Autism, religion and the frame of discourse

In his book Neurotribes Steve Silberman details the divergent views of the two pioneers who early on recognized autism as a syndrome.  Briefly, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger saw autism as an outlier on the spectrum of normalcy and believed that some of its traits/talents, e.g., focus on patterns, mental obsessiveness, contribute to many achievements in art and science.  American Leo Kanner saw autism as strictly pathological that resulted from deficient parenting by a cold mother.  I have posted before about my disdain for Kanner’s approach (see review of Neurotribes9/13/15).

I bring this up to emphasize that how we frame a topic determines to some large extent how we go on to think about it, e.g., normal or pathological, multi-factorial genesis or blame the mother.  I go back to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the doxa, i.e., the entire realm of discourse, its accepted partition into an orthodox domain, and the rest is heterodox.  Historically religious authorities have treated heterodox thinkers harshly. Science is better but even scientific orthodoxy can limit what heterodoxical views and work can be admitted into the realm of discourse.  Remember Naomi Oreskes‘ work showing how American geologists regarded European Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics as crackpot (he was not a trained geologist, oh, the horror) only to be proved wrong and Wegener prescient. Also remember that behaviorism in its heyday greatly constrained research into mental phenomena, you know like thoughts and feelings.  Thankfully great scientists like Karl Pribram, A.R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, J. Piaget and Noam Chomsky evicted behavioral theory from the house of orthodoxy.

Now I read a curious chapter in The Encultured Brainon autism and religion that asks a heterodoxical (to me at least) question about how people with autism view god and religion.  I had never considered (surprisingly in retrospect) that autists may think of god differently because they think of the world and people differently, but it makes sense, sort of.  How to frame this investigation?  Rachel Brezis studied this question through a neuroanthropological approach.  Evidently J. Bering had proposed earlier “that our ability to infer others’ thoughts and intentions (theory of mind) served as the evolutionary basis for our automatic search for meaning and agency behind events in the world (existential theory of mind).”  Further, given that autists have different/diluted theory of mind, they would have trouble forming a personal and lively relationship with god and discerning the deity’s presence in the world.

Long story short, Brezis research casts doubt on that presupposition.  Studied more systematically autists showed quite robust religious beliefs similar to non-autists.  She thought that maybe the deficit lay in autists’ self knowledge, not knowledge of others.  The frame here is important.  I have not read the background material, e.g., Bering’s hypothesis that our theory of mind, i.e., what I call EC or Empathy Central, influences our relationship with a god that controls the universe, but from Brezis’ summary, this effort seems based upon a Christian, even an evangelical, frame.  Ask a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist or even Spinoza about their personal relationship with a deity and most likely they will stare at you as they wonder just how answer such a primitive question. Brezis did part of her research with Jewish youth who certainly showed that they had inculcated their tradition in forming their beliefs but in my admittedly few conversations with Jewish people, I cannot remember any of them espousing a personal relationship with Yahweh; they are fully engaged with their tradition but this relates more to the Torah, ritual and community than the Baptist tradition I was raised in where personal acceptance of Jesus, etc., was a requirement for membership.

Empathy Central involves social understanding and social skills through empathic feelings and kinesic communication.  How this develops in each of us greatly influences our personality and interpersonal functioning.  This stems from a deep and old biological root and I find our notions of god(s) rather historically irrelevant to this.  Remember the Atargatis (see a post on 11/10/14).  This was a goddess of fertility in the Middle East also around the time of Jesus that even had a coin minted in her name.  To become a priest, the novitiates (all males) worked themselves into a frenzied state of mind, ran through the streets naked with a knife, cutting themselves to be bloody, and at the right moment, castrate themselves. They then chose a house to throw their genitals in the door and that family was required to give the newly minted priest female clothes.  (I have always assumed they chose families whose ladies were fashionable dressers). Now I am not sure what kind of relationship they had with Atargatis but I myself would not call it a ‘personal’ one despite the intimate sacrificial gift.

Our modern notion of god, especially in cultures where scientific and technological advancements have been incorporated, must be quite different from the pagan and animistic religions of the past, including those later polytheistic ones and I have to wonder about the early days of any monotheistic beliefs, not to mention the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of 2500 years ago.  My point is that “a personal relationship with god” based upon a person’s functioning Empathy Central is not really an adequate frame for discussion.  Humans have evolved a powerful EC; our capacity for empathy and intimacy is in the rarefied zone but it is still closely tied to our mammalian heritage and operates with kinesic information focused on the present, specious as it is, and its higher level integrations are about our real relationships.  What this frame of EC lacks is the understanding that spiritual beliefs and religious institutions are evolutionarily more recent and are based primarily upon our symbolic capabilities and their transformation of our intellectual abilities much more than our EC.

