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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Asperger's or Introversion?

Do I have Asperger's Syndrome, or am I merely introverted? I am certainly introverted. But let us consider the Asperger's Fact Sheet and the criteria. Do I meet them?

  • Do I have an "all-consuming interest and a one-sided, self-focused social approach"?
As a child I was obsessively interested in dinosaurs, then sharks, then orchids.  I would make lists of dinosaurs or sharks or orchids; sometimes those "lists" would be drawing after drawing after drawing -- in a list-like fashion. They would be labeled with data about the dinosaur or shark or orchid. Length or location or some sort of objective fact.

I am still obsessively focused, but the focus has become self-organizing network processes. I can sit and talk about that for hours and hours. And I promise you that the conversation will be quite one-sided and self-focused. Most of my conversations have been and continue to be. As a result, I work well with others on projects in which I am interested, but I don't socialize well.

  • Is it true that because I "cannot read social or emotional cues well, they come off as insensitive, pushy or strange, yet have very little insight into how they are perceived"?
 I cannot tell you how many times I have been accused of being arrogant. Even when I am insisting we need to have humility in our ignorance. I have been told I am "insensitive" when I try to solve problems. I've been told more than once I seem "strange." And my wife constantly reassures me that I have very little insight as to how I am perceived by others and that I cannot read social or emotional cues well.

  • Do I engage in "taking turns speaking, staying on a topic for a polite number of turns, and showing interest in someone else’s comments. People living with Asperger’s tend to talk at people instead of with them, and will often talk about their favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject."
I can definitely dominate a conversation. I have a tendency to interrupt when I have a thought. I stay on topics for a long, long time (or, if I'm not interested, not very long at all), and I have a hard time feigning interest. I do tend to talk at people instead of with them -- I use language to communicate information rather than to create relationships -- and I most definitely talk abut my favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject. I am sure I am tiring even at conferences.

  • "Having a normal or higher IQ allows a person to learn and know, to push the envelope in intellectual ability, and to rejoice in the pursuit of some realm of knowledge, but there can also be negative effects. When someone is aware he is different, when, for all his intelligence, he cannot successfully make a friend, or get a date, or keep a job, he may end up far more prone to depression and despair than a person with a lower IQ. It has been found that children with both high-functioning autism and Asperger’s suffer from depression and anxiety more than their typical peers."
I have always had a hard time making friends. I typically just "befriend" the friends of friends. I got by with my brother's friends for a long time. I made exactly one friend during my Master's in English, and I lost track of him immediately after we graduated. That was two years in Mississippi. I made one friend during my Ph.D., and was mostly friends with his friends. I got my first girlfriend when I was 25. I was, in fact, quite depressed for most of the 1990s because of these kinds of relationship problems. And I continue to have problems keeping a job.

  • Meltdowns.
I used to have meltdowns. When I was interrupted at a task, especially. When things just became too much. I have had two nervous breakdowns. But I have, over the years, learned how to deal with the stressors in my life. Yet, I do have to fight off blowing up when I am interrupted at my obsession/work.

  • Clumsiness.
I walked on my tiptoes as a child -- something quite common in people with Asperger's/autism. I was a disaster at trying to play any kind of sports. Teachers complained about my handwriting skills.

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There are other aspects to Asperger's, which includes thinking style. Bottom-up thinking, analytical thinking, being able to see patterns extremely well, strongly visual thinking -- are all typical of those with Asperger's and autism. I am equally very bad at top-down and strategic thinking typical of neurotypicals. Strategic thinking is extremely exhausting, and I'm not very good at it.

I suppose it is entirely possible to have every trait of Asperger's and not have it, to only be introverted. But my bet is on Asperger's being the most likely diagnosis.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I Am Not an Illness

The suicide or Robin Williams has had a lot of people writing on "mental illness" and suicide of late. It is perhaps because of the utter shock that, of all people, Robin Williams committed suicide. Has it been a heart attack, we would have been sad, but unsurprised. His death being a suicide magnified the sadness exponentially.

In the immediate aftermath, it was not surprising to hear many people talk about how important it was that we have a "national dialogue" on mental illness. I heard people use that term -- mental illness -- over and over and over, and it occurred to me that that was the problem: the very concept of mental illness.

What, exactly, is a mental illness? Any more, what isn't? Unless you are a perfectly normal person -- unless you have an I.Q. between 90 and 110, can sit still the entire time you are in school, obey all authorities at all times, and are happy to work 9 to 5 and get married and have the designated number of kids -- you are mentally ill. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with any of the above, but why does deviation from it mean you're less than those people? That is, after all, what being called "mentally ill" means. It means that you are less than those who are not. They are healthy, you are unhealthy. Unhealthy things are less than healthy things. Therefore...

Now, let me put all of my cards on the table. By contemporary American standards, I'm mentally ill. I am mildly bipolar, I have had two nervous breakdowns, and I have Asperger's Syndrome. I have had a great deal of difficulty "fitting in" to society. But just because someone does not fit in to a particular society at a particular time, does that mean they are mentally ill? I have an extremely good long-term memory and I am a poet. A few thousand years ago, that would have made me the tribal poet, who kept the myths of the tribe. I would have been Homer. Nobody would have thought it strange that I was mostly withdrawn and antisocial, until it was time for me to recite the stories. I would have been greatly valued then.

Or consider someone with schizophrenia, who sees visions. Today, we medicate such people. In other times and places, such a person was a religious leader, a shaman, whose visions were valued. The story of John Nash shows us how valuable schizophrenia can be -- he rejected his medication, because he couldn't think on them. Had he been medicated early on in life, where would game theory have been?

More, the story of John Nash shows us that even something as severe as schizophrenia can be dealt with without treating it as an illness. He learned to identify what was real and what was not real. Imagine what could happen if people with schizophrenia were taught how to deal with the visions, how to control or ignore them, rather than to have them medicated away.

If it is possible for John Nash, it's possible for others. And it's possible for others who have mental differences. We with Asperger's or autism have to learn how to fit into society; the fact that I have been able to make any number of changes in how I act and interact over the years -- before I learned I had Asperger's -- shows it is possible to change and adapt. It would help if our society actually valued our differences and did not punish us for them by telling us we are less than those who are neurotypical. We are not less than you simply because we are neurologically different. And being told we are -- directly or indirectly, by pathologizing our differences -- does not help us. Quite the contrary: being told we are less, many have decided it's not worth being here on earth.

Imagine being Robin Williams. The way his brain worked is why he was so brilliantly funny. Yet, the way his brain worked was also labeled as "mentally ill." He was told that the very thing that made him who he was, the very thing that everyone loved about him and valued about him, was "wrong." He was "wrong," less than the rest of humanity. That's what the rhetoric of "mental illness" does. It devalues and it dehumanizes. That's enough to make most people want to kill themselves.

More, we make it impossible for someone who is having suicidal thoughts to talk about it. We are told that if we encounter a person with suicidal thoughts, we should tell someone. At the same time, we are told we need to be with a suicidal person throughout their suicidal episode, until it passes. But if you know that telling someone you are having suicidal thoughts will result in their telling the authorities, and if you know that one of the ways you can get locked up is if you are a "threat to yourself or others," what is the incentive to tell anyone? There is none. The incentive is the opposite, in fact. Keep it to yourself, so you won't get locked up (and become more depressed because you're in a mental hospital).

We do need a national dialogue about "mental illness." And the dialogue needs to be about how we need to stop pathologizing differences in this culture. We are well on the way with homosexuality. Now we need to depathologize the rest.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reading and Improved Empathy in Children

More research shows the connection between reading literature and improved empathy -- leading to more moral attitudes and actions. Raymond Mar shows this connection specifically with children and children's literature.

But he also shows a connection between children watching movies and improved empathy -- which does not translate to watching T.V. One would think that a story is a story, but apparently not. It would be interesting to learn what the differences are between T.V. shows and movies that make such a difference in creating empathy. Are there structural differences? Is it because T.V. shows divide your time with commercials, as the article suggests? Is it a difference in complexity? Or just the fact that people are more likely to discuss what happened in a movie than what happened in a T.V. show?

