Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing's Autism

If The Imitation Game is an accurate portrayal of Alan Turing, there is little question that Turing was autistic. It is difficult to lay out all of the evidence from the film, because practically everything Turing does in the film screams to the audience, "I have autism!" But I will note a few specifics.

Consider Turing and language. He uses language in a very direct, un-nuanced, literal fashion. And he takes what everyone says as though they were using language the same way. Thus, when the announcement that "We're going to go get lunch" is made, he takes it as an announcement that everyone else is going to go get lunch; what he fails to recognize is that the announcement is an invitation. And he fails at such recognition of the kinds of language games people play throughout the film.

Turing also had a tendency to appear to people to be incredibly arrogant. This is a common complaint against people on the spectrum. But as you watch the film, you come to realize that Turing is anything but arrogant. He is certain, but that certainty is well earned. He is direct in his speech, but that is a combination of the way he uses language and his lack of understanding that such directness comes across as rude. In his experience, people don't understand what he's talking about, so he doesn't see any point in wasting his and their time explaining himself. To someone on the spectrum, that's courtesy. He doesn't understand that people won't just take his word, though, and need the explanation even if they don't understand it, if they are to provide him with the support he needs.

Turing's simultaneous desire to work alone and to not be alone is something people with autism experience. It is a strange tension that most cannot understand. I want to be left alone to do my work, except when I don't want to be left alone. Interruptions upset me (but not as much as they used to), so I tended to drive people away when I was working. But then they tended to stay away, which is not necessarily what I wanted. The same was true of Turing.

Finally, there was Turing's rational calculation of allowing people to die so the Germans wouldn't know Enigma had been cracked, and his argument for the development of statistics to determine when to use the information they had, to prevent the Germans from ever learning the English had cracked the code. Everyone in the room was ready to send in the cavalry to save the people who were going to be killed. That's the most human reaction of all. But if they had done that, they would have lost all the work they did, the Germans would have known Enigma was cracked, and the English couldn't have used it to shorten the war and win it. Turing could see all of that because the way his mind worked allowed him to bypass those emotions and reach the most rational conclusion. People on the spectrum are (in)famous for making such calculations.

There are plenty of other little things in his behaviors that make it clear Turing was on the spectrum. But I will also note that one of the most intelligent people in the world, the man who invented the computer, who theorized on artificial intelligence and came up with the Turing Test, who was a brilliant mathematician, was clearly on the spectrum. The man who may have won World War II for the Allies and saved the lives of millions of people was someone most of those he saved would have shunned as "weird."

One would probably be amazed at the number of such "weird" people have revolutionized the world. And the primary beneficiaries would (and perhaps have) treated those people as Turing was typically treated throughout his life. People need to see The Imitation Game precisely for this reason. They need to experience the world through an Alan Turing, so they can empathize with those of us who are "weird" and unappreciated and shunned for it. We just want to do our work. And we don't want to have to justify ourselves and our work to everyone in the process. The latter may be impossible, but can we at least, at last, get some understanding regarding who we are?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why So Many on the Autism Spectrum Are Creative

Why aren't you a creative genius? Is it because you're not smart enough? Perhaps you're not crazy enough. Perhaps the problem is that you're neither smart nor crazy enough.

According to Dean Simonton, "The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is cognitive disinhibition—the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant." But that's hardly enough. This describes the mentally ill as well, including anyone on the autism spectrum. What differentiates the inability of the mentally ill to filter out things from creative people is that the latter also have high I.Q.s that allow them to filter the world in a more conscious way.

Given that an inability to filter out information from the world is a trait of autism, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people on the spectrum are creative. Even if high intelligence among those with ASD had the same distribution as the general population, the ASD population would have a much higher percentage of creatives, since the general population has a low percentage of people with cognitive disinhibition.

