Sunday, December 20, 2009

Autism as a dual disorder

Autism is a complex neurological disorder of varying degrees of severity. Among its characteristics is a difficulty in social interaction and in reading the minds and intentions of others.

But social interaction involves at least two people, and in thinking about autism I wonder whether we should not also consider the way in which apparently normal people are also “impaired” in interacting with frankly autistic people.

I was very frustrated over a year ago when dealing with a lady who seemed remarkably ill equipped at social interaction, and seemed to lack all intuition. Communication with her was very difficult and other, apparently normal, individuals who came into contact with her shared my experience. I wondered, as did others, whether she is autistic.

It gradually dawned on me that the difficulty was two-way, that I in return was very ill-equipped to communicate with her, because I had no mental representation of a person from whom one could elicit no anger, or sadness, or joy or approval, or disapproval, or indeed any emotion, whatever one said or did.

Hence I suggest that, if we consider autism spectrum disorder to be, in part at least, a social disorder, we must envisage the possibility that the “disorder” is shared and that it is partly also a "disorder" in the individual with whom the interaction is occurring, and who has no mental framework to deal with this apparent difficulty of reading the mind of an autistic individual or interacting with them. It may be worth considering whether, in dealing with autism, we should not also try to generate rules that will make our interaction with autistic individuals more easy. This may even have the beneficial effect of easing their problems.

It is of course possible to argue that we would be able to learn how to deal with this lack of social interaction more readily than individuals with an autistic spectrum disorder. My experience with this lady has taught me otherwise. I found it very difficult to read into her mind and thus interact with her constructively even in spite of the long time during which I had to interact with her.

Hence I think that autism spectrum disorder should not be considered as confined to individuals but to social interactions in which both sides, the autistic and the apparently normal, are deficient in communicative skills, with each side lacking the mental representation of how to interact with the other.

At any rate, this is something worth thinking about.

How reliable is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a splendid idea. I often consult it, as do millions of others. But it seems that reliance on it alone can be dangerous.

I recently consulted Wikipedia about the phenomenon known as “Blindsight”. This is a condition in which subjects who become blind through damage to their primary visual cortex can apparently discriminate with high accuracy objects presented to their blind fields but are totally unaware that anything has been presented there. They are just able to discriminate, for example, whether a visual stimulus moves to the left or to the right but deny having seen anything.

That, at any rate is one version.

There are some, amongst whom I include myself, who have doubts about the phenomenon. I will not detail here the articles that I and others have written to express these doubts. But anyone consulting the article on “Blindsight” in Wikipedia would not even realize that this is a very controversial topic. They would instead have the impression that it is a well established and agreed-upon phenomenon.

But that is far from being so. It is a very controversial phenomenon. But the Wikipedia article doesn't give any hint that it is, or refer to any articles that have questioned the phenomenon. I hasten to add that I do not know who has written the article and have not bothered to look it up.

I suppose, and hope, that no scholar relies exclusively on Wikipedia or indeed on any single source. The danger comes more from, and to, those who, not being conversant with the literature on the subject, assume the validity of what is written and propagate it unquestioningly.

Blindsight is not the only article in Wikipedia that is misleading. There are others, some of them self-serving articles. It is of course the essence of good scholarship to allude to other findings or interpretations, even ones with which the author may disagree. Apparently, when some people think they can get away with it, they will not do so.This is perhaps less likely to happen in peer-reviewed articles.

On the other hand, unlike articles published in peer-reviewed journals, Wikipedia gives us the opportunity of modifying the articles and eradicating the errors. I am myself dis-inclined to do so. It would be too time consuming. It is sufficient to be aware of the danger in order to avoid the consequences. So I will continue to use and enjoy Wikipedia while being aware of its shortcomings.

The Acropolis Museum and the Parthenon Marbles

I recently visited the new museum at the Acropolis in Athens.

One reason for building a museum at the Acropolis is to house the Parthenon Marbles, which Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, bought from the Turks when Greece was under Ottoman rule and transported to England. They are now on beautiful display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum in London. Greece wants these marbles back because they constitute a very important heritage for the Greeks – as indeed they do for all of humanity.

I want here to comment on only one aspect, which is the way these marbles are intended to be displayed in the new Athens museum, should they every be returned.

It is very poorly thought out and an utter failure.

We would find it intolerable if, when listening to music, another piece of music were to be played.

It is similarly true that, in vision, too many distractors (in the form of too many other visual stimuli) interfere with our ability to appreciate what we are looking at. There are indeed studies of the phenomenon of “visual crowding”, which show a degraded ability to perceive visual stimuli when they are surrounded by other stimuli. This phenomenon has been more usually studied with peripheral vision but it is applicable to central vision as well.

Back to the Acropolis Museum. The background against which they intend to display the Parthenon Marbles, if they are returned, is so cluttered with other displays as to be totally distracting. Somehow, our visual field is invaded by so much else that it cannot concentrate on one item.

And this distracts from, and diminishes, the beauty and the inspiration that the Parthenon marbles provide.

This cluttering is actually a problem with many museums, especially ones that do not have enough space for all they want to exhibit.

The recently refurbished Museum of Modern Art in New York is splendid not only for its rich collection, but for the remarkable way in which they are displayed, with enough space around most paintings to enable the viewer to concentrate on each without the crowding that distracts.

Perhaps there is a minimum distance that should separate one exhibit from another. Perhaps it is worth establishing some general principles regarding this through psychophysical studies in vision. Indeed those specialized in psychophysics have actually come up with some rules. Perhaps architects and interior designers should have the humility to learn a little about visual science and visual psychophysics before they embark on such grandiose schemes.

I do not know who designed the Acropolis Museum. And I do not know who the curator is. All I know is that these precious marbles, which, though born in Greece, belong to all of us, are a huge inspiration and deserve to stand in isolation, without the distracting effects of other stones, as indeed they currently are in the British Museum.

Whether the marbles should be returned to Greece or remain in Britain will, ultimately, be a political decision. There is no doubt that a large number of lawyers will be involved in deciding whether the terms under which Lord Elgin transported the marbles to England were legitimate or not. I am not able to comment on these.

But I can comment on the aesthetic side and say that, on aesthetic grounds alone, the marbles should stay in London where they can be freely viewed by all and where they continue to provide a dazzling inspiration for millions.

If a time comes when a better place for them can be found than their current house in the splendid Duveen Galleries in London, then the question of their re-patriation can be re-visited.