Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, October 24, 2008

The 99 Percent Fallacy

I sometimes come across statements from autistic bloggers and others who describe the world as being divided into two kinds of people: autistics—who make up 1 percent or thereabouts of the world's population—and "neurotypicals." The latter group, according to this view, comprises the remaining 99 percent of the human species, give or take a few.

Although this tidy little view of the world may seem at first glance to make sense, as with many black-and-white categorization schemes, the real world appears to be a messier and more complex place. The scientific evidence simply does not back up the popular notion that there is some sort of "typical" brain configuration shared by the vast majority of our species. To the contrary, neuroscientists and other researchers are discovering previously unrecognized cognitive differences all the time. Just as the autistic spectrum is itself a relatively recent concept, there are many other neurological variations that were unknown to science before modern times, and probably many more that remain unknown.

Last week I read an article about a research study that initially involved one woman who had extreme difficulty forming mental maps of her surroundings. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed specific differences in brain activity attributable to her condition. After information about her case was made public last month, about 60 other people—who presumably had gone through their lives up to that point as part of the "normal" majority—contacted the researchers to report that they had the same condition.

According to the article, "the woman seems completely normal in every other way… as if she didn’t pick up one item in the cafeteria line to create a full tray of cognition."

This cafeteria analogy represents yet another assertion of the common view that most people are "neurotypicals" with identically configured brains. It suggests that human cognitive development is like a school cafeteria in which all children are supposed to go through the same line and pick up the same set of items. But when we consider the vast extent of both the previously known and the newly discovered variations in human brain function, I think that a more accurate analogy would be a buffet with thousands of available food items from all over the world, such that a "full tray" can be any one of billions of different potential combinations.

What are the implications of the buffet analogy with regard to standards of typical social behavior? If what we call normality does not reflect the naturally occurring cognitive processes of a huge majority of neurologically identical people, then what does it reflect?

I believe that normality is the cultural midpoint where, in each generation, the behaviors of many different neurological types approach convergence. As such, consensus normality can change very rapidly as we alter our behavior in response to new technology and other changes in our environment. Its boundaries also can be much wider or narrower at various times in history and in different parts of the world, depending on how much tolerance a particular culture shows toward human diversity in general.

A provocative new study suggests that Internet use may be physically changing the brain circuitry of modern humans and rapidly altering our social behavior. "As the brain evolves and shifts its focus towards new technological skills," contends the study's author, Gary Small of UCLA's neuroscience department, "it drifts away from fundamental social skills." The study reported that regular Internet users showed twice as much signaling in brain regions responsible for decision-making and complex reasoning, compared with those who had limited Internet exposure. The latter group displayed superior ability in reading facial expressions.

Of course, the idea that reading facial expressions is a "fundamental social skill" is itself a culturally dependent characterization. We should not assume that this ability was hard-wired into the vast majority of human brains in past generations. In my opinion, it's more likely that those who lived in urban areas and regularly interacted with large numbers of people had a much better understanding of facial expressions than those who lived as peasants in small villages and spent most of their time working in the fields.

The article closes with the caveat that "modern technology, and the skills it fosters, is evolving even faster than we are… What the future brain will look like is still anybody's guess." Thus, in the context of policy decisions about what social behaviors should be encouraged in today's children, I contend that we must be very careful not to perpetuate an overly narrow concept of normality that fails to appreciate the potential contributions of neurological minorities to our society.

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13 Comments:

  • I like it. I like it a lot!

    Ben is taking Health this year. For some reason, when it came to Social Health, I figured it would be all about "making friends", etc., etc. But for those of us whose most hurtful times occurred while just "trying to be one of the crowd"...it had a very positive slant towards being able to be alone, too. And having the strength to be true to oneself.

    We are ALL a mix of strengths and weaknesses. We are ALL on the human spectrum.

    By Blogger r.b., at 8:36 PM  

  • Interesting post.

    I have a masters in neuroscience and what I'm most aware of is how little we know of the brain. So it has always puzzled me how people can be so adamant that there are distinct neurotypical and autistic brain configurations (without saying what they are). I am sure there are many variations.

