What it’s Like to Have Robin Williams’ Brain

Whole pages of dialouge were left blank with just the words, "Robin does his thing."

Whole pages of dialogue were left blank with just the words, “Robin does his thing.”

I can do about 20 accents fairly credibly, I’m fast and some people tell me I’m funny so let’s just say that Mr. Williams and I shared enough traits to give me a sense of what was going on for him.

This isn’t bragging. This is just how some of us are. Most comedians you have ever heard of are like this, many writers and actors and other ‘creative’ people. Also some grocery store baggers, bus drivers, bike mechanics, waiters and homeless people. It’s a weird brain to have, occasionally people are in awe of it after you do some improv bit in the bar about Gandalf trying to order the special at Olive Garden. They want to know how you think, how long does it take to come up with ideas?

How long? Like…no time. This thing I’m writing now takes as long to think up as it does to type. I’ll read it over once and post it. For longer works I might go and revise a few times, making sure there are enough ferret jokes and sci-fi/fantasy references, but it’s not like I sit here with a pencil in my mouth going, “Assmarten…too British. Buttstoat…no, that’s not it. Aha! Assweasel! That’s the ticket!”

It’s unsettling when you come to understand that not everyone has the same kind of internal dialogue as you. In fact, the most honest thing I can tell you about what it’s like to have Robin Williams’ brain is that it’s fucking loud in here. But thankfully, for me at least, it’s usually pretty fun.

Voices, observations, memories, ideas, questions. It’s like being in the back of Best Buy with all the screens turned to different channels. I’ll be honest, I don’t even have a TV because there is very little on that can hold my interest for as long as just sitting in the theater of my mind and watching fun stuff happen.

I am never bored. Never.

But it’s a hard thing to manage as well, harder for some than others. A metaphor I use is cars. If brains are automobiles most people have a sedan, station wagon, or SUV. Some are in Porsches and other high-performance rides. Robin Williams was a nitrous-boosted Indy 500 racer. He was around the next turn before the rest of us could get out of first. It was incredible to watch and delighted many, myself included.

Good luck shopping at Costco

Good luck shopping at Costco

But try going to the grocery store or taking the kids to school.

The fact is that guy was something of a hero to the rest of us who due to our neurological makeup live our lives on overshift. He was going 200mph on the inside and was trying to slow down enough for the public to keep up because he knew people couldn’t take his “full on” mode for more than the length of a performance. He got himself in synch with ‘norms’, he tuned his characters down so they were relatable. He did this for us, for his family and friends. I’m not surprised he struggled with drugs and alcohol, for a lot of people it’s the easiest shortcut to self-regulation.

I’m sure it was a daily, if not hourly struggle. I’m sadly not surprised, given the extreme nature of his intensity, that he succumbed. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time he’d gone down that road in his mind.

It is just, for way too many of the people who delight and entertain us, an incredibly difficult way to live.

For we who have learned to survive and thrive with this kind of wiring, there are a few critical components: Being in a place where weirdos are celebrated is the first and most important rule of order. You won’t survive long like this in the burbs, instead you wind up in communities of other nutjobs of various stripes. This is why the Internet is so important as I said on No Snark Sunday, it’s a lifeline for a lot of people, and what these folks need most is a refuge.

By the way, regular readers: Have you ever wondered why I’m so hell bent on making our already wacky-Gloucester an even greater center of hipfrastructure that can attract more artists, innovators and creative-types? Now you know.

Next is finding work that takes advantage of your unique makeup. The creative industries are already set up for this: David Ogilvy, “The Father of Modern Advertising” once said, “I hire people my clients would never employ in a million years, but desperately need.” Innovation is another place, sometimes even education. Another metaphor I use to describe being like this as an employee and now a manager is dogs. It’s like having border collies. They are really, really smart and useful pets. But if you don’t give them interesting shit to do the will get depressed and eat the couch. Don’t let yourself be the border collie locked in the house with nothing to do and if you manage folks like this, they need to have problems to solve, not tasks to do.

On the positive side I got my ball back from between the cushions

On the positive side I got my ball back from between the cushions

Impulsivity is a problem for extroverts in general. Sadly, suicide is strongly linked to impulsivity. Having circuit-breakers in your life that limit destructive impulsivity is critical. I never tell friends or people I meet online with the same issues that they have to become an “orderly” person, but you do need to maintain systems that keep the money, health, family and other key areas stable while you run around the backyard with flaming boxer shorts on your head screaming, “Stalin was a squirrelmonger!”

(Key test: Those of you who chuckled at that last line, you are not in possession of an overshift brain. Those who thought, ‘that sounds like totes funweirdness!’, it’s you we’re talking about.)

Exercise is important, but like drugs and booze it can become a crutch. And worse, sometimes an injury can send you into a dark-spiral because you can’t get the calming brain chemicals a workout provides. If you wondered why I was so over-the-top pissed when my bike got stolen, now you know that too.

