, that’s a great segway into the Laboratory for Visual Learning. Educate me. Tell our audience about how you got into that, and what is it, and what’re you doing?

MS

The laboratory visual learning started about–I started about 14 years ago, and the reason I started it is that the work I was doing in education was taking me to a place where we were beginning to look at how differences in people’s experience shaped what they believed in science and what they learn. I’ll give you an example, I made a very famous movie about this, it’s called a private universe, and there’s a series of movies that came out afterwards called the Private Universe Project or Minds of Our Own, they’ve been seen on PBS and broadcast worldwide and they’re still being used. So one of the things we did, we went to Harvard graduation, MIT graduation, and we interviewed people in their caps and gowns, literally, they’re just coming off the stage, and I pulled them aside, and I would say things like, “Right now, it’s kind of warm outside, but if you wait maybe six months or so, you’re going to get cold. Why is that?” And I’d ask other things, like, “Well sometimes the moon is sort of round like this and sometimes it’s sort of skinny, why is that?” And I’d ask these questions in this very child-like way, okay, and these are Harvard graduates, MIT graduates, engineers, PhD’s, professors even, and what’s interesting is very many of the people, when they responded, told me things that were child-like in their answers, meaning that they were beliefs that they grew up with when they were in Kindergarten or their mother told them or something, and all of that education they had at MIT and Harvard and whatever, didn’t do anything to change these ideas.

And the things they were telling from Kindergarten and so forth were wrong. They weren’t right, they weren’t what MIT and Harvard and the high schools and all of the other education they had taught; they were telling me the wrong stuff. And so this was very interesting. It sort of said that your experience and your personal beliefs about things severely affect what you learn or what you’re able to learn and internalize. You know, it’s almost like you can’t change your brain if you’re influenced by your personal beliefs, and this became a big area of research in education that many, many people were involved in. Not just me. But it got me really interested with a related question, with saying, “Okay, if experience makes such a big difference, what about neurology? What if you’re born differently? What if you come from a different culture or you’re a boy versus a girl or you have ADHD or dyslexia or autism, how does that change how you think about things and how you learn? And so we started the Laboratory for Visual Learning to investigate these things using techniques of neuroscience, and it started a whole new sub-career for me. It was a lot of fun. So that’s what we do and we still do that.

HR

How do you correlate what you just said, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this scene from Good Will Hunting, did you happen to see that movie?

MS

Sure.

HR

Remember the scene where Robin Williams and the guy who won the fielding are in that bar, and he doesn’t recognize the name Ted Kazinsky?

MS

Right.

HR

And then he asked the bartender, Unabomber? Does that correlate to what you just said?

MS

It does. Yeah, I mean sure it does. There’s a lot of things that are going through my mind right now which is why I’m sort of hesitating answering you right off. The key thing is that factoids like Ted Kazinsky are a certain type of information and some people just are not very good at sort of categorizing and holding those kinds of pieces of information in their heads. I’ll talk about me because I know my brain better. For example: I was not able to learn the multiplication tables. I still don’t know the multiplication tables. I know many of them, you know 1×2=2, I can do some of those–but you ask me some of the more complicated ones, like 7 times something, usually the odd numbers, I can’t remember that number. And my parents drilled me and practiced me and they used to bribe me by giving me, you know, essentially a penny for every table I would memorize, all this stuff, and nothing would ever work. My brain just cannot hold certain types of facts in its–whatever it is. I just can’t store them. I’m not able to do that. And in some sense, that’s kind of debilitating, teachers often say, “Well what if you have to make change at a grocery store?” Well I’m saying, yeah but I’m not really trying to be a cashier, that’s not my goal in life.

I have a calculator I keep in my pocket, and you know–I have this phone that does all this stuff for me. I don’t need to know these things. You know, sure maybe you can do some complicated sum or multiplication product faster than I can, but that’s not the most important thing to me at this moment in my life, and I have lots and lots of technological tools that can do this for me. So one of the things that I did in my life is to try and find ways that technology could help me get around, what I felt, were silly limitations. Things that were keeping me from doing the things I wanted to do; they were things that teachers thought were very important. You know, you have to know all of the presidents of the country or the names of every single state and their capitals–we’ll I couldn’t do that stuff. But I didn’t really see the value of it. And of course today, google is an extension of our brain. We don’t have to know what we used to have to know. And I have machines that can access my google right away, and I use them all the time and don’t feel ashamed to use them. So I’m focusing now and trying to get people to learn, how do you get technology to do types of things that aren’t easy for you to do? You know, in the case of autism, it might be having to do with recognizing emotional response or reading people’s emotions, but you can have a machine do that now. You know, machines can recognize when faces are happy or sad or whatever and they could pipe that information to you in a little device and then you look at it and say oh yeah, this persons sad, and when you’re sad you’re supposed to go do this, and this is how you should respond to this person, and you pull that information out of your memory and you act appropriately. Why is that such a big, important deal? A machine can do it. So I think technology can really help people, and so our current work is to really focus on how to use technology to help lots of people in all different things.

