August 2, 2023
Is culture driving us crazy—in a good way?
A Science Alert from late June of this year compared the chaotic patterns of the jet streams—the currents of air that wrap around our planet and affect weather—to a Van Gogh painting. They have become so chaotic as to be unrecognizable to climate scientists. “I’m honestly at a loss to even characterize the current large-scale planetary wave pattern,” the author of the study said.
Perhaps educators (and parents) could be added to the list of observers who see large-scale shifts in wave activity, but this time in the inner atmosphere: The brain. Neither brain waves nor quantum wave activity that underlies neural processes are well understood. But the argument can be made that, whatever drives the brain, the patterns are as unrecognizable as the jet stream. The brain is not acting ‘normally.’
The proof is as visible as patterns on weather radar. Over the past 20 years, the number of American children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) increased by nearly 70%. In parts of the U.S., close to 1-in-5 children are now diagnosed with the condition. Adults are close behind. The fastest-growing market for ADHD medications is adult women.
This is not an article debating whether an ADHD diagnosis is a handy way to control unruly boys or an inevitable byproduct of an over-medicated society. That debate is alive and well, but I’ll leave that to others. Instead, I see ADHD as one of several indicators that the brain—just like the climate shift affecting the jet stream—might be changing in response to the environment.
The rise in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), now at 75,000,000 (or 1%) of the world’s population, is the next candidate. Like ADHD, ASD ‘interferes’ with normal brain function, with effects varying depending on where an individual fits on the autism spectrum. Most of the effects we view as negative. But a 21-year-old autistic ‘speedcuber’ just broke the record for solving Rubik’s Cube in 3.13 seconds—something that ‘normal’ brains can’t do. And in today’s world, speed matters.
The Speedcuber story brings to mind the other side of abnormalities: The proliferation of prodigies. Again, this might be a diagnostic issue, with global media enabling us to publicize a phenomenon that has always existed. But I’m struck by the Afro-Mexican girl with a higher IQ than Einstein and already a…