Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Asperger's Antipode.

 I'm still working on the Brainetics program, but wanted to take a break to share something that occurred to me some time ago. 

It's no secret that Asperger syndrome, a type of autism, is overly represented in the high IQ community. You know the traits:
-Difficulty with social interactions
-Limited grasp of the pragmatic side of language (ex. they may not pick up on subtlety or wordplay).
-Narrow range of interests and insistence on routines.
-Physically uncoordinated.
-Mechanistic thinking
-Hypersensitive to some stimuli and hyposensitive to others (physical sensitivity, not emotional).

I'm actually 1-for-6.  I can "switch" to mechanistic-logical thinking, but it's not my default setting. And I was at one point in my life physically uncoordinated, but that is not the case now. The only trait I definitely have is the hyper- and/or hypo- sensitivity issue, which sounds like something most people would have, given how many signals we are bombarded with. The rest of the traits are in fact my strength areas.  This led me to wonder if there is a counterpart to autism, individuals with "hyperempathy" so to speak. 

Apparently yes, but for now such people exist mostly in a theoretical sense for science.

Simon Baron-Cohen has a theory that autism can be seen as having an extreme male brain, and,
"The theory also predicts the existence of the mirror-image of autism or Asperger syndrome, namely, the extreme female brain. Science has not even begun to investigate what such people are like, but we know they must have impairments in systemising, alongside normal or even talented empathising."

I haven't read his book, but I did get some excerpts from a blog.

"All scientists know about the extreme female brain is that it is predicted to arise ... Scientists have never got up close to these individuals. It is a bit like positing the existence of a new animal on theoretical grounds, and then setting out to discover if it is really found in nature."

"[W]hat would such people look like?

... Their empathizing ability would be average or significantly better than that of other people in the general population, but their systemizing would be impaired. So these would be people who have difficulty understanding math or physics or machines or chemistry, as systems. But they could be extremely accurate at tuning in to others' feelings and thoughts.

Would such a profile carry any necessary disability? Hyperempathizing could be a great asset, and poor systemizing may not be too crippling. It is possible that the extreme female brain is not seen in clinics because it is not maladaptive.

We saw that those with the extreme male brain do experience a disability, but only when the person is expected to be socially able. Remove this expectation, and the person can flourish. Unfortunately, in our society this social expectation is pervasive: at school, in the workplace and in the home. So it is hard to avoid.

But for those with the extreme female brain, the disability might only show up in circumstances where the person is expected to be systematic or technical. The person with the extreme female brain would be system-blind. Fortunately, in our society there is considerable tolerance for such individuals. For example, if you were a child who was systemblind, your teachers might simply allow you to drop mathematics and science at the earliest possible stage, and encourage you to pursue your stronger subjects. If you were a systemblind adult and your car didn't work, you could just call the mechanic (who is likely to be at least a Type S). If your computer needs putting together, and you can't work out which lead goes into which socket, there are phone numbers that you can ring for technical support. And in evolutionary terms, there were likely equivalent people that a systemblind person could turn to for help when that person's home was destroyed in strong
winds, or when their spear broke."

"[A]re individuals with these psychiatric conditions (for that is what paranoia and personality disorders are) revealing the extreme female brain?

This cannot be the case. If someone is over-attributing intentions, or has become preoccupied by their own emotions, then by definition they are not exhibiting hyperempathy. Hyperempathy is the ability to ascertain the mental states of others to an unusually accurate and sensitive degree, and it can only occur if one is appropriately tuned in to the other person's feelings. A paranoid person, or someone who is easily inflamed into aggression by suspecting that others are hostile, has a problem. But their problem is not hyperempathy."

I truly wish Baron-Cohen came up with different descriptors than "male brain" and "female brain" but I can get over that. Anyone who reads the first article will know that one can occur in either gender, but people being people...

 I actually do fit the extreme female brain's description more than the other.  I was dyslexic in all kinds of ways as a kid, so math wasn't my thing until about the age of 15. Thankfully I found strategies for working around most of my other dyslexic hiccups, but physical orientation still gets me.  And computers are still my kryptonite.  On the other hand, I'm naturally good at picking up emotional information from others (though I often ignore the data). I'm willing to bet that these theoretical hyperempathy people also experience mirror-touch synesthesia like I often do.   http://www.livescience.com/health/070617_touching_faces.html 

I got a lot out of reading all the links above, and I hope others do as well. Naturally I don't agree with everything
written, but respectful differences make life interesting. At the very least, this post may give some insight to those who consider themselves or are considered by others to be the overly empathetic type.

--Nathan (Nth)