Thursday, January 29, 2015


Neurologically, we see both increased numbers of dendritic spines and increased excitatory activities. Now a gene linking the two has been found. It is, of course, only one of many genes that can result in autism, but every advance in knowledge is good.

It is my hope that a way can be found to reduce severe cases' problems without reducing benefits too much.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Two Interacting Neural Systems Affect If One Is Social or Antisocial

Scientists at Caltech have discovered that there are two systems of neurons that influence whether and at what time one is either social or antisocial. Specifically, the antisocial system induces self-grooming, or repetitive behaviors.

Each system inhibits the other, so that one switches from social behaviors to antisocial behaviors. Certainly we see most people switching between these two behaviors. However, people with autism seem to have the social system turned off most of the time.

As it turns out, the social system is also an inhibitory system. It inhibits neural activity. The antisocial system is an excitatory system. It increases neural activity. In other words, this discovery supports the Intense World Theory (IWT) of autism.

The IWT says excitatory neurons are working more strongly than are the inhibitory neurons. That is, positive feedback dominates. In very social people, inhibitory neurons dominate, meaning negative feedback, meaning equilibrium dominates.

Of course, these are likely not the only inhibitory and excitatory systems in the brain. And it is likely that there will be not only other alternating systems, but also co-dominant systems. But this research provides some pretty strong evidence for why it is that excitatory dominance would result in autism.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Making Fog -- and Other Connections

While other theories of autism explain it as a disability, the Intense World Theory of autism explains it as an intensification of the neurological processing. This approach also explains how it is that many people with autism have strong abilities as well.

Daniel’s strength certainly lies in his ability o make strong causal connection. Just this morning, as I was taking Daniel and Dylan to the babysitter’s, Daniel noticed his breath in the cold air.

“I’m making fog.”

I told him that he was right. I also told him that fog was water in the air and that fog and clouds were the same thing.

“And when clouds come together, they make rain?” And he brought his hands together and intertwined his fingers.

He was, of course, right. When clouds become dense enough, rain drops form and fall. These are the kinds of observations Daniel makes all the time. He is able to make that leap of logic that most 5 year olds – heck, far too many adults, let alone children – cannot make. 

Not long ago,  Daniel also asked me, "What is air?" I told him that it's what we breathe. He then asked me, "How do lungs work?" And he asked if the lungs looked like the heart. I want you to think about the implications of that connection he made. 

I wish I could remember them all.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Report on an Experiment with Glutamine

After writing about the connection of glutamine to both leaky gut and autism, I decided to experiment upon myself and start taking glutamine supplements. I have been taking them since shortly after I posted that article -- two weeks, now -- and I must say that psychologically I do feel a bit different. By definition I could not tell you what feeling neurotypical feels like, so I can't say I feel that way, but I do feel a bit calmer, more relaxed.

Now, as for the gut issues, I only tested the effects of the glutamine this week. Wednesday I had one cinnamon roll. No gut problems. Yesterday, I tried two cinnamon rolls. Again, no gut problems. When I told my wife, she suggested we go eat at CiCi's Pizza.

Now, the last time I ate at CiCi's, I had a horrendous reaction. I had gut problems for three days. Acid reflux, the whole works. It was one of the worst reactions I'd ever had against gluten. But this time, after taking glutamine for two weeks, I did not have near the reaction. I felt uncomfortable, with a little gas, but it was not a full-blown allergic reaction.

What glutamine does is reduce the diameter of the pores in the small intestines. Leaky gut occurs when the pores in the intestines open up too wide, allowing things like whole proteins through. This can trigger an allergic reaction. But glutamine causes the pores to tighten up. Food then has to be broken down more before it can cross over into the bloodstream. Gluten broken down into its constituent amino acids is no different from any other protein, so if you can prevent it from crossing over as a whole protein, you can eliminate the immunological response to it.

So I'm definitely going to continue taking glutamine. I'm not going to go out of my way to eat things with gluten in it, of course, but it's nice to know I don't have to continue obsessively avoiding it as I've been doing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Asperger's or Introversion?

Do I have Asperger's Syndrome, or am I merely introverted? I am certainly introverted. But let us consider the Asperger's Fact Sheet and the criteria. Do I meet them?

  • Do I have an "all-consuming interest and a one-sided, self-focused social approach"?
As a child I was obsessively interested in dinosaurs, then sharks, then orchids.  I would make lists of dinosaurs or sharks or orchids; sometimes those "lists" would be drawing after drawing after drawing -- in a list-like fashion. They would be labeled with data about the dinosaur or shark or orchid. Length or location or some sort of objective fact.

