Testosterone metabolization, autism, male brain, and female identity

I began this post intending to write about testosterone metabolization in autism and possible connections with transgender identity, but realized halfway through that I didn’t actually know whether the autist-trans connection was primarily male-to-female or female-to-male. I had assumed that the relevant population is primarily MtF because both autists and trans people are primarily male, but both groups do have female populations that are large enough to contribute significantly. Here’s a sample of the data I’ve found so far:

A study conducted by a team of British scientists in 2012 found that of a pool of individuals not diagnosed on the autism spectrum, female-to-male (FTM) transgender people have higher rates of autistic features than do male-to-female (MTF) transgender people or cisgender males and females. Another study, which looked at children and adolescents admitted to a gender identity clinic in the Netherlands, found that almost 8 percent of subjects were also diagnosed with ASD.

Note that both of these studies are looking at trans people and assessing whether or not they have autism symptoms, not looking at autists and asking if they have trans symptoms. Given the characterization of autism as “extreme male brain” and that autism is diagnosed in males at about 4x the rate of females, the fact that there is some overlap between “women who think they think like men” and “traits associated with male thought patterns” is not surprising.

If the reported connection between autism and trans identity is just “autistic women feel like men,” that’s pretty non-mysterious and I just wasted an afternoon.

Though the data I have found so far still does not look directly at autists and ask how many of them have trans symptoms, the wikipedia page devoted to transgender and transsexual computer programmers lists only MtFs and no FtMs. Whether this is a pattern throughout the wider autism community, it definitely seems to be a thing among programmers. (Relevant discussion.)

So, returning to the original post:

Autism contains an amusing contradiction: on the one hand, autism is sometimes characterized as “extreme male brain,” and on the other hand, (some) autists (may be) more likely than neurotypicals to self-identify as transwomen–that is, biological men who see themselves as women. This seems contradictory: if autists are more masculine, mentally, than the average male, why don’t they identify as football players, army rangers, or something else equally masculine? For that matter, why isn’t a group with “extreme male brains” regarded as more, well, masculine?

(And if autists have extreme male brains, does that mean football players don’t? Do football players have more feminine brains than autists? Do colorless green ideas sleep furiously? DO WORDS MEAN?)


In favor of the “extreme male brain” hypothesis, we have evidence that testosterone is important for certain brain functions, like spacial recognition, we have articles like this one: Testosterone and the brain:

Gender differences in spatial recognition, and age-related declines in cognition and mood, point towards testosterone as an important modulator of cerebral functions. Testosterone appears to activate a distributed cortical network, the ventral processing stream, during spatial cognition tasks, and addition of testosterone improves spatial cognition in younger and older hypogonadal men. In addition, reduced testosterone is associated with depressive disorders.

(Note that women also suffer depression at higher rates than men.)

So people with more testosterone are better at spacial cognition and other tasks that “autistic” brains typically excel at, and brains with less testosterone tend to be moody and depressed.

But hormones are tricky things. Where do they come from? Where do they go? How do we use them?

According to Wikipedia:

During the second trimester [of pregnancy], androgen level is associated with gender formation.[13] This period affects the femininization or masculinization of the fetus and can be a better predictor of feminine or masculine behaviours such as sex typed behaviour than an adult’s own levels. A mother’s testosterone level during pregnancy is correlated with her daughter’s sex-typical behavior as an adult, and the correlation is even stronger than with the daughter’s own adult testosterone level.[14]

… Early infancy androgen effects are the least understood. In the first weeks of life for male infants, testosterone levels rise. The levels remain in a pubertal range for a few months, but usually reach the barely detectable levels of childhood by 4–6 months of age.[15][16] The function of this rise in humans is unknown. It has been theorized that brain masculinization is occurring since no significant changes have been identified in other parts of the body.[17] The male brain is masculinized by the aromatization of testosterone into estrogen, which crosses the blood–brain barrier and enters the male brain, whereas female fetuses have α-fetoprotein, which binds the estrogen so that female brains are not affected.[18]

(Bold mine.)

Let’s re-read that: the male brain is masculinized by the aromatization of testosterone into estrogen.

If that’s not a weird sentence, I don’t know what is.

Let’s hop over to the scientific literature, eg, Estrogen Actions in the Brain and the Basis for Differential Action in Men and Women: A Case for Sex-Specific Medicines:

Burgeoning evidence now documents profound effects of estrogens on learning, memory, and mood as well as neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative processes. Most data derive from studies in females, but there is mounting recognition that estrogens play important roles in the male brain, where they can be generated from circulating testosterone by local aromatase enzymes or synthesized de novo by neurons and glia. Estrogen-based therapy therefore holds considerable promise for brain disorders that affect both men and women. However, as investigations are beginning to consider the role of estrogens in the male brain more carefully, it emerges that they have different, even opposite, effects as well as similar effects in male and female brains. This review focuses on these differences, including sex dimorphisms in the ability of estradiol to influence synaptic plasticity, neurotransmission, neurodegeneration, and cognition, which, we argue, are due in a large part to sex differences in the organization of the underlying circuitry.

Hypothesis: the way testosterone works in the brain (where we both do math and “feel” male or female) and the way it works in the muscles might be very different.

Do autists actually differ from other people in testosterone (or other hormone) levels?

In Elevated rates of testosterone-related disorders in women with autism spectrum conditions, researchers surveyed autistic women and mothers of autistic children about various testosterone-related medical conditions:

Compared to controls, significantly more women with ASC [Autism Spectrum Conditions] reported (a) hirsutism, (b) bisexuality or asexuality, (c) irregular menstrual cycle, (d) dysmenorrhea, (e) polycystic ovary syndrome, (f) severe acne, (g) epilepsy, (h) tomboyism, and (i) family history of ovarian, uterine, and prostate cancers, tumors, or growths. Compared to controls, significantly more mothers of ASC children reported (a) severe acne, (b) breast and uterine cancers, tumors, or growths, and (c) family history of ovarian and uterine cancers, tumors, or growths.

Androgenic Activity in Autism has an unfortunately low number of subjects (N=9) but their results are nonetheless intriguing:

Three of the children had exhibited explosive aggression against others (anger, broken objects, violence toward others). Three engaged in self-mutilations, and three demonstrated no aggression and were in a severe state of autistic withdrawal. The appearance of aggression against others was associated with having fewer of the main symptoms of autism (autistic withdrawal, stereotypies, language dysfunctions).

Three of their subjects (they don’t say which, but presumably from the first group,) had abnormally high testosterone levels (including one of the girls in the study.) The other six subjects had normal androgen levels.

This is the first report of an association between abnormally high androgenic activity and aggression in subjects with autism. Although a previously reported study did not find group mean elevations in plasma testosterone in prepubertal autistic subjects (4), it appears here that in certain autistic individuals, especially those in puberty, hyperandrogeny may play a role in aggressive behaviors. Also, there appear to be distinct clinical forms of autism that are based on aggressive behaviors and are not classified in DSM-IV. Our preliminary findings suggest that abnormally high plasma testosterone concentration is associated with aggression against others and having fewer of the main autistic symptoms.

So, some autists have do have abnormally high testosterone levels, but those same autists are less autistic, overall, than other autists. More autistic behavior, aggression aside, is associated with normal hormone levels. Probably.

But of course that’s not fetal or early infancy testosterone levels. Unfortunately, it’s rather difficult to study fetal testosterone levels in autists, as few autists were diagnosed as fetuses. However, Foetal testosterone and autistic traits in 18 to 24-month-old children comes close:

Levels of FT [Fetal Testosterone] were analysed in amniotic fluid and compared with autistic traits, measured using the Quantitative Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (Q-CHAT) in 129 typically developing toddlers aged between 18 and 24 months (mean ± SD 19.25 ± 1.52 months). …

Sex differences were observed in Q-CHAT scores, with boys scoring significantly higher (indicating more autistic traits) than girls. In addition, we confirmed a significant positive relationship between FT levels and autistic traits.

I feel like this is veering into “we found that boys score higher on a test of male traits than girls did” territory, though.

In Polymorphisms in Genes Involved in Testosterone Metabolism in Slovak Autistic Boys, researchers found:

The present study evaluates androgen and estrogen levels in saliva as well as polymorphisms in genes for androgen receptor (AR), 5-alpha reductase (SRD5A2), and estrogen receptor alpha (ESR1) in the Slovak population of prepubertal (under 10 years) and pubertal (over 10 years) children with autism spectrum disorders. The examined prepubertal patients with autism, pubertal patients with autism, and prepubertal patients with Asperger syndrome had significantly increased levels of salivary testosterone (P < 0.05, P < 0.01, and P < 0.05, respectively) in comparison with control subjects. We found a lower number of (CAG)n repeats in the AR gene in boys with Asperger syndrome (P < 0.001). Autistic boys had an increased frequency of the T allele in the SRD5A2 gene in comparison with the control group. The frequencies of T and C alleles in ESR1 gene were comparable in all assessed groups.

What’s the significance of CAG repeats in the AR gene? Apparently they vary inversely with sensitivity to androgens:

Individuals with a lower number of CAG repeats exhibit higher AR gene expression levels and generate more functional AR receptors increasing their sensitivity to testosterone…

Fewer repeats, more sensitivity to androgens. The SRD5A2 gene is also involved in testosterone metabolization, though I’m not sure exactly what the T allele does relative to the other variants.

But just because there’s a lot of something in the blood (or saliva) doesn’t mean the body is using it. Diabetics can have high blood sugar because their bodies lack the necessary insulin to move the sugar from the blood, into their cells. Fewer androgen receptors could mean the body is metabolizing testosterone less effectively, which in turn leaves more of it floating in the blood… Biology is complicated.

What about estrogen and the autistic brain? That gets really complicated. According to Sex Hormones in Autism: Androgens and Estrogens Differentially and Reciprocally Regulate RORA, a Novel Candidate Gene for Autism:

Here, we show that male and female hormones differentially regulate the expression of a novel autism candidate gene, retinoic acid-related orphan receptor-alpha (RORA) in a neuronal cell line, SH-SY5Y. In addition, we demonstrate that RORA transcriptionally regulates aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen. We further show that aromatase protein is significantly reduced in the frontal cortex of autistic subjects relative to sex- and age-matched controls, and is strongly correlated with RORA protein levels in the brain.