HR

Well I applaud you for that work and I agree. I do recognize, however, the double-edged sword nature of the technology in the following sense: If my brain doesn’t rewire itself so that I can simultaneously play a video game, talk to a competitor I’m playing against who might be in a different country or around the block, talk to my friends in the room, listen to my mother, watch TV, listen to music playing–if I can’t do that all at once, if my brain doesn’t rewire to have some form of ADHD or its opposite, I don’t even know–then I’m going to be an outcast. So I have to develop that. By the same token, if my brain has a tendency to be forgetful and I might have early Alzheimer’s, or I might have–I had 26 pro-heavyweight fights, so I took too many shots to the head so it’s trying to get me–when I off-load everything to my phone, when I ask my phone for directions, when I don’t remember my phone number because I don’t have to because I’m just going to tell my phone to call, I think by definition, my memory has to get worse, if you consider the memory of muscle, or you might consider it as Sherlock Holmes did, which is I think how you consider the brain. He was explaining to Watson once, Watson was shocked; this is going to alarm you as an astrophysicist. Watson was shocked that Sherlock Holmes thought that the sun revolved around the earth instead of the Earth revolving around the sun. And he couldn’t believe it. He says to Holmes, are you–what is with you? Anybody knows that. And Holmes said, “what the deuce is it to me, Watson, whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun revolves around the earth. I have to know things like all the different brands of cigarettes in case there’s a stub at a murder site. Our brains are not infinite, and the wise lumberman will stock his attic carefully.” Because if you stock your stuff in there you’re not going to be able to find your files. Do you see the brain like Sherlock Holmes?

MS

Well you kind of lost me a little bit, so I’m not sure how Sherlock Holmes see it. How does Sherlock Holmes see it?

HR

He sees your brain is just a finite place where you can only store a certain amount of files. So if you do as you say is appropriate to offload the files that a machine can do for you, like I’m using phone numbers because we all do that. No one remembers phone numbers anymore. I shouldn’t say no-one–most of us don’t because we don’t use them. They’re on the phone and you hit a button kind of thing. Whereas I can still remember at my parents gas station in Jersey City when I used to have to call my mother there from the house so I could tell her I was coming over so she could cross me across the street, 434-9571. I can barely tell you my own phone number now. I also don’t have to remember directions because when I’m driving I just put in the address and then the phone tells me where to go.

HR

I’d like the audience to know, Matt just left because he thinks I am such a moron, he’s going, “What am I doing talking to this guy?”

MS

No, not at all. Not at all.

HR

I’m only kidding. I’m only kidding, Matt. It’s a joke. It’s a joke.

MS

I had to get a prop. Look, the way I look at it is you can’t just sort of say the brain is like a muscle and you exercise it and it–I mean what you say is true there. I think what is important here is that we need to distinguish between functionality and capacity. So let’s say you want to memorize huge amount of information and cram it into your brain, you’re talking about capacity; you’re saying how much stuff can we sort of stuff in there and retrieve it, And you know, as far as we know, the brains capacity for information is very large, you now. You can stuff a lot of stuff in there and it can be retrieved with some practice. You’re not limited to two phone numbers, five phone numbers 100 phone numbers, whatever it may be, but then there’s the functionality side of it, which is how we’ll you can make use of this information to do something. And especially with people who are different. We may not have certain functionality. We may not be able to take the things that are stored in our brains and retrieve them and make use of them the way other people can. And I’ll give you an example form me again, because you know, that’s free. It doesn’t cost anything for me to use these examples. I can’t remember people’s names. I happen to remember your name, Hackie, because it’s very unusual and its easy for me, but like the people we met at that lunch you referred to earlier, I can’t really remember their names, I still can’t, and this is a part of dyslexia. Very often people with dyslexia have a lot of trouble retrieving names of things, including names of people. And you know, you don’t remember someone’s name in a social situation, that’s very embarrassing, they think that you don’t care about them or something and it often is misinterpreted, so you develop lots of tricks for pretending you know their name or here why don’t you introduce yourself to my friend here, that kind of thing where you don’t have to actually use names And so that kind of gets us in the functionality realm. I can’t retrieve the names. It doesn’t matter how I try to exercise that muscle, believe me, I’ve exercised it do death. I can’t remember the names. my brain just doesn’t want to store that kind of information. But I can learn new functionalities, I can learn new ways to get around it. That’s where the plasticity comes in and that’s where the machines come in. The machines can help you make use of these in ways that other people cant. I’ll give an example. Here’s the thing that I went to get. You’re old enough, you may recognize what this is.

