Some Startling Facts About Autists’ Brains (Perceptual Warfare 21)

(Continued from Perceptual Warfare 20 )

So what of autists’ brains? According to scientific research, they are both larger and more complex than neurotypical brains.

“Clinical signs of autism are often preceded by or emerge concurrently with a period of abnormal brain and head overgrowth . . . male children with autism had a mean 67% more prefrontal neurons than those in the control group. . . . The autistic group also had larger than average brain weight. . .  Gross examination of the brain showed no abnormalities in most autistic and control cases. . . . a pathological overabundance of neurons in critical brain regions is present at a young age in autism.”[i]

(The prefrontal cortex is part of the neo cortex, or higher mammalian brain.) From a personal blog, “My Autistic Life: Musings of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome”:

“Many researchers note that people with autism seem hypersensitive to sights and sounds. In 2007, based partly on this finding, Kamila Markram and Henry Markram and Tania Rinaldi of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne set out a theory of autism dubbed the ‘intense world syndrome’ (Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol 1, p 77). According to this, autism is caused by a hyperactive brain that makes everyday sensory experiences overwhelming. One of their planks of evidence is autopsy findings of structural differences in the brain’s cortex, or outer layer. People with autism have smaller minicolumns — clusters of around 100 neurons that some researchers think act as the brain’s basic processing units —but they also have more of them. While some have linked this trait to superior functioning, the Lausanne team still framed their theory as explaining autism’s disabilities and deficits. Mottron’s [Laurent Mottron, head of Autism Cognitive Neuroscience research and professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal] team has published an alternative theory of autism that they believe more fully and accurately incorporates autistic strengths. Their ‘enhanced perceptual function model’ suggests autistic brains are wired differently, but not necessarily because they are damaged (Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol 36, p 27). ‘These findings open a new educational perspective on autism that can be compared to sign language for deaf people,’ says Mottron. While Henry Markram maintains that autism involves a ‘core neuropathology,’ he told New Scientist that the intense world idea and Mottron’s theory are ‘aligned in most aspects.’ ‘Of course the brain is different, but to say whether the brain is damaged or not depends on what you mean by damaged.’”[ii]

An article by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative develops this idea still further (emphasis added):

“‘[W]e may define autism as a condition characterized by a brain reorganization in favor of perceptual experience,’ says lead investigator Laurent Mottron. . . ‘There are many different reasons why a clinical group would show more activation in a particular part of the brain,’ says Ralph-Axel Müller, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. ‘It could very well be that processing is actually less efficient and they require more resources in that area to perform a particular task.’ For example, in one of the studies included in the new meta-analysis, Müller’s team reported that when individuals with autism decide what a word means — such as whether a hammer is a tool — they show more brain activity in visual cortex than do controls. In that study, more activity correlates with a higher error rate on the task.”[ii]

In other words, when it comes to learning neurotypical social language, autistics may be over-qualified for the task. Compare this to Pearce’s observation quoted in PW 20: “The simpler the brain, the more specific its programming and the more readily it can efficiently interact with the earth.” If autists’ brains are more complex, then it makes perfect sense that they would be slower to develop, because they would have a larger and more-far-reaching “mapping process” to complete before they could engage with their environment. Pearce describes the difference between human and lower mammals in terms of the latter having brains that reflect “highly specific aspects of the earth,” where human brains have the potential for a much wider interface with their environment. What if autistic brains can be compared to neurotypical brains in a similar way? “The greater the potential content of the brain hologram, the slower the process of clarification.” Would this imply that autistic individuals have the capacity for a different and more complex perceptual relationship with their environment?

[i] “Neuron Number and Size in Prefrontal Cortex of Children With Autism,” JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, November 9, 2011
[ii] “Brain activity explains keen visual skills in autism, group says,” by Virginia Hughes

17 thoughts on “Some Startling Facts About Autists’ Brains (Perceptual Warfare 21)

  1. I suffered with agoraphobia for many years. I wonder if it was linked to my (undiagnosed) presence on the autistic spectrum? “..overwhelmed by sensory experience..” is a good way of describing my agoraphobia.

