My Conversation with Michelle Dawson

Here is the transcript and audio, I am very pleased (and honored) to have been able to do this.  She is an autism researcher, and so most of the discussion concerned autism, here is one excerpt:

COWEN: What would be the best understanding of autism, from your perspective?

DAWSON: The best understanding is seeing autism as atypical brain functioning, resulting in atypical processing of all information. So that’s information across domains — social, nonsocial; across modalities — visual, auditory; whatever its source, whether it’s information from your memory, information coming from the outside world, that is atypical. So that is very domain-general atypicality.

What autistic brains do with information is atypical. How it’s atypical, in my view, involves what I’ve called cognitive versatility and less mandatory hierarchies in how the brain works, such that, for example, an autistic brain will consider more possibilities, will nonstrategically combine information across levels and scales without losing large parts of it, and so on. And that applies to all information.

That is strictly my view. I’m not sure anyone would agree with me.


COWEN: Now often, in popular discourse, you’ll hear autism or Asperger’s associated with a series of personality traits or features of personality psychology — a kind of introversion or people being nerdy in some regard. In your approach, do you see any connection between personality traits and autism at all?

DAWSON: There is a small literature that shows some connection. I think it’s very weak, and I say no, I don’t think autism is about personality. Autism is sort of orthogonal to personality. The two are not related. Whatever relation there is does not . . . arises from some third factor, let’s say. If there is one — and again, the evidence is, I think, very weak connecting autism to personality — so just say that maybe, if there’s something, let’s say that personality in autistics might be more high variance. That would be my totally wild guess, but I don’t think autism itself is about personality.

And here is Michelle again:

We don’t — I hope we don’t look at a blind person who is a successful lawyer and assume that he is only very mildly blind or barely blind at all, and then look at a blind person who has a very bad outcome and assume that they must be very severely blind.

We do make those kinds of judgments in autism, saying, “The more atypical the person is, the worse they must be in some sense.” That kind of bias has not only harmed a lot of autistic people, it really has impeded research.

Here is Michelle on Twitter.  We discuss and link to some of her research in the discussion.


testing the comments section...

I would love to see an interview with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen

I would like to see Tyler interviewed by Sacha Baron-Cohen.

How about 'Economists in cars getting coffee' ?

As long as Talib is not involved in driving - 'As the night ended, Taleb gave me a brief ride in his White Lexus Hybrid towards a better place to pick up a cab. As we left the parking garage, a couple walked in the direction of the car, and he made a comment about not wanting to run them over.

Unless the guy was an economist, in which case, that would be a "benefit to society."'

According to British music journalist Fritz Spiegl, there is a recording of the movement featuring virtuoso harmonica player Tommy Reilly—apparently he was hired by mistake instead of a player of the glass harmonica

I do miss most, no, many, no, some,no, a few of the comments.

Tyler, you'll have to explain exactly what social experiment you're conducting when this is all said and done.

Two things.

Is traffic decreased by the open comment section.

Is the conduct of the commentariat modified by the potential of losing the function?

For me, 1 is yes and 2 is no.

I think most would say traffic to this site would increase because of the comments. Those who don't want comments would simply not click the comments link.

This is one of those many occasions that Cowen opens a window for his readers. Those who are blessed with autism spectrum ("cognitive versatility") don't have the same filter as those who aren't. Absent a filter, they notice things that others don't. I've commented before that most people don't notice things, things that are right in front of them. Why is that? We evolved to notice things, because survival often depended on it. Not so much today. The less we notice, the stupider we are, right? Maybe most of us suffer from notice overload, so our brains have adjusted not to notice things, even the obvious things. Those who do notice things are different and, therefore, must suffer from some disorder.

I doubt it's as straight forward as those who notice over those who don't. Humans didn't evolve to notice everything. They evolved to have a large sensor input with aggressive filtering to focus on the critical items.

I would logically think that this is different types of filters.

Ms Dawson makes an important point that autism is (mostly) separate from things like intelligence. You can be smart and autistic, or you can be dumb and autistic. The different way of looking at the world can be very valuable if you have the wisdom to realize that you are different and not everyone is going to see it the same way, giving you competitive advantage. If you are particularly dense, then you will spend the rest of your days arguing with people who are, in your view, obviously wrong.

I intentionally referred to "spectrum" because people with autism can have a broad range of symptoms. Some very smart people, smart enough to think about things the rest of us don't, likely have some aspect of autism. I won't mention any names, though.

We're also evolved to filter out things as well. Just consider things like human sight, smell and hearing. I don't think it's a case of recognizing more or less of what is available for us to perceive in deciding if one is more or less intelligent.

While also not really directly about intelligence the issue is really that of in context filtering. And for this discussion also the process of linking the various perception both fit into the whole "atypical processing" take.

Somewhat related there was a perception experiment someone did (forget when and didn't really dig deeply to see how robust or experiment or reporting was) a while back. The test was to show two groups of people an image of a mask that would cover a human face (think the movie V here). They were shown two images. In one the view was of the front of the mask. The other was from the back of the mask. One group of subject had taken LSD while the other had not taken any drugs. The drugged group were much better at determining which image was showing the front and which the back of the mask. The other group had great difficulty in telling the difference.

