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June 20, 2003

Genius Machine?

Andy @ World Wide Rant blogs about a machine that might give one savant like abilities. Weird. Wacky. And cool!

Jason S. comments
I find Snyder's theory of autism as discussed in the article quite interesting because it proposes a different 'root cause' and defining characteristic of the condition than that promoted by the better known researcher Simon Baron-Cohen.

According to Snyder's theory:

Autistic thought isn't wholly incompatible with ordinary thought, he says; it's just a variation on it, a more extreme example.

He first got the idea after reading ''The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,'' in which Oliver Sacks explores the link between autism and a very specific kind of brain damage. If neurological impairment is the cause of the autistic's disabilities, Snyder wondered, could it be the cause of their geniuslike abilities, too? By shutting down certain mental functions -- the capacity to think conceptually, categorically, contextually -- did this impairment allow other mental functions to flourish? Could brain damage, in short, actually make you brilliant?

In a 1999 paper called ''Is Integer Arithmetic Fundamental to Mental Processing? The Mind's Secret Arithmetic,'' Snyder and D. John Mitchell considered the example of an autistic infant, whose mind ''is not concept driven. . . . In our view such a mind can tap into lower level details not readily available to introspection by normal individuals.'' These children, they wrote, seem ''to be aware of information in some raw or interim state prior to it being formed into the 'ultimate picture.'''

In other words, autism as hyper-concrete thinking.

On the other hand according to the better known theory popularised by Baron-Cohen:

people with autism may have an extreme of the male brain - good at systemising, very bad at empathising - and that studying autism with E-S theory in mind, can help increase our understanding of the condition.

Two largest sub-groups of autism are classic autism, and Asperger syndrome. Both share certain features: a difficulty in developing social relationships; a difficulty in communication; the presence of unusually strong, narrow interests; and a strong adherence to routines.

They differ in that in classic autism, the person might have an IQ at any point on the scale (even in the learning disabled range) and the person invariably had a language delay as a toddler. In Asperger syndrome, the person is always at least average in IQ (and may be well above average), and talked on time as a toddler. Autism spectrum conditions affect about one child in every 200, with males being far more likely than to be diagnosed.

What's interesting is that the obsessional interests that people with autism spectrum conditions show often focus on a system. It may be an intense preoccupation with light switches in the house, or running water from the taps in different sinks in the house. For their long-suffering parents, these "obsessions" can be very hard to cope.

But according to the E-S theory the child may simply be focusing on the tiny details in the system - how fast the water flows when the tap is turned to different angles, or which lights go on when different switches are in the up or down position - using their intelligence to work out the underlying rules that govern the system. The characteristic approach they take is to home in on a topic or area of knowledge, and comb it for every detail, until they feel they've covered most if not all of the information available. The "obsession" might last weeks, months, or even years. And then typically, they move on to a new area to master.

Now, these two explanations aren't necessarily mutually exclusive because these two conditions aren't mutually exclusive up to some limit. But in the case of the autistic condition we are talking about particular traits being exhibited to an extreme degree - so which is it? Isn't an extreme deficiency in being able to think at some higher order gestalt level (and to only be able to focus at the level of concrete details) which Snyder proposes as the defining characteristic of autism somewhat at odds with the obsessive interest in systematising about 'things' which Baron-Cohen's theory proposes as the defining characteristic of autism? Given this tension, Snyder's theory seems to be a safer bet as an explanation because
1) it now seems to have been subject to empirical testing. Snyder used his theory to predict that making people's brains more autistic would give them a better ability to perceive concrete details that tend to be overlooked when the brain processes information normally by abstracting details into a general picture
2) Snyder's theory seems more internally consistent and open to testing. For instance, what autism researchers can agree on is that autistic people fail to develop a 'theory of the mind' about the people they interact with. They fail to attribute internal states to others. Snyder's theory would say this is because they are deficient in 'connecting the dots' in the first place. Baron-Cohen's theory could be invoked to say it's because they're not into 'people'. Snyder's theory seems to be the better explanation because of the implications that follow from each. For instance, one perverse implication of Baron Cohen's theory is that Einstein and Newton were semi-autistic:

Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were geniuses but British scientists believe they may have suffered from Asperger syndrome (AS), a form of autism.

The condition, first described by Viennese physician Hans Asperger in 1944, is a disorder that causes deficiencies in social and communication skills and obsessive interests.

But it does not affect learning or intellect and many people with AS have exceptional talents or skills.

Although it is impossible to make a definitive diagnosis in people who are dead, Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University and Ioan James of Oxford University studied the personalities of Einstein and Newton to see if the two scientists had symptoms of AS.

Now, the idea that Einstein and Newton, two supreme generalisers who contributed to science because they looked beyond disconnected concrete details, were autistic, seems completely absurd to me. Also note the way they attempt to 'explain away' contradictions:

Although Einstein made friends and spoke out on political issues, Mr Baron-Cohen suspects he showed signs of Asperger syndrome.

"Passion, falling in love and standing up for justice are all perfectly compatible with Asperger syndrome," he told the weekly science magazine.

"What most people with AS find difficult is casual chatting - they can't do small talk," he said

Karl Popper, call your office!

Perhaps Baron-Cohen's E-S (empathising-systematising) spectrum is picking up something that can be manifested at an extreme level and then gets diagnosed as a pathology. But it would seem to be a different kind of pathology from autism. In which case, is the Asperger's scare in Silicon Valley also a result of this misdiagnosis, perhaps a consequence of 'empathising' psychologists who think that people who don't share their interests are mad?

Posted by razib at 10:25 PM

There's an interesting book out called "Discovering my Autism." The author was a working mathemetician when he started having problems. He was misdiagnosed and wrongly medicated for years. One interesting thing is that while his affect was flat he loved music and was able to perform in choirs. Seemingly the math-music connection is more real than the math-emotion connection.

There's really a lot in play here. Highfunctioning Asperger's autistics are not at all like the autistics in institutions. My own opiniuon is that if a hereditary problem stays in the gene pool perhaps it has compensating positive effects in some cases. Bipolar and schozophrenia are other examples, and perhaps certain kinds of obsessive tendencies.

The neurologist Antonio Damasio has written a couple of books about the relationship between emotion and reason. "Descartes Error" is probably the better. I'll give away the plot: the positivists are wrong. Rationality is not attained by eliminating emotion.

Posted by: zizka at June 23, 2003 10:56 AM

I wonder if TMS will join new drugs(like a superritalin and Prozac et al) on the vanguard of the posthuman future.
I might buy a TMS machine if it were cheap enough, I've always wanted to be able to draw.

Posted by: Rob at June 25, 2003 09:16 AM