Thursday, September 9, 2010

Part 1, Nikola Tesla, Thinking in Pictures and Asperger Syndrome

“When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever; the results were the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception.”

Initially, Nikola Telsa was of special interest for us because of his extraordinarily powerful visual imagination. As he says, his imagination appears to have been so highly developed that he could create complete models of devices in his mind, building them and running them as if they were real (My Inventions, 1919). But it is probably of no small consequence that he seems to have experienced, initially, this powerful ability to visualize things not as a useful talent or wonderful gift but instead as a problem.

An Unusual Affliction

Tesla explains: “In my boyhood I suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, often accompanied by strong flashes of light, which marred the sight of real objects and interfered with my thought and action.” He makes clear that although these images were powerful in their projection, not hallucinations. “They were pictures of things and scenes which I had really seen, never of those I had imagined. When a word was spoken to me the image of the object it designated would present itself vividly to my vision and sometimes I was quite unable to distinguish whether what I saw was tangible or not. This caused me great discomfort and anxiety. . . . These certainly were not hallucinations . . . for in other respects I was normal and composed.”

The son of a Serbian Orthodox priest, Tesla was relatively well educated in literature, science and mathematics and had a strong practical inventive inclination. He was a lonely man with many odd habits and strong compulsions. For example, at each meal he would have to calculate the cubic area of each bite of food before eating it. Similarly, he had to finish reading whatever he started, even when it ran into many volumes, whether or not he had lost interest or had decided that he was getting little return for his effort.

In 1884, he immigrated to America during a time of great excitement over technical innovation with the telephone, electric light and other new inventions. He even worked for Thomas Edison for a while (with extraordinary energy and dedication) when he first arrived in America, but finally had to leave Edison's company to pursue his own highly innovative but incompatible ideas—inventing, eventually, the entire alternating current electric power system used around the world today. (Edison was furious that Tesla’s system proved to be vastly superior to his own direct current system and he did everything he could to discredit the system that Telsa had sold to Westinghouse.)

In order to control his strong visual imagination in his youth, Tesla experimented with various mental exercises and, quite literally, flights of the imagination. In time, it became clear that the “affliction” was the negative side of what turned out to be a special and unusual talent. He continued these exercises “. . . until I was about seventeen when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind. Thus I have been led unconsciously to evolve what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is radically opposite to the purely experimental and is in my opinion ever so much more expeditious and efficient.”

Tesla explains that if something is constructed before it is fully developed and worked out in the mind, then the experimenter is often distracted by comparatively unimportant details of apparatus construction. In Tesla's words: “The moment one constructs a device to carry into practice a crude idea he finds himself unavoidably engrossed with the details and defects of the apparatus. As he goes on improving and reconstructing, his force of concentration diminishes and he loses sight of the great underlying principle. . . .”

Powers Beyond Belief

Some might question Tesla’s claims. He was known to have a tendency to make extravagant statements, especially to eager young reporters. We know also that Tesla was a great showman when demonstrating his new electrical devices to the public--more like a magician than an engineer or scientist. Yet his tricks were based on scientific and engineering knowledge that was not known by others in his field until decades later. Also, many of the extravagant tales and devices, like laser beams, long distance microwave power transmission and ocean thermal electricity generation, are only comparatively recently coming into serious consideration and use.

For many, Tesla’s claims were hard to believe (although those who did believe in him, in contrast, accorded him almost cult leader-like status). However, we now have reason for taking Tesla at his word. He does provide some justification for why this should be so: “Why should it be otherwise? Engineering, electrical and mechanical, is positive in results. There is scarcely a subject that cannot be mathematically treated and the effects calculated or the results determined beforehand from the available theoretical and practical data. The carrying out into practice of a crude idea as is being generally done is, I hold, nothing but a waste of energy, money and time.”

Models in Mind and Machine

We are now learning that Tesla was, in most respects, to be believed. It is perhaps a sign of our times that what might be seen as a bizarre tale spun by Tesla in a magazine article published in 1919, is now, over 80 years later, exploding into prominence at the center of industry and commerce. Tesla argued that it is a waste of time and money to build a model or prototype of anything until a number if variations have been tested in a powerful visual imagination such as his own. Virtually the same point is being made in recent years by designers, engineers and managers--but this time they are talking about the machine equivalent of Tesla's remarkable and unusual imagination--that is, what is now known as “3D computing.”

With three-dimensional computing, working models of aircraft, automobiles, golf clubs or nuclear power plants can be (and have been) constructed inside a powerful graphic computer and displayed on a screen. These models can be operated and tested and modified much as Tesla was apparently able to do with his imagination alone. Proponents claim many advantages for the widespread use of 3D computing, but two of the most important advantages relate to increased creativity and reductions in the costs of prototype building. For example, in one early study (by KPMG Peat Marwick) of the use of 3D computing in five U.S. and Japanese companies: “The speed and power of 3D Computing has all but eliminated the requirements to produce physical prototypes and models. This allows management and engineers to economically pursue more creative and sometimes high risk design options. NASA/Ames uses [3D] workstations to simulate a wide number of options for a Mach 25 aircraft that would have been cost prohibitive using the traditional wind tunnel practices.”

