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Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

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An extraordinary memoir about the cutting-edge brain therapy that dramatically changed the life and mind of John Elder Robison, the New York Times bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye

Imagine spending the first forty years of your life in darkness, blind to the emotions and social signals of other people. Then imagine that someone suddenly switches the lights on.

It has long been assumed that people living with autism are born with the diminished ability to read the emotions of others, even as they feel emotion deeply. But what if we’ve been wrong all this time? What if that “missing” emotional insight was there all along, locked away and inaccessible in the mind?
In 2007 John Elder Robison wrote the international bestseller Look Me in the Eye, a memoir about growing up with Asperger’s syndrome. Amid the blaze of publicity that followed, he received a unique invitation: Would John like to take part in a study led by one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, who would use an experimental new brain therapy known as TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, in an effort to understand and then address the issues at the heart of autism? Switched On is the extraordinary story of what happened next.
Having spent forty years as a social outcast, misreading others’ emotions or missing them completely, John is suddenly able to sense a powerful range of feelings in other people. However, this newfound insight brings unforeseen problems and serious questions. As the emotional ground shifts beneath his feet, John struggles with the very real possibility that choosing to diminish his disability might also mean sacrificing his unique gifts and even some of his closest relationships. Switched On is a real-life Flowers for Algernon, a fascinating and intimate window into what it means to be neurologically different, and what happens when the world as you know it is upended overnight.

321 pages, Audio CD

First published March 22, 2016

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About the author

John Elder Robison

16 books840 followers
I was born in rural Georgia, where my dad worked as a country preacher. I was kind of a misfit growing up. In fact, the bigger I got, the more misfit I became. At age 8, I got a little brother, and he was a misfit too. I dropped out of school in 10th grade, and never looked back. My brother dropped out a few years later, following in my footsteps.

I've had a number of careers . . . I designed sound systems for discos. I designed effects for KISS. I designed sound systems for more bands than I could count. Then, I took up electronic game design. I worked on fire alarms and power supplies. I even worked with lasers. Finally, 20 years ago, I gave up technology to start an automobile repair business.

That was where I was when my brother told some of our story in his 2002 memoir Running With Scissors. A few years later, I decided to tell my own story.

I wrote a book called Look Me in the Eye, my life with Asperger's. Well, that kind of changed everything for me. I was, like, fully out of the closet and under the public microscope.

Over the past decadeI've published four books and hundreds of articles. I've written chapters in a number of academic books and articles in peer reviewed scientific journals.

I served two terms on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee for the US Dept of Health and Human Services, and I am on the board of INSAR, the professional society for autism researchers.

Today autism is recognized as a part of human neurological diversity, conferring both disability and exceptionality. I am the neurodiversity scholar at the College of William & Mary and advisor to the Center for Neurodiversity at Landmark College. I am also neurodiversity advisor for the Livermore National Lab.

Today, I have an active speaking schedule, and I'm also involved in autism research. I'm a member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services, and I'm on the Science Board of Autism Speaks.

My books are:
- Look Me in the Eye (2007)
- Be Different (2011)
- Raising Cubby (2013)
- Switched On (2016)

Switched On is currently in development as a feature film with Focus.

In addition to being a book author, I own J E Robison Service Co in Springfield, Massachusetts. Robison Service does service, repair, and restoration work on European cars, with particular emphasis on BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover, Bentley, and Rolls Royce.

I'm interested in music, photography, small boats, hiking and the outdoors, and reading.

Read more on my blog at http://jerobison.blogspot.com

Join me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/JohnElderRobison

And follow @johnrobison on Twitter

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 209 reviews
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
972 reviews17.6k followers
May 19, 2023
Paradise Lost - isn't that one of our bigger complaints in this world? We look back on our wondrous youth and bemoan its loss in our adulthood, forgetting the perpetual possibility of grace and forgiveness, which together can revive our souls. I know I did today, myself!

Even John Robison, one of my aspie-makes-good role models, does that here.

Earlier, in hs book Look Me in the Eye, Robison EXULTED in his new-found normalcy after a life with Asperger's. But here, middle aged and weary, it's all just a facade.

We all go through that. And it's a known recipe for failure. On LinkedIn it's called a workplace pandemic now - the Imposter Syndrome. Of course the trolls confront us, and belittle us into thinking we're just a Fake. It's their preferred trick of the trade.

So today, because of them, I caved into them again and "made stones my bread." I sulked. Oh, I was grown-up about it. Who isn't? But, you know, the trolls never end anyway, EXCEPT at the...

End of the endless
Journey to no end
Grace to the Mother for the garden where all love ends.

But John sees a real way out - and an idea grabs hold of his discontent - Magnetic Brain Stimulation trials are underway at a nearby medical campus! There IS hope.

I know the feeling. Seemed like a grand idea at the time to me, too.

Except, at 32, the escape from dullness that I was offered through Magnetic Brain Stimulation (a cure from my depression after cancer claimed my young Mom's life) had a shelf life. It lasted me till approximately the time of my retirement: but it was a good 15 years!

And Robison gets wind of that same currently much-touted "panacea" as well - as a remedy for HIS blues.

Live and Learn, John. But John, a born techie, nevertheless has a lot of fun here dissecting the wizardry that allows such a device to change us for the better. If you want an inside track on this procedure, read the book.

And he learns his lesson. There's nothing wrong with the cure - it works - but then, as for me, it wears off. It DID give me a new lease on life in the workplace, though!