If autists are bad at converting testosterone to estrogen, this could leave extra testosterone floating around in their blood… but doens’t explain their supposed “extreme male brain.” Here’s another study on the same subject, since it’s confusing:

Comparing the brains of 13 children with and 13 children without autism spectrum disorder, the researchers found a 35 percent decrease in estrogen receptor beta expression as well as a 38 percent reduction in the amount of aromatase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen.

Levels of estrogen receptor beta proteins, the active molecules that result from gene expression and enable functions like brain protection, were similarly low. There was no discernable change in expression levels of estrogen receptor alpha, which mediates sexual behavior.

I don’t know if anyone has tried injecting RORA-deficient mice with estrogen, but here is a study about the effects of injecting reelin-deficient mice with estrogen:

The animals in the new studies, called ‘reeler’ mice, have one defective copy of the reelin gene and make about half the amount of reelin compared with controls. …

Reeler mice with one faulty copy serve as a model of one of the most well-established neuro-anatomical abnormalities in autism. Since the mid-1980s, scientists have known that people with autism have fewer Purkinje cells in the cerebellum than normal. These cells integrate information from throughout the cerebellum and relay it to other parts of the brain, particularly the cerebral cortex.

But there’s a twist: both male and female reeler mice have less reelin than control mice, but only the males lose Purkinje cells. …

In one of the studies, the researchers found that five days after birth, reeler mice have higher levels of testosterone in the cerebellum compared with genetically normal males3.

Keller’s team then injected estradiol — a form of the female sex hormone estrogen — into the brains of 5-day-old mice. In the male reeler mice, this treatment increases reelin levels in the cerebellum and partially blocks Purkinje cell loss. Giving more estrogen to female reeler mice has no effect — but females injected with tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker, lose Purkinje cells. …

In another study, the researchers investigated the effects of reelin deficiency and estrogen treatment on cognitive flexibility — the ability to switch strategies to solve a problem4. …

“And we saw indeed that the reeler mice are slower to switch. They tend to persevere in the old strategy,” Keller says. However, male reeler mice treated with estrogen at 5 days old show improved cognitive flexibility as adults, suggesting that the estrogen has a long-term effect.

This still doesn’t explain why autists would self-identify as transgender women (mtf) at higher rates than average, but it does suggest that any who do start hormone therapy might receive benefits completely independent of gender identity.

Let’s stop and step back a moment.

Autism is, unfortunately, badly defined. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one autist, you’ve met one autist. There are probably a variety of different, complicated things going on in the brains of different autists simply because a variety of different, complicated conditions are all being lumped together under a single label. Any mental disability that can include both non-verbal people who can barely dress and feed themselves and require lifetime care and billionaires like Bill Gates is a very badly defined condition.

(Unfortunately, people diagnose autism with questionnaires that include questions like “Is the child pedantic?” which could be equally true of both an autistic child and a child who is merely very smart and has learned more about a particular subject than their peers and so is responding in more detail than the adult is used to.)

The average autistic person is not a programmer. Autism is a disability, and the average diagnosed autist is pretty darn disabled. Among the people who have jobs and friends but nonetheless share some symptoms with formally diagnosed autists, though, programmer and the like appear to be pretty popular professions.

Back in my day, we just called these folks nerds.

Here’s a theory from a completely different direction: People feel the differences between themselves and a group they are supposed to fit into and associate with a lot more strongly than the differences between themselves and a distant group. Growing up, you probably got into more conflicts with your siblings and parents than with random strangers, even though–or perhaps because–your family is nearly identical to you genetically, culturally, and environmentally. “I am nothing like my brother!” a man declares, while simultaneously affirming that there is a great deal in common between himself and members of a race and culture from the other side of the planet. Your  coworker, someone specifically selected for the fact that they have similar mental and technical aptitudes and training as yourself, has a distinct list of traits that drive you nuts, from the way he staples papers to the way he pronounces his Ts, while the women of an obscure Afghan tribe of goat herders simply don’t enter your consciousness.

Nerds, somewhat by definition, don’t fit in. You don’t worry much about fitting into a group you’re not part of in the fist place–you probably don’t worry much about whether or not you fit in with Melanesian fishermen–but most people work hard at fitting in with their own group.

So if you’re male, but you don’t fit in with other males (say, because you’re a nerd,) and you’re down at the bottom of the highschool totem pole and feel like all of the women you’d like to date are judging you negatively next to the football players, then you might feel, rather strongly, the differences between you and other males. Other males are aggressive, they call you a faggot, they push you out of their spaces and threaten you with violence, and there’s very little you can do to respond besides retreat into your “nerd games.”

By contrast, women are polite to you, not aggressive, and don’t aggressively push you out of their spaces. Your differences with them are much less problematic, so you feel like you “fit in” with them.

(There is probably a similar dynamic at play with American men who are obsessed with anime. It’s not so much that they are truly into Japanese culture–which is mostly about quietly working hard–as they don’t fit in very well with their own culture.) (Note: not intended as a knock on anime, which certainly has some good works.)

And here’s another theory: autists have some interesting difficulties with constructing categories and making inferences from data. They also have trouble going along with the crowd, and may have fewer “mirror neurons” than normal people. So maybe autists just process the categories of “male” and “female” a little differently than everyone else, and in a small subset of autists, this results in trans identity.*

And another: maybe there are certain intersex disorders which result in differences in brain wiring/organization. (Yes, there are real interesx disorders, like Klinefelter’s, in which people have XXY chromosomes instead of XX or XY.) In a small set of cases, these unusually wired brains may be extremely good at doing certain tasks (like programming) resulting people who are both “autism spectrum” and “trans”. This is actually the theory I’ve been running with for years, though it is not incompatible with the hormonal theories discussed above.

But we are talking small: trans people of any sort are extremely rare, probably on the order of <1/1000. Even if autists were trans at 8 times the rates of non-autists, that’s still only 8/1000 or 1/125. Autists themselves are pretty rare (estimates vary, but the vast majority of people are not autistic at all,) so we are talking about a very small subset of a very small population in the first place. We only notice these correlations at all because the total population has gotten so huge.

Sometimes, extremely rare things are random chance.


Species of Exit: Israel

Israel is–as far as I can tell–one of the sanest, least self-destructive states in the entire West. (Note: this is not to say that I love everything about Israel; this is actually a pretty low bar, given what’s happening everywhere else.) Their people are literate and healthy, they have a per capita GDP of 36.5k, (33rd in the world,) and they’re 18th globally on the Human Development Index. They don’t throw people off of buildings or have public floggings, and despite the fact that they have birth control and the state actually pays for abortions, the Jewish population still has a positive fertility rate:

The fertility rates of Jewish and Arab women were identical for the first time in Israeli history in 2015, according to figures released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday….Jewish and Arab women had given birth to an average of 3.13 children as of last year.

According to Newsweek:

This high fertility rate is not simply an artifact of Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox or Haredi population; the non-Haredi fertility rate is 2.6. (This is, by the way, a far higher fertility rate than that of American Jews, which is 1.9; the replacement rate is 2.3.)

Did you think we were getting through this without a Polandball joke? And they’ve managed to resist getting conquered by their aggressive and numerically superior neighbors several times in the past century.

Not bad for a country that didn’t exist 100 years ago, had to be built from the sand up, and is filled with people whom conventional wisdom holds ought to have been rendered completely useless by multi-generational epigenetic trauma.

Now, yes, Israel does get a lot of support from the US, and who knows what it would look like (or if it would exist at all,) in an alternative timeline where the US ignores it. Israel probably isn’t perfect, just interesting.

Harking back to my Measures of Meaning post, I propose that Israel has 4 things going for it:

Ethiopian Jews
Ethiopian Jewish member of the IDF

1. Israelis have meaningful work. Their work has been, literally, to build and secure their nation. Israelis have had to build almost the entire infrastructure of their country over the past hundred years, from irrigation systems to roads to cities. Today, Tel Aviv is a city with a population of 430,000 people. In 1900, Tel Aviv didn’t exist.

Unlike the US, Israel has a draft: every Israeli citizen, male and female, has to serve in the Israeli army. (Obviously exceptions exist.) This is not seen as state-run slavery but part of making sure the entire society continues to exist, because Israel faces some pretty real threats to its borders.

The IDF even has a special division for autists:

Many autistic soldiers who would otherwise be exempt from military service have found a place in Unit 9900, a selective intelligence squad where their heightened perceptual skills are an asset. …

The relationship is a mutually beneficial one. For these young people, the unit is an opportunity to participate in a part of Israeli life that might otherwise be closed to them. And for the military, it’s an opportunity to harness the unique skill sets that often come with autism: extraordinary capacities for visual thinking and attention to detail, both of which lend themselves well to the highly specialized task of aerial analysis.


I suspect–based on personal conversations–that there is something similar in the US military, but have no proof.

My anthropological work suggests that one of the reasons people enter the military is to find meaning in their lives, (though this doesn’t work nearly as well when your country does things like invade completely irrelevant countries you don’t actually care about like Vietnam.)

2. Like I said, Israelis have above-replacement total fertility–meaning that many Israelis hail from large families, with lots of children, siblings, and cousins. Israelis appear to have managed to achieve this in part by subsidizing births (which probably will have some long-term negative effects for them,*) and in part by explicitly advocating high birth rates in order to prevent themselves from being out-bred by the Palestinians and to show that Hitler what for.

*ETA: See the comments for a discussion of dysgenic fertility on Israel.

I have been saving this picture for so long3. Religion is so obviously a unifying force in Israeli life that I don’t think I need to detail it.

What about that fourth thing? Oh yes: Many of the Jews who don’t like the idea of “nations” and “ethno states” and “religion” probably moved to the US instead of Israel. The US got the SJW Jews and Israel got the nationalist Jews.

