Since learning my older son, Daniel, has autism, I have spent a great deal of time reading about it. With my undergraduate degree and two years of graduate school in molecular biology, the things I typically read are on the molecular biology and neurobiology of autism. Since I can understand the most recent research, that’s what I prefer to read.
One theory I have read about makes a great deal of sense to me. It’s called the Intense World Theory of autism. The theory is basically that positive feedback dominates in the brain, and as we’ll see shortly, this idea can make a lot of sense out of the way autistics experience the world and behave.
Of course, there are plenty of detractors when it comes to this theory, though it seems that the main complaint about this theory is that it does not explain all forms of autism. Given a recent metastudy suggesting there are at least three different kinds of autism, I would hardly think this is in fact a real a problem of the theory. In fact, this is good news, since we will begin to understand more clearly why some things work for some autistic children, but not for others. If they don’t actually have the same syndrome, you wouldn’t expect the same things to work for everyone. That being said, the Intense World Theory, as described in the above linked article, makes a lot of sense to me.
My interest in the brain precedes my even having children, as my dissertation, Evolutionary Aesthetics, shows. In my dissertation I review some of the neurological underpinnings of artistic production and creation, with a focus on language and literature. Since then, I have mostly published, though, on self-organizing scale-free network processes — including spontaneous orders — in which negative and positive feedback is present.
Coincidentally, brains are these kinds of systems as well. So let me quickly explain the different kinds of feedback.
When a system is dominated by negative feedback, the system tends toward equilibrium. Think of your home’s air conditioning. When your house gets too warm, the thermostat turns the cold air on. And when your house gets too cold, the thermostat turns the cold air off. Thus, the temperature remains the same, more or less.
When a system is dominated by positive feedback, you get runaway growth. It would be as though you had a thermostat that make the air get colder the colder the air became. Of course, in a world with limits, you don’t actually get runaway growth, but instead you get regular cycles — booms and busts, in economic terms.
When such a system has both positive and negative feedback present at the same time, you have what is called a biotic system — such systems are complex and creative. Spontaneous orders are biotic systems — especially in combination with other spontaneous orders, other scale free networks, etc.
Most people’s brains have both kinds of feedback. There are probably a few aspects of the brain that are dominated by negative feedback, simply to keep things stable, but it cannot dominate a brain without the person no longer reacting to anything but the most extreme situations.
According to the Intense World Theory of autism, the autistic brain is dominated by positive feedback. That means the brain gets ramped up and the person becomes more sensitive to the world around them–more, that means some degree of cycling, which can be interpreted as being slightly bipolar.
I see these traits in both my son and myself. Which is why i titled my blog An Intense World.