Thursday, September 9, 2010

Part 2, Nikola Tesla, Thinking in Pictures and Asperger Syndrome

Thinking in Pictures in Another Dimension

When I did my original research on Nikola Tesla for my earlier book In the Mind’s Eye, I decided to include him in that book because of his wonderful descriptions of his own powerful visualization abilities--in spite of the fact that he had no indication of dyslexia or the other language-related learning problems I was also interested in. He had many unusual characteristics, but he seemed in most respects entirely unlike most of the other individuals I had included in that book. I suspected there was a significant pattern to Tesla’s unusual mixture of traits but I had no idea what it was.

Then I read Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. Grandin, as an autistic herself, describes the traits typically seen in a form of high functioning autism known as Asperger syndrome. In one chapter she deals with the possible relationship of giftedness or even genius in relation to the syndrome. Here she describes a number of important historical figures who would appear to have many of the appropriate traits. Although she does not explicitly name Tesla, it would appear that Grandin had clearly supplied the pattern I had been looking for. Common characteristics of Asperger syndrome are: excellent rote memory, notable lack of social skills and lack of sensitivity to various social cues, strong focus and single mindedness of thought and action along with eccentric, sometimes compulsive behavior.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in autism and Asperger syndrome. This increase in interest is mainly due to very large increases in the numbers of children (and their parents) being diagnosed. By now it is well known that these increases are often associated with areas of the country where many high technology industries are located. An article by Steve Silberman for Wired magazine, titled “The Geek Syndrome,” summarized the situation some years ago: “At clinics and schools in [Silicon] Valley, the observation that most parents of autistic kids are engineers and programmers who themselves display autistic behavior is not news. And it may not be news to other communities either. Last January, Microsoft became the first major US corporation to offer its employees insurance benefits to cover the cost of behavioral training for their autistic children. One Bay Area mother [reported] that when she was planning a move to Minnesota with her son, who has Asperger syndrome, she asked the school district there if they could meet her son's needs. ‘They told me that the northwest quadrant of Rochester, where the IBMers congregate, has a large number of Asperger kids,’ she recalls. ‘It was recommended I move to that part of town.’ ”

Links with a range of technical occupations have been widely observed. Some call Asperger syndrome “the engineers’ disorder.” Certain high-tech entrepreneurs and company heads are sometimes linked to the condition as well. Silberman’s article in Wired notes that “Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder.” Strong visual traits are not necessarily a major component of autism or Asperger syndrome. However, for both Nikola Tesla and Temple Grandin herself (and others), visualization and visual thinking are central components of their thought processes.

Interest in links between high intelligence and Asperger syndrome have been popping up in various scientific journals for some time. For example, a brief article in Science magazine (February 2000) referred to an article in the December 1999 issue of Neurocase: “Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues at the University of Cambridge report on a study of three men with [Asperger syndrome]: a 38-year-old mathematician and two students, a physicist and a computer scientist. The mathematician, anonymous in the paper but who acknowledged his identity to Science, is Richard Borcherds, a recipient of the Fields Medal, math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize (Science, August 1998).” Along with a control group, the subjects took tests of how well they could read emotions in photographs. They also took tests to measure their understanding of “folk physics.”

As it turned out, “The subjects did far better than the controls on the physics test, but they were far worse at reading moods. The results ‘strongly suggest that social intelligence is independent of other kinds of intelligence, and may therefore have its own unique evolutionary history,’ the psychologists write. Other recent research has indicated that autism is more common in families of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians. . . .” The article goes on to explain that “Borcherds, now at the University of California at Berkeley, is frank about his condition, although he describes himself as being ‘at the fuzzy borderline’ of Asperger syndrome. He’s not sure the research says anything new. Mathematicians’ social ineptness has long been part of the profession’s self-deprecating folklore, he observes: ‘I seem to have a hell of a lot of colleagues who are not too much unlike me.’ ”

An article in The New York Times by Amy Harmon (April 2004) focused on the rapidly spreading awareness years ago of Asperger syndrome among adults with the condition. Most have long been puzzled by the traits in themselves, but did not know, until recently, that there was a diagnosis and a name. They thought they were alone. Now many are gathering together in support groups. “They all share a defining trait: They are what autism researchers call ‘mind blind.’ Lacking the ability to read cues like body language to intuit what other people are thinking, they have profound difficulty navigating basic social interactions. The diagnosis is reordering their lives. Some have become newly determined to learn how to compensate. They are filling up scarce classes that teach skills like how close to stand next to someone at a party, or how to tell when people are angry even when they are smiling.”

