Voluntary autism

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Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution points to a New York Times article about some autistics who don't have any interest in having normal brain wiring. The arguments range from the standard "this is the way we are" identity politics (familiar from the deaf anti-cochlear implant movement) to observing that some autistics have special talents (exceptional focus, memory, lightning calculation) that can be harder for normals. (Reference: neurodiversity.com.

This argument sounds ok--just as it did 40 years ago when Szasz made it about mental illness in general--when you're dealing with someone who's high functioning and just appears quirky. It's entirely different when the person in question is completely withdrawn and can't (or won't) speak or take care of themselves.

Nevertheless, this is interesting to think about: as we get better control over our brain wiring it's going to become a lot easier for people who would like different neural architectures to have them. The obvious ones that come to mind (smarter, better memory, more focused) are basically enhancements, but that's not the only way to rewire yourself. Lots of people take drugs voluntarily. Why not cut out the middleman and rewire yourself to be stoned all the time?

Science fiction is way ahead of us here. Greg Egan is particularly on point. His "Voluntary Autists" are normal (or at least mostly normal) people who want to become autistic:

"Of course, most animals will instinctively protect their young, or their mates, at a cost to themselves; altruism is an ancient behavioral strategy. But how could instinctive altruism be made compatible with human self-awareness? Once there was a burgeoning ego, a growing sense of self in the foreground of every action, how was it prevented from overshadowing everything else?

"The answer is, evolution invented intimacy. Intimacy makes it possible to attach some, or all, of the compelling qualities associated with the ego--the model of the self--to models of other people. And not just possible--pleasurable. A pleasure reinforced by sex, but not restricted to the act, like orgasm. And not even restricted to sexual partners, in humans. Intimacy is just a belief--rewarded by the brain--that you know the people you love in almost hte same fashion as you know yourself."

The worst "love" had come as a shock, in the middle of all that sociobiology. But he'd used it without a hint of irony or self-conscious ness--as if he'd seamlessly merged the vocabularies of emotion and evolution into a single language.

I said, "And even partial autism makes that impossible. Because you can't model anyone well enough to really know them at all?"

Rourke didn't believe in yes-or-no answers. "Again, we're not all identical. Sometimes the modeling is accurate enough--as ccurate as anyone's--but it's not rewarded: the parts of Lamont's area which make most people feel good about intimacy and actively seek it out, are missing. These people are considered 'cold', 'aloof.' And sometimes the reverse is true: people are driven to seek intimacy, but their modeling is so poor that they can never hope to find it. They might lack the social skills to form lasting sexual relationships--or even if they're intelligent and resourceful enough to circumvent the social problems, the brain itself might judge the model to be faulty, and refuse to reward it. So the drive is never satisfied--because it's physically impossible for it to be satisfied.


He said carefully, "Many fully autistic people suffer additional brain damage and various kinds of mental retardation. In general, we don't. Whatever damage we've suffered to Lamont's area, most of us are intelligent enough to understand our own condition. We know that non-autistic people are capable of believing that they've achieved intimacy. But in VA we've decided that we'd be better off without that talent".

"Why better off?"

"Because it's a talent for self-deception."

I said, "If autism is a lack of understanding of others ... and healing the lesion would grant you that lost understanding--"

Rourke broke in, "But how much is understanding and how much is a delusion of understanding?. Is intimacy a form of knowledge, or is it just a comforting false belief? Evoution isn't interested in whether or not we grasp the truth, except in the most pragmatic sense. And there can be equally pragmatic falsehoods. If the brain neds to grant us an exaggerated sense of our capacity for knowing each other--to make pair-bonding compatible with self-awareness--it will lie, shamelessly, as much as it has to, in order to make the strategy succeed.


I said angrily, "Cost is the least of the issues. You're talking about deliberately--surgically--ridding yourself of something... fundamental to humanity.

Rourke looked up from the floor and nodded calmly, as if I'd finally made a point in which we were in complete agreement.

He said, "Exactly. And we've lived with decades with a fundamental truth about human relationships--which we choose not to surrender to the comforting effects of a brain graft. All we want to do is make that choice complete. To stop being punished for our refusal to be deceived.

Egan's future also includes the possibility of having your brain rewired rather than having a sex change--or even having your brain rewired to make you neurally asexual. Definitely worth checking out.

UPDATE: Fixed a typo: I'd written 'statistics' instead of 'autistics'. doh. Thanks to Chris Walsh for pointing this out.

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sed '1s/statistics/autistics/'

Nitpick: I think you meant "the word love" instead of "the worst love".

A really interesting version of this same idea is in Vinge's _A Deepness in the Sky_, with the Focused scientists.


Indeed. I've been meaning to write about that as well...

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