4. A sense of themselves as a distinct nation. As I’ve discussed before, this is not exactly genetic, due to different Jewish groups having absorbed about 50% of their DNA from the folks around them during the diaspora years, and of course a big part of the country is Arab/Palestinians, but there is still much genetically in common.

There is probably a lot I’m missing.

15han-2-master675Of course there are religious Jews in the US (and their numbers are growing relative to the secular Jewish population.) While Jews as a whole voted 70% for Hillary, only 56% of the Orthodox supported her. (I’ve seen different numbers elsewhere, but these are the ones I’ve been able to find a source for.)

(I suspect that America’s high-IQ secular Jews suffer from being in America instead of Israel. They don’t have religion to guide them, children to focus them, nor (in many cases) meaningful work. Without something positive to work towards, they turn to politics/ideology to provide meaning in their lives, while simultaneously suffering the psychological stress of knowing that the Holocaust was directed at people like them.)

But that’s irrelevant to Israeli Jews.

Long-term, I’m not bullish on Israel, given its precarious location, surrounded by nations that aren’t very fond of it–and I am not offering any opinions about the Israeli/Palestinian situation–but as first world nations go, it at least desires to keep existing.


Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton

The autist’s greatest strength–and weakness–is his deficiency in the neural mechanisms of mimicry. Without the necessary feedback loops, he fails to subconsciously adopt of his peers’ words, actions, and beliefs, leaving him is free to develop his own–caring little about how strange they seem to everyone else.

At his most unfortunate, the infant autist lacks even the instincts necessary to imitate the mouth-shapes and mouth-sounds of his parents, leaving him unable to develop speech. Some of these autists understand speech perfectly well, but simply cannot produce it.

At his most fortunate, the autist, immune to other people’s preconceived notions, revolutionizes some field of science or math–or both:

Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race! He was born on 25 December 1642, and died on 20 March 1726/7.—Translation from G.L. Smyth, The Monuments and Genii of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and of Westminster Abbey (1826), ii, 703–4.[115]

What Mental Traits does the Arctic Select for?

Apropos Friday’s conversation about the transition from hunting to pastoralism and the different strategies hunters employ in different environments, I got to thinking about how these different food-production systems could influence the development of different “intelligences,” or at least mental processes that underlie intelligence.

Ingold explains that in warm climes, hunter-gatherers have many food resources they can exploit, and if one resource starts running low, they can fairly easily switch to another. If there aren’t enough yams around, you can eat melons; if not enough melons, squirrels; if no squirrels, eggs. I recall a study of Australian Aborigines who agreed to go back to hunter-gatherering for a while after living in town for several decades. Among other things (like increased health,) scientists noted that the Aborigines increased the number of different kinds of foods they consumed from, IIRC, about 40 per week to 100.

By contrast, hunters in the arctic are highly dependent on exploiting only a few resources–fish, seals, reindeer, and perhaps a few polar bears and foxes. Ingold claims that there are (were) tribes that depended largely on only a few major hunts of migrating animals (netting hundreds of kills) to supply themselves for the whole year.

If those migrating change their course by even a few miles, it’s easy to see how the hunters could miss the herds entirely and, with no other major species around to exploit, starve over the winter.

Let’s consider temperate agriculture as well: the agriculturalist can store food better than the arctic hunter (seal meat does not do good things in the summer,) but lacks the tropical hunter-gatherer’s flexibility; he must stick to his fields and keep working, day in and day out, for a good nine months in a row. Agricultural work is more flexible than assembly line work, where your every minute is dictated by the needs of the factory, but a farmer can’t just wander away from his crops to go hunt for a months just because he feels like it, nor can he hope to make up for a bad wheat harvest by wandering into his neighbor’s fields and picking their potatoes.

Which got me thinking: clearly different people are going to do better at different systems.

But first, what is intelligence? Obviously we could define it in a variety of ways, but let’s stick to reasonable definitions, eg, the ability to use your brain to achieve success, or the ability to get good grades on your report card.

A variety of mental traits contribute to “intelligence,” such as:

  1. The ability to learn lots of information. Information is really useful, both in life and on tests, and smarter brains tend to be better at storing lots and lots of data.
  2. Flexible thinking. This is the ability to draw connections between different things you’ve learned, to be creative, to think up new ideas, etc.
  3. Some form of Drive, Self Will, or long-term planning–that is, the ability to plan for your future and then push yourself to accomplish your goals. (These might more properly be two different traits, but we’ll keep them together for now.)

Your stereotypical autistic, capable of memorizing large quantities of data but not doing much with them, has trait #1 but not 2 or 3.

Artists and musicians tend to have a lot of trait #2, but not necessarily 1 or 3 (though successful artists obviously have a ton of #3)

And an average kid who’s not that bright but works really hard, puts in extra hours of effort on their homework, does extra credit assignments, etc., has a surfeit of #3 but not much 2 or 1.

Anyway, it seems to me like the tropical hunting/gathering environment, with many different species to exploit, would select for flexible thinking–if one food isn’t working out, look for a different one. This may also apply to people from tropical farming/horticulturalist societies.

By contrast, temperate farming seems more likely to select for planning–you can’t just wander off or try to grow something new in time for winter if your first crop doesn’t work out.

Many people have noted that America’s traditionally tropical population (African Americans) seems to be particularly good at flexible thinking, leading to much innovation in arts and music. They are not as talented, though, at Drive, leading to particularly high highschool dropout rates.

America’s traditionally rice-farming population (Asians,) by contrast, has been noted for over a century for its particularly high drive and ability to plan for the future, but not so much for contributions to the arts. East Asian people are noted for their particularly high IQ/SAT/PISA scores, despite the fact that China lags behind the West in GDP and quality of life terms. (Japan, of course, is a fully developed country.) One potential explanation for this is that the Chinese, while very good at working extremely hard, aren’t as good at flexible thinking that would help spur innovation. (I note that the Japanese seem to do just fine at flexible thinking, but you know, the Japanese aren’t Chinese and Japan isn’t China.)

(I know I’m not really stating anything novel.) But the real question is:

What kind of mental traits might pastoralism, arctic pastoralism, or arctic hunting select for?

Is there a correlation between intelligence and taste?

(I am annoyed by the lack of bands between 1200 and 1350)

De gustibus non disputandum est. — Confucius

We’re talking about foods, not whether you prefer Beethoven or Lil’ Wayne.

Certainly there are broad correlations between the foods people enjoy and their ethnicity/social class. If you know whether I chose fried okra, chicken feet, gefilte fish, escargot, or grasshoppers for dinner, you can make a pretty good guess about my background. (Actually, I have eaten all of these things. The grasshoppers were over-salted, but otherwise fine.) The world’s plethora of tasty (and not-so-tasty) cuisines is due primarily to regional variations in what grows well where (not a lot of chili peppers growing up in Nunavut, Canada,) and cost (the rich can always afford fancier fare than the poor,) with a side dish of seemingly random cultural taboos like “don’t eat pork” or “don’t eat cows” or “don’t eat grasshoppers.”

But do people vary in their experience of taste? Does intelligence influence how you perceive your meal, driving smarter (or less-smart) people to seek out particular flavor profiles or combinations? Or could there be other psychological or neurological factors at play n people’s eating decisions?

This post was inspired by a meal my husband, an older relative and I shared recently at McDonald’s. It had been a while since we’d last patronized McDonald’s, but older relative likes their burgers, so we went and ordered some new-to-us variety of meat-on-a-bun. As my husband and I sat there, deconstructing the novel taste experience and comparing it to other burgers, the older relative gave us this look of “Jeez, the idiots are discussing the flavor of a burger! Just eat it already!”

As we dined later that evening at my nemesis, Olive Garden, I began wondering whether we actually experienced the food the same way. Perhaps there is something in people that makes them prefer bland, predictable food. Perhaps some people are better at discerning different flavors, and the people who cannot discern them end up with worse food because they can’t tell?

Unfortunately, it appears that not a lot of people have studied whether there is any sort of correlation between IQ and taste (or smell.) There’s a fair amount of research on taste (and smell,) like “do relatives of schizophrenics have impaired senses of smell?” (More on Schizophrenics and their decreased ability to smell) or “can we get fat kids to eat more vegetables?” Oh, and apparently the nature of auditory hallucinations in epileptics varies with IQ (IIRC.) But not much that directly addresses the question.

I did find two references that, somewhat in passing, noted that they found no relationship between taste and IQ, but these weren’t studies designed to test for that. For example, in A Food Study of Monotony, published in 1958 (you know I am really looking for sources when I have to go back to 1958,) researchers restricted the diets of military personnel employed at an army hospital to only 4 menus to see how quickly and badly they’d get bored of the food. They found no correlation between boredom and IQ, but people employed at an army hospital are probably pre-selected for being pretty bright (and having certain personality traits in common, including ability to stand army food.)

Interestingly, three traits did correlate with (or against) boredom:

Fatter people got bored fastest (the authors speculate that they care the most about their food,) while depressed and feminine men (all subjects in the study were men) got bored the least. Depressed people are already disinterested in food, so it is hard to get less-interested, but no explanation was given of what they meant by “femininity” or how this might affect food preferences. (Also, the hypochondriacs got bored quickly.)

Some foods inspire boredom (or even disgust) quickly, while others are virtually immune. Milk and bread, for example, can be eaten every day without complaint (though you might get bored if bread were your only food.) Potted meat, by contrast, gets old fast.

Likewise, Personality Traits and Eating Habits (warning PDF) notes that:

Although self-reported eating practices were not associated with educational level, intelligence, nor various indices of psychopathology, they were related to the demographic variables of gender and age: older participants reported eating more fiber in their diets than did younger ones, and women reported more avoidance of fats from meats than did men.

Self-reported eating habits may not be all that reliable, though.