Yes, paradise is often lost. Life flows by swiftly and nothing lasts for long. So what do we do now?

Well, John's not there yet, but had he tried the natural way to get out of his rut it may have worked longer for him - The way of positive faith that eventually worked for me.

The Tibetan sage Chogyam Trungpa, in his bestseller Shambhala, says we can simply learn how to really live again by "Raising Windhorse" (more on this in my review of that book)!

We learn Windhorse by Faith, Courage and Hard Work. Wordsworth called it by a more practical term: Duty to our Creator. It was our forebears' daily bread.

Your Faith and Courage is the Wind; your Hard Work is the Horse.

We need our ideals, but we have to work hard to make them come true. Plus, taking chances in good faith, and thereby learning constant courage, supplies the energy Windhorse needs.

As Dick van Dyke says, Keep Moving!

Don't be a wallflower - but don't think you're unsinkable, either.

And don't expect instant fixes when new panaceas for your world-weariness, as this one seemed to be to John, turn up on the news.

When I was younger, like John, my faith bore an otherworldly aura. That came through the good offices of my own (and John's) fairy godmother, Autism. That's the reason for his enthusiasm at this cure.

But, as Wordsworth says, on taking on Duty's yoke - now, gone are those days of "splendour in the grass, of Glory in a flower...." We must try our best to live positively in this very real world!

You know, my wise Real-life Grandmother always had her own tried and true remedy for tough times when we kids got down in the mouth. It was a 19th century hymn tune on Duty she learned as a child.

Worked for her Aunt Stuart, and it worked for her.

So folks, next time the postmodern Noonday Devil of Acedia wears YOU down, get into YouTube and sing along with us...

Just Smile, and Put your Shoulder to the Wheel!

Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews869 followers
August 18, 2019
I wanted to like John Elder Robison's Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening more than I actually did. The beginning was slow going. To me, it sometimes felt like I was reading a grocery list rather than a story (and maybe that was part of the point). It was more interesting when the author discusses being 'switched on.' Even 50 years after Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algnernon, this being switched on or waking up is a scary concept when it comes with the possibility of this being something that could just as easily go away/be switched off.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,079 reviews712 followers
February 27, 2019
I first learned about this book from a radio interview with the author which I think was this 2016 interview from WBUR's "Hear and Now" show. It was explained that the author had been previously diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and that researchers had placed probes next to his head and exposed him to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) which caused him to experience the feelings of a typical non-autistic person. I could hardly believe my ears that such a fundamental part of a person's personality could be modified so quickly by equipment outside of the author's brain. It almost sounded like a version of mind control. Could it be true?

So when I saw this book on sale I decided it was time to check it out. What I learned from the book was that responses of the test subjects were varied and nuanced, and that the author's response wasn't necessarily typical for everyone else. However, one has to keep in mind that the researchers were working on variable strengths and locations of brain stimulation and/or repression, and the result of their work may lead to more predictable results.

The author's most dramatic response occurred after the first TMS exposure. While driving home from the treatment session he was listening to recorded music in his car and began to feel the music in a way he had never before experienced. He was so overcome by the emotion expressed within the music that he was moved to tears. It needs to be noted here that the author had an extensive background in sound engineering and he had previously developed savant skills of counting rapid drum beats. Thus his music listening was based upon a background of extensive technical knowledge. However, he had never previously felt the color, feeling, and emotion that was coming through the music that particular evening.

The author's reaction to the first TMS treatment was temporary, and reactions to subsequent tests were more nuanced and less dramatic. Probably part of the reason for the magnitude of his first response was the newness and novelty of the experience. Subsequent experiences would always be modified by memories of the earlier exposure. Nevertheless, over time the author's brain apparently began to hold on to the insights gained by these temporary glimpses of life without Aspergers. He learned to be more aware of other people's feelings and read people's facial expressions.

Becoming more free of Aspergers has it obvious good side. However it turns out that over time there were some painful downsides to these new feelings. In the years following his "awakening" to these new insights and feelings the nature of his relationship with his wife changed and eventually resulted in their divorce. A long time acquaintance who had previously been considered a friend now appeared to be making denigrating comments and laughing at him, so that relationship ended. TMS actually changed how he perceived memories from childhood—some that had been neutral or positive were now negative. He also became aware of memories of his own actions that he now perceived to be hurtful to others. He began to have feelings of loss and loneliness not previously experienced leading to a near suicide.

There is an account from this book of a high school aged young man who became free from symptoms of Asperger's syndrome for a couple years after TMS treatments. However, he has since reverted back to his old symptoms and has no interest in additional treatment. His parents are frustrated from his lack of interest in a more permanent change. The issue is complicated. It points to the need for care in making sudden changes with TMS. Psychiatric talk therapy together with cautious use of TMS is probably needed.

This book contains a thorough discussion of the subject of Autism, TMS, and other approaches to treatment. I found the book to be an easy way to learn more about the experiences of those with Autism. I had aways assumed that since I tend toward introvertedness that I could somewhat understand the Asperger experience—after reading this book I'm less sure of that. It's a complicated subject and the linear model of "spectrum" probably doesn't covey the multidimensional aspects of the subject.
Profile Image for Ian.
726 reviews65 followers
July 5, 2019
I picked this book up after reading the review by my GR Friend Clif Hostetler (to whom, many thanks). This is an unusual memoir in which the author, who is on the autistic spectrum, tells of his involvement in a research project into a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive procedure designed to stimulate certain areas of the brain. The experiments had a significant effect on the author’s personality.

