The Intense World Theory: The Technical Version

Henry Markram and his wife developed their Intense World Theory of autism after they discovered that in the mouse models they were studying, the inhibitory cells (which create negative feedback) worked normally, but the excitatory cells (which create positive feedback) “responded nearly twice as strongly as normal—and they were hyper-connected,” and “were hyperactive, which isn’t necessarily a defect: A more responsive, better-connected network learns faster.” In other words, autistic people with hyper-connected, hyperactive excitatory cells learn too quickly, and they learn irreversibly.

Which can be a problem—especially when what they are learning is a fear response.

The Markrams also discovered that autistic brains have more minicolumns, “which can be seen as the brain’s microprocessors.” Coincidentally, “extra minicolumns have been found in autopsies of scientists who were not known to be autistic, suggesting that this brain organization can appear without social problems and alongside exceptional intelligence.”

This suggests a kind of continuum. It seems that your “average” extremely smart person has enough extra minicolumns, enough of a ramped-up brain, to become a scientist (and, likely, an artist, inventor, etc.). Slightly more, and you might develop Asperger’s Syndrome. Slightly more, and you develop autism. This would suggest, as the article does, that brilliance in those autistics who are also savants is a feature, not a bug.

Many autistics develop very advanced cognitive abilities, including those necessary to be good at math, music, and science. In fact, “Mathematics, musical virtuosity, and scientific achievement all require understanding and playing with systems, patterns, and structure. Both autistic people and their family members are over-represented in these fields, which suggests genetic influences.” My own proclivities are in “understanding and playing with systems, patterns, and structure” in my scholarly work (on complex network processes) and poetry (formal verse — patterns and structure).

What this suggests is that Daniel is an even more intense version of me. I have many social difficulties precisely because I “feel too much and sense too much.” I am deeply empathetic, and my intensity of feeling is what led to my becoming an artist. I am sensitive to fabrics, to anything touching my wrists or neck, to the textures of foods (spaghetti and fettuccini both taste very different to me because of their very different textures). I experience the world very intensely, and it can be too much at times. If this is my experience, and Daniel is (if Asperger’s is one level, and autism is two) two levels more intense in his feelings and senses, his behaviors make a great deal of sense to me.

More than this, the fact that it is excitatory neurons that are working more also explains quite a bit, if we take a complex systems view. As I mention above, complex systems like the brain have both positive and negative feedback working simultaneously. That is a normal brain. In a brain in which the inhibitory neurons were more active, we would expect to see a brain moving more toward equilibrium — low activity. In a brain in which the excitatory neurons were more active, though, we would expect to see cyclical activity — periods of hyperactivity and mania followed by low energy and depression. Many autistics are also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Though undiagnosed, I am almost certainly at least mildly bipolar. I have seen Daniel have very low energy and cry and “be sad” for no reason at all; at other times, Daniel is extremely hyper. Fortunately, Daniel rarely crashes into the really sad depressive mode, but he does cycle between low and high energy. This would make perfect sense if his brain were dominated by positive feedback, as the Intense World Theory suggests.

However, this aspect is nowhere mentioned in the article. It seems an important thing to consider, though. But to understand this means one has to take a complex systems perspective. Perhaps further research will show others have in fact made this connection — but if not, I think it’s an important insight that needs to be investigated further.

The good news is that many of Daniel’s social anxieties and repetitive behaviors seem to have been decreasing over time. And his language skills have been improving. Fortunately, while he is clearly autistic, his symptoms could have been much worse.

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