I am still obsessively focused, but the focus has become self-organizing network processes. I can sit and talk about that for hours and hours. And I promise you that the conversation will be quite one-sided and self-focused. Most of my conversations have been and continue to be. As a result, I work well with others on projects in which I am interested, but I don't socialize well.

  • Is it true that because I "cannot read social or emotional cues well, they come off as insensitive, pushy or strange, yet have very little insight into how they are perceived"?
 I cannot tell you how many times I have been accused of being arrogant. Even when I am insisting we need to have humility in our ignorance. I have been told I am "insensitive" when I try to solve problems. I've been told more than once I seem "strange." And my wife constantly reassures me that I have very little insight as to how I am perceived by others and that I cannot read social or emotional cues well.

  • Do I engage in "taking turns speaking, staying on a topic for a polite number of turns, and showing interest in someone else’s comments. People living with Asperger’s tend to talk at people instead of with them, and will often talk about their favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject."
I can definitely dominate a conversation. I have a tendency to interrupt when I have a thought. I stay on topics for a long, long time (or, if I'm not interested, not very long at all), and I have a hard time feigning interest. I do tend to talk at people instead of with them -- I use language to communicate information rather than to create relationships -- and I most definitely talk abut my favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject. I am sure I am tiring even at conferences.

  • "Having a normal or higher IQ allows a person to learn and know, to push the envelope in intellectual ability, and to rejoice in the pursuit of some realm of knowledge, but there can also be negative effects. When someone is aware he is different, when, for all his intelligence, he cannot successfully make a friend, or get a date, or keep a job, he may end up far more prone to depression and despair than a person with a lower IQ. It has been found that children with both high-functioning autism and Asperger’s suffer from depression and anxiety more than their typical peers."
I have always had a hard time making friends. I typically just "befriend" the friends of friends. I got by with my brother's friends for a long time. I made exactly one friend during my Master's in English, and I lost track of him immediately after we graduated. That was two years in Mississippi. I made one friend during my Ph.D., and was mostly friends with his friends. I got my first girlfriend when I was 25. I was, in fact, quite depressed for most of the 1990s because of these kinds of relationship problems. And I continue to have problems keeping a job.

  • Meltdowns.
I used to have meltdowns. When I was interrupted at a task, especially. When things just became too much. I have had two nervous breakdowns. But I have, over the years, learned how to deal with the stressors in my life. Yet, I do have to fight off blowing up when I am interrupted at my obsession/work.

  • Clumsiness.
I walked on my tiptoes as a child -- something quite common in people with Asperger's/autism. I was a disaster at trying to play any kind of sports. Teachers complained about my handwriting skills.


There are other aspects to Asperger's, which includes thinking style. Bottom-up thinking, analytical thinking, being able to see patterns extremely well, strongly visual thinking -- are all typical of those with Asperger's and autism. I am equally very bad at top-down and strategic thinking typical of neurotypicals. Strategic thinking is extremely exhausting, and I'm not very good at it.

I suppose it is entirely possible to have every trait of Asperger's and not have it, to only be introverted. But my bet is on Asperger's being the most likely diagnosis.

Monday, January 19, 2015

I Am Not an Illness

By contemporary American standards, I'm mentally ill. I am mildly bipolar, I have had two nervous breakdowns, and I have Asperger's Syndrome. I have had a great deal of difficulty "fitting in" to society. But just because someone does not fit in to a particular society at a particular time, does that mean they are mentally ill? I have an extremely good long-term memory and I am a poet. A few thousand years ago, that would have made me the tribal poet, who kept the myths of the tribe. I would have been Homer. Nobody would have thought it strange that I was mostly withdrawn and antisocial, until it was time for me to recite the stories. I would have been greatly valued then.

Or consider someone with schizophrenia, who sees visions. Today, we medicate such people. In other times and places, such a person was a religious leader, a shaman, whose visions were valued. The story of John Nash shows us how valuable schizophrenia can be -- he rejected his medication, because he couldn't think on them. Had he been medicated early on in life, where would game theory have been?

More, the story of John Nash shows us that even something as severe as schizophrenia can be dealt with without treating it as an illness. He learned to identify what was real and what was not real. Imagine what could happen if people with schizophrenia were taught how to deal with the visions, how to control or ignore them, rather than to have them medicated away.