I'm a good example of this phenomenon. Little things I see, little things I hear spin out into stories and poems all the time. A fragment of conversation, an odd thing noticed out of the corner of my eye, random things which pop up in my mind, into my consciousness. I have to consciously filter out these things. Things others, apparently, filter out unconsciously.

This lack of filter means I am bombarded by sensory information and mental concepts. I can get easily distracted by them. They keep my attention. I could be mistaken for having ADD, but perhaps that's not a mistake. Perhaps ADD is a manifestation of cognitive disinhibition -- perhaps enough to create an attention deficit, but not enough to make mental illness. Again, intelligence makes the difference. Intelligence is the filtering device, what turns the noticed things into something new. The instinctive filterer is replaced by a more conscious one. But that means one has to learn how to do it.

How does one create the discipline necessary to turn one's cognitive disinhibition into creative genius? Intelligence is not enough, though it is a necessary element. What is needed is the right environment, one which praises and values creativity. Not in an abstract way, but directly, to you, in your life. Parents telling you that your picture you drew is awesome. Teachers praising your art work and writing skills. Encouragement is positive feedback, driving you to want to turn all those little details you've noticed into something new for others to see. This encouragement can turn internal, acting as a self-selector, a way of concentrating those noticed bits and pieces into creative works.

The difference between madness and creative genius can often be the difference in environment, in the encouragement of others. A support network can make you become your best; the lack of one can drive you mad. The example of John Nash is apt: he was at his most creative and least mad when he had a supportive network.

Does our current culture support the creative genius? Or does it drive them underground, into the shadows, attempt to medicate them all away? Such people are disruptors of the status quo, keep the world off kilter, challenge preconceptions. Conformists cultures such as ours (being a collective guilt culture, our culture is doubly conformist) despise disruptors, challengers, creative geniuses. This is why the genius is in retreat. It is culturally rejected, denied and medicated away when possible. But without it, society will meet with stagnation, merely maintain without creating nearly as much value and wealth in the world as it would with them. Only if a creative genius happens to have the right family support can he or she develop and create. But our institutions increasingly do not support such people. In fact, too often, they actively discriminate against them. Because they do, there is less value, less wealth, less beauty in the world than there could be. All exchanged for the sake of the kind of comfort one can only have in an impossibly unchanging world.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Intense World Theory of Autism and Problems With Understanding Metaphors

Given what I have read here and there about mirror neurons, I was somewhat interested in reading Gregory Hickok's "The Myth of Mirror Neurons. However, after this excerpt in which he discusses autism, I am definitely going to have to get the book.

Hickok provides evidence against the idea that autism is a deficit; rather, he argues, autism is an excess. People with autism are too sensitive to sounds, touch, others' emotions, etc. We look away from others' eyes because the emotions there are too intensely felt by us. Indeed, I have always felt people's presence quite intensely, and it gets to be tiring, overwhelming after a while. Of course, if you're looking away, if you're paying attention to everything else as much as you are paying attention to a person's face, you are bound to miss any number of social clues.

So the Intense World Theory of autism seems to be gaining support. 

But does the IWT explain things like autistic literalism and a tendency to fail to understand metaphors? Obviously, there is a logical connection between literalism and failing to understand metaphors. Even if one takes everything literally, one can eventually learn to understand metaphors -- but it's a learned skill rather than a natural one, as occurs in neurotypicals. But this still doesn't tell us why autistic people do either one.

However, if we look to why those with autism experience an intense world, we may see why.

One feature of autistic neural structure is the overabundance of synapses. This creates a hyperconnected network with more inputs. One result is increased sensory processing -- which is why many with autism don't like being touched or are sensitive to sounds or smells or tastes. Another is that other kinds of information are processed in a way that more closely resembles how artificial neural nets (ANNs) process information and produce outputs. ANNs tend to be "hyperconnected" relative to the way real neurons are connected to each other. As a result, ANNs take longer to turn inputs into concepts, but once they do so, those concepts are much more concretized.Things are put into pretty solid categories, without much if any overlap.

