I have a social media friend who identifies as neurodivergent. Until she started using this term online, I had never heard of it. And I have an undergraduate degree in “Applied Psychology”, (group psychology in a business setting) Let me be clear here: I am not, and never have been a medical professional or a psychiatrist, or even a psychologist, but I’ve heard of several different diagnoses that people have had over time and I’m familiar with medical terminology AND, well heck! I’m pretty good at just figuring out what words mean. Nevertheless, this term was new to me. So, what did I do? Well, I Googled it of course.
According to my extensive Google research, (I spent at least a couple minutes on it) to be neurodivergent means that your brain processes things differently than the brains of those who are neurotypical, and that you may learn differently than most people who are considered neurotypical. This may manifest in your life in a variety of ways, which may mean you’ve previously been diagnosed with some form of autism, such as what was once called “Aspergers’ Syndrome”, “attention deficit disorder (ADD)”, or “Dyslexia.” Now, I find that they have discontinued the use of these particular diagnoses in favor of the term Neurodivergent, or stating that some people fall somewhere on the “Autism Spectrum.” Never one to be ahead of the curve in these matters, I hear people have been using the term “neurodivergent” since at least 1968, but I just became aware of it in the last few months. What’s a few decades between friends anyway?
I’ve never been diagnosed with any of these things, but that doesn’t mean I’m neurotypical either. In fact, one of the best ways to arrive at a diagnosis is through personal recognition of the symptoms and their resultant behaviors. I have noticed some learning problems in certain areas of my life. It hasn’t affected me much in terms of academics or work, but I’m simply aware that my brain processes some things seemingly backwards. One such example involves numbers and typing. I’m an incredibly fast typist, and at one time, tested at nearly 100 words per minute on an IBM Selectric typewriter, which is far slower than our modern day computer keyboards. Although my typing errors are usually quite low, there is one area that causes problems repeatedly, and that is in typing the number 3 instead of the number 8, and vice versa. These numbers look alike to me, and when typing, both keys are reached by using the middle finger of your hand: The right hand for number 8 and the left hand for number 3. This has caused me a lot of problems with typing throughout my life, and with other things that may involve those numbers, including math problems and even using a calculator at times. It’s possible that I have some form of dyslexia that is most noticeable in this activity.
Another area in which I’ve suffered with some form of dyslexia is in the area of reading and playing music. I’m naturally a fairly decent musician. I play “by ear.” Just tell me what key we’re in or give me the charts and I’ll play it. I have played music since I was a child. I started with the piano, then learned to play the accordion, and then took some guitar lessons, all before the age of 12. I let the accordion go a long time ago (mama’s got a squeezebox she wears on her chest…) but I was able to transfer what I learned in my accordion lessons to learning how to play the piano, so it wasn’t a total loss. The trouble that I’ve always had however, is in making my hands do what the musical notes say they should do. I can read music slowly, and I can copy the music down by writing what the notes are beside the musical note on the sheet music, but my brain has never been able to transfer the notes while my hands automatically play them. This is a great disadvantage to anyone who wants to become a classical pianist for example and pretty much spelled the end of my classical music career early on. Oddly, I’ve heard of some other GREAT musicians who’ve overcome the same problem. Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan, the list is actually longer than you might think. So, I guess you could say these people weren’t typical, but rather divergent, at least in the field of music, and yet, they’re some of the great music makers of our era and are rewarded handsomely for it.
Another friend on social media recently relayed an experience he had with synesthesia. This is when you begin noticing things like seeing colors when you hear music, or tasting things when you hear un-food-related words. Instead of smelling a rose for instance, you might taste it instead of or in addition to smelling it. In his case, he suddenly noticed that he was tasting words and colors. You may have synesthesia if you start noticing you are experiencing one of your senses through another. This is rare, but it does happen, and more often to women than men, they say. My friend is associating his newfound experience as a part of what remains after he had a near death experience a couple of years ago. I don’t know that those two things are related, but I can’t swear they aren’t either. It’s definitely a divergent experience from what most of us experience, and they say that most people who experience it have had it since childhood, but may only begin to notice it when they’re older, or it becomes more pronounced over time. They also think that people who have this experience may be more inclined toward creative fields such as art, music, or writing. Just for the record, I have never tasted a word, or a piece of music, and I’m interested in art, music, and writing.
So anyway, if you take the prefixes of the words “neurodivergent” or “neurotypical” and just look at the second half of those words, you end up with the words typical and divergent. In school, most of us learn to solve problems in a typical way, using logic and deductive reasoning. Also, we’re trained to come up with the “right answer.” This is also known as convergent thinking and is a fundamental tool we all use to get through school. Divergent thinking is used in true creativity and complex problem solving. From what I can gather, true divergent thinkers lean into this ability to come up with multiple good answers to any problem and find a way to work forward from there. Their thinking is free-flowing, much like when groups get together and do brainstorming activities. Once you have a good list created through brainstorming, you can then use your convergent thinking skills to prioritize and organize it. Now you’re back into more typical problem-solving mode.
And so the question then becomes, can we learn to be divergent thinkers, or is it simply some inherited trait or the product of a genius intellect? I know, for one, I’m interested in nurturing my creativity. This may mean nurturing divergent thinking. Some early childhood educators have caught onto the fact that typical education results in typical thinkers, and some schools specialize in nurturing the genius of divergence. Then, there are studies that seem to indicate that certain personality traits are more conducive to it than others; for instance, it’s thought that people who are extroverted and open to new people and experiences, may be more inclined towards divergent thinking. In fact, openness has shown to be the greatest personality trait of divergent thinkers. These are the people most likely to “think outside the box.” This is a preferred thinking style for problem solving and creative endeavors, such as photography, painting, music, or writing.
It is believed that approximately 20% of the population is neurodivergent. If you have any questions about your own possible diagnosis or thinking style, you should definitely see your medical professional. Knowledge is power! One person’s disability may be another’s “super ability!”
The photo which accompanies this essay is of a tree at Snook’s Bottom Park in Fruita, Colorado. The branches remind me of pictures I’ve seen of the neural pathways in our brains.
Following is a list of links I discovered to articles related to the topics of divergent and convergent thinking: