18 October 2007

Autism and "I"

Not that long ago, Kev Leitch converted his Left Brain / Right Brain blog into a team blog. I had been considering shutting down 29 Marbles and stopping blogging, but decided to take Kev up on his offer. That way, I could continue to post very intermittently without feeling the pressure of trying to keep a site up on my own.

Unfortunately, Kev has since shut down the blog (as you will see if you click the link above to LB/RB). To maintain some continuity and a record of my posts, I've decided to republish them here. This is the first of four posts I published at LB/RB.

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Earlier this summer I read Douglas Hofstadter's new book, I Am a Strange Loop. As Hofstadter mentions early in the book, a more appropriate title would have been "I" is a Strange Loop; the book is about the nature of consciousness, that elusive concept of "I", and not an autobiographical work as the actual name of the book suggests.

Hofstadter's works have been among my favorites since I read his first book, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in high school. The new book is, in fact, an updating of the ideas he first expressed in GEB. I have long hoped that he might address issues of the mind and consciousness in terms of atypical minds (such as autism), but aside from some passing discussion of those minds, I Am a Strange Loop does not provide any real insight into how the concept of "I" fits with autism.

On Monday, I was pleased to find a paper that specifically addresses the question of autism and "I", Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism, co-authored by Michael V. Lombardo, Jennifer L. Barnes, Sally J. Wheelwright, and Simon Baron-Cohen. From the paper's abstract:

Background. Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have profound impairments in the interpersonal social domain, but it is unclear if individuals with ASC also have impairments in the intrapersonal self-referential domain. We aimed to evaluate across several well validated measures in both domains, whether both self-referential cognition and empathy are impaired in ASC and whether these two domains are related to each other.

Conclusions/Significance. We conclude that individuals with ASC have broad impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy. These two domains are also intrinsically linked and support predictions made by simulation theory. Our results also highlight a specific dysfunction in ASC within cortical midlines structures of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex.

Instead of looking at autism as a syndrome of self-focus (the Kanner approach), the paper starts from the concept of "absent-self" put forth by Uta Frith in her book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. I had not heard of Frith before reading this paper, so I can't really comment on her ideas. But the paper itself seems to make sense. I'm still going through it, trying to understand all that they are studying and what their results mean. (I did learn a new word: alexithymia - difficulty identifying and describing one's own emotions.)

My first time through I Am a Strange Loop was to soak in the big concepts. I typically wait a few months before re-reading something like this so I can get into the details, but I think I'll start again sooner than that. (At the moment, I'm reading Steven Pinker's latest book The Stuff of Thought.) Now that I have a bit more information about autism and "I", I'll have a better context for processing what I read.

Another interesting note about the paper, it was originally published by the Public Library of Science under a Creative Commons license. The PLoS home page describes it as a "A new way of communicating peer-reviewed science and medicine", so I will assume the paper has been appropriately peer reviewed. But I think I will do a bit more checking just to be sure. (Of course, any insight from readers here would be greatly appreciated.)

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