December 22, 2009

Neurodiversity

The NYT has a fairly skeptical article, "Taking Mental Snapshots to Plumb Our Inner Selves" (which is sorely lacking in credulity-inducing color brain scan images.) It's about UNLV psychologist, Russell T. Hurlburt, who studies how people's minds work by having them wear a buzzer that goes off randomly at which point they record whatever they were thinking about at that moment.

After hundreds of introspective interviews, Dr. Hurlburt still hesitates to generalize from his findings. But he has observed that the basic makeup of inner life varies substantially from person to person.

“My research says that there are a lot of people who don’t ever naturally form images, and then there are other people who form very florid, high-fidelity, Technicolor, moving images,” he said. Some people have inner lives dominated by speech, body sensations or emotions, he said, and yet others by “unsymbolized thinking” that can take the form of wordless questions like, “Should I have the ham sandwich or the roast beef?”

In a 2006 book, “Exploring Inner Experience,” Dr. Hurlburt suggests that these differences may be linked to personality and behavior. Inner speakers tend to be more confident, for example, and those who think in pictures tend to have trouble empathizing with others.

It's interesting that we evolved to be so different mentally. Obviously, we're better off with a variety of thinking types, so we can get more mileage out of each one's overall brainpower through division of labor. Yet, I've been repeatedly assured that natural selection can't create a mechanism to diversify our portfolio of descendants, the way a mutual fund manager diversifies his portfolio of stocks to reduce risk. Most of the non-group selectionist theories for this diversity, however, don't really grab me, so I don't know what to think.

If had one word to describe how I think, it would be "prosaically." I'm primarily one of Hurlbert's inner speakers, with a single-threaded monologue. (No multi-tasking above the rudimentary. For example, although I can drive a car and carry on a conversation, I can't simultaneously drive, navigate to a new destination, and talk about anything other than navigating.) It's not a particularly articulate monologue, so writing requires a lot of rewriting for me, which the computer word processor, which I started using in 1981, made much more efficient for me. (I didn't have access to a word processor in 1983, so I did much less writing that year.)

Differences in thinking style may also help explain some aspects of mental illness. In studies conducted with Sharon Jones-Forrester and Stephanie Doucette, Dr. Hurlburt found that bulimic women experienced a clutter of simultaneous thoughts that could often be cleared by purging.

“Why is that? I have no idea,” Dr. Hurlburt said. “But I haven’t found anything about it in the bulimia literature.”

That's weird, but it could prove helpful to someone.

It might be helpful to categorize writers. At the highest level of giftedness, the Nabokovs and Updikes have extraordinary multi-sensory receptiveness (input) to go along with their tremendous skill at expressing themselves (output). Waugh, despite all his aesthetic sensitivity, strikes me as more gifted on the output than the input side.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

15 comments:

agnostic said...

Frequency-dependent selection is one way for natural selection to diversify the portfolio. There, the selective advantage of a genetic variant that someone has depends on how frequent it is in the population overall.

If there's more than one way to skin the cat of surviving and reproducing, and if everyone is crammed into just one of those strategies, competition among them is brutal. So there's a huge gain to a new mutant whose genes push them into one of the other uncolonized strategies -- until that niche fills up in its turn.

How many niches there are, and how many individuals each one can support, is determined by the whole ecology. One easy factor to see is sheer population size -- division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.

That's why you get more neurodiversity (or any kind of phenotypic diversity, like skin, hair, or eye color) among Europeans or even the seemingly very similar Asians, compared to hunter-gatherers like Bushmen or Australian Aborigines.

Cap'n Trade said...

Neurodiversity is strength!

Svigor said...

I can drive a car and carry on a conversation, I can't simultaneously drive, navigate to a new destination, and talk about anything other than navigating

That was just about the only part of this piece that clicked for me. If you want me to miss the turn and take a nice long detour, talk to me the whole time I'm driving.

dearieme said...

"It might be helpful to categorize writers. At the highest level of giftedness, the Nabokovs and Updikes ..": ooh, you are a wag.

Cordelia said...

