Sunday, February 19, 2012

Theory of Mind - An Autistic Perspective. Part 2

Second in a series of posts on Theory Of Mind and autism. If you haven't already, you should read part 1 here: PART 1

Recall from part 1 the idea that what exists in our minds are representations of the things around us. We perceive stimuli, process it into representations, and correlate those representations to the external stimuli in an feedback loop that allows us to adjust those representation to increase their functional utility in a complex world.

To delve into the perceptual issues surrounding Theory Of Mind we need to take a little side trip. We need to visit the distant, and rather odd, planet Flibnarz. It's a strange place. Filled with strange plants, strange animals, and a strange people called Flibnians (though I have it on good authority that they believe it is we humans that are strange).

One of the oddest things about this place is a curious geological feature that appears nearly everywhere on the planet. Virtually the entire planet is dotted with blue and pink monoliths. They're quite harmless, even if a bit annoying, One simply avoids bumping into them by walking around them. Knocking them down isn't a good idea for the Flibnians since these odd piles of stone are symbiotically tied to the ecosystem of the planet. But that's another story. Suffice it to say, an important skill for a Flibnian is the ability to walk about their world without bumping head first into a hard pink and blue monolith.

Another oddity of the planet Flibnarz is that not all Flibnians perceive monoliths in the same way. For some unknown reason, some Flibnians are more receptive to blue and others perceive pink with greater ease. Some perceive blue squares, and subsequently create their mind's representation of the monoliths consisting solely of blue squares. The pink perceivers create an image of monoliths made entirely of pink triangles. Fortunately, both representations are functional. Both allow the Flibnians to successfully navigate their world without continually bumping into monoliths and bruising their noses.

But there does happen to be a problem on the planet Flibnarz. It turns out that the vast majority of Flibnians perceive red triangles. Only a very few see monoliths as blue squares. Recall that BOTH the internal representations are functional. Both allow freedom of movement around the monoliths without inconvenience or injury. But a problem arises when Flibnians talk about the monoliths. The vast majority go on about pink triangles. They describe their structure and properties in terms of pink triangles. Blue squares don't even exist in their description. Imagine the confusion of one the rare blue square seers. "What is everyone talking about? What is a pink triangle? This makes no sense! Monoliths are made of blue squares". Well, CLEARLY, the "Blue Squares" are delusional. EVERYONE knows a monolith is composed of pink triangles.

And so over time, Flibnians create a vast and complex culture based on the truth of the pink triangle. Their architecture, science, religion and entertainment are an exultation of the pink triangle. Their fashion, ceremonies, speech and thought are all infused with pink triangleness. Alas, the Blue Square Flibnians end up isolated and marginalized, not because they cannot perceive monoliths, but only because they perceive them differently. And the fact that they CAN perceive them is cause for great concern among the Pink Triangle crowd. They see a Blue Square successfully avoid the monoliths, but they cannot participate in the beautiful, complex society created around the monoliths? What are they? Lazy? Stubborn? Defective? Well something must be wrong with them so let's fix them. And up springs an entire theory to explain just exactly the type of defect that inflicts a Blue Square. They aren't able to build an adequate representation in their minds of the world around them. They lack Theory Of Triangle.

By now you should be understanding the point of this little story. As stated in part 1 of this series, Theory Of Mind is the ability to create a functional representation of other people's cognition. But the key word is functional. On Flibnarz, perceiving blue squares and building an internal representation of monoliths from that perception is quite functional - that is until a particular type of perception and representation becomes pervasive and dominates their environment. And isn't it it exactly this difference in perception and representation that challenges autistic individuals when faced with a culture that is steeped in social communication to the point that it infuses EVERYTHING?

I am autistic and yet I have a Theory Of Mind. It is simply built on a different way pf perceiving and processing the world around me. It is DIFFERENT than the Theory Of Mind created by 99% of the world, but it is still a Theory Of Mind. As proof, I offer this essay. Why is it that I chose analogy and allegory to present this idea? Why blue squares and pink triangles? Why aliens and monoliths? Simply because my Theory Of Mind tells me that most people don't have any interest in the highly technical aspects of cognitive science. They really don't want to read about neurotransmitters, neural pathways, the amygdala, the pre-frontal cortex, or standard deviations from a normalized testing instrument designed to segment differentials in perception and processing. My Theory Of YOUR Mind is sufficient to frame this in language that is more likely to be read from beginning to end by a larger number of people.

So who's Theory Of Mind are we talking about here, anyway?

Next time, more about what a functional Theory Of Mind is and isn't.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Theory of Mind - An Autistic Perspective. Just whose mind are we talking about?

Part 1 of what I hope to turn into a rather long essay on Theory Of Mind and autism.

There is a construct commonly used in describing autism known as Theory Of Mind. Autism is traditionally considered to be in part a deficit in this apparently ubiquitous ability of the more normal population. But, as one on the spectrum, I have found the concept itself to be rather ill defined. There is no truly precise definition – sometimes being described as “mind reading” or the ability to infer the mental states of others. Sometimes it is the ability to conceive that other people have thoughts and consciousness. And at other times it may be invoked in tandem with empathy or its absence. In one of its more sinister forms, it is invoked as a trait that defines humanness and that people with autism are missing the essential ingredient that raises them up to full human stature.

Needless to say, I take offense at that last definition and as such I am going to suggest that Theory Of Mind is at best a weak concept, and at worst, fundamentally flawed as a description of what "ails the autistic mind".