Spiritual beliefs, from which religious institutions emerged with all the features of any other human institution, derive, I think, from a deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and this aesthetic in a spiritual domain operates on a symbolic level.  It is an aesthetic that enables us to find patterns, to complete incomplete patterns, to imagine patterns that are nowhere apparent, and to apprehend somehow where a pattern should be but isn’t.  This last one is key because it presages our sense of the mystic beyond and the universe, large and small, beyond our phenomenal apprehension or science’s ken.  Further, the deep aesthetic includes our sensitivity to the fitness of a pattern internally and in context and, here is the crux of the matter, to the energy or beauty or luminosity of that pattern. (Remember the 3 aspects of an aesthetic: integrity of parts fitting together, unity of the whole, and luminosity of the form as composed by the artist and then beheld by the audience).

This is quite a different frame from seeing spiritual beliefs as reflecting our ‘personal relationship’ to a god.  High functioning autists of the sort assayed in this study are generally keenly sensitive to patterns in all their aesthetic grandeur, even though they may not rhapsodize on their beauty as some of us (like me) might, and even as their engagement in the empathic side of relationships is a little thin.

Let me end by suggesting another frame. Jacques Monod attributed humans’ proclivity to religion and spiritual beliefs to 1) our discomfort in apprehending our solitude in the grand scheme of the universe and within our own subjective isolated domain, and 2) our insatiable appetite for final certainty. People of all sorts vary in their anxiety about being alone and in their need to know for certain (even when it is wrong, like conspiracy theories).  Maybe someone could study these psychological variables and their relationship to religiosity.  If I were younger, I would consider it, but I am not, so I take my approach from Monod’s colleague, Albert Camus, and say, “Yes, we are alone, so what?  That just makes it all the more important to abide by the golden rule, to treasure your loved ones, listen to the music, and cherish our lovely Gaia carrying us around in space.  And yes, there is no certainty, get over it and get along with what you have to do to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance.”  This, I think, follows from Monod’s postulate of an ethic of knowledge and its corollary that we grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I will reiterate that that The Encultured Brainis a positively provocative book and add that at least in some respects it carries a fault common to many recent books and intellectual traditions in its failure to recognize the importance of symbolization as a basic concept.  Up until the 1980s or so, we had a strong tradition of considering symbols as basic to our mind’s functioning, from C. S. Pierce through Ernst Cassirer to Susanne Langer, and then for some reason associated, I think, with the developing power of machine intelligence and the incredible understanding brought about by genomic science including molecular biology, we forgot in our rush to advance.  Travel on, I hope, to a place where symbols and their remarkable functional complexity are remembered.  No need to hurry.


a cultural tidbit

I have been thinking of culture again for some reason probably having to do with reading about neuroanthropology and their emphasis on how our brains do culture, and thinking more about Bourdieu’s habitus as the cultural way of doing things and how that does not seem to capture the knowledge structures that also contribute to culture, e.g., our values.  Along with this I continue to ponder with reverence Monod’s analysis of religion, science and values and his exhortation that an ethic of knowledge will lead to a knowledge of ethics.  And being a modern American I frequently worry about the media term, ‘culture wars’, as I resist the notion that people with conflicting values necessarily must clash and war over them and search for other metaphors to capture this phenomena.

I recently read a Vanity Fair article about Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who advocates for acculturation as a way of assimilating the dispossessed, including immigrants, into mainstream society.  That is an interesting contrast with some in this country (and others) who assume that others must adopt on the own and immediately the general culture and its values to some specific degree or else be rejected as outsiders and alien.  Macron wants to help those who do not already participate in the majority’s cultural tradition to appreciate what he considers to be a friendly French culture and to incorporate new aspects from the cultures these ‘others’ bring with them. Sounds so very civilized, even normal, including the criticism that Macron is focusing on the cultural facet enjoyed by the more highly educated, even Parisian as some gasp, and that his effort to assimilate some cultural bits from others amounts to appropriation by the dominant majority (elite).  While I still think his effort to be inclusive is laudable, this notion of ‘high’ culture is what stimulated Dorothy Parker to pun, “You can lead a horticulture [whore to culture] but you can’t make her think”.  I think my country is now demonstrating that being an advanced nation with great material culture, even an educational system once held in high esteem, is no guarantee of intelligence, especially of a critical sort.

I also think that this notion of culture is like icing on a cake, lovely icing sometimes, not too sweet, but it is the cake underneath that is the basis of culture. This is why Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus is so apt, i.e., the habitual way a cultural group does things.  This applies to such things as eye contact, e.g., what is respectful between children and adults or younger adults with their elders, physical distance when conversing, e.g., Americans stand a couple of feet way, many Europeans move closer, emotional expression, e.g., boys don’t cry, some Asian societies maintain impassive expressions, how children are disciplined, etc, etc., etc.  Bourdieu did much cultural research into how marriages are arranged and determined to be good for both families in some Arab societies.  Look at how different cultures manage what are acceptable roles for females or the role of fighting between young males or more generally what is respectable or orthodox.

