Sunday, December 29, 2013

Novel Reading Affects Human Action

The evidence for reading literature having a significant effect on the brain keeps pouring in. The authors discovered that reading novels not only has an effect on our language centers over time, but that it has an effect on those neurons activated when we actually act -- or think about acting. Thus, novel reading causes our brains to react as though we are acting. This, of course, is going to affect our future actions. Thus, novel reading affects our actions. In a science of human actions (catallactics), we should perhaps spend more time understanding the effects of novel reading. Perhaps of storytelling overall, since most people get their stories not from novels, but from T.V. and film. This would seem like important follow up -- seeing the effect of watching plays, televised fiction, and films.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Am I a Kind of Unrecognized Autistic?

You have a child.

He learns to speak very early. He can read Dr. Seuss books by 2.5 years of age. He learns things very quickly. He begins writing at a very early age, and being very imaginative, begins writing stories. He has a fascination with nature. He loves to read everything on every topic, from nonfiction to fiction. He is generally well-behaved, though sometimes argumentative.

He cannot look you in the eye when he talks with you, but rather looks at your mouth or his eyes are darting all over the place (making him hyperaware of his surroundings). He is socially awkward and has difficulty making friends. He prefers to spend time alone, whether in his room or walking in the woods. He obsessively makes lists -- lists of dinosaurs, then lists of sharks, then lists of plants. Everyone agrees he is highly intelligent, but the standardized tests at school suggest he is average. He is exceptionally good at seeing patterns.

I think most people would be pleased to have the first child. That child is obviously intelligent, but otherwise quite normal. The second child, on the other hand, is obviously autistic. More, the two children seem opposites. Autistic children aren't imaginative, and they have speech delays. Even if you combine the two, you don't get a child with Asperger's, as children with Asperger's have difficulty communicating, even though they don't have the speech delay, and they also have coordination problems.

Yet, if you do combine those two lists, you have me.

Since we learned Daniel is autistic, I have read a lot about autism. I recently discovered the Intense World Theory (IWT) of autism, which describes my son almost perfectly. And though the researchers don't say, the theory also allows for a kind of autism wherein the child is also creative. Which also describes Daniel. His creativity would make one wonder about his being autistic, given the fact that autistic children are not supposed to be creative/inventive. More, from the description of autism from the IWT, the two people who know me best -- my wife and my brother -- have each independently concluded that I probably "have that."

However, I did not have the language delay. More, my language was quite accelerated. Yet, this might not be inconsistent with IWT autism. If one is raised in a generally quite, calm environment, might it not be that a child might learn language more quickly, given his neurological structures. This would suggest that there might be a kind of high-functioning IWT autism that is completely undiagnosed, since nobody would have thought there was a thing wrong with me growing up. What is wrong with a child who speaks early and reads by two and a half? Clearly nothing is wrong with that child. And later, when he spends his time in his room reading books and making lists, it's because he's just a little peculiar, because he's so smart. He likes to spend time in the woods because he likes nature. And he does have friends, even if he doesn't really spend that much time playing with them.

The difference between Daniel and me is that he has the speech delay. And he hasn't learned to read yet. I suspect he will learn to read when most other children learn to read, though. His language is improving quite a bit, too. But I am beginning to see much more of a continuation between him and me. His world might be a bit more intense, is all. But I am beginning to think that there might be a kind of autism that remains undiagnosed, precisely because nobody would think a child learning language early and reading early has any kind of significant mental difference, other than perhaps being a bit smarter than average. But it might be more.

Indeed, the fact that IWT autism is dominated by positive feedback also explains much. It explains why I swing between high and low energy -- one would typically consider me to be mildly bipolar. It explains why I am sensitive to food textures and to things touching my wrists and neck -- and general touch-hypersensitivity at times (high energy times). And it explains my extreme empathy -- which makes me socially uncomfortable at times, yet allows me too to really hone in on people's problems. And it makes me particularly interested in stories. I love fiction, and I love to write fiction.

Indeed, IWT does seem to explain so much about me. It is a fascinating insight.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Intense World Theory of Autism and Daniel

Since learning my older son, Daniel, has autism, I have spent a great deal of time reading about it. With my undergraduate degree and two years of graduate school in molecular biology, the things I typically read are on the molecular biology and neurobiology of autism. Since I can understand the most recent research, that's what I prefer to read.

