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.

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