I read in The Encultured Brain, a primer for neuroanthropology, that some less modern cultures regard knowledge of healing practices as secret and that if shared outside the healer-patient relationship, the knowledge becomes useless, i.e., the practice consisting of magical chants will not be effective. Contrast this with western medicine where healing knowledge is publicly disbursed and evaluated so it may be made more effective.

Then I also read there:  “Long term neurological and perceptual adaptation to the tasks we set ourselves is a form of enculturation”.  In a chapter about how equilibrium varies among cultures Greg Downey focuses on his training in capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts, where it seems you spend some time upside down or sideways and must keep you eyes on your opponent, thus you cannot use vision to maintain balance but must train your body to rely on body awareness and vestibular feedback.   Acknowledging that maintaining one’s equilibrium is not really a conscious task, i.e., the more you have to focus on balance, the less you can focus on otherwise, he maintains that equilibrium is a learned skill and that makes it a cultural one (I am not sure about that).  He cites research showing that toddlers just learning to walk use vision more to right themselves; older kids rely more on vestibular sensing; again this seems biological more than cultural.

He also mentions that many Japanese walk using more of a lower leg focus, e.g., knee to foot, while many Westerners organize their gait from their hips and so take longer strides.  I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.  I spent my teenage years in Japan and remember that many used a more shuffling sort of gait, i.e., short steps, coming down less severely on the heel, almost stepping flat-footed but not quite.  This was more prominent with elders and with women and I attributed this to the constraints of their clothing and their wooden sandals that have two vertical strips of wood underneath the flat bed rather than a raised heel, instep, etc. like our shoes do.  (These sandals seemed especially apt on rainy days.)  Any way, another cultural feature is that they never wear shoes in the house, only slippers.

Another reason is that with two joint replacements and a bit of age on me I find walking in the dark more difficult, harder to maintain my balance without visual input.  And our farm here in a high mountain valley has no level or even ground anywhere except garden patches, so I find that a knee to foot gait with shorter steps and less emphasis on heel-toe ala Japanese is quite adaptive to maintaining balance on this terrain.  Now here is my question:  What is the distinction among cultural phenomena, adaptive skills given age, terrain, etc., and training specific abilities to a higher level?

Culture is an amorphous concept with many levels, from the high culture historical identity, the arts, key values, and form of governance down to more basic levels in roles ascribed to females, males, etc., and body language and social mores.  A martial art such as capoeira is certainly cultural, so I guess the subsidiary training for proficiency is also cultural, but I also wonder if skill development should really be termed cultural.  Sure play and sports contribute to culture because they are social forms (mental, behavioral, cognitive) that are shared amongst members of the group. A kid on the playground practicing dribbling with either hand and between the legs or a farmhand working to pick faster with both hands while still handling the fruit carefully do not, to my thinking, share cultural forms as much as they concentrate on one’s individual ability.  True that ability is for cultural practice but that seems to me a social frame or role. Otherwise I think everything we do might be called cultural when I think everything we do is biological and culture should be reserved for the social constructs governing our participation in group interactions, i.e., habitus, or this is how we do things and how you perform some of those things is your own making special your performance.

Complicated issues here and I must say these are my first thoughts upon reading in The Encultured Brain.  One sign of a good book is what thoughts it provokes and I am enjoying reading it.  Think about this a little bit before traveling on.

Partial review: The Encultured Brain

Sometimes quantitative assessments lead to important ideas.  I have been enjoying later chapters in my new book, The Encultured Brain: an introduction to neuroanthropology, edited by Daniel Lende and Greg Downey.  Their early chapters giving synopses of later chapters to introduce the rest of the book seemed more a marketing ploy for yet another new academic discipline (worthy, yes, but do we really need a new term for every time we do cross discipline thinking?)  Their chapter on “Evolution and the Brain” was, however, magnificent, and later chapters by others have so far been very interesting.  So consider this list of findings from their brain evolution chapter.

