In previous articles, as well as in previous blogs (see http://bit.ly/1iT0BJq), I have written about differences in the blueprint of connectivity of the brain (so-called connectome) that ingrain autistics with a particular cognitive profile, that is, a particular way of thinking and perceiving information. You could summarize the cognitive profile of autistics by saying that they tend to focus on the particulars of an experience while failing to grasp how the different elements come together into an integrated whole.
What are the odds that the latest published article about higher cognitive functions and autism will stress their results in a negative way, that is, as abnormal findings? Statements depicting deficits in executive functions like Theory of Mind convey a negative connotation. Given that neurotypicals provide the standard for cognitive abilities our own deficiencies are not considered as abnormal.
In this blog I will write about cognitive deficiencies that are common in neurotypicals. I would like the reader to keep in mind that for many of these cognitive traits that I will describe in neurotypicals, the opposite may sometimes be found in autistic individuals. Some of these attributes have colored the way I interview autistic individuals, for example, I have stopped asking in my practice about the last movie they have seen. The end result is usually a detailed account, including dialogue, from beginning to end of a particular movie.
Neurotypicals are good at pattern recognition (like faces) but have a terrible sense for probability and numbers in general. What I really mean is that we won’t accept that events happen together without a reason. Even when coincidental, events engender a confirmation bias in neurotypicals. The fact that everything happens for a reason helps give meaning to our world. It is a source of security and stability for us. Think about the randomness of stars in the night sky and how people have labeled them as constellations. Since times immemorial we have believed that these arrangements in the night sky exert an influence in our daily lives. As another example, have you ever read “The Bible Code” by Michael Drosin? He used a computer algorithm to connect letters in the Bible into patterns that matched events in world history or literature. Mr. Drosin’s work has led to absurd conclusions regarding the Bible’s intent in predicting facts about literary works such as Moby Dick or War and Peace.
In essence neurotypicals tend to ask the wrong questions. Astonishing coincidences do happen on a regular basis. This proclivity may be due to the fact that we can mine experiences from among a large personal dataset. This large data set makes us more prone to regard unmet experiences as being commonplace or maybe representative of what is normal. Whenever these assumptions are incorrect our reality testing is impaired.
Many psychological studies attest to our impaired capacity for reality testing. We invent details and insert them into our recall to make stories more emotional. Stories therefore morph to make the narrative more consistent with details as they become available. In this way our past events become contaminated. Memory for us is therefore a work in progress, an enagram that is constantly being molded. Our memory is thus far removed from being a trust worthy recording.
Elizabeth Loftus has shown the weaknesses of eyewitness testimony. She has shown how leading questions help engender false details in our memories. Similarly, Budd Hopkins investigated reports of inexplicable gaps in the memory of some neurotypicals. He used leading questions during hypnosis to partially recover memories of alien abduction. In the end people really believed they had been abducted by aliens. These studies indicate that we have emotionally laden memories that serve to satisfy our quest to make meaning of the world around us rather than to accurately record events in our environment.
Our inability to accept the randomness of events has led us to develop superstitions. Doesn’t Tiger Woods always wears red on Sundays when he is trying to win a golf tournament? When we can’t link events in our lives with natural explanations we readily provide supernatural ones. Eudora Welty once wrote that, “The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order”.
We all have different ways of looking at the world. We do not need to change others, only ourselves. A wise monk once said: “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”