This guest post is written by Dave Wolf. Dave is on the Science of People Team working towards his Body Language Trainer Certification. He has been teaching Special Education for the past 6 years and does some side work in Sound Engineering and as a Reiki practitioner. He is a fan of water-sports, College Football and People Watching. He is dedicated to positively influencing and empowering those around him, helping them realize who they truly are and what they are truly capable of. Find him on LinkedIn

Dave WolfExactly two months prior to my 8th birthday, I was in a severe bicycle accident that broke my helmet into 4 pieces, cracked my skull  into 3 at the left temple, crushed the bone under my left eye, broke my jaw in 3 places, caused nerve damage to both the left side of my face and right eye, and put me in a coma for 3 days.

Upon “re-entry”  and during recovery, I quickly realized that my view of the world was completely changed and upon return to school 2 months later, I was faced with the fact that the way I related to people and circumstances was dramatically altered.

Along with being concerned with the stock market, politics and world news much more than Saturday morning cartoons, (I was 8, mind you), I had become very aware of and sensitive to people’s tone of voice and the words they used. Sudden variations in intonation and volume caught my attention. I noticed that, whether child or adult, the words used in response or reaction to ideas being expressed to each other were often incongruent with their true feelings. I also became keenly aware that body postures shifted depending on subject and circumstances and did not always match a person’s verbal message.

Curious about the inauthentic words and behaviors I witnessed while talking to my peers, parents, friends, neighbors, and teachers, I often asked them, “Now, what do you really think about X?” and “Why did you just say something you didn’t mean?”  I learned very quickly (and cared little at the time) that people did not like being confronted by an 8 year-old who was calling them out.  Their “back off” response confused me even more and eventually created a much greater concern about my sensitivity to people. Lies became a HUGE pet peeve of mine as I could not always trust others to speak the truth, and I knew that I could not call them out on it because doing so was not the ‘proper’ thing to do.

In addition to social struggles, my academic processing was challenged by dyslexia (undiagnosed by standard school testing until my Junior year of high school), and Attention Deficit Disorder (undiagnosed until well into college).  Fortunately, I was not able to use my struggles as an excuse and with my parents’ support, I was encouraged to persevere and find strategies on how to be successful academically in school so that my intelligence could be seen.

Going back to the social side of things, I felt, and was seen as, amazingly socially awkward throughout my adolescence, particularly when I got to high school. This was a very lonely time for me as I had to be very selective about who I chose to spend time with. I was seen as an outcast because I didn’t want to be around those who used lies to boost themselves up; and I certainly steered clear of the drugs and drinking party scene.

Interestingly, my ability to “read” people accurately and stick to my own values proved to be beneficial in some cases. People chose to approach me when they were in crisis or had other smaller problems they wanted to talk out, knowing I would listen and hear their needs. I had great empathy for others’ troubles and through a level of intuition, I was able to perceive and lead them to a viable solution. I walked some to counseling sessions, linked others with crisis hot-lines, and helped many teens take steps toward regaining self-esteem.  Frustratingly, most couldn’t sustain their progress and when they reverted back, they once again saw me as a social pariah.

My heightened sensitivity to surroundings also created a type of sensory overload during which my brain tries to react and make sense of everything that it is seeing and hearing all at once.  This can result in awkward social interactions with others.  Though I can see discomfort in the person’s face or body language in response to my my reactions, unfortunately I’ve  had no choice in the matter due to my neuron activity.

All this contributes to me being, to quote Vanessa, ‘a recovering awkward person.’

When I was 22 and enrolled in my teaching credential program for Special Education, my Mom gave me Dr. Amen’s audio-book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” Since we’d never had my brain scanned after my accident, I decided a firsthand view was in order.  The findings of the scans confirmed my dyslexia, a processing deficit, and the value of my taking Adderall to address my A.D.D., all things I was already aware of. In addition, I was shown that the social awkwardness was normal given my heightened awareness of people and surroundings.  The best news was the doctor acknowledging that my perceptual sensitivity from the head trauma was a gift I could further develop.

My mother has often recounted her sorrow that she had not insisted on exploring the work of Dr. Daniel Amen immediately after the accident.  He had begun publishing findings that year but my family was influenced by the surgeon’s “traditional” medical beliefs: “We did all we can. There is nothing more the parents can do. Stay away from contact sports and do your best. You are a bright boy, lucky to be alive and you’ll be fine.” Perhaps had we approached the Amen Clinic earlier, some of the struggles might have been avoided, but everything in its own time.   

The first set of scans were done in 2009.

2009 brain scans

With these scans the colors are used to create texture and visual representation. The important things to look at are the bumps, holes and crevasses as these patterns show what parts of the brain are stressed.  The top scan shows my brain during concentration, and the bottom shows my brain at rest. In short, both scans confirmed that I have Attention Deficit Disorder shown by the decreased activity in the left and right inferior orbital pre-frontal cortex.

The decreased activity in the left temporal lobe results in my learning difficulties and some of the social struggles that I experience though now more inwardly rather than outwardly.

The increased activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus (on both sides) causes an increase in serotonin and is responsible for self-doubt and perseveration that randomly occurs.

2009 brain scans

I was told that the small hole on the bottom right of the cerebellum is the reason that I have heightened phobias of spiders, snakes and other crawly things.  This hole also leads to higher than normal protective instincts and the heightened sensitivity to my surroundings which I mentioned above.

I recently had new scans done prompted by brain stress that I had never experienced. The cause of these struggles started in April 2015.

Due to stressful circumstances at my school and the intense demands of all aspects of Special Education, I worked from 75 to 90 hours a week for 3 months. Though an unhealthy choice, I simply felt I was fulfilling responsibilities. Towards the end of the school year, my teaching partner mentioned her concerns to me. She was witnessing an uncommon disconnect in my personality and less patient interactions with the students. I blew it off as fatigue from excess hours and reassured her that I’d be my happy self after our 3-week summer vacation. Though some benefit was gained, the break did not rejuvenate my body or mind as I had expected.

In August, my attention and balance at work seemed normal enough, but by October my brain was starting to “over-heat” as a result of intense stress from work and family changes.  My neurons blocked all emotional and feeling sensations with the exception of stress and anxiety. Usually happy emotions balance out the stressful ones, but I was literally devoid of feeling. I felt no sadness or acceptance, no feelings of anger or tolerance, and had no sense of happiness.

My stress response was highly exaggerated and anxiety rose to a level I’d never experienced. To top it off, I didn’t recognize the pattern until I snapped at a student unnecessarily. The shock woke me up to the fact that I was struggling with lack of empathy and had distanced myself from dear friends and family. I took immediate action to find the source of my brain’s imbalance by returning to the Amen Clinic for another scan.

2015 brain scans

Medical assessments showed that my body had stopped producing (almost completely) two very important biochemicals ~ Serotonin and Oxytocin. Serotonin pretty much regulates EVERYTHING. And as we all know, Oxytocin helps us make connections with people.

The lack of Oxytocin in my system made it almost impossible to connect with other people and the world around me. I lost the ability to read body language and identify facial expressions while interacting with people. I even went back to the old trick of imitating what I saw others doing with their face in order to try to experience their feelings (facial feedback hypothesis), but to no avail.

2015 brain scans

Fortunately, a brain balancing medication was prescribed that rebooted my levels of Oxytocin and normalized my emotional state. As my neurons started firing normally, my perceptive abilities returned so that I once again could read body language and microexpressions adeptly. Much to the displeasure of my students, I am enjoying calling them on lies.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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