Autistic children do seem to be worse at distinguishing flavors (and smells) than non-autistic children, eg Olfaction and Taste Processing in Autism:

Participants with autism were significantly less accurate than control participants in identifying sour tastes and marginally less accurate for bitter tastes, but they were not different in identifying sweet and salty stimuli. … Olfactory identification was significantly worse among participants with autism. … True differences exist in taste and olfactory identification in autism. Impairment in taste identification with normal detection thresholds suggests cortical, rather than brainstem dysfunction.

(Another study of the eating habits of autistic kids found that the pickier ones were rated by their parents as more severely impaired than the less picky ones, but then severe food aversions are a form of life impairment. By the way, do not tell the parents of an autistic kid, “oh, he’ll eat when he’s hungry.” They will probably respond politely, but mentally they are stabbing you.)

On brainstem vs. cortical function–it appears that we do some of our basic flavor identification way down in the most instinctual part of the brain, as Facial Expressions in Response to Taste and Smell Stimulation explores. The authors found that pretty much everyone makes the same faces in response to sweet, sour, and bitter flavors–whites and blacks, old people and newborns, retarded people and blind people, even premature infants, blind infants, and infants born missing most of their brains. All of which is another point in favor of my theory that disgust is real. (And if that is not enough science of taste for you, I recommend Place and Taste Aversion Learning, in which animals with brain lesions lost their fear of new foods.)

Genetics obviously plays a role in taste. If you are one of the 14% or so of people who think cilantro tastes like soap (and I sympathize, because cilantro definitely tastes like soap,) then you’ve already discovered this in a very practical way. Genetics also obviously determine whether you continue producing the enzyme for milk digestion after infancy (lactase persistence). According to Why are you a picky eater? Blame genes, brains, and breastmilk:

In many cases, mom and dad have only themselves to blame for unwittingly passing on the genes that can govern finicky tastes. Studies show that genes play a major role in determining who becomes a picky eater, including recent research on a group of 4- to 7-year-old twins. Part of the pickiness can be attributed to specific genes that govern taste. Variants of the TAS2R38 gene, for example, have been found to encode for taste receptors that determine how strongly someone tastes bitter flavors.

Researchers at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center, a scientific institute dedicated to the study of smell and taste, have found that this same gene also predicts the strength of sweet-tooth cravings among children. Kids who were more sensitive to bitterness preferred sugary foods and drinks. However, adults with the bitter receptor genes remained picky about bitter foods but did not prefer more sweets, the Monell study found. This suggests that sometimes age and experience can override genetics.

I suspect that there is actually a sound biological, evolutionary reason why kids crave sweets more than grownups, and this desire for sweets is somewhat “turned off” as we age.

Picture 10

From a review of Why some like it hot: Food, Genetics, and Cultural Diversity:

Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan suggests that diet had a key role in human evolution, specifically, that human genetic diversity is predominately a product of regional differences in ancestral diets. Chemical compounds found within animals and plants varied depending on climate. These compounds induced changes in gene expression, which can vary depending on the amount within the particular food and its availability. The Agricultural Age led to further diet-based genetic diversity. Cultivation of foods led to the development of novel plants and animals that were not available in the ancestral environment. …

There are other fascinating examples of gene-diet interaction. Culturally specific recipes, semi-quantitative blending of locally available foods and herbs, and cooking directions needed in order to reduce toxins present in plants, emerged over time through a process of trial-and error and were transmitted through the ages. The effects on genes by foods can be extremely complex given the range of plant-derived compounds available within a given region. The advent of agriculture is suggested to have overridden natural selection by random changes in the environment. The results of human-driven selection can be highly unexpected. …

In sedentary herding societies, drinking water was frequently contaminated by livestock waste. The author suggests in order to avoid contaminated water, beverages made with fermented grains or fruit were drunk instead. Thus, alcohol resistance was selected for in populations that herded animals, such as Europeans. By contrast, those groups which did not practice herding, such as East Asians and Native Americans, did not need to utilize alcohol as a water substitute and are highly sensitive to the effects of alcohol.

Speaking of genetics:

From Eating Green could be in your Genes

Indians and Africans are much more likely than Europeans and native South Americans to have an allele that lets them eat a vegetarian diet:

The vegetarian allele evolved in populations that have eaten a plant-based diet over hundreds of generations. The adaptation allows these people to efficiently process omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and convert them into compounds essential for early brain development and controlling inflammation. In populations that live on plant-based diets, this genetic variation provided an advantage and was positively selected in those groups.

In Inuit populations of Greenland, the researchers uncovered that a previously identified adaptation is opposite to the one found in long-standing vegetarian populations: While the vegetarian allele has an insertion of 22 bases (a base is a building block of DNA) within the gene, this insertion was found to be deleted in the seafood allele.

Of course, this sort of thing inspires a wealth of pop-psych investigations like Dr. Hirsch’s What Flavor is your Personality?  (from a review:

Dr. Hirsh, neurological director of the Smell and Taste Research and Treatment Foundation in Chicago, stands by his book that is based on over 24 years of scientific study and tests on more than 18,000 people’s food choices and personalities.)

that nonetheless may have some basis in fact, eg: Personality may predict if you like spicy foods:

Byrnes assessed the group using the Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking (AISS), a test for the personality trait of sensation-seeking, defined as desiring novel and intense stimulation and presumed to contribute to risk preferences. Those in the group who score above the mean AISS score are considered more open to risks and new experiences, while those scoring below the mean are considered less open to those things.

The subjects were given 25 micrometers of capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers, and asked to rate how much they liked a spicy meal as the burn from the capsaicin increased in intensity. Those in the group who fell below the mean AISS rapidly disliked the meal as the burn increased. People who were above the mean AISS had a consistently high liking of the meal even as the burn increased. Those in the mean group liked the meal less as the burn increased, but not nearly as rapidly as those below the mean.

And then there are the roughly 25% of us who are “supertasters“:

A supertaster is a person who experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average. Women are more likely to be supertasters, as are those from Asia, South America and Africa.[1] The cause of this heightened response is unknown, although it is thought to be related to the presence of the TAS2R38 gene, the ability to taste PROP and PTC, and at least in part, due to an increased number of fungiform papillae.[2]

Perhaps the global distribution of supertasters is related to the distribution of vegetarian-friendly alleles. It’s not surprising that women are more likely to be supertasters, as they have a better sense of smell than men. What may be surprising is that supertasters tend not to be foodies who delight in flavoring their foods with all sorts of new spices, but instead tend toward more restricted, bland diets. Because their sense of taste is essentially on overdrive, flavors that taste “mild” to most people taste “overwhelming” on their tongues. As a result, they tend to prefer a much more subdued palette–which is, of course, perfectly tasty to them.

Picture 8A French study, Changes in Food Preferences and Food Neophobia during a Weight Reduction Session, measured kids’ ability to taste flavors, then the rate at which they became accustomed to new foods. The more sensitive the kids were to flavors, the less likely they were to adopt a new food; the less adept they were at tasting flavors, the more likely they were to start eating vegetables.

Speaking of pickiness again:

“During research back in the 1980s, we discovered that people are more reluctant to try new foods of animal origin than those of plant origin,” Pelchat says. “That’s ironic in two ways. As far as taste is concerned, the range of flavors in animal meat isn’t that large compared to plants, so there isn’t as much of a difference. And, of course, people are much more likely to be poisoned by eating plants than by animals, as long as the meat is properly cooked.” …

It’s also possible that reward mechanisms in our brain can drive changes in taste. Pelchat’s team once had test subjects sample tiny bits of unfamiliar food with no substantial nutritional value, and accompanied them with pills that contained either nothing or a potent cocktail of caloric sugar and fat. Subjects had no idea what was in the pills they swallowed. They learned to like the unfamiliar flavors more quickly when they were paired with a big caloric impact—suggesting that body and brain combined can alter tastes more easily when unappetizing foods deliver big benefits.

So trying to get people to adopt new foods while losing weight may not be the best idea.

(For all that people complain about kids’ pickiness, parents are much pickier. Kids will happily eat playdoh and crayons, but one stray chicken heart in your parents’ soup and suddenly it’s “no more eating at your house.”)

Of course, you can’t talk about food without encountering meddlers who are convinced that people should eat whatever they’re convinced is the perfect diet, like these probably well-meaning folks trying to get Latinos to eat fewer snacks:

Latinos are the largest racial and ethnic minority group in the United States and bear a disproportionate burden of obesity related chronic disease. Despite national efforts to improve dietary habits and prevent obesity among Latinos, obesity rates remain high. …

there is a need for more targeted health promotion and nutrition education efforts on the risks associated with soda and energy-dense food consumption to help improve dietary habits and obesity levels in low-income Latino communities.

Never mind that Latinos are one of the healthiest groups in the country, with longer life expectancies than whites! We’d better make sure they know that their food ways are not approved of!

I have been saving this graph for just such an occasion.
Only now I feel bad because I forgot to write down who made this graph so I can properly credit them. If you know, please tell me!

(Just in case it is not clear already: different people are adapted to and will be healthy on different diets. There is no magical, one-size-fits-all diet.)

And finally, to bring this full circle, it’s hard to miss the folks claiming that Kids Who Eat Fast Food Have Lower IQs:

4,000 Scottish children aged 3-5 years old were examined to compare the intelligence dampening effects of fast food consumption versus  “from scratch”  fare prepared with only fresh ingredients.

Higher fast food consumption by the children was linked with lower intelligence and this was even after adjustments for wealth and social status were taken into account.

It’d be better if they controlled for parental IQ.

The conclusions of this study confirm previous research which shows long lasting effects on IQ from a child’s diet. An Australian study from the University of Adelaide published in August 2012 showed that toddlers who consume junk food grow less smart as they get older. In that study, 7000 children were examined at the age of 6 months, 15 months, 2 years to examine their diet.

When the children were examined again at age 8, children who were consuming the most unhealthy food had IQs up to 2 points lower than children eating a wholesome diet.