  2. got that abstracts doing a search on michael winkelman’s book abut shamanism. this whole section could be maybe of your interest too —

    Mimetic Origins of Art and Shamanism
    Donald (2006) places the human capacities of dance and music in the broader
    context of an underlying ability for artistic expression, which he views as a
    by-product of mimesis and “the ultimate refinement of the mimetic mode”
    (15). He characterizes art as part of the coevolution of cognition and culture, a
    primordial expression of the cognitive capacities of mimesis that became a central
    feature of uniquely human mental capacities. Mimesis constituted “a single neurocognitive
    adaptation . . . [for] mime, imitation, gesture and the rehearsal of
    skill” (15) that resulted from the cognitive elaboration of expressions of meaning
    based in embodiment (behavior).
    The cognitive and evolutionary potentials of art are as a form of “cognitive
    engineering . . . an activity intended to influence the minds of an audience” (4, italics
    in original). This reflects a deep human tendency to engage in joint and reciprocal
    control of attention and the experiences of others for purposes of social communication.
    Here we see the continuity of displays and art and shamanism.
    Donald considers these dramatic expressive manifestations that we call art to
    be at the foundation of human cultural processes of distributed cognition, the
    linkages among minds that hold a wealth of information in memory of experience.
    Although he spoke of art rather than shamanism, his statements can be
    applied equally to the shamanic model: “Art is constructivist in nature, aimed at
    the deliberate refinement and elaboration of mental models and world views . . . the
    outcome of the brain’s tendency to strive for the integration of perceptual and
    conceptual material over time. The term large-scale neural integration refers to the
    nervous system’s cross-modal unification of many sources of experience into a
    single abstract model or percept” (Donald 2006, 4).
    Donald considers this capacity for large-scale integration to be the major
    adaptive advantage acquired by our complex brains, permitting more abstract
    thought, a greater temporal and spatial complexity to behavior, and an ability
    to manage future unfolding of complex and shifting social alliances. Art was a
    central manifestation of this metacognitive capacity to engage self-reflection
    and represent self-identifying symbols, especially of social groups. This capacity of
    representation through art had its first manifestations in the ritual expressions
    of our ancient hominin ancestors, who gave rise to a new cultural level, the
    Mimetic culture, nearly 2 million years ago; this expressive capacity continued to
    be the primary medium for the eventual evolution of the Mythic cultures of early
    anatomically modern humans (Donald).
    Donald’s models of the Mimetic and Mythic cultures give us a framework for
    understanding the emergence of shamanism in the expressive capacities of Mimetic
    culture. With Mimetic culture, the display capacities of hominids are superseded in
    a new expressive level of mimesis not found in developed forms in our ape cousins.
    The Mimetic domain allowed for the expression of an archaic level of hominin
    culture based on “gesturing, pantomime, dance, visual analogy, and ritual” (8).
    This, combined with the drumming elements and music, was the manifestations
    of a uniquely human religiosity and spirituality in early hominin shamanism. Here,
    shamanic ritual created the enactive context for the expression of a cognized universe
    that expanded the shared conceptual frameworks of our ancient forbearers
    and created a system of shared meaning for the foundations of culture.
    Donald reverses earlier characterizations of mimesis as a modular capacity
    in saying it meets Fodor’s (1983) criteria for a nonmodular adaptation.
    It is nonmodular precisely because it can work in any domain—perceptual,
    motor, auditory—to communicate information. It is the general basis for symbolic
    integration. “[T]he domains of art ultimately reflect the entire evolved
    structure of the human cognitive-cultural system” (20). This capacity was the
    context in which shamanism led us to the archaic human culture stage and then
    turned us into culturally modern humans.