Tesla noted the speed and ease with which his mental modeling proceeded, free of the distractions of building an actual physical prototype. This is not an unusual observation. Creative designers often lament the time required to build a physical product of what could be built so quickly in their mind. Thus, it may not be surprising that, in practice, another important consequence of 3D computing is a marked decrease in frustration along with a marked increase in productivity: “Users of 3D Computing reported increases in individuals' productivity of 20 percent to 50 percent. This higher productivity was used to expand the scope of individual job functions and to reduce the actual time to complete a project. The ability to ‘handle’ the realistic electronic model led to improved interaction between the designer and the model resulting in a more intimate and accurate understanding of the model. This also resulted in more creativity, less frustration. We consistently observed that users had a positive work attitude and they preferred working in a 3D environment as compared to the manual or 2D environment in which they had previously worked.”

Something Really New

These kinds of reports make one wonder whether this is just one more step in an old progression or whether these developments, by now well established in some areas, can be seen as the beginning of something that is really quite new. Such changes may make it possible for comparatively ordinary people to do with ease and speed what before only extraordinary people like Tesla could do inside their heads. And, as we have noted before, this new direction in development might very well favor those who are much better with the manipulation of images and 3D models than the manipulation of codes, words and even mathematical symbols.

With Tesla, the power of the visual imagination takes on a whole new dimension. He was clearly an intensely creative visual thinker. He had some related difficulties, such as a curious inability to make drawings, but these did not appear to be a problem for him. Perhaps his greatest liability was the fierce independence and lack of social skill that repeatedly caused him to fall out with his coworkers and benefactors, eventually making him unable to continue his work.

Telsa, however, provides us with an example of visual thinking that illustrates, in a most concrete way, the power and potential of this ability. What Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein may have been able to do with abstract images, imaginary mechanical analogies or related mathematical formulas, Tesla seems to have been able to do in his mind with almost real mechanical devices and working machinery. (Some readers may recall an earlier blog referring to the powerful visual thinking used by the dyslexic molecular biologist William Dreyer--“Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts,” March 29, 2009.)

Tesla provides us with not only important new insights but also with a standard against which other visual thinkers may be assessed. He also provides us with an example of what, in time, more ordinary people may be able to do with the new tools that are becoming cheaper, more powerful, and easier to use as they become more and more widely available.

Note: Please go on to parts 2 and 3 of this blog entry below.

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.

Part 3, Nikola Tesla, Thinking in Pictures and Asperger Syndrome

Diversity--New Understanding

As a new awareness comes into public consciousness through various sources like the Grandin’s book, Silberman’s Wired article or Haddon’s novel or Robison’s life story, it is hoped that all of us will develop a better understanding about why some people behave the way that they do—as well as gain some insight into how they are able to do things the rest of us cannot do. We may become more tolerant or we may come to be more aware of the power of real diversity (and its price). Or, we may be more willing to have certain services available for affected children and adults. Or, some of us may see some of these traits in ourselves or our friends or our family members.

Whatever our reaction, it gradually becomes apparent that we may be on the edge of not one but two major changes. The new visual and other technologies may allow us to use our brains in far more powerful ways than the conventional technologies of words and numbers and books alone. But at the same time, without being fully aware of what we are doing and how we are doing it, we may be helping to create larger numbers of individuals who are unusually well suited to work within these new worlds. It may be far too early to understand what is going on here or what it signifies. However, there do seem to be some parallels with dyslexia research that might be helpful.

Paradox and Social Benefit

Dyslexia was first recognized and described more than a century ago, in the 1880s, some 60 years before autism was first described. Like autism, it was initially thought to be extremely rare. Now it is seen as affecting as much as 15 to 20 percent of the population, depending on the definitions used, and as having profound effects on education, employment, and life success. There was little scientific or government attention to dyslexia until the last decade or two when both increased greatly, with substantial funding for research. Throughout, there has always been a tendency to look at the problems associated with dyslexia and the focus has been on ways to fix the problems. But also, from the earlier days, there has been a very small group of individuals who believed that with the dyslexia came certain advantages (sometimes, or even often, but never always).

Among these was the late Harvard neurologist Norman Geschwind (a distant relative of Dan Geschwind, quoted above). He believed that the same unusual neurological formations that lead to dyslexia could also promote a range of superior abilities. Accordingly, he has provided a discussion that may also may have some relevance to autism spectrum disorders: If the problem condition also has advantages (in some cases), he wondered, then how can we learn to control the condition and not give up the (sometimes considerable) advantages? Geschwind's comments on the possible prevention of dyslexia take on an extra dimension of significance when we consider autism as well. Geschwind explains: “the dilemma . . . becomes obvious. Not only do many dyslexics carry remarkable talents that benefit their society enormously, but the same talents exist in unusually high frequency among their unaffected relatives. If we could somehow prevent these brain changes, and thus prevent the appearance of dyslexia, might we not find that we have deprived the society of an important and irreplaceable group of individuals endowed with remarkable talents?”

