The Quirks of Our Brains


I remember the very first time that I realized that I had a little problem with the way that I comport myself. I was about eight years old and my teacher was determined that each of her students would learn how to sit properly and quietly while she was delivering a lesson. I thought that I was following her instructions rather well when she walked past my desk and slapped my leg and one of my hands without saying a word. That’s when I realized that I had been unconsciously tapping out a silent rhythm with my limbs. I’d receive many of her warnings that school year because somehow moving around seemed to be like breathing to me. It was something that I did without even thinking. 

Mostly people ignored my kinesthetic habits, but now and again someone would point out that it was quite odd that I paced back and forth while I studied for tests and did the same when I had conversations on the phone. The only thing that held me back from moving about the room while conversing on Alexander Graham Bell’s invention was the cord that kept me anchored to the wall. Once phones became cordless I was free to ramble all over the house while I talked with my friends. Indeed, I additionally earned two degree while walking hundreds of miles as a I paced like a caged lion readying myself for exams. 

In some of my classes I had to deliver speeches or lessons in front of a camera. My professors tended to appreciate my enthusiasm and creativity, but every last one of them insisted that my pacing and hand waving was a distraction that I should attempt to eliminate. Somehow I knew that my brain would not allow me to stand perfectly still. Facing my audience with my voice delivering my message rather than my hands was literally painful and made me feel like a wooden statue. I certainly tried my best to be more aware of my movements, but it was exhausting and I eventually just accepted my quirkiness and did my own thing.

Just as my professors had noted, I often encountered students who were flummoxed by my  habits of perpetual motion. One even suggested that I was making him seasick as he attempted to track me as I spoke. Others claimed that my hand waving was so hypnotic that I became like Charlie Brown’s teacher whose voice seemed to be presenting gibberish. 

Teaching mathematics helped me to curb my habit somewhat because most of the time I was using my hands to write down examples in a fixed area. My mind and body were focused on the blackboard, whiteboard, overhead projector or smart board that I used to convey algorithms and formulas. In those moments my need for movement was channeled in an effective way. 

There was a time when I became self-conscious of my seemingly involuntary movements. I worried that I appeared to be some kind of freak, but through my studies of learning theories and the differing ways in which we humans process information I realized that I was simply adapting to the way that my brain works just as each individual does. My own struggles with conforming to stillness made me incredibly accepting of the range of learning styles that humans possess. I was able to follow the wandering scribbles of a dysgraphic student and I knew how to be patient with those who were hyperactive. I even allowed one student to sit in the back of the classroom so that he might quietly stand up and sway back and forth when the act of sitting overwhelmed him. I realized that much of the behavior that we often ascribe to misconduct is little more than the product of a brain that works differently from the majority.

I still have to constantly be on the move. My hands appear to be performing some strange ritual when I talk. I have long suspected that I might have been diagnosed as being mildly dyslexic or perhaps having a bit of attention deficit disorder if those things had been better understood when I was a child. Instead I adapted to the realities of my unique learning needs without even realizing that my movement was in sync with my brain. It would eventually be my mother and some brilliant professors who noted my quirks and diagnosed the reasons why I was so unable to change them. In fact, they congratulated me for finding the methods that I needed in order to learn. 

As a society we have a very bad habit of equating various difficulties with a lack of intelligence. The person who stutters becomes the butt of jokes. The person who can express brilliance in speech but can’t write their ideas down in a coherent manner is deemed to be slow witted. We fail to realize that when we look past the behaviors that disturb us, there is often a brilliant mind just waiting to be recognized. 

My first grade teacher helped me perhaps more than any other person in my life. I realize now that she saw my difficulties and taught me how to overcome them. She understood that I needed a combination of sounds, visual cues and movement to jumpstart my brain. She showed me those things and when I saw that they quelled the confusion in my brain I unconsciously used them for the remainder of my life. 

Even now as I sit typing on my laptop I see that my lips are moving in tandem with my thoughts and the movements of my fingers. All the while my feet are tapping with the rhythm of the keyboard. I am using every possible mode of learning to keep my focus and it works. My brain is operating full tilt, fueled by the methods that work best for me. I am so fortunate to have learned these things and to have encountered amazing people who took the time to understand me. Hopefully I’ve done the same for some of the students I have helped along the way. The brain is quirky, but we are slowly learning how it works and how unique that experience is for each of us.