  3. Hola Mr. P! That’s quite a lot to process; what i got is that artists are “cognitive engineers” without knowing it; where as social engineering (by political factions etc) uses the tools of the artist without the purity of intent to ever make it “art.” Crowley once wrote that the artist is a superior being to the magician, I think this is why (& Hitler was a failed artist). “Magick” is about bringing about change in conformity with will; art is about bringing the inner out in order to see it and integrate it, which allows others to do the same (catharsis, etc). The more pure the intent of the artist (ie, the less result-based), the deeper s/he will be able to dig to bring out the gold of the soul, the more profoundly it will affect the collective – not so much as art (though that too), but by altering the whole system as the result an individual of accessing deep, unintegrated parts of the collective, and allowing them to be “redeemed.”

    Art is alchemical – it turns darkness into light. Psy-ops are like the reverse of that: they take gold and turn it into lead (weaponry); as in the case of MKULTRA using Catcher in the Rye, Taxi Driver, the White album, to program its puppet-men to act out the mimetic theater they designed.

    Anyway, that’s a free riff from what you posted, since I found it hard to really digest what he was saying. Maybe you could sum up your own thoughts about it?

  4. sorry, i must confess i got a little bit pissed about the implications of these whole series and went to a rush

    my point is that these abnormalities of brain growht maybe are pathological, and this perceptual enhancement of “the mimetic culture” is actually pathological too … it’s like when berman points that art is an expression of a determinate distribution of the body — a bioenergetic one. As pointed by john zerzan: more elaborated and complex rituals are often found in socities with hierarchies and domination … at this light, both the mimetic autistic and the neurotypical reactions are both sides of the same coin: a culture (a context) that has been progressively more centered on the head. Winkelman aknowledges that: mimesis starts first as a bodily function, but then goes “nonmodular” and catches new zones of the brain

    actually abnormal brain-growht could be due for increasingly devastating birth practices –it’s known that traumatic births often result in an inability of the brain to eliminate the excess of brain matter that the infant births with (it’s the same process that happens when a bone breaks and it’s recomposed: first there’s this whole ball of raw matter and then the body eliminates it until conform the bone again, like an sculpturer does with a rock) … so this hypersensibility of the autistic brain could be due actually to malfunctioning of the brain — actually there’s some work about creating savant skills applying currents to the right brain.

    so let’s say there’s more
    energy in the head of autistics –this model is discussed in “The Age of autism”– and that causes increased perception and/or paranormal experiences –i’m thinking about pineal gland piezoelectric propierties for the sake of the argument, but i really haven’t any science to say that. But this is the question: is this healthy? not according to chinese medicine model: actually the excess of energy drains the energy of the rest of the organs in the body, so the emotional base is at his best distorted, non-existent at his worst. Not to say in this model organs play an important role in perception — for example, reflection is linked with the bladder

    I must say i’m arguing this from direct and painful experience –it’s really sad to start having this little balance in the body at age 31 … tai chi practice is giving me that, though at a slow pace …

    so this is the problem i have with this tendency to depict autistic mind as some sort of indigo children or something: it’s located within a cultural framework that builds up a bodily configuration (judeochristian in this case: actually you pointed that the artist “redeems” society). i have no doubt there’s some truth in that discourse. i think it was in that book of that it is argued that autism is some sort of pre-patriarchal hormonal constelation (surely brought up by stressed birth deliveries), but that’s happening on a context — and as you point that context is pathological …

    so i think that putting autistic above neurotypicals –to argue they have purer intent than the controllers, or to say they are overqualified for the social task — it’s a continuation of these cultural trends, some kind of holier-than-thou … take for example this post Zen and hara training: brain growth plays little role in the “”nonverbal” philosophical approach of Japanese culture”.(Berman argued too that zen is remainder of this equalitarian hunter-gatherer bodily configuration in “The Wandering God”)

  5. it’s possible that I am prematurely linking fact(oids) together to make a case, but all of this is exploratory. As best as able, I’m conveying information gathered and juxtaposing it, so I think some of the conclusions you attribute to me are ones you are jumping to. I don’t know what “pathological brain growth” would be, unless you mean it’s the result of pollutants or other social interference; but that wouldn’t make the growth itself pathological, only the causes. There’s no reason to think that traumatic conditions can’t lead to evolutionary change – on the contrary, this appears to be the norm.