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I found the first quarter slow and uninteresting, the last quarter fascinating, and the middle bit, well, middling. I’ve gone for an in-between rating of 3 stars although the last section nearly pushed it into the 4-star category.

The author has high functioning autism and has achieved a lot in life, having had a successful career as a sound engineer before running his own auto repair business (not to mention becoming a successful writer, and other things). Although he was almost completely lacking in emotional intelligence, he portrays himself as what used to be called an autistic savant (although he doesn’t use that phrase). Whilst his autism was disabling in social situations, he views himself as having “gifts” which not many people possess, being able to “see” sound waves or to “see into” machines. One of the themes of the book is the author’s worry about the possibility TMS might result in the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. He had more to lose than those for whom autism is a more disabling condition, to the extent they have difficulty functioning in society.

In the first section the author describes the theory behind TMS, his own research into the subject, and his preparation for participating in the research. Large parts of the book are taken up with the author’s own life story and his theories into the working of the brain. Personally, the sections I found most interesting were those where he described the impact of the TMS sessions, how they changed him and changed his relations with other people. I normally don’t worry about spoilers in a non-fiction review, but in this case I’ll just say that the changes brought on by TMS had both pros and cons to them.

The book ends with a fascinating discussion about the ethics of altering people’s personality, and where this technology might eventually lead. Computers can already apparently often tell what we are thinking about just by observing which parts of the brain are active. There are huge potential benefits in dealing with depression and other mental illnesses as well as neurological problems. On the other hand, there are dangers in going too far in labelling “difference” as “disability.” These issues are never clear-cut!

Taken as a whole, I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as I expected, but I’m still glad I read it, particularly the last quarter.
Profile Image for Karen R.
840 reviews496 followers
December 22, 2015
“All we had were a TMS machine, some ideas, a few volunteers, and a lot of hope.”

Author John Elder Robison has Asberger’s, a form of autism. He and his brother (Augustin Burrows, author of Running with Scissors) were raised by a mother with mental illness and by a father who drank and became violent. John is a master in engineering technologies, his past jobs included creating electronic toys/games, some of the first video games and talking toys for Milton Bradley, and creating spectacular special effects, lasers and sound systems for rock bands such as Pink Floyd and KISS. I became familiar with his writing after reading Raising Cubby – a story mainly where he focuses on his son Cubby, who also is autistic.

In this book, John makes the complex subject of autism easy to understand. He writes about a life-changing experience when chosen to participate in an experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Neuroscientist Dr. Lindsay Oberman approached John at a college workshop where he was speaking as an autism expert. The idea was to add tiny amounts of electrical currents to induce signals in the brain and study the effects. Although nobody knew where the results would lead, it was Dr. Lindsay’s hope and that of her neuroscientist colleagues that these could change the brain for the better. A huge leap of faith and with trepidation, John accepted his role as ‘lab rat’. What a fascinating story as he and his doctors navigate through a journey of discovery. The results that would have amazing lasting effects for John (and Cubby). Thanks to Random House for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
980 reviews579 followers
April 5, 2016
The book is an anecdotal account of the author's experience of taking TMS (transcranal magnetic stimulation), as an experimental treatment for autism (he'll often use the word Asperger instead of 'autism'). The author is a good narrator, and tells his personnel experiences in a very likable manner.

Overall, I think I could have gotten what I wanted out of the book by reading a magazine length article on the merits and wizardry on TMS instead. I had wondered about the efficacy of the procedure before reading this book, and to the author's credit, I still wonder because he doesn't go beyond what the current science says and much more science needs to be done before easy answers can be given.
Profile Image for Tim.
83 reviews
November 10, 2018
Another interesting and atypical memoir.

The author documents his participation in a series of brain stimulation experiments and the short and the long terms effects. The technique, known as trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), uses an electromagnetic field to target and stimulate specific areas of the brain in the hope that this can jump start brain plasticity in that area, thereby altering some cognitive deficit of the participant. The author uses the analogy of giving your car an oil change to demonstrate how this differs from the traditional chemical approach to brain change, likening the traditional method to opening the hood of the car and spraying oil everywhere in the hope that some of it will reach the targeted area and the TMS method to putting the oil precisely where it belongs - in the oil tank. Different patterns of energy produce different effects which can be broadly classified as potentiation or depression. Basically, you turn the volume up or down on a specific behaviour. Interestingly, if TMS that would correct a deficit in an area that is lacking in one person is applied to that same area in a person who has no such deficit, it will not further increase their abilities in that realm but instead make them worse. For example, if you administer the depression protocol to a person who isn't depressed, they will become unhappy and anxious. It is believed that the reason for this is because human abilities exist on a bell curve. TMS helps the person not in the optimal area move closer to the ideal but it knocks the person who has no such deficit out of the optimal area near the top of the curve. I might have a touch of the mad scientist about me but I cannot help visualizing all of this as someone setting the bass and treble levels on a stereo system, adjusting sliders here and there, until everything is just right. Remember Goldilocks and the three bears. You don't want the bed to be too hard or too soft, you want it to be just right. In any case, it seems to me intuitively correct to place humans on a continuum with highly systematized modes of thought at one end and highly empathetic modes of thought at the other with most of humanity falling somewhere in the middle. There is a lot of empirical evidence to suggest this is the case also. (As an aside, the professions that statistically have a greater abundance of people on the autism spectrum are engineers, scientists, musicians, lawyers, and clergy.)

