Sunday, June 22, 2008

Early Warning Signs

The following two assumptions enjoy widespread acceptance within the academic and research communities:

  • Human intelligence is centered within the structures and dynamics of the human brain.
  • The unusual early behaviors of autistic children (e.g., lining up toys, echolalia, spinning and twirling) are an indication of a neurological disorder.

But I would have us consider an alternative view to both intelligence and those early warning signs of autism, for not only are the above assumptions false, their negations directly support each other.

It has become tantamount to dogma within the scientific community that intelligence is centered within the human brain—I am certain I will not make the slightest dent in that conviction anytime soon. Armed with ever more sophisticated brain imaging technology, and fortressed by countless experiments attempting to match neuronal activation to a plethora of human tasks, the world of cognitive research expects soon to discover the exact locations of logic, language and the arts, and hopes not long after to describe the intellectual mechanics pulling together this tangle of synapses, cortexes, and brain matter plasticity. The pictures are indeed vibrant, and the metrics are certainly bountiful; but conceptually, I am convinced all is not well.

Consider the hallmark features of human intelligence—pattern recognition, sophisticated visual-spatial capacity, conceptual logic, mathematical and musical skill, the pragmatic use of abstract language. Does it strike no scientist as even the slightest bit unnerving that these features first made their appearance only quite recently in human history? Almost nothing of what we take and measure for human intelligence today can be found in the behaviors of Homo sapiens from just thirty to fifty thousand years ago, and it is only the slightest hint of such ability that begins to emerge near the dawn of recorded time. We gaze with anticipation into our fMRIs and calculate hopefully our degrees of significance, but we forget we peer not into the brains of just our contemporaries, but also into the brains of our more distant ancestors. And so we must ask—why the sudden and late emergence of all this cranial intelligence for which we so fervently delve? Why could we not have built our modern civilizations way back then, when these same brain structures and capacities already existed? Why should we have tarried until just so recently?

And of course there is that little detail known as the Flynn effect, the observation that intelligence scores have been increasing at roughly three IQ points per decade. What a puzzler that discovery must be for any neuronal-based model of human intelligence, and no wonder those who have staked considerable reputations on such models—including Professor Flynn himself—seem so willing to explain this phenomenon away as mostly a twentieth-century anomaly soon to dissipate (demonstrating again that today’s scientist is far more ready to embrace an unlikely coincidence than question the foundations of an established career).

Me, I would much rather be bold. I would rather negate that first assumption, and place the locus of human intelligence firmly outside the human skull.

If instead of sourcing intelligence within the human brain, we distribute it instead throughout the environmental structures we humans have been building—and will continue to build—all around us, we arrive at a tangible locale for intelligence more directly fitting what we already know about the subject. Tens of thousands of years ago, the human environment was almost entirely biological, and so were the forms of our intellect. Food acquisition, shelter, warmth, sex, avoidance of deadly enemies—these were the sum cognitive focus for a species whose universe extended no farther than that of the boundaries of the tribe. No clocks, no yardsticks, no musical notes, no truth functions to decide yea and nay—not on the hunter-gatherer’s grassy plain. Suddenly we no longer live on that plain, our locale has dramatically shifted—growing both larger and more detailed in ways we have scarcely begun to conceive—and it is no coincidence that as our setting has so dramatically transformed, so have the forms and degrees of our intelligence. With our surroundings now filled to the brim with structure, pattern, complexity, repetition, embodied conceptualization—much of it decidedly non-biological—our abilities to navigate and master this strange new world are exactly the skill sets we measure when we place a human being in front of that little booklet called an IQ test.

It is not our brain that has been changing—there has not passed nearly enough evolutionary time. The human brain, plasticity and all, has grown not one iota smarter, for the human brain is not the seat of human intelligence. It is our physical environment—that is the tangible object that has grown so remarkably more brilliant. The form of the physical human surroundings—there can be found the long sought-after location of our increasing cognitive skill.

And the Flynn effect? It resolves into little more than a triviality under this new paradigm of intelligence, for it becomes simply another measure of the increasing amount of pattern and complexity we humans have been embodying into our environment year after year, along with the confirmation that each generation can absorb this new information and its strange, mostly non-biological form. Each generation finds itself born into a set of surroundings more complex, more detailed, more rapid than those perceived by the previous generations, and by necessity learns to navigate and to master, and lo and behold finds itself scoring better than all its progenitors on any test designed to capture intelligence. The Flynn effect is not a twentieth century coincidence; it is not produced by better nutrition, selective breeding or a socially-driven multiplier effect (and Professor Flynn, it most certainly is not produced by proximity to the local college). The Flynn effect has been with us from the time of the great leap forward, and assuming we can learn to embrace this phenomenon instead of so glibly dismiss it, the Flynn effect will remain with us, and sustain us, for a considerable time to come.

But I can hear your objections already ringing in my ears: have I not placed the cart before the horse? The essential question, you say, is not that we humans have been constructing a structurally more complex environment all around us and have been learning to skillfully live within it—anyone can attest to that—the essential question is what produced this remarkable transformation? Are not the splendors of modern civilization the result of human intelligence, the unquestionable evidence for its cranial existence?

Having absorbed enough logic from our current environment to know I would not want to be accused of placing a cart before a horse, let me state unequivocally it has not been pre-existing neuronal intelligence that has prompted the massive environmental transformation. If it is a cause we are seeking, then we must direct our attention outside intelligence and search for the catalyst someplace else. So let me turn this discussion to what must seem to be a completely different topic—the early warning signs of autism.