Oh, and here is a pet peeve: Stop telling us to meditate. We can’t. We don’t want to. We want the voices in our heads to do cool things, we don’t want to get rid of them. That’s like telling us, “You know all those cool, funny friends you have? Yeah, ditch them and go willingly sit in the waiting area of the DMV for a few hours.” Fuck that.

Robin Williams always served as a major inspiration for me, especially his more mature roles in Good Will Hunting and The Dead Poets Society. There I could see him ‘being normal’ although it was clear it was effort if you looked closely. This sounds weird, but it inspired me to express more control, to use my ‘powers’ at my own discretion rather than be a slave to them.  Unlike him, today I’m not a race car, I’m one of those Subarus with the 2.5liter Boxter engine. Sure, most of the time I’m driving the kids to camp and picking up some curry in Beverly, but once in a while, when it’s safe, I can open the thing up and blaze around with the throttle open.

Not the Forrester. I was thinking about the WRX, OK guys?

Not the Forrester. I was thinking about the WRX, OK guys?

I deeply and humbly thank the readers and co-contributors of The Clam for making that possible for me on a regular basis, and in return I ask you to remember Robin Williams in the way he would have wanted:

With flaming boxer shorts on your head.

 suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255 because we want you around!

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. “Assmarten…too British.”

    Arse smarting….too British public school.

  2. Well said. He was a kindred spirit for sure. The world has a little less light and laughter in it today. We’ll miss you, Rob!

  3. This is why I’m a preschool teacher. One of the components of my busy brain seems to require interaction with a very noisy and curious subset of the human race. The worst is being all the ages I have ever been all at the same time every waking minute…
    Thank you for making an insightful essay for people.
    The phone number is good people…and anonymous.

  4. Testify.

  5. great piece!

  6. Great insight. Thanks for sharing, I can relate.

  7. Pingback: When Being Funny Sucks | The Clam

  8. For those of us examining our minds and the brains behind them (meditators, in the best sense of the word), these are brilliant insights into a mind we have tragically lost. And a beautiful testimonial to a guy who had the guts and compassion to share with us the best of what ultimately took him from us. Many thanks for this, Jim.

    You’ve raised a common (and tragic) mis-conception about meditation practice. It’s NOT about getting rid of the crap in our heads. It’s NOT about becoming touchy-feely-floating-in-the-realms-of-rarified-atmosphere. In fact it’s actually about learning to live with all that shit that’s banging around in our heads, to be totally OK with how fucked up we are, and to transform the energy that would lead us to jump off the Piatt Andrew Bridge into more useful (and more fun) pursuits. In my experience it also opens up outlets for the creative explosions in our heads that most of humanity is desperately trying to keep hidden. Sorry, humanity. I may seem cool and collected on the surface, but at any moment I might explode with “Fuck you, civilization. It’s YOU who’ve hung Robin Williams. Wake up and smell the reality!”

    • This is a good point, and I have a deep respect for anyone who goes inside their head and sorts things out for themselves and the rest of us. I probably haven’t been properly instructed, but my assumption (probs wrong) is that silencing the voices in our heads was the goal. For me, those voices are where the inspiration, ideas, commentary and entertainment come from. My wife has a joke that I have my own satellite called “The Dowdstar I” that begins transmitting when I’m on a topic. I fear the loss of transmission from that source more than anything else, and am willing to put up with the static to keep it. So I get nervous about things I presume are trying to silence my inner dialogue. Again, probably my misconception, but a lot of the people over the years who have encouraged me to meditate seem to assume I’m trying to rid myself of something. I just want control.

      • Really insightful post. On the meditation, I think the idea is more that you are putting yourself in a mental position of sitting back with your feet up and watching all the thoughts go by without responding to any urges to act on/react to them. Not to silence the thoughts or clear them out. But I do think that most people don’t understand when someone is like this and cannot just ‘turn their brain off’ and so I can see where the meditation suggestion would be annoying.

      • A couple comments Jamesdowd. My wife and I are a offering a course in our city, overviewing the different types of meditations and reasons to engage in them, for exactly the reasons coming up in this discussion. Many people don’t seem to understand that the different meditations, while they all involve developing the ability of sustained concentration, they all have very different processes and goals.
        If you are doing a shamatha or absorption meditation, then yes the goal is get so concentrates on the object that the thoughts will stop.
        if you are doing mindfulness, then you are ultimately practising absorption into the stillness or emptiness in which all experiential phenomena arise and fall away, sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and thoughts. In this case, the thoughts don’t need to stop, but they might with enough absorption into the stillness.
        In vipassana meditation you might takes the thoughts as objects, and examine their qualities and structures, meditate on their qualities, not their contents, and some to see or have insight into the three characteristics – impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and anatta, that its not you.

  9. Great piece, thanks for sharing.

  10. Thank you. Use the hot line, believe me it worked better than walking into the ocean with a pocket full of heavy rocks.

Comments are closed