If it is possible for John Nash, it's possible for others. And it's possible for others who have mental differences. We with Asperger's or autism have to learn how to fit into society; the fact that I have been able to make any number of changes in how I act and interact over the years -- before I learned I had Asperger's -- shows it is possible to change and adapt. It would help if our society actually valued our differences and did not punish us for them by telling us we are less than those who are neurotypical. We are not less than you simply because we are neurologically different. And being told we are -- directly or indirectly, by pathologizing our differences -- does not help us. Quite the contrary: being told we are less, many have decided it's not worth being here on earth.

Consider Robin Williams' suicide. The way his brain worked is why he was so brilliantly funny. Yet, the way his brain worked was also labeled as "mentally ill." He was told that the very thing that made him who he was, the very thing that everyone loved about him and valued about him, was "wrong." He was "wrong," less than the rest of humanity. That's what the rhetoric of "mental illness" does. It devalues and it dehumanizes. That's enough to make most people want to kill themselves.

More, we make it impossible for someone who is having suicidal thoughts to talk about it. We are told that if we encounter a person with suicidal thoughts, we should tell someone. At the same time, we are told we need to be with a suicidal person throughout their suicidal episode, until it passes. But if you know that telling someone you are having suicidal thoughts will result in their telling the authorities, and if you know that one of the ways you can get locked up is if you are a "threat to yourself or others," what is the incentive to tell anyone? There is none. The incentive is the opposite, in fact. Keep it to yourself, so you won't get locked up (and become more depressed because you're in a mental hospital).

We do need a national dialogue about "mental illness." And the dialogue needs to be about how we need to stop pathologizing differences in this culture. We are well on the way with homosexuality. Now we need to depathologize most of the rest.

Friday, January 16, 2015


I recently posted on the interconnections among glutamine, glutamate, and GABA. The only thing I noted about GABA is its role in reducing anxiety. However, there is research that shows that GABA is directly involved in the workings of the inhibitory neurons known as basket cells.

So glutamate, which is involved in the excitatory neurons, is transformed into GABA, which is involved in inhibitory neurons. For those whose autism is caused by IWT, it seems that it would be worth looking at the glutamate-GABA pathway. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Autism, Empathy, and Practicality

I have previously written about the issue of whether or not people with autism have empathy or not. My son's reactions to two recent episodes suggest that the claim people with autism do not have empathy is in fact quite wrong.

First, our babysitter for our two youngest recently hurt her leg mowing her grass. The lawn mower threw out a brick, and cut and bruised her pretty badly. Daniel's response was, "I'm going to grow up and become a doctor so I can fix your leg."

What this suggests to me is not a lack of empathy, but a focus on solving the problem. Rather than giving a "there-there" response that may make one feel better emotionally, he gave a (to a 4 yr old) practical solution to fix the problem. Is that a lack of empathy or evidence of it?

More recently, our youngest, Dylan, hurt himself shoving a q-tip into his ear. He was bleeding and we took him to the emergency room to make sure he was okay. Anna and I were in other rooms when it happened, any only Daniel saw what Dylan had done. So when the doctor asked what happened, Daniel stepped up and started trying to explain what happened. Understand that Daniel was in a strange place for the first time, talking to a strange person -- but he was more concerned making sure the doctor knew what happened than he was with being in a new situation with a new person. More, he went up to Dylan while he was crying and patted him on the leg. Again, Daniel focused on the practical, but in this case he also tried to comfort Dylan.

As for me, I stayed calm as I first cleaned Dylan's ear to try to look at it, then took him to the emergency room. Was the fact that I was calm an indicate that I did not have empathy? It might to some people. Am I being unempathetic when I focus on the practical and try to figure out ways to actually solve the problem at hand rather than say or do something that sounds nice but doesn't actually help anyone? I don't think so.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Asperger's, Autism, and I.Q.

It seems that people who process sensory information differently are those we identify as having a high I.Q.

Of course, "sensory processing problems" is a main aspect of autism. Does this mean that those with autism ought to have a high I.Q.?

Well, historically people with autism have been shown to have lower I.Q.s than the general population. However, those with Asperger's generally are seen to have higher I.Q.'s than average. Now, if Asperger's is, in many ways, simply autism without the language delay, then this raises some interesting issues. Are the low I.Q. scores for those with autism a result of language issues? It seems that that may in fact be the case. Indeed, when alternative measurements of intelligence have been used with certain people with autism, their I.Q. scores jumped from "mentally retarded" to "genius."