    By Anonymous tinted, at 9:16 PM  

  • Very much agreed with this (tho not so sure about the conclusions of the UCLA study, it's a little too close to "autistics are the next stage of evolution" for my liking).

    I know many, many people who wouldn't fit the curent diagnostic criteria for autism (or any of the other "medically recognised" types of neurodiversity, eg. ADHD, dyspraxia or dyslexia), but who are definitely not "neurotypical".

    One close friend and her identical twin both have almost exactly the same thing as the woman described in the first link (except perhaps not quite so severely). (I've forwarded the link to her.)

    IMO all the currently recognised "diagnoses" are merely fairly arbitrary sections taken out of a continuous spectrum (or, perhaps more accurately, multiple intersecting spectra) anyway...

    By Blogger shiva, at 9:22 PM  

  • "Last week I read an article about a research study that initially involved one woman who had extreme difficulty forming mental maps of her surroundings. (And a)fter information about her case was made public last month, about 60 other people—who presumably had gone through their lives up to that point as part of the 'normal' majority—contacted the researchers to report that they had the same condition." (my edit)

    For many years now, I've gone well away from the notion that there was ever such a thing as a typical way in which the brain is wired. When we talk about brain development, we're talking about systems of cells whose own developmental trajectories can essentially be described by chaotic growth model: that is, a model of growth that is deterministic but not predictable. Such systems are not totally random in their development, but you cannot predict how they will develop.

    This contributes to the fact that no two people are ever completely alike: differences in personality and ability and motivation (and any other variables attached to behavioural outcomes) are not based only on biology or on environment. Rather, they're based more on the interplay between these two major factors (anyone remember Lewin's equation: B=f(P, E)?

    As r.b. said, ^way up there^, 'we are all a mix of strengths and weaknesses'. And this is demonstrated pretty well in the fact that we have an almost infinite number of different subtest profiles on each of the main intellectual ability test batteries in the Wechsler suite (in fact, 6,131,066,258,000 - based on a ten-subtest summation to determine overall IQ: 19 to the power 10, because the probability is essentially 'with replacement' when dealing with essentially independent events).

    And, even then, there is no guarantee that any two persons with identical subtest profiles have brains 'wired in the same way', since subtest profiles do not back-map to brain function or structure in a one-to-one mapping.

    Neurotypicality? It's a fiction. There is no such thing as 'the common, average human being' (at least psychometrically; I posted the calculation on this elsewhere)

    And the study quoted by abfh above is another nice little piece of evidence that supports my notion that we don't get through education because of school - we get through despite it!

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 11:01 AM  

  • Shiva: "
    IMO all the currently recognised 'diagnoses' are merely fairly arbitrary sections taken out of a continuous spectrum (or, perhaps more accurately, multiple intersecting spectra) anyway..."

    Nearly correct. They are not that arbitrary, though.

    There is a small number of criteria that determine whether a diagnosis needs to be made with regard to any identifiable diagnostic entity:

    A- psychological dysfunction: is there a problem with thinking, feeling or acting in relation to some-one/thing;

    B- distress: does this problem cause distress to the person experiencing it;

    C- impairment: is there an impairment in performance as a result of it? (note: the person is not impaired, but his/her performance is)

    D- atypicality of response: is the person's responsive behaviour in keeping with their usual behaviour patterns?

    E- not culturally expectable: is the person's behaviour expected/accepted according to his/her cultural background?

    All of these have to be taken into account when formulating a diagnosis. There's an issue of 'necessity and sufficiency' involved: the presence of characteristics of a diagnostic entity is necessary but not sufficient for the diagnosis to be made (at least clinically; in educational settings, we tend to diagnose to either research or clinical standards... but with a different aim in mind - we think in terms of educational support needs rather than therapeutic needs).

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 11:23 AM  

  • "Rather, they're based more on the interplay between these two major factors (anyone remember Lewin's equation: B=f(P, E))?"

    Sorry! *blush*

    Omitted a closing parenthesis!

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 11:24 AM  

  • tinted: "So it has always puzzled me how people can be so adamant that there are distinct neurotypical and autistic brain configurations (without saying what they are). I am sure there are many variations."

