Written by Caregiving Team Member Alicia Cassels, MA
Last week, something significant happened. We lost a gifted individual who has been called one of the greatest scientific minds of our time. His work, at the forefront of quantum mechanics and gravity has been truly revelatory, changing what we know about the very nature of our universe. Stephen Hawking was a scientific rock star in the truest sense, immensely respected by those in his field and by hordes of lay admirers around the world.
Using Only His Mind
Like many, I have followed the work of Stephen Hawking in awe, but the evening of his passing provided me with the opportunity to watch a PBS documentary of his life, narrated by Dr. Hawking himself. I watched as, a brilliant, healthy young man was diagnosed with an illness predicted to take his life in two years. I watched as over time this young man lost his ability to move limbs, speak, write and physically care for himself. That Dr. Hawking was able to make and share any discoveries, scientific or otherwise given the physical challenges he faced is incredible.
When completely unable to speak or write and before he received computer assisted communication support, it seemed unthinkable that Dr. Hawking would be able to continue his scientific work. Remarkably, rather than stopping Dr. Hawking persisted, mining an advantage that accompanied the physical setbacks he was experiencing. Unable to work through his thoughts and calculations on paper as he had always done, Dr. Hawking began to deeply explore concepts using only his mind, effectively visualizing problems and solutions. Later, in describing this response to completely losing his ability to write Dr. Hawking said, “By losing the dexterity of my hands I was forced to travel through the universe in my mind.”
Dr. Hawking’s practice of traveling the universe, exploring, analyzing and solving problems in his mind eventually proved to be a great advantage in his work — one that he continued to employ throughout the duration of his exceptional career, even after computer technology provided him with the ability to communicate in voice and written form. There were no role models for making the greatest scientific discoveries of a generation while without the ability to engage direct speech or writing. Undeterred, Dr. Hawking built his own vision for what he could accomplish.
Brain Differences – A Paradigm Shift
As I watched the documentary of Dr. Hawking’s life, I was reminded of lessons in a book that I recently read. For me, The Power of Different, authored by Dr. Gail Saltz has one overarching motif. When it comes to diagnosis and prognosis, perspective is everything. In the book, Dr. Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, provides a science-based examination of cognitive advantages that tend to accompany common behavioral health diagnoses. Dr. Saltz argues that reframing the way we think about mental health diagnosis and treatment has the potential to significantly impact life and career trajectories. The book provides detailed discussion of brain advantages that have been associated with, Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Depression, ADD, Autism and a number of other common behavioral health diagnoses offering case studies of every day individuals to illustrate the achievements of those who have mined the cognitive advantages like greater empathy, creativity and strong cognitive abilities that have accompanied their diagnoses. Dr. Saltz also documents how some of the greatest thinkers, scientists and artists in history have employed strengths associated with their behavioral health symptoms to find advantage in achieving success in the face of very serious symptoms.
Dr. Saltz boldly makes a case for re-labeling what psychiatrists now call mental disorders. Proposing instead that they should be called brain differences, a paradigm shift, that would allow for equal focus on symptom mitigation AND the identification of brain advantages that have been shown through research to be associated with various diagnoses. Dr. Saltz suggests that instead of thinking about an individual who has been diagnosed with a form of Anxiety as simply having symptoms of a disorder, we might begin to think about that individual as having a brain difference that has also been associated with greater accuracy in assessing emotion in others, performing to higher standards at work, and more accurately predicting outcomes.
Aggressively mining advantages that accompany physical and behavioral health obstacles can be powerful. Imagine providing parents with a list of advantages that tend to accompany symptoms at the same time results of a child’s initial diagnosis are presented. Imagine school interventions focused in equal measure on mining areas of strength as well as symptom mitigation. When we see a child that has been diagnosed with Autism as having a brain difference that includes not only symptoms for mitigation but also cognitive advantages in need of mining, the difference in perspective means everything in terms of life trajectory and career prospects.
Dr. Hawking provides evidence that how we think about and use our own potential, the potential of our children and the potential of individuals we encounter in our work and personal lives can have immeasurable impact on what we and they become. Obstacles, even those estimated by all conventional wisdom to be insurmountable have the potential to offer advantage when we understand how to mine, develop and employ the strengths that may be associated. Notwithstanding his incredible scientific teachings, I believe that one of the most powerful and enduring lessons Dr. Hawking has provided to us is about the human condition and the power of perspective. May his teaching inform our lives and professional practice.
“However difficult life can seem. There is always something you can do to succeed at it.”
-Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
HAWKING (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2018, from http://www.pbs.org/program/hawking/
SALTZ, GAIL M.D. POWER OF DIFFERENT: The Link between Disorder and Genius. FLATIRON BOOKS, 2018.
This MFLN-Military Caregiving concentration blog post was published on March 23, 2018.