Consider the results from the first article. Two of the aspects of people with high I.Q.s are the ability to focus and to pick out details. These are aspects commonly found in people with Asperger's especially. It is part of bottom-up thinking -- the details give rise to the big picture for someone with autism. Neurotypicals, on the other hand, see the big picture first -- this is part of top-down thinking. As a result, they may miss the details, just as bottom-up thinkers may miss the big picture.

In a sense, this means that "high I.Q." is practically equivalent with "having autism." Or at least "having Asperger's." And as we find more and better ways of reaching non-verbal and low-verbal autistics, I suspect we will find more and more high I.Q.s out there.

Part of the issue involves the general ability to integrate the details. Integration of details becomes increasingly problematic as you move along the autism spectrum. Those with Asperger's can integrate the best among those on the spectrum, whereas the most sever may not be able to integrate at all. Such a person would, of course, be identified as having severe mental deficiency, since they cannot make any sense of the world at all. The result, it would seem to me, would be a sort of U-shaped range of I.Q., with large numbers with high I.Q. being closer to the Asperger's end and there being a tipping point of inability to integrate then resulting in very low I.Q.s at the extreme other end.

The result of this would be a situation where those with Asperger's would appear to have high I.Q.s on average, whereas those with autism would appear to have average I.Q.'s on average. Of course, if you average a group that in fact has two groups in it -- one with high I.Q. and another with low I.Q. -- you would expect the average of that larger group to be average I.Q. All of which points to some problems with looking at groups statistically without paying much attention to the details.

Friday, January 9, 2015

400 Distinct Autisms (and some ADD)

In complex systems, many causes can have a single effect. This is true in social systems, neural systems, and biological systems. And we can see this in the fact that there are at least 400 distinct autisms, at least from the perspective of causes.

The above linked article also notes that one of the causes of autism is also a known cause of ADHD. It has been suggested by a friend with ADD that our daughter, Melina, might have it as well. If there is in fact a connection between ADD and certain kinds of autism, that would make sense, given my (obviously) heritable autism. There is a known protective effect from being female when it comes to autism, and it may be that ADD is what peeked out with Melina.

This points, too, to the fact that when it comes to multiple causes, we have to understand that those causes are all interacting with other causes, affecting effects. This is true in biological systems, neural systems, and social systems, equally.

We are fortunate that, as the above article as well as this one point out, we are discovering just how heterogeneous autism is. What is equally interesting, though, is the degree to which that heterogeneity gives rise to similar enough outcomes that we would call them all "autism." It will be interesting to see how the genetic differences cluster into varying behavioral groups and neural structures.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Glutamine, Autism, and Leaky Gut

I recently read an article saying that Celiac disease is in part caused by having a leaky gut. Because I have an allergic reaction to gluten, but not full-blown Celiac disease, I decided to look up what causes leaky gut and how to take care of the problem. The problem: the pores are too wide. The solution: probiotics and glutamine.

Glutamine is an amino acid related to the amino acid glutamate. For you chemistry types, the difference between the two is on the R-group. The OH on the glutamate is replaced by an amine -- NH2.Glutamate is made from glutamine, and vice versa. However, it is possible for there to be a mutation on a gene that would result in an enzyme that prefers one over the other.

In some people with autism, there is very high glutamate in the brain. In fact, glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which implicates it in IWT autism. As it turns out, such autistics not only have high glutamate, but low glutamine as well. If the body is preferentially making glutamate over glutamine, this could not only cause autistic behaviors, but leaky gut and potentially gluten allergy as well. And perhaps not just gluten allergy, since leaky gut can result in a variety of food allergies.

This glutamate-glutamine connection to autism explains why so many on the spectrum have gut problems.

The above linked article also notes that "levels of GAD 65 kDa and GAD 67 kDa proteins, both of which are involved in converting glutamate to GABA, are reduced in the brains of individuals with autism, resulting in increased levels of glutamate in the brain substrate." Why is this important? Low GABA levels increase feelings of anxiety. Social anxiety is, of course, a main feature of autism.