    Nice to see a neuroscientist come in and say that! Medically-oriented neuroscientists do indeed act in such a way, as if the correlations can be taken for granted. I remember an interesting study a few years ago that suggested that a presupposed dysfunction in the parts of the brain concerned with balance led to the 'obsession' with spinning or whirling things was actually something of an error!

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/01/010104071419.htm

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 11:31 AM  

  • Yes! Thank you!
    That's exactly what Neurodiversity is all about, and I think it needs to be pointed out more clearly, because lot of people think Neurodiversity is some elitist Aspie club, or something.
    I'm not saying it's the Seidels' fault, but the way the Neurodiversity movement gets portrayed in the media.

    I've always considered the word "Neurotypical" very tongue in cheek, and use it only in an ironic context, it's quite telling, that most NTs are slightly offended by the suggestion of "normalcy".

    By Blogger TheGonzoGirl, at 12:55 AM  

  • "The study reported that regular Internet users showed twice as much signaling in brain regions responsible for decision-making and complex reasoning, compared with those who had limited Internet exposure. The latter group displayed superior ability in reading facial expressions."

    We can assume that there are important reasons why some of these people are not regular internet users, while others are. It is possible that these two groups were systematically different to start with? Do the group who had limited internet exposure and who were also very good at reading facial expressions have a brain condition that is the opposite of autism? Are they so-called "hyper-emathizers" who have an inborn superior skill at socializing with people, but who also have a disability in systemizing, making them unable to understand how computers and the internet work, or giving them limited intellectual curiousity which causes them to have no compelling reason to spend time on the internet?

    We all need to have respect for the diversity of human types. I read an interesting article the other day about the idea that male and female brains are in fact two different brain types. If that is true, then which type is the "normal" type, male or female? This idea cuts the idea of "the normal brain" roughly in half.

    By Blogger Lili Marlene, at 12:06 AM  

  • The whole idea of "neurotypical" was originated with people who believe in at least some usefulness of the social model. In that contact, "neurotypical" just means "someone without a label", nothing more. It certainly was never intended to mean "everyone in this group thinks alike and has no problems."

    Unfortunately there is a lot of ignorance of our shared history and things like this get distorted as a result.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:11 AM  

  • I agree with Anon,

    I also don't believe that any label given by the DSM or any other standard measurement of ability vs. deficits is a describtion that would only those who are tested by it.

    Since most people aren't tested, the majority that would fit these labels if they were are unidentified.

    Because most of these people will not have access to a standard education, no one will find out how people in this category learn best or what their needs are.

    While these people may have much less effect on social policy or how many social norms and views are constructed, they are certainly affected by what they are constructed as.

    If the so-called middle class is the economic stimulus for the resources that trickle down (though I don't think this has been proven) I think we need to adjust our advocacy efforts to include how our efforts will affect this population. If we don't the pain and the destruction caused will surely trickle up.

    By Blogger Ed, at 11:46 AM  

  • I really like the buffet metaphor. It makes sense of the concepts of neurotypicality, neurodiversity and individual differentiation without diminishing any of them.

    If any possible combination of dishes constitutes a possible human mind, neurotypicality might be any combination that looks like it could be, say, a three-course meal (starter, main course and dessert). Neurodiversity would be any combination that didn't appear to be a three-course meal, such as someone who picked two starters and a main but skipped dessert, or someone who decided to eat nothing but carrots.

    Those who had meals that outsiders struggled to classify as a three-course meal would be those in the area of the spectra between clear neurodiversity and neurotypicality.

    The functionality labels are the staff's attempts to classify different buffet combinations for the purposes of administration, ignoring the fact that (usually) those who picked the meals are about equally content with their choices, assuming no bullying from other buffet customers occurs.

    By Anonymous Alianora La Canta, at 10:44 AM  

  • I agree that the world "neurotypical" should not only apply to non-autistics. It should refer to not having any significant disability that makes it difficult for them to function in this particular society. It is very black and white to say that a person is either autistic or NT, since then you also have some dyslexics, ADHD, Tourette's, and the mental illnesses.

    Sometimes I say neurotypical when I really mean non-autistic, just for convenience sake. Or should I say, having a neurotypical way of socializing that could be shared by dyslexics and other sorts of neurodivergences.

    By Blogger Catatab_Tabimount, at 6:55 PM  

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