Williams Syndrome And The Gregarious Brain

In his article, “The Gregarious Brain” David Dobbs looks at the history, genetics, and research surrounding Williams syndrome. An interesting cognitive disorder, Williams syndrome impairs a person’s ability to contextualize conversation and social dynamics. So that while people who suffer from Williams are typically described as being friendly, outgoing, and lovers of conversation; they also come across as awkward and unable to develop lasting relationships.

Through these prolific talkers, we can see that communicating is more than conversational, and though people who suffer from Williams have a functional understanding of language; their inability to process abstracts (facial cues, expression) and comprehend social situations makes their syndrome, in part, a communication disorder.

Williams originates during meiosis when a ‘genetic accident’ misplaces 25 of 30,000 genes. Though small in number (less that .001 percent), some of these genes play an important roll in directing the development of the brain. In this instance, this means that the front (ventral) part of their brains of out-develop the back (dorsal) part, resulting in a predictable set of traits and behaviors. This suggests that genes do in fact play a roll in shaping behavior and personality.

Some of the defining characteristics of the Williams personality (listed below) are the result of an inability to interpret abstraction, and a dysfunction in the amygdala, which prevents people from detecting fear in other’s faces.

• Lower than average I.Q.
• Willingness to talk to almost anyone
• Near normal language skills
• Exuberant gregariousness
• Near normal language skills
• Lack social fear

Tied to the lack of social fear is also an absence of social savvy. Dobbs writes, “Lost on them are many meanings, machinations, ideas and intentions that most of us infer from facial expressions, body language, context and stock phrasings.” In other words, people who suffer from Williams syndrome are inherently have a communication disorder. The lack of fear that makes them so sociable also leads to their inability to communicate on a deep level, meaning that, as Dobbs notes, “they know no strangers by can claim few friends.”

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Dobbs, D. (2007, July 8). The Gregarious Brain. The New York Times.
Read this article online.