Monday, June 28, 2010

Local and Global processing: Another way of looking at autism

There is interesting new research being developed looking at different types of information processing in autism. Using an EEG, researchers have found that people on the autistic spectrum have particular differences in "brain waves" while performing certain tasks, meaning soon there could be a simple physical test that can aid in the diagnosis of autism.

Many people have the vague understanding that the mind sees through the eyes, and that information is transferred into the brain via some kind of recording device, which is then displayed as one image on an "internal screen."

However, the brain actually perceives the outside world with multiple processes. There is no recorder, and there is no screen. We only have the illusion of a unified field of vision.

Sometimes, these processes/pathways do not operate in synch. Some may be slower than others, and your brain might experience perceptual "lags", which may be responsible for communication difficulties and sensory difficulties. It's like playing a video game, and the characters are lagging behind you and the scenery. 

Similar to your eyes seeing from different perspectives and coming together as one sense of vision, the two hemispheres of your brain are associated with two different ways of seeing. One side, the left hemisphere, is able to process colour and detail. This is called "local processing". The other side, the right hemisphere, is concerned with whole objects and boundaries of objects, called "global processing", and is important for other processes such as motion detection and depth. (These are very general terms. There is no "local pathway" or "global pathway" exactly in the brain. There are many "cables and wires". Here is a link to more info on visual pathways and some visual tests)

Only read this part if you want more you details, otherwise skip ahead:
(From the study:High-scoring individuals also demonstrated difficulty in identifying the global components of locally salient hierarchical Navon figures. Furthermore, cross-validated discriminant analysis, using fourphysiologically and three psychophysically derived parameters, correctly classified 83% of individuals who scored either high or low on the Autism Spectrum Quotient. These findings in the group scoring high on the Autism Spectrum Quotient indicate that a delay in primary visual/prestriate cortical processing of magnocellular input diminishes the advantage of its early arrival to primary visual cortex. This appears to be associated with impaired global visual perception, predicting with high accuracy behavioural tendencies associated with autism spectrum disorders.)

In "neurotypical" people, these two distinct pathways come together as one, but in autistic spectrum disorders, there are discrepancies with how these two different viewpoints merge. In the "normal" brain, the brain is first concerned with the object as a whole. It only "zooms in" to consider the detail, if the object is being examined by you. For people with autism however, the brain is usually fixated with the detail oriented, "local processing" mode of the left brain first, before it begins to perceive the whole object.

This is because the human brain wants a quick "scan" of the outline of it's surroundings, to quickly decide "Hey, is that thingy over there interesting?" or "Ah! That thing is going to kill me!" Local processing is supposed to happen AFTER so we can look at the details inside- "Oops, that thing I thought was a snake, was only a hose." But when local processing happens FIRST, perception is impaired in a way. Not always in a bad way, but it can cause many problems, such as disrupting other pathways. 

The easiest way to demonstrate and understand this is using a test called "The Navon test". 

The first figure "neurotypical" people usually perceive, is the large letter made up of the different small letters. This image at first glance would appear to be "E S A H", then they would realize these images are composed of other letters. 

In autistic spectrum disorders (as well as other connective disorders, such as schitzophrenia), the person first perceives the small letters instead of the whole. This image appears to be a collection of "A H E S". They are able to understand the whole as well, but there is a delay in being able to see the whole. (For example, I may scan the edges of the group of "E" to see the letter A, but if I concentrate for a couple seconds the entire A appears. Then after a couple seconds it may "Pop", and disappear, and I see a collection of E again. This means to me, many objects appear to vibrate around the edges! ) This delay in perception is detected with the use of an EEG, (or the thing with wires you stick on your head that measures brain electricity.) 

Here is another test: 
See how fast you are able to find the OUTLINE of this triangle above the picture (to the RIGHT). It's easier if you click on the larger image. Ignore the block graphics example to the left. 

This is an example of an Embedded Figures Test or EFT. (EFT in Autism study). People with enhanced local processing are able to find it more quickly than people who tend to see things in wholes. They are also better at reproducing patterns in block tests like the example above.  