Of course, my interest in the brain precedes my even having children, as my dissertation, Evolutionary Aesthetics, shows. In my dissertation I review some of the neurological underpinnings of artistic production and creation, with a focus on language and literature. Since then, I have mostly published, though, on self-organizing scale-free network processes -- including spontaneous orders -- in which negative and positive feedback is present. When such a system is dominated by negative feedback, the system tends toward equilibrium. When such a system is dominated by positive feedback, you get regular cycles -- booms and busts, in economic terms. When such a system has both positive and negative feedback present at the same time, you have what is called a biotic system -- such systems are complex and creative. Spontaneous orders are biotic systems -- especially in combination with other spontaneous orders, other scale free networks, etc.

All of this leads me to something I read recently on the Intense World Theory of autism. Among the complaints about this theory, though, is that it does not explain all forms of autism. Given a recent metastudy suggesting there are at least three different kinds of autism, though, this is hardly a problem. In fact, this is good news, since we will begin to understand more clearly why some things work for some autistic children, but not for others. If they don't actually have the same syndrome, you wouldn't expect the same things to work for everyone. That being said, the Intense World Theory, as described in the above linked article, makes a lot of sense to me -- in no small part because of what it says about the parents.

But first, the similarities between Kai Markram (the son of the neuroscientist who developed IWT) and Daniel are remarkable. Both were precocious babies. Daniel is a bundle of energy. Daniel also alternates between social anxiety around strangers and just running up and hugging strangers. There are the tantrums -- which in Daniel's case, are fortunately getting better over time, as we continue to expose him to social situations. Daniel also on occasion lines things up. And he is sometimes very sensitive to sounds -- he will sometimes turn off the radio, he is bothered by applause. We also noticed that if we hugged Daniel when he is most upset, he has calmed down. In no small part, I came up with this idea after I read that autistic children who are given nasal injections of oxytocin became more social for a while. Since oxytocin is made naturally in response to skin-on-skin touch, I began making sure I held and hugged him more -- which has had a remarkably positive effect. We have been fortunate that Daniel is apparently better with the food than Kai was, though. He'll try most foods, but when he's made up his mind he likes or dislikes something, that's the end of it.

Given these similarities, what Henry Markram concluded was very interesting to me. Their conclusion that "autistic people take in too much and learn too fast" fits well what I know about Daniel. For example, Daniel, though only age 4, understands cause-and-effect and can therefore engage in deductive reasoning. In fact, just the other day, as we were driving to the local grocery store, we drove by a restaurant with a large number of cars in the parking lot, and Daniel said, "Look, Daddy! They have lots of customers!" We then went to the grocery store, and when we came out, as I was putting Daniel in his car seat, he said to me, "Daddy, we were customers, weren't we?" My wife, who teaches 1st grade, says her students cannot do that.

But this is what really spoke to me, what made me understand that, at least in the case of Daniel, IWT explains a great deal:
The more he [Henry Markram] investigated the idea of autism not as a deficit of memory, emotion and sensation, but an excess, the more he realized how much he himself had in common with his seemingly alien son.
Like Henry Markram, as a small child I wanted to know everything (that hasn't changed). I did a little better in high school than he did, but it was not until my Senior year that I turned things around. And one of the main predictors of someone having a child with autism? Having a Ph.D.

Henry Markram and his wife discovered that in the mouse models they were studying, the inhibitory cells (negative feedback) worked normally, but the excitatory cell (positive feedback) "responded nearly twice as strongly as normal—and they were hyper-connected," and "were hyperactive, which isn’t necessarily a defect: A more responsive, better-connected network learns faster." In other words, autistic people with hyper-connected, hyperactive excitatory cells learn too quickly, and they learn irreversibly. Which can be a problem -- especially when what they are learning is a fear response.
Also, they discovered that autistic brains have more minicolumns, "which can be seen as the brain’s microprocessors." Coincidentally, "extra minicolumns have been found in autopsies of scientists who were not known to be autistic, suggesting that this brain organization can appear without social problems and alongside exceptional intelligence." This suggests a kind of continuum. It seems that your "average" extremely smart person has enough extra minicolumns, enough of a ramped-up brain, to become a scientists (and, likely, an artist, inventor, etc.). Slightly more, and you might develop Asperger's Syndrome. Slightly more, and you develop autism. This would suggest, as the article does, that brilliance in those autistics who are also savants is a feature, not a bug. Many autistics develop very advanced cognitive abilities, including those necessary to be good at math, music, and science. In fact, "Mathematics, musical virtuosity, and scientific achievement all require understanding and playing with systems, patterns, and structure. Both autistic people and their family members are over-represented in these fields, which suggests genetic influences." My own proclivities are in "understanding and playing with systems, patterns, and structure" in my scholarly work (on complex network processes) and poetry (formal verse -- patterns and structure).

