Intense World Theory of Autism and Problems With Understanding Metaphors

Given what I have read here and there about mirror neurons, I was somewhat interested in reading Gregory Hickok’s “The Myth of Mirror Neurons.” However, after this excerpt in which he discusses autism, I am definitely going to have to get the book.

Hickok provides evidence against the idea that autism is a deficit; rather, he argues, autism is an excess. People with autism are too sensitive to sounds, touch, others’ emotions, etc. We look away from others’ eyes because the emotions there are too intensely felt by us. Indeed, I have always felt people’s presence quite intensely, and it gets to be tiring, overwhelming after a while. Of course, if you’re looking away, if you’re paying attention to everything else as much as you are paying attention to a person’s face, you are bound to miss any number of social clues.

So the Intense World Theory of autism seems to be gaining support.

But does the IWT explain things like autistic literalism and a tendency to fail to understand metaphors? Obviously, there is a logical connection between literalism and failing to understand metaphors. Even if one takes everything literally, one can eventually learn to understand metaphors — but it’s a learned skill rather than a natural one, as occurs in neurotypicals. But this still doesn’t tell us why autistic people do either one.

However, if we look to why those with autism experience an intense world, we may see why.

One feature of autistic neural structure is the overabundance of synapses. This creates a hyperconnected network with more inputs. One result is increased sensory processing — which is why many with autism don’t like being touched or are sensitive to sounds or smells or tastes. Another is that other kinds of information are processed in a way that more closely resembles how artificial neural nets (ANNs) process information and produce outputs. ANNs tend to be “hyperconnected” relative to the way real neurons are connected to each other. As a result, ANNs take longer to turn inputs into concepts, but once they do so, those concepts are much more concretized.Things are put into pretty solid categories, without much if any overlap.

To understand — and create — metaphors, there has to be conceptual overlap. At least a certain degree of it, anyway. For the neurotypical, “Achilles was a lion” evokes notions of fierceness and nobility. For an autistic, “Achilles was a lion” evokes an image of a large tan member of the cat family named “Achilles.” That is because “lion” and “a person named Achilles” are two completely separate conceptual categories. A person can’t be a cat.

This would also explain why people with autism tend to think more concretely and less abstractly. However, if one can learn certain abstractions, connections among various concepts become much clearer. Clear categories also make patterns more obvious because one sees patterns when one sees all of the distinctness of each category. Those with autism may have difficulty with metaphors (this is on some level literally that), but similes (this is like that) are another thing entirely. A simile notes both the difference and the similarity — the latter being the shared patterns. “Achilles was like a lion.” signals there is some sort of pattern shared between Achilles and lions.

Of course, all of this is conjecture. I’m noting a number of similar patterns and concluding similar things may underlie them. But I’m not sure what else makes sense if we reject the theory that autism is a deficit and, rather, is an excess of neural connections — inputs and processing.

Coincidentally, it has been suggested that Kafka had Asperger’s. The fact that he never used metaphors is highly suggestive that he indeed may have.

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