(If you find you aren't sure if you have Asperger's or not, and you have no difficulty seeing the wholes, then you might not have an autistic spectrum disorder. MOST have these issues, but apparently, not ALL.)

This can create problems in daily life, such as inability to properly understand facial expressions (since you may not view the face as an entire whole), and navigating. When your brain has trouble detecting the boundaries of objects, its more difficult to navigate around objects and interact with them. 

Don't confuse this, with visual focus. Focus happens within the eye. This is how the brain processes what the "eye sees". (I know, confusing.)

This aspect of processing in autism is often overlooked by professionals, and those attempting to understand the nature of autism. But in my opinion, understanding how these pathways work, and WHY there are delays in processing, seems like a very important part of Autism research, and much more work should to be done on this. 

This is because visual perception and internal thought patterns are intimately related. Your ability to perceive the world reflects how you are able to perceive thoughts in your own mind, and the information you are attempting to understand. Our ability to "think" was adapted from the older visual pathways of our primate ancestors. 

It is my belief that deficits in the ability to perceive wholes is directly related to other aspects of autism- such as trouble with metaphors and abstractions, "one track thinking", the feeling that the world is "chaotic", and the tendency to have "special interests". 

This is because an autistic brain has a much easier time putting small pieces together, both visually and mentally. Just like there is difficulty in perceiving objects quickly, many autistic people have a hard time quickly changing topics or "areas of thinking." They aren't able to quickly scan the whole "concepts" in their brains, like neurotypical people do. They get fixated on the small details and connections.

Why is this? Minicolumns? White matter connections? Nobody knows that yet.

The ability to see objects first globally instead of by their parts, is a newly adapted human trait. Our closest cousins, Chimpanzees, show only slight preference, or no preference for global processing. Monkeys do not have this ability, they process the world more like local processing. It seems to me, that global processing and the mental equivalent, the ability to "conceptualize", was probably very important in our evolutionary past, helping us to form relationships, learn to avoid predators, and form complex community and groups. 

(I'm in no way implying that autistic people are less evolved or something!  I'm just saying that a lot of our brain wiring is evolutionary very new. In this way, what Temple Grandin says about Autistics being able to think more "like animals" may be true.)

This is a very basic intro. (And I'm not a professional).
For more information, visit:

This is an introspective personal blog that covers issues on autistic consciousness and understanding, with the hope that both so called "normal people" as well autistic people can better understand what autism is like in the mind. I'm probably going to be writing more on global vs. local processing in the future. 

For another post on the cognitive difficulties of autism, read The chambers of my mind post. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

why I sometimes can't speak

Okay, something new. I realized that one of the main reasons why when I'm in right hemisphere "receiving mode" my internal voice is barely a whisper.

Like music, I can only really "hear my internal voice" if I'm focused on left side, "transmitting mode".

So thats why I can barely rehearse what I'm going to say before it comes out of my mouth. It's like trying to eavesdrop in on another person in a different room. I can't hear myself think even if I want to.

Hmm...I don't know why I missed that. Seems obvious now.
Maybe this is also why it is difficult to read in busy environments.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The difference between understanding, and being, in autism

This is a continuation of my previous posting, on the differences between autistic and neurotypical consciousness. This is something many people don't think about when confronted with the communication problems associated with autism.

People automatically assume that you are a person, with intents and emotions and ideas, and that you, like them, have the ability to fluidly control these aspects of identity. When communication is impaired, people believe that the problem is a lack of understanding, and a lack of awareness.

These points may also be factors, but what many people do not understand, is that you can have understanding of social relationships, and an awareness of a situation, but lack THE ABILITY to properly interact.

As a child, I was permanently confused. I didn't understand why the other children wouldn't' play with me, and why they had such strange behaviours. Things such as "forming groups"- the other kids when told would automatically and quickly decide who to work with, without saying anything out loud to each other. To me, it seemed pretty much like magic ESP. So, I was usually picked last for everything, and had to be "assigned" a group by a teacher.