The Big Bang Theory is not “My People”: aspies, tribalism, and the development of nerd politics

As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t watch much TV, other than the odd documentary and some children’s programs. So while I’ve heard of The Big Bang Theory, I’ve only actually seen a couple of episodes. An acquaintance recently expressed surprise at this fact, asserting that TBBT depicts “[my] people.”

Curiosity got the better of me, so I attempted to watch some episodes on YouTube. Unfortunately, I could only find highlight reels; curse the zealous and effective enforcement of copyright laws. Regardless, I have watched a couple hours of highlights and read the relevant Wikipedia pages.

And these are not “my people.”

To be fair, I laughed. I’m not going to go on a rant claiming that a popular, successful show that lots of people enjoy is actually bad for reasons particular to my own taste in TV. Neither is this going to be an in-depth deconstruction of the good or bad points of a show I’ve barely seen. I’m content to say that it’s funny and I see what other people like in it.

I just don’t see myself in it.

“My people” is a bit of a fuzzy concept. Certainly plenty of “my people” like video games or comic books or have OCD or autism. But this is not what defines us; this is not what separates us from the rest of you.

If anything, video games, Star Trek, comic books, etc., are the things that connect us to normal people. Video games are immensely popular–Farmville2 had, as of 2013, 40 million regular players, which is about the same as the total number of copies of Super Mario Bros. (1985) sold. Then there’s The Sims, which sold over 125 million copies between 2000 and 2010 and has probably kept on selling.

“The success of The Sims resulted in Guinness World Records awarding the series five world records in the Guinness World Records: Gamer’s Edition 2008. These records include “World’s Biggest-Selling Simulation Series” and “Best Selling PC Game of All Time” for the original The Sims game, which sold 16 million units…” (Wikipedia)

There’s nothing wrong with videogames. I like them; lots of people like them. The same goes for the rest of the list. Are nerds more into Star Wars or Star Trek than the average Joe? I think so, but the vast quantities of Star Wars merchandise available at Target certainly isn’t being driven by my tiny demographic; I own more things (books) on P. A. M. Dirac’s contributions to quantum physics than Star Wars and Star Trek-related things combined.

Maybe TBBT is what “my people” look like from the outside, but it’s not what we look like from the inside.

Let’s start with the clothes:


This show is set in southern California. It is hot there all the time. They have no winter. WHY ARE THEY WEARING JACKETS AND SWEATERS?

While nerds do occasionally dress nicely–especially for SCA events–most of the time, we wear clothes to cover our fleshy meat sacks. We do not (generally) have colorful, curated wardrobes.  Most of us don’t really think about clothing. I have seen nerds walking in the snow wearing less clothing than these guys are wearing for the simple reason that they were thinking about something else and had not thought to put on clothes.

If Sheldon were really an autistic (or OCD,) quantum physicist with an IQ around 178 or whatever, he’d look more like the guy on the left:

yesss physics yesss
From left to right: Dirac, youngest Nobel prize winner in physics; Nobel laureate Robert A. Millikan; and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Caltech, Calif., May 28, 1935.

(Say what you will, Dirac clearly did not notice that he put on a vest that’s too small for himself this morning.)

Or maybe this guy:

Blatant attempt to cram Niels Bohr into a post
Blatantly cramming Niels Bohr into post

Of course, the modern style of Caltech Physicists is a little less formal–they appear to have ditched the jackets–but still a far cry from curated colors.

But clothes are a triviality. They are not my real objection; they’re just the easiest to express objection.

According to the Wikipedia’s summary of TBBT, the show revolves around the characters’ pop-culture obsessions and failures at dating:

One of the recurring plot lines is the relationship between Leonard and Penny. Leonard becomes attracted to Penny in the pilot episode and his need to do favors for her is a frequent point of humor in the first season. Their first long term relationship begins when Leonard returns from a three-month expedition to the North Pole in the season 3 premiere. However, when Leonard tells Penny that he loves her, she realizes she cannot say it back. Both Leonard and Penny go on to date other people; most notably with Leonard dating Raj’s sister Priya for much of season 4. This relationship is jeopardized when Leonard comes to falsely believe that Raj has slept with Penny, and ultimately ends when Priya sleeps with a former boyfriend in “The Good Guy Fluctuation“.

Penny, who admits to missing Leonard in “The Roommate Transmogrification”, accepts his request to renew their relationship in “The Beta Test Initiation”. After Penny suggests having sex in “The Launch Acceleration”, Leonard breaks the mood by proposing to her. Penny says “no” but does not break up with him. She stops a proposal a second time in “The Tangible Affection Proof”. In the sixth season episode, “The 43 Peculiarity”, Penny finally tells Leonard that she loves him. Although they both feel jealousy when the other receives significant attention from the opposite sex, Penny is secure enough in their relationship to send him off on an exciting four-month expedition without worrying in “The Bon Voyage Reaction”. After Leonard returns, their relationship blossoms over the seventh season. In the penultimate episode “The Gorilla Dissolution”, Penny admits that they should marry and when Leonard realizes that she is serious, he proposes with a ring that he had been saving for years.

Jeez. Who goes through that much crap for a relationship? Here’s what a normal relationship looks like:

Day 1: meet; ask other person out. Yes => date. No => meet someone else and ask them out.

Within a month or two: if you’re in love, keep dating. If not, break up.

Within a few years: get married or break up.

I feel like I am harping on something trivially mundane and totally obvious, except that a lot of people watch TBBT, and I honestly think that plotlines like this (which serve to draw back viewers for subsequent episodes with their constant “will they or won’t they finally get together?” rather than depict reality,) actually give some people (mostly beta males) the wrong impression about how to go about their relationships. Anime is also guilty of this. DO NOT SPEND YEARS OF YOUR LIFE WAITING FOR THE GIRL YOU LIKE TO FINALLY NOTICE YOU. If you don’t ask her out, she will not date you. If she says no, she’s probably not interested and you should go ask someone else out. Doing the “nice guy” beta-male best friend thing for years in the hope that someday she will notice you does not work and tends to work out badly for everyone involved.

Here’s what my life revolves around: personal relationships (kids, husband, friends, relatives, job, etc.,) and my ideas.

I have a lot of ideas, hence this blog and a few other projects I’ve got going.

The ideas permeate everything. Picking the kids up from school? Thinking about the evolution of social structures. Conversing with mom-friend on the playground while watching the kids? Calculating estimated total fertility rate for the neighborhood. Trying to fall asleep? Narrating the French Revolution in my head.

Sometimes the ideas are so intense, it’s agony to do anything else. I can’t sleep, can’t converse, can’t be still until I write them down.

It’s ideas, all the way down.

I wouldn’t care a whit about the colorful t-shirts and weird relationships if the show just focused on Sheldon’s ideas! Admittedly, each episode would be Sheldon wrangling his friends into the apartment and then 2o minutes of enthusiastic physics lecture, which might not go over so well with the intended audience. But real life tends not to be all that TV-worthy.

I am now going to break an unstated rule of this blog and talk about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

No, I don’t watch MLP. I have kids; my kids watch MLP. (But I admit that MLP is one of the kids’ shows that doesn’t make me want to light the TV on fire and defenestrate it.)

Anyway, if I were a pony, I’d be Maud Pie:

Picture 5

She likes rocks. (I like rocks.)

Unlike Sheldon, Maud was not written for the audience to connect with. Maud is the pony the other ponies cannot connect with; the one they cannot be friends with. (This is aside from her sister, Pinkie Pie, who loves her unconditionally because she’s family.) The point of Maud’s episode is that there are some people in this world who, though they are not bad or evil people, are simply interested in things you aren’t, and you don’t have any connection to them.

Maud is interested in rocks, rocks, and nothing but rocks. She writes poetry about rocks. She has a pet rock. Her special magic abilities have to do with rocks. Her cutie mark is probably a rock. She doesn’t really have interests outside of rocks.

The audience, like the main cast, is supposed to find Maud boring. You are supposed to connect with their total lack of anything in common with someone like Maud.

Of course, since I like rocks, I spent the episode going, “Why don’t they just learn to love rocks like Maud does? Why don’t they try connecting with her by finding out what she finds so fascinating about rocks?”

But the idea that one might try to connect with someone by being willing to discuss their passion did not occur to the show’s creators. This is why physics and ideas can never be the focus of TBBT–the viewers have no real interest in what makes Sheldon passionate about physics.

While researching this post, I happened into a conversation on whether or not Maud has Asperger’s. All but one of the folks in the thread who actually have Asperger’s agreed that Maud comes across as Aspie. All but one of the folks saying that Maud was not Aspie were neurotypicals.

Their arguments tended to go like this: “Maud is not Aspie. There is nothing wrong with her, and Aspies have something wrong with them because Asperger’s is a disorder. She is just very passionate about rocks.”

Yes, well, fuck you.

Let’s get something straight. We can call Maud “Aspie” without saying that there is anything “wrong” with her.

I don’t think the show’s creators intended to create an Aspie pony. I think they wanted to create a pony none of the other ponies could connect with because she was boring, uninterested in the other ponies, and only talked about one boring thing.

Which is basically the colloquial definition of “Aspie.”

Here I need to pause and clarify the difference between a formal diagnosis of Autism or Asperger’s with the colloquial usage of “Aspie.”

Autism and Asperger’s were never all that well defined to begin with, with a tremendous overlap between there. Asperger’s is thought of as the less severe of the two diagnoses, but there are “low functioning aspies” who are much worse off than many “high functioning autistics.” My suspicion is that the distinction drawn between the two (language delay and IQ,) wasn’t really the correct distinction, and the whole business should have been determined via degree of impairment in the first place.

Which I suppose is what they are trying to do, now that they’ve formally removed Asperger’s from the DSM.

A formal diagnosis of autism means that there probably is, in fact, something “wrong” with you. As Slate Star Codex notes, formally diagnosed, institutionalized autistics do a lot of things that are definitely problematic, like try to chew off their hands.

I do not have a formal diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s, or anything of the like.

