[extropy-chat] fiction and autism

Anne Corwin sparkle_robot at yahoo.com
Mon Apr 23 20:35:55 UTC 2007

PJ: I think the jury is still out on the science in that department -- we don't necessarily know that a particular pattern of mirror neuron functioning is necessary in order for a person to *feel* empathy.  It might be that when autistics experience empathy, different regions of the brain are used than when nonautistics feel empathy.  I'm guessing that mirror neurons have a lot more to do with modeling and imitative behavior than with "empathy".   There's a difference between empathy and "the ability to pick up and respond to neurotypical social cues".  There's obviously more than one way to emote -- look at the animal kingdom and you'll see plenty of species variation in communicative behavior.
  I do have difficulty figuring out standard body language, but people also get MY body language wrong all the time, so I'm pretty convinced it's a signal mismatch rather than a case of one person lacking some intrinsic ability to feel something.
But -- I'll fully admit that I had difficult empathizing with the kids who made fun of me in junior high -- I couldn't put myself in their shoes at all, and found their actions to be perplexing and nonsensical.  Similarly, though, they couldn't understand me either, and probably thought that I was deliberately acting in a bizarre manner in order to provoke them (at least, that's what I gathered from some of the things they said to me).  If neurotypicals are so empathetic as a group, why do autistic kids get bullied so much?  Why, when I was 8 years old, did I get chased at the park by a mob of kids around my age (and older) who pelted me with sticks and rocks?  Why didn't these kids' mirror neurons tell them that, you know, it hurts when you hit someone with a hard projectile?
  I'm guessing that the answer has something to do with the fact that, far from being an intrinsic property of nonautistic neurology, empathy is dependent upon degrees of similarity between populations or persons.  If you're in a group of people you can readily relate to -- who are neurologically similar to you -- of course you'll tend to feel what they feel in response to similar stimulus.  You'll be able to look at those people and imagine easily how they are feeling when they act a certain way, because it's so close to how you would feel in that situation.  However, the situation changes when someone who is configured differently enters the group.  That differently-configured person will probably respond to situations in ways that seem bizarre or maladaptive from your point of view, but that are actually quite rational from the standpoint of that person's neurology, or culture, for that matter.
  There's a reason we have people serving as ambassadors between different cultures -- because so much of the content and substance of human communication is contained within the symbolic framework of culturally-constrained information.  There's also a reason we have religious wars and battles over political ideology -- because communication is a difficult and confounding thing, and because people make so many incorrect heuristic-based assumptions about people in outgroups.  People tend to assume everyone else is like them (or should be like them) and so get confused and fearful when they encounter someone whose demeanor and behavior do not match established patterns.
As for the fiction thing: My reading material as a kid wasn't exactly typical (it involved a lot of medical textbooks and ingredients labels), but it did include a fair amount of science fiction.  My guess is that a lot of fiction is written with neurotypical social patterning in mind (and neurotypical psychology) and perhaps this is why you might find autistics reading less fiction, or more restricted genres of fiction.  I bet that if most novels were written from the perspective of an autistic person, you wouldn't find too many nonautistic people gravitating toward those novels.
  - Anne

pjmanney <pj at pj-manney.com> wrote:
  >At 08:35 AM 4/23/2007 -0400, Keith wrote:
>>In between session conversation, Dr. Tooby mentioned (due to his work
>>trying to understand the EP origin of fiction) that autistics can't enter
>>the mind state required for fiction. Dr. Pascal noted the same thing about
>>religions. Autistics are essentially blind to both religions and

It's about mirror neurons and empathy creation. Autists have diminished mirror neuron use and diminished ability to empathize. We use the mirror neurons to, among other things, create empathy. Fiction reading is an empathy creating activity (you are putting yourself in the shoes of your characters, etc.). If you don't have the neurons to appreciate fiction, you don't read it. Or get it. Also, interestingly, narcissists don't read fiction either, for the same reasons -- lack of empathy.

I wrote a paper on this for the WTA's book on H+, which has yet to find a publisher.


Damien wrote:
>But as often noted, people on the boundaries 
>(Aspies, etc) are unusually prevalent among 
>science fiction readers and to a lesser extent sf 
>writers. Hard to know whether the typical 
>characterization of much sf is due to the 
>Asperger readership or vice versa. Notably, 
>characters in Greg Egan's fiction often exist at the margins of autism.

It's why hard SF fiction is a literary ghetto: most people like character-driven fiction, because they CAN empathize and want to empathize. When they read something that doesn't allow for increased empathy, most readers reject it. Hard SF is idea driven, which is alientating for most readers. And as you said, most of the writers aren't exactly the poster children for empathy creation, either. I've written about this, too... 

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