To "normal people" socializing seems very natural and "easy". It just happens. But socializing is actually a very intensive process, and many things are going on in the brain at once.

But I made the effort in attempting to understand psychology and human behaviour, and now people are no longer so mysterious. (Thank Gawd for the internet.) I also read a lot as a kid, and novels taught me more about people than people did. (Even if they don't want to, all children on the autistic spectrum who can read should read novels. This helps with the understanding of other peoples emotions and whats generally going on in their heads.)

So with effort, I taught myself to understand, and I began to understand how to be aware. By aware, I mean how to pay attention to signals of other people, as well as being aware of the context and situation.

But, there is a limit to where understanding and awareness can take you.

In my mind, I can design many situations and "scenes" of different types of interactions. I can imagine a situation and then predict what I would like to do. I write occasionally, and can flesh out different characters and dialog in a story. The difference is, that when it is in my mind, I am always able to do what I want to do, and I "have control".

This is difficult for people to understand. They might think "if she can write, and understand these things, then that must mean she is choosing to act improperly." Not so.

In my imagination with effort I can change the tone and volume of my voice, use proper facial expressions, and carry on a conversation or discussion with another person. I can mirror people, walk normally, flirt, or comfort people. But that is imagination. In real life though, these things are extraordinarily difficult to manage in real time, because I do not have the level of control over my consciousness that "neurotypical" people do. It's like imagining yourself to be driving a race car and winning the race, and then ACTUALLY trying to drive a race car and crashing early on.

Also, there is a difference between understanding in the moment, and understanding in reflection. I may misunderstand what is being said, because I don't have enough "brain space" to consider alternate explanations at the time, because my mind is stuck on "one track"- but afterwards I am able to understand when I have the ability to visit the other "tracks" of alternate possibilities.

A few months ago, I walked downtown to attend a major celebration. The kind of event that you will only experience once. Everyone was running through the streets, strangers were hugging and high-fiving, and everyone had the same exuberant, excited expressions on their faces. I had never felt so different and strange in my entire life.

I could not join in. Instead of reflecting that powerful emotion and becoming one with the crowd, most of my brain power went into blocking out the busy hectic environment so that I wouldn't trip over my own feet. Inside I had the desire to join, have a drink, and meet new people, but I could only watch from the inside. That night the only people I managed to talk to were a bum who tried to steal my pop because he thought I secretly had alcohol in it, a clubbing chick who wanted me to affirm that she did not look over 30, and some guy with a weird accent that offered me what he described to be: "some rare herb from somewhere in Africa that causes you to hallucinate bright lights turning into phoenixes while experiencing a unique euphoria." I politely declined that offer, my brain was being screwy enough that night.

If you don't have this ability to absorb and reflect emotional information, it really does seem that people have psychic powers when communicating. I used to be very perplexed as to how people are able to watch what another person is doing, and then voluntarily move their face to match the others expression exactly, and instantly, while talking at the same time. To me, that seems pretty much like reciting Shakespeare while playing tennis. That is because it isn't entirely voluntary. There IS a sort of psychic atmosphere that is created with people: mirror neurons.

People absorb and automatically reflect each others expressions, thus communicating emotionally. They only occasionally voluntarily move their faces around. Add to that, people have a pretty good idea of what facial expressions they are displaying- an objectivity of what others see- and can so voluntarily "tweak" their expressions.

But for me, I have a VERY hard time telling what my face is doing. I tend to have no expression, or very exaggerated expressions. I can feel my facial muscles move (sometimes more, sometimes barely) but it is very difficult to translate those movements into a face, or expression that others see. I lack an "objectivity" of myself in space.

This is one of the reasons why I have been fired from a lot of jobs, I believe. For example, in fast food or labour jobs, there is usually some kind of pain involved, whether its grease burns or a sore back, or a general brain pain from over-stimulation. Even though the pain might not be bothering me that much, (I have a reasonable pain tolerance) it could still be showing on my face, and I can't properly realize AND suppress that expression.

