John Elder Robison is already well known for his 2007 memoir, Look Me in the Eye, which detailed his life as a successful adult with Asperger’s syndrome. A key feature of this bestseller, and of Robison’s stance toward Asperger’s in general, is that being on the autism spectrum is a gift rather than a disease. And so, when given the opportunity, why did he submit to a series of experimental brain treatments? This is one of the questions Robison struggles to answer in Switched On, his eloquent, vivid and utterly compelling new memoir.
Robison undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) because it might increase his emotional awareness, or so researchers predict. But his reaction to the treatments far exceeds their expectations. His experiences are hallucinogenic, highly charged and deeply meaningful. They change him forever. Readers see Robison in the throes of the treatments and their dramatic aftermath—staying up all night listening to music, reconsidering relationships, reveling in his ability to finally look people in the eye. These stories are so moving and unpredictable that I found myself reading them aloud.
It’s been seven years since Robison initially underwent TMS, and the long-term implications are still unfolding. Ultimately, though, this book provides an intellectual and emotional initiation into a different way of perceiving the world. Like books by Andrew Solomon and Oliver Sacks, Switched On offers an opportunity to consider mental processes through a combination of powerful narrative and informative medical context. Readers can put their hands, for a moment, on the mystery that is the brain.