I must start with some obvious ideas. First, and foremost, we must recognize that, regardless of the actual brain mechanisms that allow a mind to exist, what happens in the mind is representational. There is no dog in your head. But that word, as soon as its image passed through your eyes and into your brain, invoked a representation of “dogness”. There are no rocks in your brain – but within the mass of brain cells, there is a representation of such a thing effective enough that you will duck your head if you see “a rock” flying towards you. This notion of representation is crucial for this is how we make our way through reality. Our perceptions and processing combine to form functional representations of the world around us.

Another crucial idea is that we heavily filter the information flowing into our brains. This is well documented experimentally, and it makes sense when you consider the amount of information in our environment. We are awash in sensory input. Sight, sound, touch, smell ... a constant barrage of data that we must ruthlessly edit down to manageable chunks that we can assimilate and utilize. From this it follows that the representations we create in our mind are built on partial information. The representation is at its very best, an abbreviated form of the thing it represents.

A third crucial point is how these representations become “real”. By this, I mean that a representation constructed from sensory input is an actual referent to something real that exists outside the mind. Again without delving into the actual mechanisms, the mind maintains a feed back loop between sensory input and its representations. When sensory input conflicts with a representation, the mind adjusts the model. As the model is adjusted, the representation becomes increasingly functional.

What Theory of Mind attempts to explain is how one person's mind represents the mind of another and how functional is the representation. What I hope to illustrate is that discussing representations of another's mind is much more straight forward than discussing the how functional that representation actually is. The creation of that representation is simply the aforementioned cognitive feedback loop between sensory input and output. The functional utility of that representation is a much more complex question because it is heavily bound to culture and context. It is this cultural and contextual component of contemporary Theory Of Mind conceptualizations that fatally weakens the idea.

Next post: A little more about perception and the construction of representations.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Peek At The Man Behind The Curtain

One of the really weird things about being very high functioning autistic is that people say things like "but you seem so normal". Well ... maybe not normal normal, but not so weird that people make their children hide in a safe place, close and lock the doors and peer out the window as I walk by. I am obviously eccentric, with more than a dollop of quirkiness on top of it all. What isn't at all evident is that the quirky eccentricity (redundancy deliberate) is really just about the best I can pull off. It is a the social equivalent of a Mohammed Ali rope-a-dope. What you see on the surface is simply me bobbing and weaving through daily interactions that "normal" people take in stride, naturally flowing with the give and take of general conversation.

What follows below is a little peek at what goes on "behind the scenes", as it were. What is REALLY going on in my head much of the time.

If you were sitting around a table eating lunch with your coworkers, what would you talk about? Lots of stuff like your children, football, shopping - a whole host of different topics. What remains of this blog post relates one such lunch conversation. Both what was being said by everyone at the table, but more importantly, what was really going in my head at the time. This last part is important because this "other world" is really closer to where I exist as a sentient being. It's that part covered up by the rope-a-dope, bob and weave of my external "personality". It is the part I don't share with people. Well ... until now at least.
Yesterday during lunch (our office is small and we tend to eat together) everyone got to talking about school lunches and the kids buying junk food with their lunch accounts. Apparently the local school district requires all students have an account that can be charged if the kid forgets lunch money and such. The conversation rolls back and forth and they talk about how it works and how kids can get around the rules and how in the end its a good way to do things. Part of the issue is that the school is required by law to serve a lunch even if the student does not have money. So the district uses these accounts to recoup money from parents whose kids regularly do not bring, or have already spent, money.

Anyway, while they are talking back and forth my pattern thing starts kicking in and the underlying information flow starts to come together. Then the thing sort of blows up like a rapidly blooming flower and a complete pattern unfolds in my head. And at that point the pattern is telling me that the program is fundamentally flawed because the amount of "overhead" to manage the information exceeds any cost savings. At the heart is the informational analogy to entropy. The program appears to work because the local system has decreased local entropy by virtue of the organization of the local information flows. This is reflected in actual financial statements of the school system. But the "cost" of increasing localized informational organization is an increase in the disorganization of global information. So while the balance sheets and income statements of the school system may reflect a localize net positive, the actual information cost is simply shifted to the larger economic system as a whole. I am certain this is the case.

Now here is the epiphany.

There is no way I would have been able to convince the anyone at the table that this is true. Not because they aren't smart enough, but rather because their entire knowledge/information systems are fully localized. All of their data is coming from the local system that from a localized frame of reference is actually being optimized. Their point of observation is within the system. It would be entirely pointless to offer any information that contradicts the perception of optimization because it does not even exist within that system.

What is important is that this pattern that flowers in my head exists in many places. Large multi-nationals are assiduously working at localized increases in informational organization vis-a-vis team and department level changes in information structures, but the efforts simply push the disorganization to places outside the localized reference frame. Attempts to increase local organization of ANY information/knowledge system increases global/universal information disorganization.

The pattern goes deeper, but you get the idea.

So what is the point to all this? Well, I suppose I could go off on some information system thingy and lose anybody still reading. But the real point is that what you see on the outside is not even close to what is happening on the inside.

The man behind the current isn't standing at a control panel twiddling some knobs and levers.

He's running free in a giant universe.

I'm betting this is true for a lot of people on the autism spectrum.We hide our true nature and we LEARN to adopt behaviors that are not obviously autistic. We learn through rote repetition, trial and error, and the pain of many mistakes. Social behaviors that normal people learn by 5, 10 or 20 years of age we are still learning late into life. And so many of us cling to quirky eccentricity, attenuating our weirdness to a level that isn't immediately rejected, but quite often the recipient of those odd "WTF?" glances we are so familiar with.

So next time you are eating lunch with me and my eyes take on a far away look, it isn't because I'm not listening, but because what I am listening too is taking me to a completely different place. Instead of thinking I'm rude and disinterested, I am just letting the conversation flow through me in a different way. Take a chance. Ask me what I am REALLY thinking. Then hold on for the ride.