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Opening the Door on Emotions

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Opening the Door on Emotions
Temple Grandin, PhD

Autism Asperger’s Digest March/April 2013


Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

I had heard through the research grapevine that John Elder Robison, the well-known author of look me in the eye (Broadway, 2008) and be different (Broadway, 2012) with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), had undergone Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) of the area of the brain that contains mirror neurons. TMS employs weak electric currents to stimulate activity in the brain. Mirror neurons are a brain system that enables people to feel the emotions of others.

How Did TMS Change John?

Immediately, I went to Google and typed in the keywords John Robison TMS and watched videos of John describing his experiences. I stayed up all night watching because I couldn’t stop.

The next day I had a four-hour layover at an airport so I called John. I had to learn more. He told me he had been in a number of experiments and that this procedure permanently improved his ability to analyze music. Sometimes when TMS worked, it allowed him to relate to others better. Other times it did not alter his emotions.

John experienced some life-changing effects. For a short period after TMS, John could feel the emotions of others. He talked about opening a window in his mind and that things he thought were not real (e.g., emotions) were real. Even though the effect wore off, the knowledge never left him and he started to relate better to other people. He compared it to a person who has been color blind suddenly getting color vision and only then knowing what certain colors really are. Experiencing this for even a short time permanently opens a door to new knowledge.

John also reports that other people have seen great improvements in him, but the procedure had turned his life upside down. John is glad to know how people feel. I was relieved that John still has an interest in cars after TMS and that he had just posted a recent blog on how to read car diagnostic instruments.

Many people have told me that I have greatly improved socially over a 10-year period. Maybe TMS did for John in one day what took me years to learn!

Other Possible Benefits of TMS

TMS experiments are in the early stages. Both John and I agree that there are many people that TMS could help. It could open up many doors for a person on the spectrum who is being bullied or not able to get or keep a job. Researchers have stated that TMS could jump-start social learning. A study of Endicott and colleagues (2011) showed positive social results using TMS.

John and I also discussed deep concerns related to TMS. If a highly intelligent nerdy child has the treatment, would he still be successful? Would Mozart, Einstein, or Steve Jobs have accomplished their great achievements if their social-emotional door had been opened? My whole life has been my work in the cattle industry, and if I had had this treatment, I may have never achieved the improvements I brought about. A forceful single-mindedness of purpose motivated me.

There are some medical risks with TMS, especially if a person has a tendency to have seizures. Oberman and colleagues (2011) reviewed the literature on the safety of TMS. The stimulation is powerful. When it was applied, it turned off John’s mind like a Zen state, and when it stimulated his motor cortex, his jaw clenched.

What Would Temple Grandin Do?

I asked myself the million-dollar question. Would I do TMS right now? My answer is no! I will let scientists look at my brain, but they are not allowed to try to change it. For now, that door will remain closed. Maybe when I am really old and no longer able work, I would do TMS. It might make the senior center in my hometown pleasurable. For now, reading about and watching videos on TMS will help me learn more from others’ experiences.


Endicott, P. G., H. A. Kennedy, A. Zangen, and P. B. Fitzgerald. 2011. “Deep Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Associated with Improved Social Functioning in a Young Woman with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.” The Journal of ECT [Electroconvulsive Therapy and Related Treatments] 27 (1): 41–3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20966773.

Oberman, L., D. Edwards, M. Edsel, and A. Pascual-Leone. 2011. “Safety of Theta Burst Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Journal of Clinical and Neurophysiology 28, 67–74. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3260517/.


Berenson-AllenCenter for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, http://www.tmslab.org/.


Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems, and is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today. She is the author of numerous books on autism and is a worldwide speaker on autism topics. Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, coauthored with Sean Barron and Veronica Zysk, captured a prestigious Silver Award in the 2006 ForeWord magazine Book of the Year competition. Her previous book, Animals in Translation (2005) was on the New York Times Bestseller list. For more information visit www.templegrandin.com

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