    Now the idea that the brain is solely or even primarily responsible for perception is one we can probably agree is false; the whole body perceives and at most the brain filters, translates, and interprets that perceptual data into subjective experience. So it’s possible that a “damaged” brain, like a schizophrenic one, lacking the required filters, would allow more perceptual data into subjective awareness. That’s neither superior nor inferior (unless we’re talking quantitatively); what counts is what the “subject” does with it.

    I can see how superficial reading might think I am jumping aboard the autist-indigo bandwagon along with Wilt Stillman, but that’s not the case, as I hope my posts about Beck and Barnett hinted at. Autists aren’t superior NTs any more than children are mini-adults; they exist in a different perceptual reality, that’s all. What I’m writing about is perception, not individuals or evolution. What is the nature of perception? There’s not really a “healthy” or “unhealthy perception,” there’s just varying degrees of accuracy (which would relate to the health and functioning of an organism, or a society).

    As for artists vs controllers equating with auties vs NTs, that’s a parallel you made, not me. It may be accurate or it may not be. I don’t see it as “holier than thou” to recognize that there is a difference between using communication tools for social control and using them for spiritual liberation. Though it’s true there’s a gray area between the two, and as unenlightened ‘artists’ and communicators, we are currently groping our way through it.

  6. Hola JFKT,

    The “brain-damage” model of autism is contingent on whether or no we accept the paradigm of the mechanistic universe – that life and biology functions like simple machines. And actually, considering how much of a “strange attractor” autism is, it’s absurdly reductionist to attribute autism to “damaged units.”

    I can think of 4 (or maybe more?) models for autism that make more sense of the phenomenon, socio-physiologically. Here’s two:

    In the Girardian sense, the democratization of the world has increased the potential for outbreaks of indiscriminate, social-order destroying, mimetic violence. With previous mimesis barriers like hierarchies, language differences, cultural differences and borders undermined, a positive adaptation would be people who are resistant to mimesis ie autistics. This model relies on a complex system paradigm as well as, perhaps, something like a collective morphogenetic field.

    The other is a bit more mechanistic: If we allow, as Joe Pearce has said, that “culture is the enemy of biology”, then autism can be seen as a potential corrective to a culture that has moved too far away from human biology to be viable. In the arc of cultures, during the high culture phase, cultures becomes so mannered that the children’s natural development has to be interfered with in order to create “appropriately enculturated” citizens – so medicalized/technologised birth practices and all the rest. According to the CDC, 1 in 88 US children are now diagnosed with autism and that figure is about 1 in 50 for boys. With that density and the autistic resistance to enculturation, you could say that that culture is already over – which might explain the weird irrationality and hysteria endemic in public discussion of autism.

    Also, the only medically accepted treatment for autism, ATM, is Behaviorism, as in BF Skinner and his salivating dogs, which is arguably a scientific approach to enforced enculturation. And if autism is the result of brain damage, why treat it behaviorally?

    But I’m an optimist and I like being autistic…


  7. Sorry i stopped reading when you wrote “absurdly reductionist” –take low sphincter control, to me it’s talking about inadecuate parasympathetic system development. As i pointed before i see a degree of truth in the whole argument, but without all that “i’m optimistic” self asserting jazz (yeah i read the whole response, just creating some drama).Sorry I know nobody who is optimistic about constipation. Yeah, “potential corrective”, that’s a little bit less indigo stuff, thanks –but i think it’s the acceptance of the wound that moves us to walk towards, not solutions or “spiritual liberation”, but the creation of the needed conditions for a more healthy (yes i said healthy) development.