As an example of how precise targeting works, a burst of energy applied to an area of the brain known as Broca's area can temporarily turn off the human capacity for language. To hear the author describe it, it didn't only turn off the ability to verbalize language but also to mentalize it. Language simply disappeared:

'With no more than a slight pop, language was gone. I didn't even know what I'd lost because the entire concept of words and the ability to string thoughts together simply disappeared. One moment there was a dialogue playing in my head, a little voice saying, I wonder what's going to happen when they do this. The next moment, the voice was gone. All that remained was feeling. The comfort of the chair, and a sense of familiarity with the people beside me.

I was incapable of a realization like “I can't talk!” since it consists of words. Without words I had ceased to be a creature of coherent logical thought. Instead, I lived in the moment with sound, sight, smell, and feeling. Some say that's how a dog experiences the world, although dogs are much more reliant on their sense of smell, which is far better than ours. And of course they are capable of barking.

Did I truly become like a dog in the blink of an eye? I couldn't have told you in the moment, because all vocalization – speaking or barking – was suppressed. But as I remember it, my ability to understand spatial relations - and complex things – remained intact.'

The real purpose of these experiments is nothing so nefarious as turning people into pre-language troglodytes. TMS is positioned to treat a range of disabilities like chronic pain conditions, migraines, and autism, though it is currently only available to the public as a treatment for medication resistant depression. In the case of the author, it was to try and correct some of the social and emotional deficits associated with Asperger's Syndrome. People with this condition are extreme literalists. Whereas many people might pick up on all the nuances involved when having a conversation, things like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, they only hear the words and their meaning. Much like language does not exist as a concept in the excerpt above, these things do not exist for the person with Asperger's Syndrome. They don't pick up on them when they are talking to a person because they are, in effect, not there. I suppose an analogy someone might use is an online chat conversation. Maybe you have had an experience where a conversation you were having online went massively off the rails because all of the normal things we don't even notice about a conversation – body language, tone, etc – are missing. What if every human conversation was like that for you? Just words and their meaning. You could go through life oblivious to many things (the positive aspect of it) but at the same time you could inadvertently cause a lot of damage simply by being rude without even having an inkling that you are being rude (the negative aspect of it). The author describes his own experience in this regard a number of times throughout the book:

'Most people take such abilities for granted, but I had a lifetime of experience missing those cues and saying the wrong things – sometimes the worst possible things – in response to the logical words others spoke to me.'

'People told me I said unexpected and disturbing things, and my words got me into trouble more than once. “Good engineer” was how I wanted to be described, but “jerk” was the more common appellation, even as my circuit designs were superstar.'

'...there had been many times in my own life when other people had looked at me and said. “You don't care,” or “You're just totally indifferent,” when in fact I cared very much. One of the things I'd learned about autism was that it caused me to appear indifferent even when I had very strong feelings about something.'

Needless to say, some people accused him of using his condition as an excuse for bad behaviour. One person with Asperger's describes the nuanced mode of communication most people engage in as speaking a foreign language with the additional factor that they start yelling at you because you don't speak the language which, as one can imagine, only increases the anxiety of the person with Asperger's since they have no idea what they have done wrong:

'It can be anxiety provoking when people expect you to be able to react in a way that you are not able to do. There's certainly a lot that gets missed or misunderstood. It's also very tiring to have to constantly try to figure out what is being said and to be wrong too much of the time.'

The experiments the author was involved in focused on five small areas in the frontal lobe, any of which could affect emotion or language. It has been theorized that the cause of Asperger's might be a connectivity problem between the frontal cortex and areas of the brain that involve things like emotional and social processing. As the author puts it, he has a 56k dial-up modem, most people have broadband, and what TMS might be doing is opening up or unblocking those restricted pathways.

Lack of social skills and emotional depth are only one of the traits associated with Asperger's and the author is quite clear that there are benefits as well as deficits to the condition – in fact, one of his worries was that TMS might erase the benefits while it was correcting the deficits – but it was the one the book seemed to concentrate on the most. Certainly the author believes that he is the better for it, at one point likening it to the Mary the colourblind neuroscientist thought experiment where Mary moves from an experiential world of black and white where she has a theoretical knowledge of the existence of colour to a world where colour becomes her experiential reality. Initially this was an overwhelming experience for him:

'I'd be at the breakfast table, reading a story in the New York Times, and I'd be blindsided by emotion and have to stop reading. These new feelings were very strange, because they were incredibly strong and they seemed to be triggered by events – in songs or news stories – that had never before elicited the least bit of response from me. In fact, in the past I had belittled people who burst into tears at the news of a bus crash at the other end of the world. “They don't know anyone on that bus,” I'd say dismissively. “They don't even know anyone in that country. It's just a play for attention.” But now it was happening to me.'

Later he writes that he: 'quickly learned that it takes practice to handle the strong emotions. In the three and a half months since the study had ended, I was starting to realize that the old maxim “Ignorance is bliss” might well apply to my former autistic blindness, with respect to reading emotions in certain people.'

Experiments like this raise ethical and philosophical issues. His family were initially alarmed at his decision to take part in the experiment, asking questions like 'What's wrong with how you are now?' and 'What if the machine changes you and you don't like us anymore?' At one point he muses to himself: 'Could we alter speech, coordination, or vision while leaving personality intact? Might we even adjust personality?' He acknowledges that too much of this type of manipulation on a large scale basis might lead to a sort of bland neuro-homogenization. The thing that makes human beings all unique – all special little snowflakes, as it were – is because we are all at some level a mixture of abilities and disabilities – we excel in one area and we are impaired in another.

