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The Social Network, Asperger's, and Your Brain

Is Asperger's contagious? Can an Asperger's victim change your brain?

The Social Network movie
The Social Network movie poster
I finally got around to seeing The Social Network. As everybody on the planet must know by now, it tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg, brilliant Harvard undergraduate, who created Facebook. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, he is socially inept, and, as a result, when Facebook makes him millions, he is sued by various friends and classmates who claim he stole their idea or whom he has allegedly defrauded. The picture tells much of its story through supposed depositions in that case. In the end, Zuckerberg settles the case, giving untold millions away to the plaintiffs. Even so he becomes the world's youngest billionaire.

The thematic point of the movie is the interesting games it plays with the idea of social relations--friendship, love. The movie begins when Zuckerberg's girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) dumps him. She tells him girls will dislike him, not for being a nerd, but for being an asshole. And Zuckerberg, as portrayed in the movie, surely qualifies. (Whether the portrayal and the whole story are accurate is another matter. See the message boards on this movie at IMDb.com.)

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The movie contrasts real social networks, friends, lovers, actual sexual relationships, Zuckerberg's relation with Erica, with the half a billion people who are "friends" on Facebook. Disclosure: I'm one of them.

Throughout the movie, the relationships among the people developing Facebook take on the same ephemeral or weird quality as the relationships online. People say wrong or mean things. Zuckerberg, as portrayed in the movie, is a motormouth with a gift for--more, a delight in--saying the wrong, antagonizing, contemptuous thing. But he is also presented as a brilliant computer nerd with 1600 SAT scores.

It seemed to me perfectly clear when I saw the movie that Zuckerberg, again, as portrayed, was a classic case of Asperger's. I was planning to post a blog on it, but while I was fooling around with Halloween pranks, the web site Autisable made the same diagnosis. And maybe there are others out there.

The point is, our brains have an immense computational capacity, but it is, finally, finite. We have only so much brain power. Savants, my neurologist friends tell me, are people in whom one part of the brain is hugely developed and other parts become less. And the Zuckerberg of the movie looks like a savant to me.

A savant or "high-functioning patient with autistic spectrum disorder" may have incredible gifts in music, the visual arts, mathematical calculation, or memory but be totally lacking in perception of the emotions of those around him. (See that wonderful novel, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.) The Zuckerberg of the movie, I think, is just such a case.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg

And is not the movie suggesting that our whole society, our "social network," is getting to be the same way? We have hundreds or even millions of "friends" on Facebook, but they are people whom we don't really know or have an authentic, tangible relationship with. Our iPads and iPhones and Blackberrys and all the other technological delights give us contacts with thousands of people. Thousands "hit" on this blog, for example, but with whom of you out there, do I have a real relationship? And could I tolerate real relationships with thousands of people?

And how is this affecting my brain? One part of our minds or brains is hugely developed, at least the prefrontal cortex, while another, the many systems for our relationships with others, is stunted. I spend most of my days on the computer. Are my systems for real social interaction atrophying? We get reports all the time of children who resort to bullying because they have no social skills because they have been spending all their time online. (Look at this picture of the real Mark Zuckerberg.) When I was a teenager, the long telephone call was my lifeline to my pals. But now it's Twitter and the momentary. Doesn't that change relationships? I think it does.

Can this Asperger's victim, if so he be, change your brain and mine? Is Asperger's contagious?

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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