Friday, November 10, 2006

Cultural Autism

Autism is characterized as a psychological disorder that results in poor social interaction, poor linguistic-social competence, and poor interaction with other subjects. Nowadays psychologists seem to agree that it is biologically determined (i.e. autistic kids inherit it from their parents). Autism can be identified in preschoolers because they do poorly in theory of mind tasks; the most common of them being the False Belief task. In this tasks children are told to report the belief of someone that has been deceived by a change in the world that they (the other person who is being deceived) are not aware of. If the infant has (at least the beginnings of) a theory of mind, she will be able to properly attribute a false belief to the subject.

Take for instance a kid and two experimenters X and Y. X is interacting with the kid, while Y is present. X then places a toy inside a cup that is on a table near the kid and then leaves the room. Then Y attracts the kid’s attention and takes the toy out of the cup and puts it inside a drawer. The kid knows that the toy is not anymore inside the cup, where X left it. If the kid is able to attribute beliefs, when asked about X’s beliefs, she should attribute the false belief that the toy is in the cup. Autistic kids are unable to do this. When asked where will X think the toy is, the kid just says “inside the drawer”.

A lack of a Theory of Mind is among the psychological impairments associated with autism. Since the use of a Theory of Mind is also essential for language acquisition (particularly for determining the intensions of other speakers), autistic kids also present linguistic impairments. In a word, this means that autistic persons are unable to recognize beliefs and emotions in other persons. For them, human behavior is a chaotic, unpredictable, salad of events. As a highly functional autistic has said, being autistic is like being an anthropologist in mars, trying to understand what aliens do, and why they do it. Obviously, being autistic is being unable to communicate. Autism results in an unbearable isolation from society. One’s own emotional and psychological life are kept from others. Autistics tend to explode because of this.

Now, asides from this neurological disorder, I want to present a social (i.e. non-biological) form of autism. This ‘cultural-autism’ as I call it, results also from the impairment of Theory of Mind capacities, but not totally from a lack of Theory of Mind. In order for a person to develop non-autistic capacities for social interaction, it is not only important to have ‘a’ Theory of Mind, but ‘the correct’ one; and these ones are always the result of the interaction with other persons ‘in particular environments’. Theory of Mind presupposes the capacity to identify emotions and predict them, as any other theory it has expectations, deceptions, and surprises. It is to be expected, then, that different environments will help develop different predictions, deceptions, and surprises. Cultural autism results from having the Theory of Mind that’s useful for one environment and using it in a different environment where it almost systematically fails.

Cata and I are non-autistic persons in the neuropsychological sense. There seems to be nothing wrong with our brain, we’ve been able to socialize properly in our previous environment. We have a good number of friends, and beloved ones with which we interact with ease. However, given the particular Theory of Mind that we’ve developed, we’ve become autistics in the cultural sense above mentioned.

We communicate in a way that presupposes the possession and expression of emotions. We presuppose human beings to have a lot more than reasons in the head. These predictions are constantly falsified by the data. We predict that if a graduate student looks for help from a professor, the professor will ‘think’ that the student is having ‘doubts’ and ‘problems’ that need to be solved through dialogues. The prediction doesn’t work!

We predict, also, that after many days of thinking a considerably difficult problem (e.g. how western society has neglected the role of interpreters as relevant for the meaning expressed by a song or piece of music; or how western societies have embellished themselves with idiotic dichotomies of thinking), when trying to present those problems to others (e.g. professors) these others will attend with patience, will not despair thinking that we are stupid, and will try to fill in the gaps of our inability to put out there what seems to be in here. We predict that people will be eager to understand and charitably interpret in a way that makes our thoughts sensible, interesting and cogent. This prediction doesn’t work either!

A third most important and frustrating prediction, says that human beings will express their emotions. It says that, when happy, a human will tend to cherish, hug, touch, smile and otherwise give signs of human existence. This latter prediction is awfully falsified. Almost no one in our new environment seems to be able to deal with this other important endowment of humans. Except for alcoholics, after suitably inebriated, emotions are surprisingly eliminated, inhibited and repressed. This is utterly frustrating. It includes the unfortunate prediction that professors will show emotions when the student shows the ability to understand. The prediction forms expectations that are not fulfilled, and this deception does not develop in a form of curious surprise, but constant depression.

It’s difficult to be a cultural autistic. Unlike anthropologists in Mars, we are like academics in Ann Arbor.