In the autism research community, the early behaviors of autistic children have been branded with the most miserable of reputations—I am certain I will not prompt the slightest halt in that practice anytime soon. Emblazoned with such adjectives as obsessive, fruitless, self-stimulating and meaningless, autistic behaviors have been cast into one of the psychiatric community’s most profitable and prolific targets, an abundantly fertile field for the development of eradicating therapies, minimalizing drugs, and the not-so-occasional slur. The grants are indeed impressive, and the size of the research teams has certainly grown massive; but conceptually, I am convinced all is not well.

Consider the form of those early autistic behaviors—lining up objects, repeating passages, fascination with circles, letters and numbers, turning on and off light switches, rocking, humming and all the rest. Does it strike no researcher as even the slightest bit unnerving that these behaviors are in no way random or chaotic, but instead cluster around the concepts of pattern, repetition, symmetry and simple logic? Tens of thousands of years ago such concepts had scarcely begun to scratch the human surface, and it was only quite recently this species dared to embrace such features as the ones making us distinctly noble. And yet we confidently pronounce the autistic behaviors as aberrant, we calculate with smug certainty their substantial difference from the norm, all the while forgetting how we as Homo sapiens have been suddenly jolted into being nothing like our normal animal selves. And so we must ask—why this contemptuous dismissal of behaviors we have not yet begun to fathom? Why, given our lingering uncertainty about the exact location and genesis of human intelligence, are we so intent on demonizing the most spontaneous occurrence of intellect’s fundamental form?

And of course there is that little detail known as the positive outcome, the growing evidence that many, if not most, autistic children can achieve a full potential, display considerable signs of ability, and mature to lives of admirable productivity—all without the benefit of psychotropic drugs, biomedical treatments or behavior-altering therapies (and some—can I even dare to say this—achieving such outcomes despite such interventions). What a puzzler those results must be for any disorder-based model of autism, and no wonder those who have staked considerable livelihoods on such models—almost the entire research community, it would appear—seem hurried to explain such outcomes away as trivial by-products, insignificant anomalies, outliers to be ignored (demonstrating again that today’s scientist stands far more ready to slander an experimental subject than jeopardize the source of any funding).

Me, I would much rather be bold. I would rather negate that second assumption, and place the early behaviors of autistic children firmly outside the category of neurological disorder.

If instead of classifying autism as a type of cognitive damage, we consider it instead as an alternative and valid form of cognitive perception, we arrive at a catalyst for human intelligence that does not require the magic of sudden neurological or genetic transformation. What better means to jolt a species from its strictly biological gaze than to have placed among it members with a decidedly different perspective, so that in addition to concerns of food, sex and enemies, there appear now those creeping influences of symmetry, pattern and repetition. The behaviors of autistic children are not learned, they are not the result of species imitation—they arise from spontaneous need to make sense of experience ungrounded by biological form. And thus the autistic perceptions, and the behaviors resulting from them, they open windows onto concepts mankind has never seen before, they open windows onto the myriad examples of non-biological structure. This collision of perspectives has been many times awkward—no one would argue that. The difficulty for autistic individuals has been many times onerous—that cannot be denied. But apologies are not required, and neither are the slanders; the melded results have been outrageously prodigious, or had you failed to notice? For it has been little more than a matter of poof … and now suddenly all of us, autistic and non-autistic alike, we have disappeared from the hunter-gatherer’s grassy plain.

Autistic perception is not an affliction—that dogma has badly missed the mark. The study of autism as mental illness—it has lent not one iota of understanding to this paradoxical condition. Autism itself is the key—it is the key to our physically-constructed intelligence. Autistic perspectives—they are what has prompted the environment’s massive structural change, there can be found the long sought-for genesis of our increasing cognitive skill.

And the positive outcome? It resolves into little more than expectation under this new paradigm of autism, for it resolves into simple confirmation that autistic influences have been very long among us. Before this species “discovered” mental illness, before it began squelching unique perspectives with medications and endless sessions, the vast majority of autistic individuals matured quietly and productively among us, etching their strangely patterned perceptions into mankind’s fast-transfiguring path. As each generation has found itself born into a set of surroundings embodying more and more of these patterned perceptions—and by necessity has been learning to navigate and to master—lo and behold humanity has found itself fast abandoning the strictures of evolutionary past. Autism is not a twentieth century emergence; it is not the product of industrial toxins, genetic defects or brain dysfunctions to be drugged and therapied away. Autism has been with us from the time of the great leap forward, and assuming we can learn to embrace this phenomenon instead of so hastily dismiss it, the benefits of autism will remain with us, and sustain us, for a considerable time to come.

But I know all this must sound so absurdly impossible, and really, I know no one is currently listening.

So for now I will leave the researchers to all their resonance machinery—I understand how giddy they must be with excitement and what a pretty penny someone has paid for the privilege, so I would not dream of distracting them from these momentary pursuits. But after all the picture taking is over, after all the statistical packages have been run, after all the same conclusions have been written to the same assumption-driven experiments, if perhaps a scientist or two should find themselves suddenly grown weary, perhaps a little discouraged, should they think maybe a brief respite or a change of scenery might do them a little good, I would be happy to guide them to the room one over, the one where their experimental subjects bide their time by playing on the floor—lining up toys, echoing the passages they hear and know, spinning and twirling. And I promise I will be gentle with my suggestion, in fact I will just barely whisper it into their ear, that perhaps this is what they have been looking for all along, right here before their eyes—these early warning signs of a dawning human intelligence.

1 comment:

Fleecy said...

Hi. I'm afraid I don't have anything particularly useful to add to such a good post. I just wanted to say that I enjoyed it, particularly that you designed this post with an obvious pattern ("Me, I would much rather be bold," and so on) to it. That was a nice touch.