According to the Wikipedia, “Asperger syndrome is characterized by impairment in social interaction accompanied by restricted and repetitive interests and behavior; it differs from the other ASDs by having no general delay in language or cognitive development.” Autism, “is distinguished not by a single symptom, but by a characteristic triad of symptoms: impairments in social interaction; impairments in communication; and restricted interests and repetitive behavior.”

Unlike the stereotype of autistics as “idiot savants,” most of them are intellectually impaired across the board, cannot work, and will be dependent on others for their entire lives. Many of them cannot talk, put on their own clothes, use the toilet unassisted, or communicate their needs to others.

A recent study of people with actual, diagnosed Autism found a bunch of de novo mutations. These kids can’t talk because there is actually something genetically wrong with them:

By comparing affected to unaffected siblings, we show that 13% of de novo missense mutations and 43% of de novo likely gene-disrupting (LGD) mutations contribute to 12% and 9% of diagnoses, respectively. Including copy number variants, coding de novo mutations contribute to about 30% of all simplex and 45% of female diagnoses.

The colloquial definition of “Aspie” is someone who’s interested in stuff you’re not interested in and who has trouble interacting with normal people. This definition has nothing to do with functionality; it’s really just a matter of whether or not you “fit in” with dumbs. So, a teenage girl who talks endlessly about boys and makeup is considered “normal” by most people, but a teenage girl who talks passionately about quantum physics is “aspie” because other teenage girls don’t want to hear about quantum physics. A man who is obsessed with motorcycles is “normal” because only an idiot risks getting punched in the face, but a man who is passionate about trains is “aspie.”

“Aspie” is the new “faggot,” now that you’re not supposed to make fun of gay people. (Is it mere coincidence that the actor picked to play Sheldon is, in fact, flamingly gay?)

There’s a major problem here that anyone who is exceptionally intelligent is probably going to have ideas floating around in their head that normal people can’t understand and is going to learn far more about any subject they’re interested in than the average person. If I am trying to express the idea that different environments favor mitochondrial or viral memes, and you’re trying to express the idea that a popular actor is very attractive, we are not going to socialize terribly well together.

But I have no difficulty socializing with other people like myself.

A recent study of “autism-spectrum-quotient” traits found that men do, indeed, rate higher than women on autism surveys, and people in STEM professions score higher than folks in non-STEM professions, true to stereotypes:

We examine correlations between the AQ and age, sex, occupation, and UK geographic region in 450,394 individuals. We predicted that age and geography would not be correlated with AQ, whilst sex and occupation would have a correlation. Mean AQ for the total sample score was m = 19.83 (SD = 8.71), slightly higher than a previous systematic review of 6,900 individuals in a non-clinical sample (mean of means = 16.94) This likely reflects that this big-data sample includes individuals with autism who in the systematic review score much higher (mean of means = 35.19). As predicted, sex and occupation differences were observed: on average, males (m = 21.55, SD = 8.82) scored higher than females (m = 18.95; SD = 8.52), and individuals working in a STEM career (m = 21.92, SD = 8.92) scored higher than individuals non-STEM careers (m = 18.92, SD = 8.48). Also as predicted, age and geographic region were not meaningfully correlated with AQ.

Hold on a second and look at that last sentence again: age was not meaningfully correlated with AQ. The number of autism diagnoses has been skyrocketing over the past couple of days, accompanied by a great deal of debate on why. Here we have evidence–from nearly half a million people–that the overall “AQ” of the British population has not increased (or decreased) significantly over the years. Either the increase in “autism” diagnoses is entirely an artifact of some other process–like kids who would previously have been diagnosed as just “retarded” getting diagnosed as “autisitic”–or the distribution of “Aspie” traits in the general population has nothing to do with autistics.

At any rate, I see no reason to assume that people in STEM fields are retarded; their aspieness strikes me as far more of the colloquial, “normal people just aren’t into this,” variety. Whereby “normal” I mean “people who talk about their emotions all the damn time.”

Stupid emotions.

Now, I have no idea whether or not Sheldon is really autistic. At this point, I’m not even comfortable with the colloquial use of “Aspie.” And I’m not saying that nerds never act like the guys on TBBT. I’m just saying that this isn’t really “my people,” at least as I see them.

A show about people like me would have one programmer guy who starts out libertarian in season one and then starts reading Moldbug in season two. The main character would be a prominent rationalist blogger/physicist, whose ex-girlfriend is in a bi-poly open relationship with an SJW Asian bio-major, who gets in frequent fights with the programmer. Their room would be full of computers, disassembled computers, computer parts, and robots. (TBBT has one Jewish and one Indian character, which I would obviously retain.)

It’s getting late, so I’m going to continue this tomorrow.

Tesla, Edison, Genius, and Loneliness (part 2/2)

Part 1 is here.

“If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.” — Confucius

This quote is one of my personal mottoes, but I have added a corollary: “If I am walking with only one man, I still have two teachers, for I may learn to achieve goodness from a man’s good side, and to avoid evil from a man’s bad side.”

At any rate, Edison is a man whose goodness instructs us on how to take brilliant ideas and build the structures necessary for them to benefit humanity. Edison is a man who literally built civilization and deserves credit for both seeing how the structures needed to fit together to work, and for having the skills necessary to actually bring people together and build those structures.

Tesla is a lesson on how society should not manage its creative geniuses, (and I don’t mean the dumb pay dispute with Edison.)

Tesla is an interesting character. He appears to have been one of the world’s exceedingly rare true short sleepers, which appears to be a genetic condition:

“Ying-Hui Fu … studies the genetics and other characteristics of short sleepers at her neurogenetics lab.

“Currently, Fu knows of three types of genetic mutations that are related to the ability to function well on minimal amounts of sleep, which often runs in the family. In a 2009 paper published in the journal Science, she described a mother and a daughter who shared the same genetic mutation of the gene DEC2 that allowed them to thrive on six hours of sleep per night. So far Fu has identified about 50 families of short sleepers.

“This group of short sleepers is unique,” Fu said, describing them as optimistic and energetic, often holding more than one job. …

“Interestingly, these high energy levels typical of short sleepers can sometimes reach behavioral extremes. For instance, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research that examined the sleep patterns and personality of 12 short sleepers, researchers found some evidence of subclinical hypomania — a milder form of manic behavior, characterized by euphoria, disinhibition and, in fact, a decreased need for sleep.”

Please note that drinking 10 5-hour-energy drinks in a row is not the same as having a genetic mutation that lets you get by on less sleep. Chances are extremely likely that you, my friend, are already not getting as much sleep as you need for optimum health. Also, since very few short sleepers have actually been studied, what we think we know about them may not be entirely accurate; they may suffer long-term consequences that have not yet been documented, for example. I do wonder if chronic lack of sleep eventually got to Tesla, reducing him to a state of waking-dreaming toward the end of his life, when he began going obviously loopy.


Tesla’s rigidity of personality, behavior, and dress are reminiscent of the compulsive, repetitive, and restrictive behaviors associated with autism/Asperger’s Syndrome (now just another part of “autism” in the DSM,) eg,

“People with Asperger syndrome display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. They may stick to inflexible routines, move in stereotyped and repetitive ways, or preoccupy themselves with parts of objects.

“Pursuit of specific and narrow areas of interest is one of the most striking features of AS.[1] Individuals with AS may collect volumes of detailed information on a relatively narrow topic such as weather data or star names, without necessarily having a genuine understanding of the broader topic.” (Wikipedia.)

I’ve long thought it a problem that these definitions/descriptions make no effort to distinguish between “Aspies” and genuinely intelligent people, who simply have more ability to memorize facts of any sort and will learn about any subject in more depth than someone of ordinary intelligence. If we want to define high IQ as a mental disorder, then, well, I guess we can, but it seems like a bad idea to me.

Autistic children apparently also have difficulty sleeping, which is why many of them are being prescribed melatonin as a sleep aid (as I discussed back in Melanin, Sexuality, and Aggression.) However, these autistic kids appear to actually need more sleep than they’re getting; they just seem to have trouble turning off their brains and keeping them off long enough for a proper sleep.

Anyway, to get extremely speculative: Much like Fu’s short sleepers, the autistic people I have worked with personally (N=small) seemed like they had brains on overdrive. Imagine that a normal brain is an Amish buggy, going along at a nice, reasonable clip, and their brains are Formula One race cars. Brain speed in this case may have nothing to do with IQ, per say, or may in fact be detrimental to it–autistics are far more likely than the general population to test as mentally retarded–but I favor a theory that having a small quantity of autistic-like traits may be useful for people in fields or occupations that require high IQ, but large quantities of autistic-like traits cause too many negative side effects, resulting in full-blown autism. In Tesla’s case, he got the benefits of the massively high-powered, sped-up brain, with a side effect that he couldn’t turn it off long enough to get more than a few hours of sleep and lacked the normal social instincts that lead people to marry, have children, and generally form stable relationships with other people.

There’s a certain irony to Tesla advocating for sterilization of the unfit and hanging out with Nazi propagandist George Sylvester Viereck at the same time as the Nazis were ignoring Hans Asperger’s plea that his subjects be employed as codebreakers and executing them as mental defectives instead. But then, the Nazis are kind of a great big case of how not to treat your smart people.

To be fair, this is not evidence that Tesla actually supported the Nazis or their policies.

Back in Is Genius Fragile?, I discussed a recent paper in Molecular Psychology that claimed to have studied 1,400 students with IQs of 170 or above, and found no rare genetic alleles that were more common in them than people of normal or low IQ, but did find rare, deleterious alleles in regular/dumb people.

Edit: I just realized that for scheduling reasons, “Is Genius Fragile” actually got moved to mid-November. The Molecular Psychology paper is here.

But are such alleles actually deleterious? Tesla never married and had no children; neither did Isaac Newton. Einstein had three children, but one of them seems to have died in infancy and one was institutionalized for schizophrenia.