The new and rapidly spreading awareness has many effects in many directions, especially within families, observes Harmon. “This new wave of discovery . . . is also sending ripples through the lives of their families, soothing tension among some married couples, prompting others to call it quits. Parents who saw their adult children as lost causes or black sheep are fumbling for ways to help them, suddenly realizing that they are disabled, not stubborn or lazy.”

Also, Harmon observes that the support groups are having important effects on those affected: “Some are finding solace in support groups where they are meeting others like themselves for the first time. And a growing number are beginning to celebrate their own unique way of seeing the world. They question the superiority of people they call ‘neurotypicals’ . . . and challenge them to adopt a more enlightened, gentle outlook toward social eccentricities.”

Awareness of Asperger syndrome has continued to spread through the popular culture. A much acclaimed and best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, very much in evidence in the spring of 2004 in bookshops in both the US and Britain, has as narrator a 15 year-old boy with Asperger syndrome. Haddon, who had some early work experience with autism and similar conditions, explains that he really chanced upon the flat “voice” of the narrator—who loves mathematics and patterns and describes exactly what he is seeing but never fully understands its social significance. Haddon said that when he chanced upon this voice and realized how useful it would to himself as writer he thought he had something very special. “When you’re writing in that voice, you never try and persuade the reader to feel this or that about something. And once I realized that, I knew that the voice was gold dust.”

More recently, John Elder Robison’s book, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s (2007), became a New Your Times best seller. Robison tells the story of how his obsession with electronic circuits in high school led to an early career of innovation--making many very new sound effects and then exploding guitars for bands like the Pink Floyd and KISS. Most recently, it is worth mentioning that the big hit thriller for the summer of 2010, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larrson, features a young heroine who is described within the novel as having Asperger syndrome (as well as having many of the appropriate characteristics).

With Tesla, from Visualization to Asperger Syndrome

We started out with the story of Nikola Tesla helping us to understand the great power of certain forms of visual imagination and visualization. Subsequently, his story served as a bridge to help us understand the possibilities as new computer visualization systems extend some of this visualization power to individuals having conventional brains but unconventionally powerful machines.

But beyond this--never in the original plan--we are then led to see that many aspects of Tesla’s strange behavior and his remarkable talents can be better understood in the context of the newly recognized patterns in autism and Asperger syndrome—both relatively recently recognized conditions. The former was first described and named in the 1940s (remarkably by two separate individuals) while the latter did not appear in US diagnostic manuals until the 1990s. Both were thought to be extremely rare, until, just in the last few years, large increases in incidence became evident and demanded attention.

Tesla’s example has helped us understand a new way of seeing the world—one that would appear to be closely linked to the use of the newest visual technologies. Yet, remarkably, it would appear that there is a new recognition of whole groups of children and adults who would seem to be more or less like Tesla, especially in those parts of the country where the newest technologies, of all kinds, are being created and developed.

Some argue that the numbers of children with “autism spectrum” disorders has increased because new technology centers tend to draw together (and reward highly) large numbers of those having few or moderate autistic traits. As a consequence, it is said, some of the affected adults then marry each other (in larger numbers than would have happened otherwise) and they have children who may have autistic traits that are much more pronounced than either parent alone (in a process known as assortative mating).

Dan Geschwind, director of the neurogenetics lab at UCLA, sees some similarities between dyslexia and autism since both challenge conventional ideas about human intelligence: “that certain kinds of excellence might require not just various modes of thinking, but different kinds of brains. ‘Autism gets to fundamental issues of how we view talents and disabilities,’ he says. ‘The flip side of dyslexia is [having, with reading problems] enhanced abilities in math and architecture. There may be an aspect of this going on with autism and assortative mating in places like Silicon Valley. In the parents, who carry a few of the genes, they’re a good thing. In the kids, who carry too many, it’s very bad.’ ”

In a similar vein, Grandin quotes a researcher who observes that a “disorder may occur if a person receives too big a dose of genetic traits which are only beneficial in smaller amounts. For example, a slight tendency to fixate on a single subject can enable a person to focus and accomplish a great deal, whereas a stronger tendency to fixate prevents normal social interaction.”

Note: Please go on to part 3 of this blog entry below.

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