So- to other people, apparently it looks like I'm scowling and being very irritable or sullen. But in reality, it has NOTHING to do with my emotions or what I am thinking at the time. People take this to mean I'm some sort of bitchy person and "not a team player", and "bad customer service" because I have some sort of attitude problem. But believe me, when you are so broke you can barely afford to eat, you'll be a team player to keep your job! For pretty much all of my jobs, I have not been given a real reason for why I was being fired, apart from useless statements like "you don't belong here". Even if I try to mention Asperger's and explain, it doesn't matter. Those kinds of facial expressions make people feel uncomfortable, and they don't want to know why, they just want you GONE.

If I had A CHOICE, I would definitely NOT go around looking like I'm in a bad mood, and have weird expressions. I wish I had the ability to communicate what I'm actually feeling, and to "act" when the situation requires it. To put people at ease, and to appear friendly, warm, and confident. My life would be entirely different. But people never see me as these things. They just automatically assume I have a negative sort of personality, and that I choose to be that way. But in reality, I might be perfectly calm, and have nothing negative floating around in my head. This is also worse because I am female, I believe. Everyone assumes girls will be more sociable and outgoing.

I wish I had a magic machine that allowed me to switch consciousness with someone else, so they could see what being trapped in this kind of mind is really like, and how much of what happens is not a choice at all.

That you don't have the ability to be yourself. That its an ongoing struggle to be present and communicate.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The chambers of my mind

It has been mostly in the last year that I began forcing myself into a more "introspective" mode, practicing mindfulness, and basically making an effort to understand why my brain doesn't let me do what I want to do.

I used to think, that if I took up the task of understanding human behaviour, and tried to become more skilled with non-verbal communication, that I could learn how to be a normal human and everything would be fine and dandy and I could have a normal life.

Because I have never had what can be called a normal life. I can barely remember events from my childhood and teenage years because my mind has changed so much. Much of that time was spent being extremely confused, and alone. I had a couple friends, but much of the time I was left sitting around wondering why the other kids were laughing at me.

But...nope. I was quite disappointed to find, that although in my imagination I am able to reproduce all kinds of social situations and act accordingly, in real life I still come across as an idiotic weirdo.

In theory, I can understand the actions and motives of others, and how I should respond appropriately, or, how to express myself. But when I am within the situation, it is not possible for me to do so. This is because my consciousness is hyper-focused, and I can't even multi-talk enough to listen to what someone is saying, pay attention to their behaviour, and think and talk at the same time.

I can't be in all of my brain at once. I can never just "be myself".

There are a lot of studies that describe problems with white matter connectivity in autism, differences in the corpus callosum (the thingy that connects your two brains) or mini-columns. This means that there are problems with long distance communication in different areas of the brain. This seems to be very true in my case.

For me, I can only really "use" one hemisphere of my brain at a time. There are a lot of processing delays for tasks that switch between hemispheres.

The two hemispheres of the brain are differentiated in a number of ways, which I won't bother to explain, but basically the right brain handles global processing, different types of attention, conceptual and metaphorical thought, emotions and empathy, and some types of creativity. The left handles contextual, fact based, sequential, logical thought, and other stuff like music.

When my consciousness is situation in my right brain, it feels like the other half is in the darkness, waiting. When I'm there, I find it much easier to observe the environment, because it's easier to "see the big picture", and interpret gestures and facial expressions. BUT- in this place I do not have a very high vocabulary, and it is difficult to think in some ways. So while I can listen, and watch, it is very difficult to respond in the way I would like to respond.

Since I do not have very many verbal thoughts, translating my thoughts can be difficult in the right hemisphere, having a smaller vocabulary of often used words. It's like I'm floating in the ocean, scrambling to pull together debris to build a raft. I can only grab and use what is close to me.