In spite of this, Geschwind was hopeful that the advantages and disadvantages are not necessarily connected. This hope was based on evidence that there are many nondyslexic “individuals among the relatives of dyslexics who are . . . possessed of remarkable spatial talents. . . . We know that especially frequently the sisters of dyslexics are likely to share the talents without the disadvantages of dyslexia. Once we gain intimate information as to the mechanisms of formation of the anomalies that lead to the superior talents, we should be able to retain the advantages while avoiding the disadvantages.”

Thus, Geschwind hoped to have, eventually, one without the other. We too may well hope for this (with dyslexia and with autism), but we need also to consider the possibility that it may not always be possible. We may need to consider that it may be an essential part of the nature of things that, in a significant number of cases, one cannot have one without the other.

Is it possible that our brains have such design constraints? Is it possible that unusual proficiency in one area will often mean a significant lack of proficiency in another? Or, conversely, is it possible that a deficiency in one area may indicate the likelihood of special abilities in other areas? Or, given a third case, if one has fairly balanced capabilities, is it probable that, in many instances, extraordinary abilities (in either of two incompatible modes) may be precluded? Most recent neurological evidence suggests that this may in fact be so.

Albert Galaburda, an associate of Norman Geschwind, carried out microanatomical studies of the brains of dyslexics. After detailed examination of several cases, Galaburda and his associates described the role of microscopic lesions (areas of damage or diminished growth) and the unusual symmetry of certain formations that had been observed in all the dyslexic brains that they had examined. Galaburda observed that the microscopic lesions may be capable of suppressing the development of some areas, but he suggested a role for them in actually increasing the development of other areas.

This research suggests a biological basis for the frequent paradoxical coexistence of special abilities and disabilities in the same individual: “We all know that these lesions may in fact be capable of reorganizing the brain. But they don't always reorganize the brain to produce dyslexics. I am sure that similar mechanisms are used to reorganize the brain to produce geniuses too, and sometimes both of them occur in the same person.”

Norman Geschwind pointed out that the study of dyslexia is filled with paradoxes. If the observations of Geschwind and Galaburda are borne out by further research, then perhaps one of the most striking paradoxes is that many of those with the greatest abilities can also be expected to have unusual difficulty in areas that are easy for those with average abilities. Similarly, we could find that the study of Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders may also be filled with paradoxes—the greatest of which may be: when we come to learn more about autism (as with dyslexia), is it possible that we may find that we cannot live entirely without it, at least in some moderate measure? As Dan Geschwind noted above, these studies tend to take us to deeper levels, forcing us (as did Tesla’s story) to think in fresh ways about deep diversity in human intelligence and capability.

Endnote A -- This 3-part web log entry is based on Chapter 22, Thinking Like Einstein, by Thomas G. West, where full references are provided. An earlier, shorter version appeared in Computer Graphics, a publication of ACM SIGGRAPH, the international association for professional computer graphic artists and technologists.

Endnote B -- According to the entry from MedlinePlus from the National Library of Medicine: “Asperger syndrome (AS), one of the autistic spectrum disorders, is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially. AS is commonly recognized after the age of 3. People with high-functioning autism are generally distinguished from those with AS because autism is associated with marked early language delay. Other characteristics of AS include clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements, limited interests or unusual preoccupations, repetitive routines or rituals, speech and language peculiarities, and non-verbal communication problems. Generally, children with AS have few facial expressions. Many have excellent rote memory, and become intensely interested in one or two subjects (sometimes to the exclusion of other topics). They may talk at length about a favorite subject or repeat a word or phrase many times. Children with AS tend to be self-absorbed, have difficulty making friends, and are preoccupied with their own interests. There is no specific course of treatment or cure for AS. Treatment may include psychotherapy, parent education and training, behavioral modification, social skills training, educational interventions, and medications for specific behavioral symptoms.” (

Endnote C -- When Temple Grandin was on her book tour promoting the paperback edition of Thinking in Pictures, she came to Washington, D.C, for a book signing and a lecture to a autism parent group. At the book signing, I asked her to sign the copy of her book that I had just purchased (although I had already read another copy earlier). At the same time I presented her with a copy of my own book, In the Mind’s Eye, which I thought she might find interesting. She took one look at my book and said that she had always wanted to read it. I asked how she knew of it. She said she had seen a review of my book when she was correcting the proofs for Thinking in Pictures. When she saw the review, it was too late to put anything more into her text, but she could add a book to her list of readings for her first chapter — where to my surprise she pointed it out. The next day we had a long telephone conversation about the similarities and differences between her treatment of visual thinking in relation to autism and my treatment of visual thinking in relation to dyslexia. I had always hoped to look more into these connections, but whenever I brought it up to researchers in the field, I was told that the two conditions were too dissimilar. Nothing could be learned, they explained, from looking at them together. For some time I have suspected that they might be wrong. I thought that the high visual aspect in two rather different but overlapping conditions might lead to some insight both unexpected and valuable. (Possibly more valuable because unexpected.) Perhaps we will see, one way or the other, in the not too distant future whether my (our) hunch might be correct.