If the difference is in whether or not a discussion of the story has taken place, that ought to be easy enough to test. Surely there are readers who don't discuss what they read whose empathy we can compare to readers who love to discuss what they read.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Most Important Publication?

If number of citations in scholarly works is an indication of the importance of a piece, then my Pope Center piece Egypt's Revolution and Higher Education is by far the most important piece I have written. It has been cited in:

Daniel LaGraffe's "The Youth Bulge in Egypt: An Intersection of Demographics, Security, and the Arab Spring" in the Journal of Strategic Security.

Sevita Rama's "Remembering Their Role: Keeping Women Involved Post-Arab Awakening" in Journal of Women and Human Rights in the Middle East: A Change of Seasons for Arab Women? Issue 1, Fall 2013.

Michael Johnson's book Corruption, Contention, and Reform: The Power of Deep Democratization

Asef Bayat's book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East

Charles R. Greer's presentation at TCU

These are the things I have managed to run across online. What are the odds there are more scholarly publications out there that cannot be found via a web search?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Review of Gazzaniga's Who's In Charge? in Philosophical Practice

I have a review of Michael Gazzaniga's fantastic book Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain in Philosophical Practice. I was reviews editor for Philosophical Practice for a short time. I'm glad to get to work for them again.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Varieties of Patterns in Literature

Literary texts likely have a variety of patterns in them. The existence of carefully created patterns is, indeed, one of the hallmarks of all art. Those patterns can be exhibited in patterns of symmetry and asymmetry and/or other kinds of complementary opposites, as demonstrated in the work of Hector Sabelli, who has demonstrated biotic patterns in a variety of processes, including poetry. However, biotic patterns are very complex patterns; what about more simple patterns? There are also chaotic/fractal patterns, which I have suggested elsewhere emerge in literary works as well as patterns of theme words.

 But both of these processes are necessarily created unconsciously. In all literature, but most obviously in poetry in particular, the artist also crafts patterns. Formal verse makes this process most clear. Regular rhythms and patterns of rhyme, ranging from alliteration to end rhyme, consonance and assonance, are consciously used by formalist poets. The more obvious the patterns, the more conscious the patterns. And those patterns necessarily interact with the more complex unconscious patterns of chaos and bios as well.

 All of this suggests we need to look at all the kinds of patterns which emerge and are used in literary works. This includes the kinds of network patterns being investigated by people like Franco Moretti, whose work is described here. I believe, like Moretti, that there are laws of literature and that we can discover them in discovering the patterns within works of literature. These laws are also the laws of the mind, meaning we will learn more about our own minds by learning more about the laws and patterns (but I repeat myself) of literature.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sick of Arguing, Desiring to Work on Art

I am plagued by knowing too much.

For example, the way I feel right now, I just want to read and write plays. Nothing else. I don't want to work on scholarship. I don't want to do book reviews. I don't want to do anything but write plays. I don't want to argue politics or economics or anything of that sort. Just plays.

Now, is this because I have just gotten sick of all that stuff? Or is this because I tend to go through cycles because of the neural structure of my brain, which likely has positive feedback dominating it, resulting in cycles of interests and behaviors? I go through periods of wanting to work on creative work and periods of wanting to do scholarly work. So it may just be that. But at the same time, I have dealt with such utter nonsense and idiocy of late, from logical fallacies to misstatement of facts, that I'm beginning to see just how futile it is to argue with anyone. When you cannot persuade someone that they have their facts wrong -- and when you get accused of "name-calling" for correctly pointing out that someone is demonstrating their ignorance when they get facts wrong -- there's no point in arguing anymore.

More, I am not persuaded that direct argumentation ever really changes anyone's mind. It is a colossal waste of time to try to change anyone's mind in a direct fashion. I am, rather, persuaded, that it is only through literature and the arts that one can change others' morals and, thus, change the foundation on which they act and judge. However, this raises yet another problem. If I post a poem, who reads it? I have to get my plays performed or at least get someone somewhere to read my artistic writings. Who will do so? In my experience, not many.

Is everything, then, a waste of time? Perhaps not. Sometimes you just have to reach the right one or two, and that makes all the difference in the future. Who knows who that person will be, or when you will reach that person? You just keep writing and you keep hoping.