'One idea that I've come back to throughout this book is the notion that my brain (or anyone else's) might differ from the brain of a typical person. But the truth is, there is really no such thing as a “typical” brain, because every human being is atypical in some or many ways. The “neurotypical person” is a construct, established by scientists who need parameters by which to measure the disparate statistics of different individuals.'

This was truly a fascinating book, both in terms of the life story of the author and how TMS changed him for the better, the complexities and mysteries of the human brain and mind, and also the ethical and philosophical issues that must inevitably raise their head. One final thought from the author:

'If pure energy can change – and possibly “fix” - the mind, can the mind then direct the body to fix itself? That seems like a valid line of questioning, one that offers the promise that one day medically valid energy-based therapy may supplant drugs for certain treatments.'
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
651 reviews86 followers
August 7, 2019
A man with high-functioning Asperger syndrome signed on for a TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Simulation) study lead by a Harvard scientist and this book is the memoir of his life and changes (the emotional awakenings) afterwards. The author himself and a lot readers compared him to the protagonist in Flowers for Algernon, except the author's story has a kind of happy ending. The book is repetitive at times, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

What strikes me most is how intelligent, persistent and self-motivated the author is. A living example of Neuro-diversity. As a high school outcast and dropout, he became a successful self-taught sound engineering and later car mechanics. As a sound engineer, he worked with famous bands such as Kiss. He is also a self-taught photographer. Before Switched On, he had already published several books, including an eye opening memoir Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's. It was Look Me in the Eye that got him attention from scientific community which lead him to being recruited by Alvaro Pascual-Leon and his team for their TMS study on autistic patients.

While the author welcomed his emotional awakening, he was also aware of its dark side. Feeling too much is overwhelming. Feeling your loved one's depression can be life-crushing. To get an understanding of what happened in the past can turn good memories into sad ones.

The author had many thoughtful observations and questionings throughout the book, part from his own experiences, part from autism community. Let me list a few:
1. Does today's education system focus too much on paper-based course work instead of hands-on practices such as car mechanics, and is this the reason (partially at least) autistic children today having a harder time in school?
2. If you "cure" autism children of a young age, do you rid of their creativity too?
3. The emotional sensitivity and the people-reading instincts brought directly by TMS treatment faded after a period of time, but the author felt lasting changes. Is it because the "use or lose it" principle and the author tried hard to use it?
4. Why older adults (such as the author) get better outcome from TMS than younger ones (such as Nick)? Is it because older people have experienced more of the downside of being autistic therefore more motivated?

Nick is a very interesting case, a teen who almost recovered from his autism after several TMS treatment yet reverted back to his old ways. Worst (from his parents' point of view) of all, Nick refused to try any further treatment. Was he not able to or not wanting to? The author seemed to think that Nick wanted to his old way--dealing with emotions of his and people around him was overwhelming, therefore he was not motivated to achieve any long lasting changes.
Profile Image for Angie Reisetter.
506 reviews6 followers
October 25, 2018
Robison's story is intriguing. It has often been the subject of my thoughts since I finished the book. It's deeply troubling and incredibly hopeful. If I could change the way my brain works, if I could choose to be more "normal", would I? Robison answered yes, yes to change his brain, and yes to fit in better with others, yes to gain emotional insight he didn't otherwise have. The consequences are beautiful and more than a little scary.

As an adult, Robison was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, and this book is the account of his participation in research using transcranial magnetic stimulation to rewire his brain. The research was successful: he felt that his emotions were "switched on", and his ability to empathize with other people skyrocketed. He felt emotions when he listened to music for the first time. He suddenly understood people better and was more able to operate with what most people call common courtesy. Looking back on his life, he suddenly realized how rude he had always been, how his reactions had been inappropriate. The sudden change in his personality ripped his marriage apart. But he has no regrets.

The implications of this research are stunning. With one anecdote, Robison asks the question of whether young people can give permission to have this done, whether their parents, whose lives are deeply affected by autism, can give that permission for them, whether the "cure" for autism is as clear-cut a good as cures for other conditions may be. I can't recommend the book enough, just because the possibilities it opens up are amazing and troubling. I keep asking my friends to read it so I can discuss it with them.

This is a five-star read for me because of the content, the amazing story within, not necessarily because of the skill of the storyteller. If you're interested in autism and autism research at all, this is a story you need to hear.