What this suggests is that Daniel is an even more intense version of me. I have many social difficulties precisely because I "feel too much and sense too much." I am deeply empathetic, and my intensity of feeling is what led to my becoming an artist. I am sensitive to fabrics, to anything touching my wrists or neck, to the textures of foods (spaghetti and fettuccini both taste very different to me because of their very different textures). I experience the world very intensely, and it can be too much at times. If this is my experience, and Daniel is (if Asperger's is one level, and autism is two) two levels more intense in his feelings and senses, his behaviors make a great deal of sense to me.

More than this, the fact that it is excitatory neurons that are working more also explains quite a bit, if we take a complex systems view. As I mention above, complex systems like the brain have both positive and negative feedback working simultaneously. That is a normal brain. In a brain in which the inhibitory neurons were more active, we would expect to see a brain moving more toward equilibrium -- low activity. In a brain in which the excitatory neurons were more active, though, we would expect to see cyclical activity -- periods of hyperactivity and mania followed by low energy and depression. Many autistics are also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Though undiagnosed, I am almost certainly at least mildly bipolar. I have seen Daniel have very low energy and cry and "be sad" for no reason at all; at other times, Daniel is extremely hyper. Fortunately, Daniel rarely crashes into the really sad depressive mode, but he does cycle between low and high energy. This would make perfect sense if his brain were dominated by positive feedback, as the Intense World Theory suggests.

However, this aspect is nowhere mentioned in the article. It seems an important thing to consider, though. However, to understand this means one has to take a complex systems perspective. Perhaps further research will show others have in fact made this connection -- but if not, I think it's an important insight that needs to be investigated further.

The good news is that many of Daniel's social anxieties and repetitive behaviors seem to have been decreasing over time. And his language skills have been improving. Fortunately, while he is clearly autistic, his symptoms could have been much worse. From the sounds of the article, his social anxieties are not even as bad as Kai's, whose symptoms do not sound all that bad compared to others I have read about. And Daniel is more likely in recent months to look at you when you talk to him. Much of this improvement has been since I read about how autistic children have low oxytocin levels and that increased levels of oxytocin help with these behaviors. Since skin-on-skin touch increases oxytocin, I have made sure to hug Daniel more and to make sure there is skin-on-skin contact. I am convinced this has helped. I have seen the behavioral changes. He will always have them to a certain degree, but if Daniel can overcome some of these social issues, while retaining the benefits of autism, Daniel should have a great life.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Inclusivist Morality as Spontaneous Order Morals

In the wake of the Renaissance, we saw the emergence of several distinct spontaneous orders, which we could identify as the liberal orders -- free markets, science, and democracy. In the Renaissance itself we saw the emergence of the artistic orders as free and independent spontaneous orders -- free and independent of the religious order, that is. With the Enlightenment, we saw the economy, science, and governments become increasingly free and independent of religion. No doubt part of this was the fact that religion itself -- in the Reformation -- became free and independent of the overarching hierarchical organization of the Catholic church.

In addition, though, we also see another spontaneous order emerging and coming into its own -- the moral order. The distinctive feature of the moral order is inclusive morality -- one extends fellow humanity, meaning moral standing is separated from group membership. As Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell argue in "Beyond the Paleo":
According to this inclusivist moral outlook, moral standing depends on the cognitive capacities of the individual, not the ability of the individual to reciprocate or otherwise contribute to co-operative goods. Even if non-human animals, or young children, or persons with disabilities lack strategic capacities, this does not deprive them of moral status. Likewise, if a minority group or weaker nation can safely be exploited without risk of retaliation, we nonetheless deem such behaviour morally unacceptable.

As with the other orders, once morality was able to develop into its own free and independent spontaneous order, it followed its own evolutionary logic independent of many of the elements of its foundations. As Hayek observed, though, this results in our living in "two worlds at once." The conservative moral philosophers discussed by Buchanan and Powell are not wrong about their observations and their concerns; neither, too, are Buchanan and Powell wrong about the existence of recently developed moral order. However, there is necessarily a tension between the two, as we will all too often feel the pull of each -- our evolved moral psychologies as well as the results of the moral order's inclusivist morality. That is the tragic tension present in each and every person participating in a spontaneous order.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Yes, Libertarianism Now!