Thus, a system that preferentially makes glutamate over both GABA and glutamine would, it seems, result in someone having autism. Also, it seems that eating things that could provide GABA and glutamine might reduce some of the negative behaviors associated with autism. Indeed, there does seem to be some research which suggests glutamine supplements could help.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Left-Handedness, Autism, and High Steroid Levels In Utero

Being left-handed, I have done a bit of reading on the topic. So I have known for a while that one of the causes of left-handedness is the presence of higher than normal levels of testosterone in utero. If there is a high level of testosterone during certain stages of brain development, hemisphere dominance can change, and left-handedness can be a result.

A new study by Simon Baron-Cohen shows high levels of steroid hormones in utero for children who later show signs of autism. Testosterone is, of course, a steroid hormone. This made me wonder if there is a correlation between left-handedness and autism.

Not only is there, but we have known about it since 1983.While the general population shows 37% non-right handed dominance (meaning left-handedness or various forms of ambidexterity; left-handedness alone is about 18%), that number is almost twice as high in people with autism: 62%. This is pretty much a complete inversion of neurotypicals' handedness. More recent papers all suggest people with autism may be three times more likely to be left-handed.

Of course, autism is not the only condition strongly associated with left-handedness. Dyslexia is as well. And so are many mental disorders. Equally, about half of lefties are clearly neurotypical (not autistic, dyslexic, etc.), so it's important to understand that while the presence of left-handedness may indicate non-neurotypical neural architecture, it does not necessarily do so.

Still, the correlation between high testosterone levels and left-handedness and the correlation between high steroid levels (including testosterone) and autism points toward Baron-Cowan's theory of autism as a more male brain. Now, given that I subscribe to the "intense world theory" of autism (at least for myself and my son), I have to wonder if there is a relationship between these high steroid levels and neurohyperactivity.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Nietzsche's Autism and His Learned Greek Sexuality

I recently read a biography of Nietzsche, and I am reading a second one, and for someone who is himself on the spectrum, it seems abundantly clear that Nietzsche had autism. Of course, neither of these biographers see it, and as a result they come up with explanations of Nietzsche with which Freud would be proud.

I'm not going to go into all of the evidence I see for Nietzsche having autism. He had a speech delay -- he didn't speak until he was three (like my son, Daniel) -- but then rapidly learned how to read and write. He was socially awkward in ways that sound familiar, and yet he also had a dominating personality (again, in ways that sound familiar). He also didn't exactly know what to do with himself around women. This one of the biographers, Joachim Kohler, interprets as Nietzsche being a closet homosexual, but Nietzsche seems to have been a disaster around women in exactly the same way I was (thank goodness eHarmony had been invented in the meantime!).

But what I want to note is the degree to which Nietzsche seemed to have learned how to behave from books. I cannot emphasize enough the degree to which I have learned how to behave around people from the books I have read. Where neurotypicals have a variety of instincts that allow them to learn how to behave from the most casual of observations, autistics have to be taught almost everything. If one reads Kohler carefully, one can see that Nietzsche learned about love and sexuality from the ancient Greeks in a way that makes sense from my theory that autistic are explicit social learners.

Of course, anyone who knows about the ancient Greeks on love and sexuality will immediately understand just how messed up this could make someone. Imagine that you are raised in home in which there are nothing but very religious women, where sex and sexuality are hardly discussed. This would make things hard enough for a neurotypical; the situation is almost impossible if you are autistic. The autistic person would grow up sexually ambiguous at best, not really knowing what to do or think or feel. He hasn't been explicitly taught. Then, when he goes to high school -- Schulpforta -- he concentrates on religion and philology and, thus, on the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nietzsche reads works that rarely if ever mention women -- and when they do, in strongly misogynistic terms. When love is discussed, it is between men, or between men and boys -- teachers and students. Eros is the god of erotic love between boys -- the offspring of Ares (War) and Aphrodite (feminine Love). And then, Socrates, with whom Nietzsche identifies because they both share the presence of a daimon, simultaneously expresses Eros while remaining chaste toward men and boys. It would be no wonder if Nietzsche had no clue what to do in areas of love and sex.

Kohler doesn't just use this as "proof" of his thesis. He also uses the fact that Nietzsche, as a boy and young man, had very intense friendships with other boys and men his age. However, this is also a trait of autistics. A friend in a real sense becomes a "project" on which the autistic person spends a great deal of time and effort. It can be flattering at first, but it can also become intense and overbearing and, likely, weird after a while. The autistic will, of course, never notice the increasing discomfort of the friend. If the person is a love interest, this is often interpreted as evidence of how much the autistic is in love. And that's not untrue. But equally, intensity of friendship is not evidence of erotic feeling in the case of friends. But it may easily be misinterpreted as such.