    Of course all this could be just projection, wetikowetikowetiko, or some another jedi mind trick … as douglas rushkoff pointed out, radical honesty is the ultimate form of propaganda

    Fucking shit anyway … you optimistic? I’m just coping with it, i have too much suffering inside (and i create so much suffering outside) to be certain i’m some kind of “evolution” or something

  8. Also i find a false –though functional– false dualism in the biology vs. culture … yeah, but what if this culture IS biology? –a biological adaptation; take for exemple “The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light” by Thompson. I’m in no point of saying his argument is accurate, but certainly it moves the imagination towards that direction.

  9. Yeah, it’s true that it’s not easy being autistic, that’s certainly not what I’m saying – just worth the effort IMO. I dunno if this will help but, something I’ve observed is that autists tend to be late bloomers – meaning it takes us longer to find our feet. Meaning able to consistently make sense of perceptions, communicate intelligibly and not be overwhelmed all the time. It took me til I was near 40, I think.

    Pearce may be wrong, but he has spend a lifetime researching and thinking about the brain and spirit and is worth considering over those who believe that autism is just a variant of Minimata disease, IMO.

    BTW, did you notice this —> “but i think it’s the acceptance of the wound that moves us to walk towards” =\= “i have too much suffering inside”

  10. I’m not questioning Pierce’s value as a man, I’m only questioning an argument of his work –a work i’m beggining to read influence by both you. So thanks for that. Illuminati’r’us, so i find valuable things on the reductionist side of the life too –althought I have my own critical thinking about them and their way of thinking. I’m trying to have the less bias as possible, so i’m not considering anyone OVER anyone –reductionists also spend whole lifetimes thinking about the brain and even spirit. I even would say that’s christianity in a nutshell. I think reductionist culture has its roots on environmental stress –take for exemple James DeMeo argument– and yes, i think is a pathological state, or a collective healing crisis if you want.

    But sorry, i think acceptance of a wound doesn’t finish necessarily with pain/suffering. Yeah: IMO.

    • I read a lot of WIT after Pearce, and I didn’t experience any conflict, even tho you might be able to juxtapose their points and show that they contradict at an intellectual or theoretical level. I hope that even tho many of my arguments might seem theoretical, they are based in practical knowledge and experience. A statement such as “culture is the enemy of biology” isn’t a factual statement as much as symbolic/metaphoric one. Clearly they are not actually enemies, because the idea of enmity is a human one. So a statement like this is an invitation to question assumptions and an alternate lens to look at our experiences through. Certainly biology will always trump culture because, as you point out, culture is a byproduct of biology, so like God and Satan they can’t be real enemies, but are just playing out a metaphoric drama on the world stage of the collective human psyche. So taking sides is missing the nuance and the metaphor, that the split is a perceptual split that may be represented by biological (brain) and social schisms, but isn’t caused by them or restricted to them.

      The actual schism is pre-culture and pre-biology, IMO.

      as for this: ” i think acceptance of a wound doesn’t finish necessarily with pain/suffering. Yeah: IMO.” I don’t think that’s what imaginosophy said, or meant, but that acceptance of the wound = acceptance of the pain and suffering as essential to movement beyond it. I’d add that acceptance of the wound means seeing the wound in a new way as something more than just a wound but also an opening, the only way forward being through that opening. The pain might then be more akin to birth pain than death, but in either case, suffering can give over to ecstasy, if/when the attention changes its focus.

      I don’t see any conflict between viewing autism as “brain damage” and viewing it as an evolutionary mutation that LOOKS like brain damage. As with everything, we are feeling/sensing our way forward through our own personal experiencing, wounds and all, and the pain and “damage” is just one necessary feature to our inner/outer mapping.

  11. Maybe the problem it’s the word evolution per se, which is loaded with too much philosophical/religious background I’d be confortable if instead of evolution we were talking about “adaptation”. “Spiritual adaptation” sounds better to me. About pain, i stil think that “moving beyond it” doesn’t sound like acceptance. And whilst I agree that some degree of stress is necessary for “evolution”, i am wary about consequences of too much stress –be it at birth, while living or at the moment of death.
    Anyway thanks for the pushed bottoms.

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