This means my wording is often very clumsy, and I often come across as a nonsensical simple-minded idiot. When in this mode, half the words that come out of my mouth are inadequate representations of my thoughts. It is easier for me to type my thoughts, than it is to speak. This has absolutely nothing to do with anxiety, or having words "on the tip of your tongue". It doesn't matter what mood I'm in, or if I'm constructing thought out loud, or within my mind. I think that bothers me the most, and it is extremely frustrating to experience. I would never be recruited for a debate team.

In opposition, when I am in the left side, the library of my brain, I can articulate myself far easier, and recall information much more easily. BUT- I can't really look at someone at the same time, or be very communicative, and pay attention to my environment. If I do this, I experience cognitive traffic jams, and discomfort.

I think this is the reason why it's far easier to talk about information, or "facts", than it is to talk about myself or construct arguments. It's like pulling a book off a shelf. It's already written.

So I am stuck in either "transmitting mode", or "receiving mode", and being in both places at once, to be fully aware and a whole person, is nearly impossible. If it happens at all, it is for very brief moments.

I have to poke my consciousness around like an amoeba, directing it to where I want it to go, and which process I want to focus on. I cannot simply desire to speak, and speak. I cannot simply want to hear music in my head, and hear music. I first have to re-arrange my mind in order to do that.

This is not immediate. There are delays in switching processes, which may be 6-10 seconds.

I also can't concentrate on speaking and adequately feel my body in space at the same time. I often feel half of my body more than the other. I have always been clumsy, and while I'm getting better at it, I often have bruises. It is also very difficult to imagine an objective understanding of the environment, and what other people are thinking.

There is a large, impassable cavern between understanding, and being.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Order in a state of chaos

This is an introduction to this blog, so I first have to make clear a few things.

We do not enter this world naked, alone and trembling. We are not an unprepared canvas, waiting for the colours of experience to paint our lives, as most people will believe. Babies do not really experience their first moments as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion."

Babies actually come with a lot of programming pre-installed. I suggest checking out's informative article on BABY SUPER POWERS.

We are also not rational, philosophical, mentally infinite beings capable of escaping the nature from which we came, either. Sorry.

The common belief is that we have this special ethereal substance called "intelligence", and because we're so darn intelligent we just put 2 and 2 together and come up with the answers for explaining how the world works.

But we are born human, and live human. We just don't notice how human we are, because we're always hanging out with other humans and doing humany things. Most humans believe everything they do makes perfect sense, and that the world they live in is the way it is, because...that's just "the way it is". They have no desire, or need, to question their behaviours, and believe that anybody who does so is either a neurotic social scientist, or an idiot.

For people on the autistic spectrum, human behaviour is extremely confusing, and sometimes seemingly inexplicable. That is because autistic people are forced to "learn as they go along." Temple grandin called herself "An anthropologist on Mars". And Asperger's syndrome is sometimes referred to as "Wrong Planet Syndrome". Autistics essentially remain foreigners in the culture that they are born into. And in this case, it may be that the world they are born into is indeed a buzzing confusion.

The human brain does many things "for us" that we are not aware of. Human beings, and their minds, naturally connect when socializing. A human child is essentially a "social sponge", built to mimic the actions of others, to quickly incorporate language, and to readily accept cultural norms. This is one of the main differences that separate us from other apes. Great apes can match toddlers on a variety of cognitive tests but fail in this crucial area. They are capable of complicated mimicry, and can learn a series of actions, but they do not have this compulsion to copy, and the immediate mental understanding of another's mind that human children do. (Although being social creatures they do have a high amount of social awareness.)

We are hard wired to connect with each other, and to experience empathy. Some people understand empathy and compassion to be interchangeable, but neuroscience is now showing us that empathy is in fact a neurological process, not a psychological exercise of thought like having compassion. I understand empathy to mean the immediate, intuitive understanding of another's emotional state. Compassion, however, is the intellectual exercise of imagination that attempts to understand another's mind by examining the situation and relevant factors.

