Perceptual Narrowing, Autism, & the Pros & Cons of Stress (Perceptual Warfare 23)

“Today, we are aware of how little we actually do know about the brain only because we do, in fact, know a great deal more than we used to. Our unknowing is always just as large as our knowing. Knowing and unknowing are a polarity, a yin-yang balance. It takes a certain knowledge to grasp the nature of what is unknown.”
—Joseph Chilton Pearce, Magical Child (pg. 79)

So if autistic children don’t learn by imitation or take to culture, maybe it’s not simply that they can’t. Maybe it is also because they don’t need or want to take the cultural implant of the reducing valve? Maybe they are tuning into (or trying to tune into) another set of values and meanings, one that is sourced not within the mind but the whole body, and the whole body as a hologram for the whole earth? Animals are guided by instinct and by their senses, and both work together as a seamless whole, allowing for a continuous dialogue between their internal and external environments. Enculturated humans are guided by beliefs, values, traditions, ideologies, laws, and social conventions, most of all the social convention of “humanity.” Humanity is a cultural entity separate from Nature, divorced from its inner nature. The external arrangement we call culture is presumed, without ever thinking about it, to be progress. But what if the reality is that it’s a pathology?

This may be another reason that autists are “failing to communicate” — less as the result of any deficiency than because they are simply not being heard. Part of the pathology of culture is that it cannot conceive of any alternatives to itself. There are many kinds of perceptual narrowing, and expectation bias is one of them. Neurotypical humans are heavily invested in maintaining a belief in their culture and in the validity of their perceptions and beliefs. Anything — or anyone — who threatens those perceptions is not going to be welcomed joyfully into the fold. Michelle Dawson, an autistic researcher of neurodiversity (based in Canada), has battled relentlessly to overcome the prevailing fear and prejudice against autists. Much of her struggle has been with supposedly “friendly” organizations like Autism Speaks, and with self-titled “autism advocates,” whose mission, openly stated, is to cleanse the planet of autists (some groups propose via fetal screening as part of the eradication plan). At her blog, “The Autism Crisis: Science and Ethics in the Era of Autism Politics,” Dawson writes:

“Autism advocates consider peer-reviewed papers reporting autistic abilities (found either intentionally or accidentally) to be romanticized and dangerous nonsense, misleading and uninformative. All findings in autism research should therefore (according to autism advocates) be interpreted as deficits or not interpreted — or reported — at all. Researchers who find and investigate autistic abilities should not be funded and their foolish and dangerous work should not be published or discussed or for that matter, allowed. . . . [I]f peer-reviewed research shows that young autistic children — those who would popularly be considered ‘severely autistic,’ ‘non-verbal’ and ‘low-functioning’ — communicate competently but are persistently ignored by their typical parents (Keen, 2005) and teachers (Keen et al., 2005), then this science has surrendered to the deadly siren song of autism and must be discarded. This is even though, or rather, especially because it was demonstrated that these very young autistic children detect when their communication has failed, and make multiple efforts to repair this failure, including by using strategies considered too sophisticated for their presumed developmental level.”[i]

Perceptual narrowing is essential to survival at a certain level of evolutionary development (in childhood, for example, and among the lower mammals). The same may be true of culture and social grouping, which is like a collective, external reducing valve. While it may have been necessary for our survival at one stage, it appears to have become a threat to our survival.

One might think that a predatory way of perceiving the world (which is the essence of perceptual narrowing) would be reduced by entering a non-predatory environment such as society offers. But there are cases of animals developing “pathological” behaviors when placed in captivity for too long, and humans seem to be the least recognized example of this. In any event, the neurotypical perceptual mode appears to have become more dominant with the development of technology and the creation of a heavily mediated environment in which all our basic survival needs are met, many of them before they even arise.[ii] Yet for all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living, the average city-dweller deals with more stress than the average jungle-dweller ever did. This means that the reptilian brain — which takes care of the predatory perceptual mode — is being constantly stimulated even when there’s very little for it to “do.” Fight or flight is not a suitable response to most modern stress situations.

As Joseph Chilton Pearce points out in Magical Child (pg. 34-35), stress isn’t all bad.

“Stress is the way intelligence grows. . . although the stressed mind grows in ability and the unstressed one lags behind, the overstressed one collapses into physiological shock and shuts everything out. . . . When sensory information brings in nothing but waves of high stress and critical danger that we cannot adapt to, the body may shut out all sensory intake. What the body learns in such a state is negative. It learns that it has survived the high stress by a blackout of reality itself, a minor death.” [Emphasis mine]


[i] “Autism advocates do not take autism seriously,” February 18, 2007. Michelle Dawson works with Laurent Mottrol in Montreal in Autism Cognitive Neuroscience research.

[ii] There appears also to be a connection between the technologizing of our environment and increasing cases of autism, but that’s a subject for a later exploration.

3 thoughts on “Perceptual Narrowing, Autism, & the Pros & Cons of Stress (Perceptual Warfare 23)

  1. Pingback: Cognitive Difference as a New Media | The Highly Sensitive Family

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