The best description I've ever seen of how I think is from Sir Francis Galton ("Thoughts Without Words"):

On thinking of a dog, the name at once disappears, and I find myself mentally in that same expectant attitude in which I should be if I were told that a dog was in an obscure part of the room or just coming round the corner. I have no clear visual image of a dog, but the sense of an ill-defined spot that might shape itself into any specified form of dog.... It is a serious drawback to me in writing, and still more in explaining myself, that I do not so easily think in words as otherwise. It often happens that after being hard at work, and having arrived at results that are perfectly clear and satisfactory to myself, when I try to express them in language I feel that I must begin by putting myself upon quite another intellectual plane. I have to translate my thoughts into a language that does not run very evenly with them. I therefore waste a vast deal of time in seeking for appropriate words and phrases, and am conscious, when required to speak on a sudden, of being often very obscure through mere verbal maladriotness, and not through want of clearness of perception.

Exactly how I experience thinking. At least I'm in good company with Francis. ;-) Now, if I only had his smarts! :-/

Anonymous said...

...Dr. Hurlburt found that bulimic women experienced a clutter of simultaneous thoughts that could often be cleared by purging.

"Why is that? I have no idea," Dr. Hurlburt said. "But I haven’t found anything about it in the bulimia literature"...


Self-Selection ought to be the first [and really the only] topic in any applied statistics course [and even in the theoretical statistics courses, for that matter].

The only other topic that I might cover during the course of a semester would be the Observer Effect.

Self-Selection and the Observer Effect can explain about 99% of everything which passes for [ostensibly honest] research in the social sciences these days [the rest of it, like AGW in the so-called "hard" sciences, is intentionally disseminated propaganda and disinformation and lies].

I'd go so far as to say that any [abstract of a] paper in the social sciences ought to consist of no more than a single paragraph outlining the results of the "research", and about ten [or fifteen or twenty or a thousand] pages on the precautions that the authors took in an effort to minimize Self-Selection and the Observer Effect.

Anonymous said...

Can I now be hired as part of an affirmative neurodiversity program? I'd like participate in this bold new initiative. Forget race, class, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation,etc. Those are the old and crude categories of the past, impediments to further progress. Our neuro-status will be what's important.

Steve Setzer said...

Temple Grandin says that she "thinks in pictures." She is somewhat autistic, and that would seem to go along with Dr. Hurlburt's insight that visual thinkers have trouble with empathy.

Cinco Jotas said...

...those who think in pictures tend to have trouble empathizing with other.

Finally an explanation for the current state of American cinema!

James B. Shearer said...

... Yet, I've been repeatedly assured that natural selection can't create a mechanism to diversify our portfolio of descendants, the way a mutual fund manager diversifies his portfolio of stocks to reduce risk. ...

Don't know what you mean by this exactly. With reference to the entire population it isn't true as shown for example by the fact that the sex ratio is driven towards 1. But there isn't any tendency (as far as I know) for the sex ratio for a particular mother to be any more even than coin flipping would produce.

GS said...

Of course you can get great diversity through individual evolution. Certain characteristics have declining marginal returns if other people are pursuing them. For example, if many people are good at telling jokes and this attracts women, the competition will be stiff there, but if you can write a great poem, bam, women in the sack. So there will be pressure to diversify on individuals.

Also, people from different regions will think differently, so you can only test people who have heritage from a particular region.

albertosaurus said...

Steve,

I'm a little shocked that you are not more familiar with Random Moment Sampling (RMS). It is widely used in market and oraniztional research. I would have thought that you would be expert in these techniques from your time in marketing.

It is less surprising that you didn't start using a word processor until 1981. Would that have been WordStar on an Osborne? My first word processor I wrote in BASIC on a Commodoe PET a couple years before that. By any standard, my program was a truly dreadful word processor but I was the only guy around who had such a thing. It made my career.

Benn said...

Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State Temple Grandin, who is also autistic, has written that autistics think in pictures and she believes that type of mind is similar to the mind of animals. Perhaps picture thinking is the human primitive or root sort of mind.

josh said...

Steve,

Think of genes as having deminishing marginal products. It's not group selection. There is a sort of general equilibrium of alleles (always changing of course).

Anonymous said...

If autistics think in pictures then the next question is, do they share the same pictures? Does a backfiring car produce similar imagery in autistics, or is it highly individualistic?