In game theory, so-called “zero sum games” occur when the accrual of one item comes at the expense of another. There is a claim that life itself is a zero sum game, but we’re not really sure who said that.
Perhaps, in fact the source of the quote is unknown because it isn’t true. I wrestled with this notion of tradeoffs in acquiring new skills at the expense of others when it was brought up to me by gifted and talented children. After having compartmentalized it into a zone of comfort, reading a new book by John Elder Robison with a short chapter on The Zero-Sum Game re-opened the question: Are there some skills that are not worth acquiring because they come with tradeoffs that we don’t fully understand?
Brain change brought about through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is the subject of Robison’s memoir, based on his participation in a clinical trial involving individuals on the autistic spectrum. The book is thought-provoking, and you can get a flavor of it through John’s blog. As John explains succinctly, TMS theory holds that because the brain is an electrical organ, we should be able to influence function by coupling electricity directly into it.
Despite informed consent that the experimentation was safe, Robison was not prepared for the flood of emotion that he experienced following his first treatment session. His description of “seeing into music” is that of a synesthesia-like quality that brought him to tears. He sensed the depth of feeling that the music writer felt in composition, and with it a diminution in his autistic filter than had shielded him all these years from engaging in the emotions of others. Now when he looked in other people’s eyes there were clues to feeling that previously eluded him, and with that came a sense of vulnerability.
John’s awakening was striking in the hearing domain, but his son’s was primarily visual. Cubby described perceptual changes after his initial round of TMS as follows: “It’s like someone turned up the screen resolution in my eyes. I just went from low-def to HD … But not sharper like getting new glasses. Sharper like seeing more things.”
Michael Lievens has written about self-experimentation with TMS, or its sister application tDCS in his blog, Strabismus World. Michael has speculated about how TMS treatment may be a useful adjunct to vision therapy. Research reporting modulation of function in amblyopia through rTMS under controlled and targeted experimental conditions, mirroring what John engaged in, was first reported eight years ago – about the same time he was participating in TMS targeting autism. These are potentially powerful approaches, charged with emotion in ways that individuals like John are helping researchers, clinicians, and the public to understand.