If autistics are explicit learners, including in social areas of life, what they see or read to get their information is going to be very important. It will mean that it's important for parents to be open and clear about areas of love and sex and sexuality. Making sure the autistic person is reading and watching the right things is also important, as those will perhaps have the biggest impact. You probably want to make sure your autistic is not reading a lot of ancient works on sex relations and sexuality (nor a lot of the surrealists, who were perhaps a bit too influenced by the Marquis de Sade).

My own experience of learning how to act more and more seemingly neurotypical by reading books and watching movies and T.V.  helped me to see that this was taking place for Nietzsche as well (though in his case, it was obviously just reading). I hope that this insight can be used to help my son -- and perhaps others.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Those Crazy Innovators

I recently wrote about the fact that most people are copiers rather than innovators. This is of course hardly a condemnation of the vast majority of humanity, given that being strong social learners is what allows for our high levels of cooperation that make complex society possible at all.

But the fact remains that if everyone were strong social learners and, therefore, copiers of others, there wouldn't be much social evolution at all. The occasional mistake will sneak in, and people will of course copy those mistakes that work out best, but such a system would be a relatively slow process.

Enter the innovators. You don't want too many innovators, because such a society won't hold together too well. You want fewer innovations of things that work well, and if you have a lot of innovators, you are likely to get people innovating away what works.

It is perhaps not surprising that when humans evolved ultrasociality -- meaning we started undergoing far more group selection -- a balance was struck between copiers and innovators. Copiers dominate by far, but there are just enough innovators around to innovate.

But who are the innovators?

In my last posting I mentioned that people with autism and sociopaths are good contenders for this role. To that one should add schizophrenics and bipolars, among others we label as "mentally ill." Many artists, for example, are known to be at least slightly bipolar. The Nobel Prize winning game theorist John Nash was, famously, schizophrenic. Many cultural creatives are known to be autistic. More, autistic people tend to be more analytical than strategic (sociopaths, on the other hand, are far more strategic and, thus, more like neurotypicals in their thinking; they only lack a conscience, which can free them up to do quite a number of anti-social things).

Historically, human societies have needed a combination of less social individuals. Those individuals were needed for cultural creativity, technological innovation, and quite often ruthlessness in war. The latter is where the sociopaths come in.

A group with sociopaths is likely to have someone who is willing to kill and otherwise exploit others to get what he wants; such a person might be a good leader in a war, especially given their strong strategic abilities. As we move more and more toward a global civil society, we are finding we need our sociopaths less and less. But that doesn't mean we have gotten rid of them over time. Sociopaths, with their charm and strategic thinking, often end up in government or as CEOs -- when they don't end up in prison (and sometimes that is their path to prison). Places of power are highly attractive to sociopaths, and their charm and strategic thinking make them attractive to neurotypicals, who typically swarm in the direction of the person most determined to go in a particular direction. And sociopaths are quite determined people. Thus we should not be surprised if the highest concentrations of sociopaths are in government. In fact, sociopaths make bad CEOs, because they tend to run far less productive companies (due to their arrogance and tendency to try to subvert the system to their advantage, traits which are rewarded in government), so there are fewer sociopathic CEOs (as a percentage) than elected officials.

At the other end are the autistics -- creative, analytical types who are more interested in their obsessions than in other people. Your nerds and geeks, technological innovators and socially awkward artists. They don't seek to rule anyone. They just want to be left alone to do their work. But of course, their work, being creative and innovative, tends to be socially disruptive, so they are further treated as social outcasts by neurotypicals (and their tendency to be socially awkward anyway doesn't help). Only if they create something that is adopted by the early adopters -- that group of people who are adventurous enough to try things out, but not creative enough to innovate -- can they become "accepted" into polite society. And then, not really. Nobody is dying to hang out with Bill Gates; nobody was dying to hang out with Steve Jobs. But most people deep down never fully trusted them. Their products made our lives better, but they did so only by disrupting our lives. And disrupting others' lives is anti-social behavior (no matter how good the outcome).

And then there are the outliers labeled as "mentally ill." This can often include people with autism, who are more prone than the regular population to being bipolar or schizophrenic. It is perhaps not surprising that such people tend to be cultural innovators more than technological innovators. Artists and religious innovators are well represented here. A few of the greatest scientists as well. They see the world in unusual ways, making them mad to the general populace. Once upon a time, hearing voices was proof positive that one had a strong connection to God or the gods (or to demons); now it is proof positive you have schizophrenia. We are too rational for such religious innovations, and so we tend to hospitalize such people. Unless they can prove their worth in the arts or sciences. John Nash could hear voices all he wanted, so long as he controlled himself and produced game theory.

