Tics and Superpowers

A few months ago an article came out stating that in certain tasks, individuals with Tourette’s syndrome show superior “timing control”. Meaning that they were better at predicting certain time intervals than the non-Tourrete’s control group. This article received a bit of media attention as well as the attention of a couple of science bloggers, here and here.

One thing that tends to pop out when the media or blogs report on these sorts of articles is the tendency to ascribe some kind of genius superpower to people with certain neurological conditions, maybe perhaps to make them more interesting or exotic. Think of the character Dustin Hoffman plays in the movie “Rain Man”, or the dude that plays Rachmaninoff in “Shine”. In both blog posts about the timing control study, there’s a mention of US soccer team goalie Tim Howard, who has Tourrette’s, and they seem to imply that this superior timing control is what makes him such a good goalie. First of all, while Tim Howard is a decent goalie, there are plenty other goalies just as good or better that don’t have Tourette’s, and plenty of people with Tourette’s that would make terrible goalies (myself included). Speaking from personal experience, as someone with Tourette’s, I have a terrible sense of timing. I suck at videogames. When I try and play an instrument, my lack of a sense of rhythm makes me sound terrible. I bad at most sports. I’m uncoordinated. I know I am just a single example, but this idea of people with Tourette’s having superior cognitive control and awesome timing powers just does not ring true.

If I were to characterize my sense of timing, I would rather characterize it as odd and irregular. I read somewhere that jazz musician Thelonious Monk had Tourrette’s. I don’t know if this was true, but if you have ever seen a video of the dude performing you can sort of see it. His music definitely has an odd sense of timing which to me rings more familiar. And that’s maybe why I like James Brown. I often find myself with the random urge to scream “Haah!”  or “Hot Pants!” in the middle of a faculty meeting, or “Pop-Corn!” during a seminar. In the book “Motherless Brooklyn” by Jonathan Lethem, the main character is a detective with Tourette’s syndrome. While for the most part I think that Lethem got the essence of the disorder wrong, and the character is mostly a caricature, there’s one bit that I think he got right. The main character loves the song “Kiss” by Prince. I have to agree that the tempo, timing and changing cadence of the song definitely has a tic-ish quality to it that somehow resonates with my odd sense of timing. So no, unfortunately I am not endowed with awesome superpowers, but at least I can say I have interesting musical tastes.

On the other hand… maybe I should exploit this. Maybe I can cultivate an aura of an exotic twitchy genius who will rule the world with his superior cognitive control and impeccable timing. Hot pants! Haah!

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6 Responses to Tics and Superpowers

  1. I often find myself with the random urge to scream “Haah!” or “Hot Pants!” in the middle of a faculty meeting, or “Pop-Corn!” during a seminar.


    BTW, Brown is totally blowing the fucken lyrics in that video.

  2. bsci says:

    As someone whose brother had moderate Tourettes as a child before it was commonly talked about, I doubt it helped him much through his schooling though he is smart and got very good grades (couldn’t sit still or be quiet). He has better timing control than I do, but, on his instrument, his volume control ability only goes from loud to really loud.

    People tend to find their strengths. Sometimes strengths develop because a disorder blocks other options, but that doesn’t make them superhuman.

    Thanks for writing about Tourettes.

  3. Arlenna says:

    YES!! I concur with CPP. I don’t even have Tourrette’s, and I also get urges like that sometimes–but my inner membrane is thick enough to keep them from breaking through. I say “inner membrane” because in my mind, it feels like a sheet of wax or tissue paper that separates my imaginary feelings from what breaks out. Sometimes I have the opposite problem from Tourrette’s: I find it difficult to push things out that I DO want to put into the world.

  4. BikeMonkey says:

    The meme of superior talents in those that are otherwise differently ordered is understandably irresistable. (Even though we really should recognize the individual differences issue better) The minority that do have seemingly supertalented brains in a single domain are scientifically fascinating because they may lend insight into why the average brain is so *bad* at certain tasks.

    • namnezia says:

      Right, but are people with supertalented brains in one domain more represented among people with neurological or phsychiatric disorders. I have no evidence for this, but I doubt it.

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