In other words, perhaps some of these alleles they’ve noticed aren’t deleterious, but actually helpful in some way. Perhaps, for example, there is an allele that codes for processes that help you turn off your brain at night and transition to certain sleep states. Without that allele, your brain is more “on” all the time, you feel more alert and can think more clearly than others without getting tired, but ultimately there are some bad side effects to not sleeping. Or perhaps the brain’s ability to see patterns is normally regulated by another mechanism that helps you distinguish between real patterns and false matches, which might malfunction in people like John Nash, resulting both in increased pattern-matching ability and in schizophrenia. By the way, I am totally speculating and might be completely wrong.

Please note that from the evolutionary POV, traits–like IQ–are not inherently valuable. A trait is adaptive if it leads to the continuation of your DNA into future generations, and is deleterious or maladaptive if it hinders the continuation of your DNA. If high IQ people do not have children, the high IQ is maladaptive and being selected out of the population. (Please note, also, that different environments, both physical and cultural, select for different traits. Had Tesla remained near his family back in Croatia, they might have helped arrange a marriage for him, leading eventually to children and romantic entanglements with someone who wasn’t a pigeon.)

However, even if high-IQ people never reproduced under any circumstances, their existence in a population might still be advantageous to the population as a whole–you probably enjoy having lightbulbs, electricity, cell phones, and other such things, for example. The development of vaccines, industrial agriculture, and modern theories about nutrition and hygiene have vastly expanded the Earth’s human population over the past hundred years, and would have done so even if the people involved had not had any children at all.

This is a somewhat complicated issue that depends on the interaction of a lot of variables, like whether society can consistently produce high-IQ people even if the high-IQ people themselves do not have many children, and whether the innovations of modernity will actually help us survive (the Amish, after all, have more children than your average person with a cell phone.) See: “How–and why–genius is group selected–massive cultural amplification” for some more discussion on the subject.

Regardless, I am operating under the assumption that society benefits from the existence of people like Tesla (and, of course, Edison.)

Anyway, back to Tesla and his job difficulties.

In “The Improperly Excluded,” Micheal Ferguson theorizes that there exists a maximum IQ difference between two people beyond which they cannot effectively communicate, which he places around 20 IQ points. (I think I discussed it here and here.) So a person with an average IQ of 100 can understand and communicate with someone with a 120 IQ, and someone with a 120 can understand a 140, but the 100 and 140 are essentially speaking Greek to each other; the 100 IQ person cannot make heads or tails of the 140’s thoughts, nor distinguish their claims from those of a crazy person or charlatan. If the 100 trusts the 120, the 120 can take advice from the 140 and recommend it to the 100, but beyond that, people of, say, 160 IQ are just too far removed from the average population to even get their ideas effectively communicated. Extremely high IQ people, therefore, may be improperly excluded from positions where they could actually do important work just because average people have no way to understand what they’re saying. Additionally, since extremely high IQ people are very rare, they may have to cope with a world in which almost no one they meet is within their comfortable conversation zone.

Note: see Hollingworth Fan’s comment below for some very interesting quotes on this subject.

Tesla, a guy who could do integer calculus in his head, was undoubtedly brilliant far beyond the common walks of man, and so seems to have faced the constant frustration of being surrounded by idiots like Edison. Upon Edison’s death, Tesla opined in the NY Times about his former boss:

“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene … His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.”

That idiot Edison, by the way, had six children, none of whom seem to have died in infancy or gone crazy. Three went into science/inventing, two were women, and I don’t know what happened to the fourth boy. Edison was undoubtedly helped in life by living in the same country as his family, but he also seems to have just been a more stable person who successfully managed to balance his work and social life. Edison: better adapted to his environment than Tesla.

Tesla’s genius was undoubtedly under-utilized. Tesla could not manage his own affairs, and so needed, at the very least, the strong structural support of a family that would prevent him from doing stupid things like gambling away his tuition money and dropping out of college, as well as a sound employer or university that would manage the business end of Tesla’s laboratory expenses and design implementation. Immigration to the US left Tesla without the support of his family, and his own stubbornness lead him to quit what would otherwise have been a productive career.

Additionally, Tesla’s ideas may truly have been too far ahead of their time for even other smart people to appreciate and understand. There were few people in the world at his level, and he must have spent much of his life completely isolated from anyone who could understand him. Even an employer willing to finance his schemes might not have been able to understand (and thus implement) some of them.

Isolation, I suspect, leads eventually to madness. Not because (or just because) isolation makes people lonely, which makes them depressed. But because the human animal is not designed to work in isolation.

In the extreme example, we know from observing people in solitary confinement that it breaks their brains and drives them insane.

In everyday life, our brains require regular feedback from others to make sure our ideas and impulses are correct. To give a trivial example, suppose I mention to my husband that a friend of mine did something today that really annoyed me, and he responds that I am misinterpreting things, that he heard from my friend’s husband that morning about some extenuating circumstances that explain her behavior and that I should not be annoyed with her. Likewise, he might come to me with a story about a co-worker who seems to be stealing his ideas, and I could help figure out if the guy really is.

Isolation removes this feedback, leading to more and more incorrect ideas.

In his recent post, “Mysticism and Pattern-Matching,” Scott Alexander writes:

“Think of top-down processing as taking noise and organizing it to fit a pattern. Normally, you’ll only fit it to the patterns that are actually there. But if your pattern-matching system is broken, you’ll fit it to patterns that aren’t in the data at all. …

“So hallucinations are when your top-down processing/pattern-matching ability becomes so dysfunctional that it can generate people and objects out of random visual noise. Why it chooses some people and objects over others I don’t know, but it’s hardly surprising – it does the same thing every night in your dreams.

“Many of the same people who have hallucinations also have paranoia. Paranoia seems to me to be overfunctioning of social pattern-matching. … When a paranoiac hears a stray word here, or sees a sideways glance there, they turn it into this vast social edifice of connected plots.”

Tesla’s claims to have been working on a “Death Ray” that turned out to be an old battery, his romantic entanglement with a pigeon, claims that “thieves” had broken into his hotel room in search of his “Death Ray” but not been able to find, and the Mythbusters’ thorough busting of his claims to have built an oscillator that nearly brought down the building and had to be destroyed with a sledgehammer all sound a lot like what Scott’s describing. As a guy who could do calculus in his head, Tesla had an extreme talent for pattern matching–perhaps too extreme. Scott continues:

“So to skip to the point: I think all of this is about strengthening the pattern-matching faculty. You’re exercising it uselessly but impressively, the same way as the body-builder who lifts the same weight a thousand times until their arms are the size of tree trunks. Once the pattern-matching faculty is way way way overactive, it (spuriously) hallucinates a top-down abstract pattern in the whole universe. This is the experience that mystics describe as “everything is connected” or “all is one”, or “everything makes sense” or “everything in the universe is good and there for a purpose”. The discovery of a beautiful all-encompassing pattern in the universe is understandably associated with “seeing God”.”

Recovered schizophrenics I’ve talked to report the exact same thing: both a mystical sense of the union of all things, and joy at the experience (though they also report that schizophrenia can be absolutely terrifying, because sometimes the voices are evil.)

And finally (at least for the quoting):

“I think other methods of inducing weird states of consciousness, like drugs and meditation, probably do the same thing by some roundabout route. Meditation seems like reducing stimuli, which is known to lead to hallucinations in eg sensory deprivation tanks or solitary confinement cells in jail. I think the general principle is that a low level of external stimuli makes your brain adjust its threshold for stimulus detection up until anything including random noise satisfies the threshold.”

Isolation/ lack of stimulus has a direct effect of lowering the brain’s threshold for identifying patterns until random background noise gets interpreted as conversation. (The general correlation between schizophrenia and low IQ could be partially an effect of smarter people being better at avoiding severe isolation, and dumber people being more likely to end up in situations where literally no one has a real conversation with them for years at a time.

Tesla seems to have been isolated in his own way, both by being far more intelligent than the vast majority of people, and so unable to converse properly with them, and also by having none of his family, kin, or fellow countrymen around. He even had to communicate primarily in a language that was hardly his first.

Long term, I suspect such isolation had a negative effect on Tesla’s sanity and ability to wisely conduct his own affairs.


Tesla is a difficult case, because he willingly walked away from what were probably excellent career opportunities, and there’s hardly anything anyone could do about his family being back in Croatia. However, since most people do live in the same country as their families, we can still draw some general conclusions:

Some really smart people may require significant support from society and/or their families/employers in order to properly function and fully realize their potential. Their families should probably step in and help them get married if they can’t do it themselves, at the very least to help keep them happy and stable.

The Wikipedia quotes physicist Y. S. Kim on the subject of P. A. M. Dirac (one of my favorite scientists)’s marriage to Margit Wigner, sister of Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner:

“It is quite fortunate for the physics community that Manci took good care of our respected Paul A. M. Dirac. Dirac published eleven papers during the period 1939–46…. Dirac was able to maintain his normal research productivity only because Manci was in charge of everything else.”

Dirac and Manci in Kopenhagen
Dirac and Manci in Kopenhagen

Alas, the Wikipedia does not give the details of how an autist like Dirac managed to marry Manci.

Really smart people may have some ideas that are astounding brilliant, and also have a lot of ideas that don’t work at all, because that is just the nature of creativity, but the average person probably can’t tell the difference. They need other people like themselves to bounce ideas off of and generally converse with. Their eccentricities are generally harmless, and the community is better off tolerating them.

Above all, try not to abandon them. Humans are not built to be alone.

Further implications of hippocampal theory

So while on my walk today, I got to thinking about various potential implications of the hippocampal theory of time preference.

The short version if you don’t want to read yesterday’s post is that one’s degree of impulsivity/ability to plan / high or low time preference seems to be mediated by an interaction between the nucleus accumbens, which seems to a desire center, and the hippocampus, which does a lot of IQ-related tasks like learn new things and track objects through space. Humans with hippocampal damage become amnesiacs; rats with the connection between their nucleus accumbens and hipocampus severed lose their ability to delay gratification even for superior rewards, becoming slaves to instant gratification.

So, my suspicion:

Relatively strong hippocampus => inhibition of the nucleus accumbens => low time preference.

Relatively weak hippocamus => uninhibited nucleus accumbens => high time preference (aka impulsivity.)