As the author of a book chapter in Basic Income and the Free Market, in which I make an argument in favor of adopting either a negative income tax or, better, a basic income guarantee as a replacement for all of our current set of welfare programs (which would include the welfare programs we call subsidies), one may be surprised to learn that I disagree with Matt Zwolinski on this very topic.

The reasons I disagree with Zwolinski are expressed quite well by David Friedman, as quoted by David Henderson, with whose criticism I also agree. I do not buy into the argument that we must redress past grievances precisely for the reasons Friedman gives -- many of the descendants of past wrongdoers are themselves poorer than the descendants of those who had had the wrong done to them -- but also because there is absolutely no foundation in either morals or justice for punishing the children for the sins of their parents.

That, after all, is the logic of "reparations," no matter how they are laid out.

Suppose that there was a man who raped and murdered 20 women. He died before the police could catch him, but all of the evidence showed him to be the culprit. This man also happens to have a son who is over 18. Should the police go and arrest the son, try him for his father's crimes, and put him in prison for them (in Texas, he would get the death penalty as well)? We would rightly decry this as a horrible act of injustice. The son did not commit the crimes, and he is not responsible for his father's actions.

The same is true of the descendants of any crime. It is perhaps particularly true of something we consider a crime today that was not considered a crime in the past. You cannot even try someone for committing an act that was not a crime when they committed the act, but is a crime now. How, then, can one possibly justify then punishing this person's descendants?

I see the same argument against those with luck or those who "got there first" when it comes to property.

The first seems almost as bizarre, given the subjective nature of values and the fact that what can seem like bad luck can turn out to have good consequences later, and vice versa. Yes, it was probably luck that allowed Alexander Graham Bell to patent his telephone a day before that other guy who also invented the phone, and whose name nobody knows because of it. But so what? One might make an argument against intellectual property on that basis -- but still, what's luck got to do with it? The issue of luck is utter nonsense -- it requires a level of knowledge impossible for real human beings to have. Further, it points back to the point Friedman made about the African slave traders. The ones selling the slaves were the lucky ones, while the ones sold into slavery were the unlucky ones. The descendants of the former, though, are financially much worse off than the descendants of the latter. Would anyone like to defend the argument that the African-American descendants of slaves are the lucky ones?

Then there is the "got there first" complaint. Yes, as people moved around the globe, there were inevitably people who "got there first." But this is true of those who invent something as well. Is it "fair" that the Wright brothers "got there first" with the invention of the airplane? I'm not sure how to reasonably answer that. Fair to whom? To whoever else might have invented it later? How on earth would we be able to determine that? And never mind all the people who benefited from the airplane's invention, I suppose. But even then, it was early adopters who benefited most. Of course, they also spent the most early on. Should their descendants be paid back, since it was their willingness to spend a lot of money to be the first to fly that made it cheaper for others later? How convoluted this nonsense becomes!

Of course, when it comes to land, sometimes people got there second, and did away with the ones who got there first. Such is nature. But it is not justice -- at least, by our current definitions of justice. Perhaps there is a claim here?

I think not. The issue is precisely that these considerations are based on our current, prevailing ideas on what is just, on what is moral. Our ideas of what is moral and just evolve, and will continue to evolve. Yet it seems unjust to argue that someone should be held criminally responsible for actions not considered unjust, no matter when it happened. And more so the descendants of those who actually are responsible for those actions.

Judging past actions with today's morals is sloppy thinking. It's lazy and simplistic. It denies the evolutionary nature of morals. Yes, morals are rooted in our sentiments, as Adam Smith rightly observed, but at the same time, those morals evolve. Murder is and has always been immoral, if we define murder as the purposeful taking of a fellow human life -- what has evolved is the kinds of people we consider fellow human beings.

Political libertarianism is a view of justice, and views of justice evolve the same as do our morals. We cannot fix what we as libertarians perceive to have been past injustices, using our current ideas on justice, by imposing even more injustices upon the innocent descendants of those who committed the acts in question. But we can move forward. We can try to encourage social evolution toward greater justice. Over time, social evolution will create the more just outcomes we desire. That is why we need libertarianism, now!