I don't follow the reasoning in the final paragraph here, though...
You also write about neurological and psychiatric conditions that can alter consciousness, and suggest that autistic people might actually have more consciousness than others.
Autism is one of those odd-one-out conditions in the literature. The classical assumption was that most severely autistic children are mentally disabled and have low IQs, but that’s partly because they weren’t tested properly. If you test them on nonverbal IQ, they are normal or slightly better than normal. On other tests, they perform better than average for perceptual tasks. Some people are now suggesting that maybe it isn’t a deficit, that they have a different kind of [brain that has certain] advantages. With Asperger’s, which probably many prominent scientists have, whether they are diagnosed or not, it seems almost as if they have extra consciousness: they are better able to process information than normal, which I think is a fascinating idea.
The whole idea that autism is [primarily] a social disorder, I don’t think that theory is going to last into the next decade because there is increasingly successful treatment that centers on socializing that has turned very withdrawn children into very affectionate socially aware children: I don’t see that as fundamental [to autism].
Do you support the “intense world” theory of autism, which suggests that problems result from sensory overload?
I just think [the social issues] are a side effect of the way [people with autism] approach the world. They are searching for patterns and structure in the world — what they obsess over isn’t everything; it’s mainly structures, stuff like calendars and mathematical patterns.
I worked with the prodigy, Daniel Tammet. [Tammet holds the European record for memorizing the 22,514 digits in pi.] He seemed very extremely autistic as kid and has been officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but if you meet him, he’s very socially aware. He maintains eye contact. He decided in his teen years to teach himself [to be social and he did].
In what context did you work with Tammet?
We did a brain scan study [where we looked at his brain after he had memorized short sequences of numbers that were either patterned or random]. It was very striking compared to normal people. He completely failed to spot the external structure [in the nonrandom numbers] and his brain activation was very different from those who were aware of the structure. I make the claim that the prefrontal parietal network is important for consciousness; in my study, the prefrontal parietal network was most active when spotting these patterns and maybe that means a lot about what consciousness is for. For Daniel Tammet, his prefrontal parietal network didn’t activate for these sequences because he didn’t spot them, but it was generally raised compared to those of normal people.
Why Solving Puzzles Is Fun: Q&A with Consciousness Researcher Daniel Bor
By Maia Szalavitz | Sept. 21, 2012