I got a free copy of this from Net Galley.
Profile Image for Barb.
281 reviews2 followers
June 20, 2016
I remember reading Agustin Burrows book, Running With Scissors and thinking, "Wow, this family is even crazier than mine!" Being curious about the crazy, I eagerly picked up his brother, John Elder Robison's book, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awaking.
Late in life Robinson was diagnosed with Aspergers, a syndrome on the autism spectrum, which he saw as an explanation of both his giftedness and many challenges. Switched On tells of his emotional state before, during and after experimental studies (for which he eagerly volunteered) employing Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. He believes these experiments profoundly changed his life and he is now an enthusiastic advocate for use of TMS as a treatment for others with emotional challenges.
In spite of or because of his unique brain functioning, Robison has been successful at many endeavors from writing and lecturing to photography and the engineering of fire spitting guitars for the band, KISS. The book also shares all of these successes as well as his failures, and makes for a fascinating read.
Profile Image for Lisa Wright.
423 reviews17 followers
March 27, 2016
At the age of 50, John Elder Robison participates in a research study on the effects of TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) on adults with autism. Hours later, he suddenly feels . . . everything! Most, but not all, of the effects fade, but his life has been permanently changed. This is a real-life Flowers for Algernon or Awakenings but with less tragic results. It blew my mind!
Profile Image for Jill Hanson carrell.
678 reviews1 follower
May 11, 2016
I really enjoyed this author's first memoir, "Look me in the eye", because it gave a great insight into the world of having asperger's. Also, I adore his brother's books (Augusten Burroughs) so I figured that this was a good bet. It was fascinating! This book recounts his experiences in a trial where transcranial magnetic stimulation was used to try to improve some of the negative traits associated with aspergers. Amazing stuff. He includes lots of information/history on neurologic studies of the past and just enough science and medical jargon to keep me interested without going over my head.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,470 reviews565 followers
November 20, 2016
This fascinating and thoughtful account of the author's experience with TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) is well worth reading if you are interested in the subject of autism. Robison, an accomplished author, mechanic, photographer and sound artist with autism, describes the effect of TMS on his emotions and thinking. The author did get bogged down at times with repetitive, technical and tedious details and I found myself frequently skimming.
Profile Image for Betsy.
29 reviews19 followers
June 29, 2016
Amazing memoir by a western Massachusetts author that I have heard speak three times! How do brains work and how can science change our behavior? Gives me a lot to think about!
29 reviews
November 28, 2016
Although there were some interesting insights in this book it was way too long and rambling. I had to force myself to finish the book.
79 reviews14 followers
September 28, 2017
This is one of those cases where I'm not sure if the fault lies in me or the book.

This isn't to say that Robinson is a bad writer. Quite to the contrary, he has a clear and vivid writing style that isn't pretentious. He is able to convey a very complicated issue with so many scientific and emotional nuances with clarity and sensitivity. Switched On made me wish that I had read his memoir, Look Me in the Eye first. (I am certainly planning on reading that one regardless.)

Here's the thing: I found this book overdrawn, almost as if Robinson didn't quite have enough material to fill up then pages. There were quite a few sections filled with what I would (perhaps uncharitably) categorize as "filler material." Despite the overstuffed nature of this book, I couldn't help but feel like I didn't quite grasp autism in general and the transformation brought on by TMS specifically. Perhaps the fault is mine own as I didn't brush up on autism before reading. Perhaps Robinson didn't give enough background. Who knows? Whatever it was, the book just didn't work for me. It is probably more well-suited to those more intimately familiar with autism and are interested in the TMS technology.

The more troubling issue lies in the mixed messages about autism in the book. The title alone is highly problematic as a commenter points out: the terms "switched on" and "emotional awakening" imply that people with autism are somehow emotionally dormant or emotionally "turned off." These aren't true, as Robinson himself exemplifies. Now, I'm not sure if the title was Robinson's or the publisher's making, but it doesn't quite set things off on the right tone. The mixed message becomes even more convoluted and confused in the book. Even though Robinson spends some time listing the advantages of autism: emotional detachment is good during emergencies, his ability to deal with people with depression, and how it shielded him from his childhood problems. Yet, I couldn't help but feel as if Robinson glorified neurotypical people's sense of social cues. He makes a reference to it as "seeing into someone's soul." I'm fairly socially savvy and I can say with confidence that it's not like that for me. There's still a lot of guesswork involved in social interactions. It's not as hard for me, but I hardly feel like I can see into others's soul. This isn't to say that autism isn't hard or even deliberating for some people. But it so much depends on the individual. I didn't think the book presented a balanced view on autism, which is a shame.

Switched On tells the story of John Elder Robinson who found out that he had autism at the age of 40. When a researcher at a nearby hospital offered him a chance to participate in a study that used the new technology TMS, which uses electromagnetic currents to do ... stuff to one's neural pathways to reverse some of the effects of autism. In a Flowers for Alergnon kind of thing (Robinson admits this himself), the effects of TMS are temporary. Switched On tells a tale of the technology, the emotional awakening, and the aftermath.

The best part of the book for me was the aftermath chapter. Things on the other side of the proverbial neurotypical fence isn't always better. Robinson shows with brutal honesty the impact of TMS and his subsequent improvement on his ability to pick up social cues on his marriage and relationships. This leads to a question that Robinson addresses but never fully confronts: should we be trying to fix autism by making them more like neurotypical people? This is a very serious question that has some frightening answers.

Some good stuff in here. it's just that it felt like a 130-page book expanded into a 200+-page book.
93 reviews3 followers
February 27, 2022
The premise of this book is a fascinating one and the insights into the brain were of interest. But I found the book strange. Robison is almost unremittingly positive about his experience with TMS therapy for his autism. Even in the beginning, before he gets to considering the downsides, the experience doesn't sound pleasant at all. He is seemingly reduced to tears several times a day by inconsequential things. His friend, also undergoing the same experimental therapy, has gone from loving New Yorker fiction to being unable to read fiction at all because he starts to find it overwhelming. Robison himself suddenly becomes keenly aware of negative energy of those all around him. To me, the experience sounded a little like going barefoot: there are many people in the world who have gone barefoot their entire lives and have no problem with rough terrain. For those of us wearing shoes since childhood, however, the walking barefoot outside can be outright painful.

Robison himself does notice a downside to the therapy eventually -- the most extreme events related are the dissolution of his marriage and repeated suicidal ideation leading to two near-attempts.