HR

Slide rule, oh my God.

MS

So you want to tell people what this is?

HR

This looks like a slide rule, which by the way, I never mastered, because my brain just couldn’t get its head around it.

INTEVIEWEE

Yeah so a lot of young people won’t know what this is, because we don’t use this today anymore, but when I was in high school we didn’t use this at all either, but other people did, and remember, I went into college being unable to do multiplication. I couldn’t remember those wrote facts. 7×6 is whatever it happens to be, I still don’t know. But this was a machine that was available to me when I went to college to do multiplication, and not only can it do multiplication, it can do square roots and logs and all kinds of very sophisticated functions; and when somebody put this into my hands and said, look, you’re a physics student, this is very helpful for you, it made my disability go away. I could now do all of the multiplications, I could do all kinds of stuff very very we’ll, okay, and I was suddenly freed from a lifetime of drill and practice trying to memorize these damned tables to the point where I could function and do stuff and calculate things and solve problems–and I was very excited. SO you know what I did? I said hey, this is pretty amazing. What if I become the best person at school to use this thing? If I’m better at using this than the guy who knows all these numbers and facts and whatever–I can be better than that person. And that’s what happened. I became so good at using this tool, I could do things using it that other people cant. And that’s a form of plasticity, right, where I’m doing it with a machine, not with my brain. I’m giving myself additional functionality that I didn’t have before. So that’s the sense in which I’m saying that, you know these phones and all of these other things can be helpful. I’m not saying mindlessly pull them out at dinner and whatever, this is not the point. The point is if you can figure out how to make it help you do something you can’t, that’s great. you can become better than other people. you’re no longer a person who’s like impaired and able to do it because they have some crutch. you’re becoming a person who is super and is able to go beyond the limits of the human brain because they’re using these technological tools. So, to me, technology has a tremendous power. It has the power to add to the brains plasticity. And you have to learn how to do this; this is not a lazy man’s thing. You know, like you said, you didn’t ever master. To master, this is hard. But if you’re motivated, and you need to do it because something in your life requires you to do this kind of stuff and you can’t do it, you’ll marshal the mental resources needed to learn how to use these things. It’s not a freebie. You know, you don’t just get it and all of a sudden you can multiply. It takes skill. It’s the same for the phone. You want to use Siri or one of these things and you want it to actually do what it says it’ll do, you’ve got to learn how to work with it. SO learning how to use technology is an important part of being a person who is different. At least in my view.

HR

That was such a fabulous analogy, and such an important piece of the puzzle if you will, a piece of the puzzle. Where it comes down to us helping each other, but also using modern technology to help us, help us all, and we all do that. I’m wearing hearing aids because I can’t hear so good. And I think that you hit the nail on the head in so many ways with that last analogy. It all takes hard work and it takes determination, but you know, so what, so it does.

MS

Yeah, you can’t just blame the technology and say technology is bad. Its–learning to use technology is a skill, and I’m saying were in a technological age now–we no longer get our milk delivered in bottles by a horse and buggy outside the door–were doing things very differently. You go to a place like google or Apple, and you talk to the engineers there about how they develop all these wonderful pieces of technology that’s used in commerce; how do you do all that? Well they don’t write long books on this is how you design an iPhone 101 and you know, have learning discussions, they’re texting and they’re doing all kinds of stuff that young people are very good at and that’s how they communicate–so the point is the world is changing, and things that we used to value as being very important to success are no longer the same things that are going to be important to success in future careers. SO you know, I’m just trying to encourage people to think more encouragingly about the technological world that were encountering. I realize, it changes how distracted we are, there’s a lot of bad things that come with it, potential for hazing people, violent reactions and all–there’s a lot of bad stuff that comes with it. But, you know, anything has capabilities for bad, but the capabilities for good I think far outweigh them. I really want teachers and schools and people who are different to think about how can we use technology to help us so that we can be better than other people. Not just as good as, but better than other people.