To understand -- and create -- metaphors, there has to be conceptual overlap. At least a certain degree of it, anyway. For the neurotypical, "Achilles was a lion." evokes notions of fierceness and nobility. For an autistic, "Achilles was a lion." evokes an image of a large tan member of the cat family named "Achilles." That is because "lion" and "a person named Achilles" are two completely separate conceptual categories. A person can't be a cat.

This would also explain why people with autism tend to think more concretely and less abstractly. However, if one can learn certain abstractions, connections among various concepts become much clearer. Clear categories also make patterns more obvious because one sees patterns when one sees all of the distinctness of each category. Those with autism may have difficulty with metaphors (this is on some level literally that), but similes (this is like that) are another thing entirely. A simile notes both the difference and the similarity -- the latter being the shared patterns. "Achilles was like a lion." signals there is some sort of pattern shared between Achilles and lions.

Of course, all of this is conjecture. I'm noting a number of similar patterns and concluding similar things may underlie them. But I'm not sure what else make sense if we reject the theory that autism is a deficit and, rather, is an excess of neural connections -- inputs and processing.

Coincidentally, it has been suggested that Kafka had Asperger's. The fact that he never used metaphors is highly suggestive that he indeed may have.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Empathy, Morality, and Autism

While I generally disagree with those who claim that people with autism do not have empathy, when it comes to moral decision-making, empathy not only may not be necessary but, according to Jesse Prinz, may in fact get in the way.

While I do not agree that people with autism lack empathy, I would agree that we/they have impaired empathy. Why that is is up for debate, though I'm of the opinion that a too-intense feeling drives us away from people, impairing its proper development. It may also be possible that we engage in some degree of avoidance so we are not overwhelmed by others' feelings. But if Jesse Prinz is right, we might have an explanation for why it is people on the spectrum tend to be extremely moral in their actions. If empathy is not getting in the way of our moral decision-making, that would make our decisions more moral.

Of course, this separation between empathy and moral decision-making is likely to be read as cold. But if the highly empathetic morality of the inquisitioners is any indication, perhaps we need more cold morality and less warm morality in the world.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Autism is Literally Not Self-Centered

fMRI scans show striking differences between people with autism and neurotypicals.

Most notably, neurotypicals' "thoughts of social interaction clearly included activation indicating a representation of the "self," manifested in the brain's posterior midline regions. However, the self-related activation was near absent in the autism group." That is to say, the autistics did not put themselves into the given scenario. Say "hug" to a neurotypical, and they will imagine themselves getting a hug from or hugging someone; say "hug" to an autistic, and they will think of the dictionary definition of the word or envision others hugging.

This actually goes along with much of what I have written about on this blog about people on the spectrum being more external-focused. We think more about objects and ideas rather than people, because we don't think that much about ourselves. This also makes sense of the fact that solipsists are the mental opposites of autistics; solipsists cannot differentiate the world from themselves, while autistics radically differentiate the world from themselves. At its most extreme, the latter is outright debilitating. At the same time, solipsism at its most extreme is sociopathic.

Thus, while many people accuse those on the high functioning end of the spectrum of being self-absorbed, we can see from this research that the opposite is literally true. We don't think of ourselves at all. Or rarely. But because we don't think of ourselves, we don't think that much about others, either -- at least, to the degree that one has to think of oneself to think of and about others.

Why this pattern of thinking comes about is what we need to try to understand.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Larger, More Active Amygdalas, Autism, and Altruism

Discover magazine reports that extreme altruists have more active and larger amygdalas. These people are more sensitive to "fearful faces." This heightened empathy drives their altrusim.

We also happen to know that people with autism also have more active and larger amygdalas.While some researchers, like Simon Baron-Cohen argue that people with autism are less empathetic, the research reported by Discover would seem to argue that it is not that autistic people are less empathetic, but that they are more so -- so much more so that avoiding faces becomes necessary to avoid being overwhelmed.