Despite this, the book borders on evangelization for the therapy. Pretty much everything he's done since is attributed to the magic of TMS "fixing" his previously bad (i.e., stereotypically autistic) behaviors and traits. He is, of course, entitled to feel however he wishes, but I can't help but think that this book undermines his previous writing where he denies the notion that autistic people are defective. He certainly seems to view himself as defective and view every way he can move away from it as an improvement.

The book ends with information for interested readers to try and get hold of the therapy themselves, but, despite authorial intent, the impression I walked away with was that you couldn't pay me to do this.
Profile Image for Barbara Nutting.
2,727 reviews93 followers
October 6, 2020
I do not comprehend the intricate working of the brain, nor do I understand electrical engineering, consequently I found this book way too technical!!

It rehashed many of the events and stories of his previous books and was repetitious in this one as well. What he didn’t cover regarding Asperger’s/Autism in his other publications he more than made up for in this one. I was bored to tears 😢

Profile Image for Scribe Publications.
561 reviews95 followers
October 26, 2020
In this fascinating book John Elder Robison raises deep questions: what does TMS do to the brain? Will it permanently change his experience of music, his emotions, and his ability to read faces? And if autism involves disability as well as talent, if we alter the different wiring in an autistic brain, is this a good thing? Robison’s honest, brilliant, and very personal account helps us understand the perspective of someone living with autism.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University

John Elder Robison is an extraordinary guide, carefully elucidating the cutting-edge science behind this revolutionary new brain therapy, TMS, alongside the compelling story of the impact it has on his relationships, his thinking and emotions, and indeed his very identity. At the heart of Switched On are fundamental questions of who we are, of where our identity resides, of difference and disability and free will, which are brought into sharp focus by Robison’s lived experience.Graeme Simsion, Author of The Rosie Effect

Switched On is a mind-blowing book that will force you to ask deep questions about what is important in life. Would normalising the brains of those who think differently reduce their motivation for great achievement?
Temple Garden

Switched On is an eye-opening book with a radical message … The transformations [John Elder Robison] undergoes throughout the book are astonishing — as foreign and overwhelming as if he woke up one morning with the visual range of a bee or the auditory prowess of a bat.
Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

Astonishing, brave … Switched On details Robison’s discovery of his rich new emotional life … Switched On reads like a medical thriller and keeps you wondering what will happen next … [Robison] takes readers for a ride through the thorny thickets of neuroscience and leaves us wanting more. He is deft at explaining difficult concepts and doesn’t shy from asking hard questions. This is a truly unusual memoir — both poignant and scientifically important.
Amy Ellis Nutt, The Washington Post

[H]onest, scientific, personal, and full of rock and roll … After Robison was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, he participated in an experimental transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) study, which changed his life. Robison reflects on what he learned while delving into the science behind autism treatment and celebrating the people who were with him through truly difficult moments along a path of self-discovery … Robison's memoir contains as much vulnerability and honesty as it does discussions of neuroscience and autism.
Publishers Weekly

Fascinating for its insights into Asperger’s and research, this engrossing record will make readers reexamine their preconceptions about this syndrome and the future of brain manipulation.

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.

A fascinating companion to the previous memoirs by this masterful storyteller.
Kirkus Reviews

Both memoir and neurological study — and, no doubt about it, neurology is a trending new reading topic.
Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Profile Image for Mirkat.
454 reviews3 followers
September 11, 2016
Switched On Finished this one a couple of days ago and I keep forgetting to review it--probably because I transitioned right into listening to Running With Scissors.  Augusten Burroughs is John Elder Robison's little brother.  I had no idea!
Anyway, Robison was not diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome until he was 40 years old.  He has written a few other books about his experiences growing up with undiagnosed autism, raising an autistic son, and "being different," and I am definitely curious about those.  This most recent book recounts his experiences participating in a study on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.  As he explains on his blog, TMS is "a process by which scientists focus powerful magnetic fields on specific area of the brain to enhance or inhibit them.  By doing so, our very cognitive processes can be altered."  For Robison, the most dramatic effects of TMS had to do with experiencing emotions--his own and others--and learning to read non-verbal cues he had previously been blind to.  Although the direct effects of TMS are temporary, what he learned from those effects seemingly forged new pathways in his brain, resulting in lasting improvements in his ability to "read" people.
Robison is careful to include certain misgivings he has with possible uses of TMS on autistic brains.  It has great potential to help autistic people with aspects of their autism that present problems for them.  But there are also the gifts he would hate to see lost in efforts to "fix" such brains.
Recommended for people fascinated by brains and their many variations.
569 reviews8 followers
June 11, 2017
I really wasn't sure what to expect from this book when I picked it up, and I have to admit that the beginning did not immediately convince me that it would be worth finishing. However, I ended up finding the book quite worth listening to.

Reading about Robison's experiences with autism was kind of strange, because his experience was quite different from mine, but also probably more typical. I really have been incredibly lucky to have found as many close friends (many of them also autistic) as I have in the years since high school, and I couldn't help feeling sorry for the amount of isolation he has experienced. It definitely made it a bit more understandable to me why he wanted to take part in a study to see if his autism could be reduced.