HR

We must embrace modern technology to level the playing the field and to maximize each of our potential. All of us.

MS

I think we can more than level the playing field, I think we could turn that upside-down.

HR

Absolutely. Now, Matt, what piece of advice would you have for someone whose brain is different? Forget the labels for a minute–who’s going off to college. They’re going up to Boston to one of the 52 or so universities there. Is there one piece of advice that you can give them?

MS

Well I always give the same piece of advice no matter what the situation. And that is to find your passion and follow it blindly. Find something you love to do and just keep pushing at it. And the reason I say this, is one–That’s something you want to do, so it makes you feel good. But the other reason is, you’re going to encounter so many obstacles along the way, that if you’re doing something you like, when you encounter an obstacle, it doesn’t matter–I mean you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. But if you’re doing something you don’t really like, you know, you might give up and you might quit. So it’s really important to kind of come into school–you don’t know what all the world has to offer. You know, you can’t imagine, I want to be an astronomer; I knew that when I was a kid, but I didn’t end up being an astronomer, that’s not what I do now, you have to just pick anything; it doesn’t really matter what it is. Find something, anything, sports–anything–anything that you love and really really push it until it doesn’t help you anymore and then move on to something else. So finding your passion and following it, trying to get through the obstacles that you’re going to encounter, lots every single day. That’s my advice.

HR

Great advice. And on that note, what I want you to do because we’re going to have to wind down here, I could–Matt, really I could talk to you all day long, I mean this is great, great stuff. This is valuable stuff. And I know it’s common sense to you, but it’s really really valuable stuff. If people want to learn more about the work you’re doing and about you, where should they go?

MS

Well that’s a good question; I’m looking at my computer here, I think the good place to start is we have a website called labvislearn.com, or org actually. Either one works but .org is better, and there there is a bunch of stuff about the work that we do. The problem with the dyslexic brain is we like to do lots of different things at the same time and we tend to go all over the map. So whenever you pin me down and say okay, how can we find out about this or that, I have so many different places to send you to, it gets confusing.

HR

I applaud everything you’re doing Matt, and I’m so glad that you’re doing what you love doing. You’re helping all of us, you’re helping other people in what you’re doing, you’re–all jokes aside, you’re one of the true academic Mecca’s up in Boston there, MIT and Harvard it doesn’t get better than that, and that’s because of people like you helping other people, and IM just in awe of getting to actually talk to someone like you and meeting you, and I hope to see you in person up there soon.

MS

But you know you’re a fabulous host, Hackie, you know you manage to draw the best out of your guests and I’m just really honored that you’ve taken the time to do this, because, you know you’ve done an amazing job of getting me to focus on things that, you know, I think are helpful to everyone, and this is what I’m trying to do so you’re helping me and I really appreciate that, so thank you very much for doing this.

HR

Well thank you very much. So that’s it for another episode of Different Brains. We’ve been talking with Matt Schneps up at MIT and Harvard and that’s it for another episode of exploring different brains, we’ve been talking with Dr. Matt Schneps up there in Boston doing all of those wonderful things we’ve had quite a journey today. Matt I hope to see you soon. We’ve been talking with Matt Schneps up at MIT and Harvard, he is an astrophysicist, a visiting scientist at MIT, Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology, a founding member of the Science Education Department at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

 

This video is owned by Different Brains Inc, kindly donated by it’s original producer PCE Media LLC.

Author Image
Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, “The Square Root of 2” (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s “Scandal”), and is the author of the book “Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity” from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”
Author Image

Harold Reitman, M.D.

Dr. Harold “Hackie” Reitman is the founder of DifferentBrains.com. He is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, children’s activist, retired orthopaedic surgeon, and a former professional heavyweight boxer. He who currently serves as the CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based PCE Media, LLC, the multi-platform production company he founded in 2004. Dr. Reitman wrote, executive produced and co-directed the full-length independent film, "The Square Root of 2" (starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC's "Scandal"), and is the author of the book "Aspertools: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodiversity" from HCI Publishing. He also hosts the DifferentBrains.com interview show “Exploring Different Brains.”

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