The conclusion related to LSD breaking down our normal day-to-day filtering of visual inputs allowing the view to "see" the two dimensional image more accurately (that is that processed the input better in this case).

Sorry for a completely off-topic comment. Joël, I told you I would bother you again on August 1, and here I am; if you have any comments or pointers about the just-awarded fields medals that would be most appreciated.

Can't say I understand the math but an interesting group.
"Exile has its uses..." Clearly math doesn't "lose color under another sky."

Thank you for the link.

Here's an interesting link for Akshay venkatesh, one of the 4 winners.

Brazil has organized the best-run Fields Medal ceremo ny in history as it has organized the best World Cup and the best Olympic Games.

Bit of a shame one of the medal winners had his medal stolen five minutes after receiving it in Rio.

Thanks, yes I read that. Of the four, I found the quanta article on Venkatesh the most evocative from a "human" angle, since it talks of his struggles and self-doubts and how others responded to it, of different perspectives to mathematics like ideas growing over 5-10 years, and of his post-graduate-student-days' evolution (the gradual transition from working on "established problems" to setting new directions) etc. The comments from other people like Ellenberg etc. all seem interesting.

I guess Joël is not reading this thread :(

Thank you so much for this podcast. I thought it was truly wonderful.

What are the best books to read on autism, I wonder? Something as authoritative and idiosyncratic as Louis Sass's "Madness and Modernism" (schizophrenia) does not seem to exist, but I wish it did.

It's hard to square the current notions of autism - autistic people see more than other people do, across scales! have more nimble minds! feel more empathy than other people do, not less! are better at grappling with complexity! by their higher status confer "honor" on someone like TC merely by talking with him - with the demand for expensive special services at public schools.

The dumb kids have no such compelling advocates, and that diagnosis doesn't seem to be one fought over on the internet.

I'm not sure her blindness analogy works. Vision impairment is a whole spectrum of conditions from benefiting from, but not always needing, glasses to complete, irreversible blindness. I see nothing wrong in saying that a completely blind person has worse vision impairment than someone who needs glasses - how is it different to say someone who has ASD but can still function among normal environment has less severe autism than someone with ASD who requires constant monitoring/institutionalization? Is there a point that I'm missing?

"She makes a comparison with blindness. Of course blind people have a disability and need special accommodation. But you wouldn't give a blind person a test heavily dependent on vision and interpret their poor score as an accurate measure of intelligence. "

Hijacking this post to ask about the comments... has there been an announcement related to the recent closing of the comments? I looked through the posts and didn't see any explanation. Is MR implementing a new comment system, testing out what effect open or closed comments have on traffic, etc.? Or maybe they feel the comments aren't casting the right sort of light on the blog? Very curious to know what's going on.

For what it's worth, I rarely participate in the comments, but I always read them. There are plenty that are trollish, partisan, in bad faith, or otherwise unfortunate, but there are also many that are insightful and worthwhile, or sometimes just funny, and it would be a shame to lose them. MR does feel like a community of sorts and it would be sad if that went away.

The comments from, say, a decade ago used to be much higher quality, in the sense of providing additional information, interesting opposing perspectives, etc. The hopeful view would be that this is a temporary closure intended to thin out the trolling, petty aggression, and sniping.

So MR needs more well-meaning, high-quality commenters while Slate Star Codex needs some people who can add a bit of succinct sass and spark to their earnest but sometimes long-winded proceedings.

So what we clearly need here is a blockbuster trade -- maybe two of their deep-thinkers for three of our acid-tongued idealogues, with SSC throwing in draft picks (young up-and-coming effective altruists) and Tyler adding a commenter to be named later.

With the trade dissected on BSN (Blogging Sports Network)

Whoops, the trade falls through as Tyler now announces he has 110 percent confidence in his team. (And Dick the Butcher exercises his no-trade clause)

We'll have guest anchor Scott Sumner on at the top of the hour to analyze the aborted trade!

Sometimes reminding people that things can be taken away improves their care-taking of them.

+1, looks like he was going for a reset. Hope it holds up.

Ur just a middleman. I remember you from Zucotti Park with Jackson Browne on that wary December night. The murmurs of praise for your praise and there was the ethic in its iminical and apposite glory, not one face incredulous or clean like a midnight talk show, the guitar singing the singer the song dead I thought, this is kingdom come and gone and if there were disciples these were surely them.

Regarding the matter at hand.... you can tell that Michelle is an expert in autism, because she says nothing of consequence, and indeed hates the very idea of doing so.

Autism is atypical brain function. Wow, thanks! And I understand that this is YOUR view, not anyone else's view. The important thing here is that no one makes any judgments!

Dawson's characterizations of autistic information processing were quite interesting - the resistance to framing and narrative-based biases in particular. I would be interested in a general survey of people's cognitive styles in this regard.

Even though Myers-Briggs is generally regarded as hocuspocus among actual cognitive and personality psychologists, if you look at MBTI-type specific groups on Facebook you cannot avoid seeing some strong differentiations in cognitive style.

Can you tell me why TC is so interested in autism (or why should I be)? It seems like a niche topic.

Reread the discussion in the transcript on hyperlexia.

I really liked the part about intelligence tests, which I reblogged:

She is amazing. Thank you. If often though autism diagnosis and treatment are in the dark ages. And she provides hard evidence. Her twitter feed is priceless.

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