The study of mirror neurons has been called "The DNA of psychology" because it bring together concepts in psychology to the realm of "hard science". Mirror neurons have been implicated as one of the reasons to explain autistic spectrum disorders, and the difficulty with social learning and empathy. Autistics then, are missing the "social sponge". They have to learn with effort what comes naturally to others. However, there is conflicting research on this subject. Some studies seem to show a reduction in mirror neuron function, others report normal mirror neuron functions, and some claim that Autistic people have empathy, but it some cases it is too overwhelming, or "blocked out" of the conscious mind. In any case, difficulty with understanding the mind of others is a primary symptom of autistic spectrum disorders.

People also assume that what they experience is what all other people experience. Most people have the sensation of being a solid entity, observing the world as if they are looking out from their brain into the world around them. They have "top down" perceptions of the world, their thoughts and conceptual understandings shaping what they see, and do not see, around them. Objects are solid, obey the laws of physics, and experience tells us what to expect from them. They can navigate easily through this world, and most of the time, they are lost in thought on autopilot, and barely notice it.

For normal people, the concept of the world being "chaotic" to autistic people is very difficult to understand. They wonder why autistic people react strangely to things which are seemingly normal, and seemingly easy to comprehend and learn. That is because they are trying to think this through with their neurotypical brains, and have the impressions that I described above, that they figured things out for themselves.

The mind of autism is a place of both chaos, and structured order. There are many symptoms of autism, and some are affected by sensory perceptions more than others, but most experience the world very differently.

One helpful analogy is that of a computer. There is a large hard drive and fast processor, but the RAM memory is too low. So when too many processes are running at the same time, the computer freezes or crashes. Normal people can easily operate 10 programs at once, while autistic people can only operate maybe 3, people with Asperger's 5 or 6.

For myself, I have trouble navigating everyday life because at times I can feel my body, while other times it is difficult to find or I only feel half of my body. If I try to do too many things at once (like walk, talk, navigate, and pay attention to the environment!) I have the sensation that the world is "rushing in", and I do not have a choice whether I want to see it or not. My consciousness, the "I", is what is left over from this influx of sensory information. So, my thought, and the type of thoughts I am able to have, are limited by my environment.

If I am in a busy environment, it is very difficult for me to interact and think within this context. If I relax, and stop struggling to remain present, I have the feeling that I almost disappear, and the world has consumed me.

I understand intellectually that the world is not a "chaotic" place, but for my consciousness it's as if I'm being tossed around in a storm next to a ledge that leads to nothingness.

My mind is constantly switched to "local processing" mode, which means it always focuses on the small parts instead of the whole. This may not make much sense for normal people, but seeing with the eyes, and seeing with the brain are too completely different things, (although the eyes are the brain..but I'm making this too confusing.)

I have the ability to perceive an entire object, but this takes concentration and time, and it is often cognitively painful. It is not immediate. Because of this, my brain doesn't easily interpret the borders and boundaries of objects. Instead, I have to "connect the dots" of details, and sometimes I use repetitive movement to help navigate by helping me to locate borders. If I don't do this, and try to appear "normal", I will find myself stumbling and knocking into things. It also helps me place my body in space.

I experience cognitive pain frequently. This pain can be described as sort of like the sensation you get when you hear nails on a chalkboard, or when you look at the sun. Nails running across a chalkboard isn't "loud", but it creates a very irritated sensation in the brain. Most autistic people experience the same thing. When my brain is overwhelmed, there are mental traffic jams of information processing. It feels like ripples of buzzing electricity colliding.

This makes social interaction difficult, and eye contact especially difficult. Most people think the lack of eye contact is due to anxiety, or the fact that autistic people don't know any better, but eye contact is also very irritating to the brain, and might cause some cognitive "traffic jams". So for autistic people, it is far easier to communicate when they are staring at a blank surface, or another region of the persons face. This is probably due to the fact that the eyes move a lot, but also because the brain has a lot of processing that is specific to faces, and the sensation may in fact be overwhelming because "too many programs are running."

So yep, in my mind, I understand how the world works, and after studying people for about 10 years I understand how they work. But that is in my mind, when my mind is in a restful state. When I am "in the world", this understanding is lost, and the familiar becomes strange, and chaotic.