  • The biomass of humans is 8 times that of all the wild terrestrial vertebrates, i.e., we are successful replicants. (Also I remember von Neumann’s estimate that each human body has about a tablespoonful of genetic material in all its cells that control the soma).
  • The genus Homo appeared around 2,000,000 years ago with a sudden increase in brain volume that then slowly increased until 500,000 years ago when another surge in brain size appeared.
  • Human encephalization (the concentration of nervous tissue in a brain, i.e., head) is 5-7 times what would be predicted based on a mammal of our size.
  • As the neocortex evolved to dominate lower brain structures, specialized cortical fields developed that facilitated complex processing and inter-connectedness throughout the brain. Early mammals have 15-20 cortical fields; humans have maybe 150.
  • Larger areas both evolved later and mature more slowly.
  • Our brains have continued a mammalian and primate trend in lateralizing so much that some scientist refers to us as the “lop-sided ape”. (In addition, remember that males and females have relatively different patterns in our connectome with males showing more connections within hemispheres and females more connections between hemispheres).
  • Birds, fish and reptile brains grow throughout their life spans (neurogenesis or generating new neurons) but mammalian brains finish up neurogenesis relatively early.
  • Our brains triple in volume after birth while other primate brains only double.
  • Finally our post partum brain growth comes despite pervasive neural pruning in the first years of life; the estimates are that the adult brain has only 20-80% (quite a range, I know, but you get the idea) the number of neurons present at the peak early in life. Neurons survive because they become integrated into functional circuits; if they stay isolated, they die off.


All of these are pretty amazing and all support the idea that our brains are shaped, as Gerald Edelman maintained, first by genetic information and then in very large and important ways by experience.


Our connectome with many systems lit

Now Lende and Downey quote two well known neuroscientists (Cosmides and Tooby) that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind,” and I have no qualms about that because I think a Stone Age mind was actually a pretty good one (some politicians today cannot manage even that level of intelligence).  They also point to the remarkable and wonderful development of our social capabilities and find that we are drawn to social interaction for “intrinsic emotional rewards” and not just self-interest for our genes’ continuation.  And they recognize that the true power of human intellect, while derived from our rather different brains, is really due to the “synergy of many brains.”

Neuroanthropologists, as best I can see with my limited exposure, treat culture as part of our extended phenotype, i.e., culture is not an acquired overlay but is rather an integral component of the human Umvelt.  It is a direct outgrowth of our biological roots of empathy and symbolization (though I do not see anything here about art).  More to say later but I need to get to my farm work. Oh, one more recommendation for this book—the lists of references yield a lot of gems.  Travel on.

Two evolutionary episodes

Michael Tomasello in his book, The Natural History of Human Morality argues with good data that humans are more cooperative and the simians more competitive, so how might we have evolved just so?  Here are two possibilities.  First here’s a story from the NYT on a group of chimpanzees who have moved from the forests to the savannah, from shady, cool environs with lots of fruit to sunny, hot grasslands where food is harder to come by:  Why the move? Perhaps their leaders had a yen for new, less crowded surrounds, sort like Daniel Boone or, as I have posted here periodically, those who settled the Andes or the Himalayas or the Artic. Perhaps they were a small group threatened by a larger and more belligerent group and so sought out safety in a place the others did not want.  The researchers gathered the chimps’ urine, no small undertaking in a hot, dry environment.  Even to get close enough to see them micturate and then collect the samples took 4 years of gentle contact so that the chimps became more comfortable with human presence. This is good, patient research. The urine showed that they were getting enough food but that their lives were stressful enough so that stress hormones were consistently elevated.

Now this is important because elevated stress hormones over the long haul can lead to health problems—the body and mind sort of wear out and grow thin with that load of stress.  Burn out we call it.  A sustainable life style would demand measures taken to lessen the stress, e.g., moving on, or behavioral change to cope with the conditions more effectively.  These chimps have changed their foraging behaviors to do more at night, avoiding the heat, though their species specific pattern is more activity in the daytime.  These chimps take a siesta during the heat of the day.  Of course at night more big predators may be about, so group communication becomes more important, as does having an escape plan. Then I thought about how we cooperative creatures cope with stress through social means, providing emotional support, increased creature contact, sharing the good stuff, etc., and I wondered about the genes promoting such behaviors increasing as the savannah chimps reproduce over the generations.  That is one episodic way we could have become more cooperative creatures.

The second episode comes from a new book I am reading, The Encultured Brain. I will say more about it later but now I want to cite a study of a baboon population reported therein. Baboon society is notably harsh by our standards; social order is based upon coercive and aggressive actions by the alphas.  A longitudinal study of one group, however, showed that after most of the alphas died in a virulent epidemic, the group now led by the non-alphas (betas?) became more peaceful and cooperative:  less fights, more grooming and sharing.  Further, new baboons that joined the group adapted their behaviors to this new ‘habitus’ and these changes have persisted over some years now.  I presume that the alphas were more susceptible to the disease for some reason (the heightened stress of leading by force? Like our type A behavior people die more from heart attacks, etc.) and the betas liked their way of interacting, having developed increased empathy from their lower position and perspective on the social scale.   A stretch there, I know, but a viable hypothesis nonetheless.

I read somewhere that the meek shall inherit the earth, and despite much data contrary to that, when I ponder these studies, I think maybe so.  Maybe so.  Travel on.