What percentage of the population are we looking at here? It is estimated that, worldwide, about 1% of the population are sociopaths (2% in the U.S., whose history of open borders attracted the more adventurous, a group with includes a large number of sociopaths). The percentage of people with autism is closing in on about 2% of the population. The mentally ill might be another 1-2%. We can cut this in half by removing the extreme outliers -- the sociopaths in prison, the autistics and mentally ill so severe they cannot contribute their creativity and innovations to society. Thus, our 4-6% outliers becomes about 2-3% innovators in any given society/culture. This is probably about the maximum number of innovators a society can have and still hold together. And we must keep in mind that much of that innovation is killed off by the sociopaths in government, whose policies are very often anti-innovation. Thus, we probably see innovation at about 1% of the population. Given that fact, it is quite impressive what human beings have accomplished in only a few tens of thousands of years.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Innovators and Copiers

I recently finished Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel. My official review of the book will be out soon, so I'm not going to go into a lot about the book right now. But there is something Pagel points out that I think is very important, and which I have been thinking about lately.

Pagel observes that (despite pop psychological narratives to the contrary), the vast majority of people are neither creative nor inventive. Rather, the vast, vast majority of people are ultrasocial -- they copy what others do exactly as those others do them. This is known as social learning, and it is what allows human beings to live in such huge groups. In fact, if most people were in fact creative or inventive, that would undermine ultrasociality (237).

Yet, it seems obvious that humans are inventive and creative. Look at all the technology we have around us. Look at all of the art and scientific discoveries.

Yes, and look at all the outrage over the latest discoveries. Look at all the outrage over the latest styles in the arts. Look at all the complaints about technology. Most people are reluctant adopters of anything new, and are in many ways Luddites at heart.

Thus, we see the same patterns for science, the arts, and technology. We have the inventor/discoverer. Then we have the early adopters. Then, when enough people adopt it, we have everyone else adopt it -- once they see that it is good, they copy it.

The great innovations are rare. More common are social learning plus mutations, resulting in slow cultural evolution.And truly revolutionary innovations are extremely rare -- and often result in the creator/inventor becoming social outcasts for their trouble. More strategic innovators will tinker on the edges of what we have so that others will accept the new things more easily. Poetic innovations go farther with more people if you introduce them in the context of poetic forms people like and know.

Humans are, overall, very good copiers, but very bad innovators (340). He observes that in game theory models, systems with many innovators tend to do far worse than those with many copiers. The systems that survive best are those in which almost all of the agents copy and there are only one or two innovators. The copiers all free ride off of the innovators, but if that did not happen, there would not be the kinds of complex societies we find in the world. To have spontaneous orders, you need mostly copiers, with few innovators disrupting the system.

I have primarily discussed artists, scientists, and inventors as innovators disrupting things, but there is another kind who also arises: political leaders. Political leaders emerge precisely because most people are strong social learners and, therefore, followers (362). As a result,
the cooperative enterprise of society is always finely balanced between the benefits that derive from cooperation on the one hand and the benefits that derive from trying to subvert the system toward your own gain without being caught or overpowered (363) 
as all rulers in fact try to do. The difference between scientists, artists, and innovators and politicians is that the latter use their tendency to innovate to try to subvert the system and make it work toward their own advantage, while the former are not working so strategically, and are primarily interested in their narrow interests.

Coincidentally, there are two groups of people widely recognized as being unaffected by social pressures.

There are poor social learners, like those with autism -- whose poor social learning may allow them to be more innovative, since they don't feel the need to adapt to what everyone else is doing. Such people also happen to be rather focused on narrow interests. If this sounds like most scientists, artists, and innovators, it may not be entirely a coincidence.

Then there are the sociopaths, who are good social learners and highly strategic, like the vast majority of people, but who do not have a conscience. They work to subvert the system toward their own gain without being caught or overpowered. We see this in the cheaters of society, those who try to scam people, those who try to get power over others. Governments are full of these people. We elect them all the time.

People from either group lead the world. The rest of the world copies them and their innovations. In the case of the cultural innovators, the result is ever-more wealth for everyone. In the case of the sociopaths in government, the result is ever-more power for themselves.