Monday, March 17, 2014

Autism as Strong Explicit Learners, Weak Implicit Learners

I recently discussed the idea that we need to differentiate between learning and acquiring; imagine my excitement to learn that it was recently discovered that there are two different brain areas for implicit and explicit learning. What I was calling "acquiring" they are calling "implicit learning."

Things that are implicitly learned have instinct modules attached to them -- this is what allows for the rapid acquisition of implicitly learned knowledge. Spoken language falls into this category. So do morals.

Things that are explicitly learned do not have instinct modules attached to them, and thus are learned with more difficulty. Reading and writing fall into this category. So does driving a car. Of course, each of these make use of areas where instincts are at play -- it should be obvious that written language is strongly connected with spoken language -- but these are a step removed from the instinct, made more conscious.

It seems, from the research I have done on autism, as well as my own experiences (as someone with Asperger's/autism) and observation of my son, Daniel, who has autism, that people with autism have difficulty with implicit learning/acquiring, and thus have to rely more on explicit learning. This would go a long way to explaining why so many with autism have language delays, as explicit learning takes longer than does implicit learning. The fact that general purpose artificial neural nets can learn to recognize language without the presence of a language instinct points to a way the human brain could learn language without the ability to acquire it. In fact, if we accept Steven Pinker's argument from "The Language Instinct" that in evolution explicit learning precedes implicit learning because anything that is learned and needs to be learned quickly will soon develop into an instinct, then we can perhaps understand that it is not only possible, but necessary, that language be learned explicitly.

This would also explain the "social awkwardness" of those with autism. And coordination problems. What is naturally acquired by neurotypicals must be explicitly learned by those with autism.

Of course, this raises any number of questions. What are the connections between implicit and explicit learning? Is the implicit learning module(s) weakened in those with autism, or is the explicit learning module strengthened in them? Or both?

Given that implicit learning is in fact going to be multi-modular -- social learning is a different module(s) from language learning -- one would expect variations in what instinct-based modules are affected. Some (such as I) are unaffected in acquiring language, but affected in acquiring social skills. My son has delays in both.

If we combine this idea with the Intense World Theory of autism, we might be able to make the argument for stronger explicit learning -- perhaps even to the extent of hijacking some of the implicit learning hardware. This would also help us make sense of some of the mental abilities of many with autism. Things like mathematics and playing a musical instrument are explicitly learned, and these are two areas often associated with autistic savantism.  I learned how to read by the time I was 2.5 (as noted above, I did not have the language delay; also, reading is learned explicitly).

A more hyperconnected brain, as found in those with autism, is a brain that more closely resembles the architecture of artificial neural nets, and artificial neural nets (ANNs) are general use explicit learners. If you feed enough information into an ANN, it will create concepts and thus learn patterns. ANNs are excellent at finding patterns. I do not think it a coincidence that this also describes how autistic minds learn and behave. While neurotypicals can extract concepts from a handful of examples -- perhaps even only one example -- autistics need many more examples before a concept can be formed. The result is a more fragmented world, but also more accurate to reality concepts that do not have to be modified nearly as much once formed.

In all of the things I have read on autism, I have yet to come across this explicit theory.
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