The main focus of the book is a study he participated in in which transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was used in an attempt to reduce his autism symptoms. His descriptions of the effects of TMS, and of the effects of gaining the ability to perceive others' emotions more easily, were quite interesting. As were his explanations of how the experience changed his life and why he is glad of the changes.
Profile Image for Maureen.
1,057 reviews7 followers
September 25, 2016
Even though I did speed reading on much of the last quarter of the book, the entire concept here begs you to pay attention. There are so many fascinating ethical questions in this book.

A man with high functioning Aspergers signs up for a study where specific parts of the brain would be stimulated by transcranial magnetic stimulation TMS. Zapped. Here's a guy who is gifted in his work with technology, electronics, and cars, but seriously different in his expression and reading of human emotions. He has been aware for a long time that he is missing out on experiences that most people have. After his treatments, his world goes technicolor. Sort of. For a short time. He maintains some awareness of the change, even as he can't sustain it.

Huge ethical questions come up here: what's normal? Who gets to decide who needs the treatment or who gets the treatment?

You will think about this book for a long time.

Profile Image for Megan.
737 reviews15 followers
March 29, 2017
I thought this book was absolutely riveting. I had so many light bulb moments and so many connections--I was thinking about this book and talking about this book with people all of the time. Robison, an autistic spectrum man from Massachusetts undergoes an experimental brain therapy called TMS or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. This changes his life and takes away many of his autistic characteristics. Some temporarily, and some for good.
Coincidentally, this therapy has also been used for patients with depression, for whom anti-depressants don't work.
I can't say enough good about this book. This man is incredible and his story is fascinating. I enjoyed the audiobook, although not all of the book group members did. He is somewhat flat and not very expressive in his reading of the book (read by the author). I quite liked the emotionless quality in his recounting of the experience.
Highly recommend to all. I don't remember any swearing or sex. I think it was pretty clean.
1,679 reviews9 followers
February 25, 2016
( 2 1/2) I read this book because I was so enamored with one of Robison's earlier works, Look Me in the Eye. I picked that one up becasue I have a grandchild with Aspergers Syndrone, which Robison also suffers from. This story is fascinating, Robison's recount of his testing, then a fledgling research effort, of magnetic impulse treatments on the brain. How it affected him, how he recalls it and the fallout along the way make for a very interesting tale. It gets a little too technical and medically oriented at times but Robison's history and his colorful life always bring us back. The concept that this could be a future treatment for some of the different levels of the autism spectrum in the future makes it a fairly important read for anyone who is interested in the subject. The fact that it is also entertaining is a bonus.
Profile Image for Sharon Paavola.
250 reviews23 followers
May 25, 2016
This author amazed me by what he has accomplished in his life having Asperger's disease and autism.
He's done more than most of us. I was fascinated with his mind and his eagerness to learn and improve his mental and emotional well being. This is an account of his experience with early studies of increasing the abilities in autistic brains with electrical stimulation. He has written other books about his life with autism. I found I was compelled to read what happened to him as he participated in the study. His writing is so real, raw, and vulnerable. I applaud his efforts and am very glad I finished his book. Reading it encouraged me in my own search for improving my life, my health, and my mind.

I highly recommend reading Switched On. I was given a copy by Net Galley for my honest review.
Profile Image for Luisbatiz.
20 reviews1 follower
April 23, 2016
I didn't know what this book was about when I started reading it. I was hooked after the first chapter. In summary, it is the story of an old autistic person that is offered the opportunity to receive an experimental treatment to treat autism. The treatment is called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). TMS stimulates parts of the brain (with electromagnetism) that regularly do not work "normally" with autistic people and also with people with depression. It is interesting to see how brain research and TMS will work in the long term. My guess is that if you don't have a friend or family member with depression or autism, this book is not for you
452 reviews
August 18, 2017
An incredible reminder of how much and yet how little is known about the human brain. After participating in a research study that targets and activates very small and specific parts of the brain, the author, himself on the autism spectrum, is able to read the emotions of others in ways he'd never been able to do before. It profoundly changes his life, mostly for the better but not completely. Great mix of neuroscience and personal experience; author does a great job describing and explaining both. The ethical implications of being able to manipulate the brain in this way is also touched on and are pretty mind boggling. Robison is a great spokesperson for people on the autism spectrum.
493 reviews5 followers
October 20, 2017
The story itself was interesting, but for me, too much technical information that I was not interested in. I totally get that it was necessary to include this information in order to get a fully informed look at what the study entailed, but it just wasn't an area of information that interests me. I found it hard to not skip these sections and move more to the experiences and outcomes that John Robison experienced.
This is totally personal because the other members of my book discussion seemed to find the entire book (including the technical info) fascinating. It did provoke some interesting discussion among the group, which I enjoyed.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
150 reviews2 followers
March 26, 2016
John Elder Robison wrote about his life with Asperger's in LOOK ME IN THE EYE. His latest book is a fascinating account of his participation in experiments with TMS - Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Robison has remarkable self-awareness and gives vivid descriptions of the changes in his personality that came about from the TMS sessions. He also covers the ethical and philosophical issues. If TMS gives a person better social skills but robs him of his genius-level technical abilities, is that a worthy trade? Really interesting - and scary - stuff.
Profile Image for Audrey.
Author 13 books111 followers
November 13, 2016
This book offers an amazing look at the qualitative side of neuroscience research. Robison (who in his previous books gave a look at the autism spectrum from the inside) relates his experience participating in one of the early studies of TMS, a brain therapy, and autism. Not only does he bring the reader along for the journey, he reflects on what the experience meant to him even years after the study concluded, looking at both its positives and negatives with a clear eye and deep understanding.
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