Also, Strong hippocampus = skill at high IQ tasks.

Incentivise traits accordingly.

Anyway, so I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that it could explain a number of phenomena, like the negative correlation between weight and IQ, eg:

Shamelessly stolen from Jayman's post.
Shamelessly stolen from Jayman’s post. As usual, I recommend it.

(Other theories on the subject: Intelligent people make lots of money and so marry attractive people, resulting in a general correlation between IQ and attractiveness; there is something about eating too much or the particular foods being eaten that causes brain degeneration.)

People generally claim that overweight people lack “willpower.” Note that I am not arguing about willpower; willpower is only a tiny part of the equation.

The skinny people I know do not have willpower. They just do not have big appetites. They are not sitting there saying, “OMG, I am so hungry, but I am going to force myself not to eat right now;” they just don’t actually feel that much hunger.

The fat people I know have big appetites. They’ve always had big appetites. Some of them have documented large appetites going back to infancy. Sure, their ability to stay on a diet may be directly affected by willpower, but they’re starting from a fundamentally different hunger setpoint.

So what might be going on is just a matter of whether the hippocampus or nucleus accumbens happens to be dominant. Where the NE is dominant, the person feels hunger (and all desires) quite strongly. Where the hippocampus is dominant, the person simply doesn’t feel as much hunger (or other desires.)

That a strong hippocampus also leads to high IQ may just be, essentially, a side effect of this trade-off between the two regions.

We might expect, therefore, to see higher inhibition in smart people across a range of behaviors–take socializing, sex, and drug use. *Wanders off to Google*

So, first of all, it looks like there’s a study that claims that higher IQ people do more drugs than lower IQ people. Since the study only looks at self-reported drug use, and most people lie about their illegal drug use, I consider this study probably not very useful; also, drug use is not the same as drug addiction, and there’s a big difference between trying something once and doing it compulsively.

Heroin and cocaine abusers have higher discount rates for delayed rewards than alcoholics or non-drug-using controls

IQ and personality traits assessed in childhood as predictors of drinking and smoking behaviour in middle-aged adults: a 24-year follow-up study (they found that lower IQ people smoke more)

Severity of neuropsychological impairment in cocaine and alcohol addiction: association with metabolism in the prefrontal cortex (Cocaine users are dumb)

HighAbility: The Gifted Introvert claims that 75% of people over 160 IQ are introverts.

Research Links High Sex Drive To High IQ, But Brainiacs Still Have Less Sex Than Everyone Else (Spoiler alert: research does not link high sex drive to IQ. Also, NSFW picture alert.)

I am reminded here of a story about P. A. M. Dirac, one of my favorite scientists:

“An anecdote recounted in a review of the 2009 biography tells of Werner Heisenberg and Dirac sailing on an ocean liner to a conference in Japan in August 1929. “Both still in their twenties, and unmarried, they made an odd couple. Heisenberg was a ladies’ man who constantly flirted and danced, while Dirac—’an Edwardian geek’, as biographer Graham Farmelo puts it—suffered agonies if forced into any kind of socialising or small talk. ‘Why do you dance?’ Dirac asked his companion. ‘When there are nice girls, it is a pleasure,’ Heisenberg replied. Dirac pondered this notion, then blurted out: ‘But, Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?'”[30]” (from the Wikipedia.)

Folks speculate that Dirac was autistic; obviously folks don’t speculate such things about Heisenberg.

Autism I have previously speculated may be a side effect of the recent evolution of high math IQ, and the current theory implies a potential correlation between various ASDs and inhibition.

Looks like I’m not the first person to think of that: Atypical excitation–inhibition balance in autism captured by the gamma response to contextual modulation:

The atypical gamma response to contextual modulation that we identified can be seen as the link between the behavioral output (atypical visual perception) and the underlying brain mechanism (an imbalance in excitatory and inhibitory neuronal processing). The impaired inhibition–excitation balance is suggested to be part of the core etiological pathway of ASD (Ecker et al., 2013). Gamma oscillations emerge from interactions between neuronal excitation and inhibition (Buzsaki and Wang, 2012), are important for neuronal communication (Fries, 2009), and have been associated with e.g., perceptual grouping mechanisms (Singer, 1999).

Also, Response inhibition and serotonin in autism: a functional MRI study using acute tryptophan depletion:

“It has been suggested that the restricted, stereotyped and repetitive behaviours typically found in autism are underpinned by deficits of inhibitory control. … Following sham, adults with autism relative to controls had reduced activation in key inhibitory regions of inferior frontal cortex and thalamus, but increased activation of caudate and cerebellum. However, brain activation was modulated in opposite ways by depletion in each group. Within autistic individuals depletion upregulated fronto-thalamic activations and downregulated striato-cerebellar activations toward control sham levels, completely ‘normalizing’ the fronto-cerebellar dysfunctions. The opposite pattern occurred in controls. Moreover, the severity of autism was related to the degree of differential modulation by depletion within frontal, striatal and thalamic regions. Our findings demonstrate that individuals with autism have abnormal inhibitory networks, and that serotonin has a differential, opposite, effect on them in adults with and without autism. Together these factors may partially explain the severity of autistic behaviours and/or provide a novel (tractable) treatment target.”

This may not have anything at all to do with the hippocampus-NA system, of course.

Schizophrenic patients, on the other hand, appear to have the opposite problem: Hyper Hippocampus Fuels Schizophrenia?:

““What we found in animal models and others have found postmortem in schizophrenic patients is that the hippocampus is lacking a certain type of GABA-ergic [GABA-producing] neuron that puts the brakes on the system,” says Grace. “What we’re trying to do is fix the GABA system that’s broken and, by doing that, stabilize the system so the dopamine system responses are back to normal, so that we can actually fix what’s wrong rather than trying to patch it several steps downstream.””

Wow, I made it through two whole posts on the brain without mentioning the amygdala even once.

Bi-modal brains?

But... the second equation makes perfect sense.
But… the second equation makes sense.

So I have this co-woker–we’ll call her Delta. (Certain details have been changed to protect the privacy of the innocent.) Delta is an obviously competent, skilled worker who has succeeded at her job in a somewhat technical field for many years. She has multiple non-humanities degrees or accredidations. And yet, she frequently says things that are mind-numbingly dumb and make me want to bang my head on my desk.

To be fair, everybody makes mistakes and says incorrect things sometimes; maybe she thinks the exact same thing about me. Also, I have no real perspective on how dumb people think, because I haven’t spent much of my life talking to them. Even the formerly homeless people I know can carry on a layman’s discussion of quantum physics.

At any rate, I don’t actually think Delta is dumb. Instead, I think she has, essentially, two brain modes: Feeling Mode and Logic Mode.

Feeling Mode happens to be her default; she can do Logic Mode perfectly well, but she has to concentrate to activate it. If Logic Mode isn’t on, then things just get automatically processed through Feelings Mode and, as a result, don’t always make sense.

When Logic Mode is on, she does quite fine–her career, after all, is dependent on her rational, logical abilities, above-average math skills, etc. But her job is just that, not a passion, not something she’d do if it didn’t put food on the table. When she is in default mode, her brain just doesn’t make logical connections, notice patterns (especially meta-patterns), or otherwise understand a lot of the stuff going on around her. And her inability to judge distances/estimate sizes just makes me cringe.

My conversation topics typically go over like lead balloons.

In a recent Stanford Magazine article, Content to Code? in which Marissa Messina discusses her decision to major in computer science:

BEFORE STANFORD, I’d never heard the term “CS.” When my pre-Orientation mates used it repeatedly during our technology-free week of hiking in Yosemite prior to the start of freshman year, I had to ask them what it stood for. But their matter-of-fact response—”computer science”—was still a foreign concept to me. …

“Nonetheless, I celebrate my decision to develop my technical side. Although it does not come naturally to me, in Bay Area culture, knowing how to code feels like a prerequisite to existing. …

“I quickly learned through get-to-know-you conversations that being a “techie” was inherently cooler than being a “fuzzie,” and that social standard plus rumors of superior job prospects for engineers began to make me question my plan to major in psychology.

“Three years later, here I am, close to graduating and capable of coding. Now what?

“I certainly don’t imagine myself thriving as a professional programmer, because thinking in syntactically flawless computer-speak remains a wearisome process for me. … “

How on Earth does anyone arrive at Stanford without knowing that computer science exists?

Messina illustrates my theory rather well. She can go into logic mode, she can write code well enough to major in CS at Stanford, but it does not come naturally to her and she finds it rather unpleasant. She is only doing it because, back in freshman year, someone said her job prospects would be better with a CS degree. Now she realizes that she doesn’t actually want to do CS for a full-time job.

I suspect that most people operate primarily in Feelings Mode, and may be even worse than my co-worker at activating Logic Mode. Some may not have an operative Logic Mode at all; a few people may not have a Feeling Mode, but that seems less common. Feelings are instinctual, irrational, and messy. They exist because they are useful, but that does not mean they make logical sense.

For example, let’s suppose an out-of-control train is racing toward a group of schoolchildren who’ve been tied to the railroad tracks, but if you push a 9-foot tall man in heavy plate mail in front of the train, his death will save the children.

People operating in Logic Mode start debating the virtues of Kant’s Categorical Imperative verses Mill’s Utilitarianism.

People operating in Feelings Mode want to know what kind of psycho came up with a fucked up question like that. Children tied to the train tracks? Murdering an innocent bystander by pushing him in front of the train? Why are you fuckers debating this? Are you all sick in the head?

When Feeling people switch over into Logic Mode, I suspect it exerts some cost on them: that is, they can do it, but they don’t really like it. It’s uncomfortable, unpleasant, and sometimes exhausting. So most of the time, they prefer to be in default mode.

So there are things that they can understand in Logic Mode, but since they find the whole business unpleasant, they prefer to ignore such conclusions if they possibly can. This probably makes it very difficult to get people to make any kind of decisions involving unpleasant scenarios + data. The unpleasantness itself of the scenario breaks them out of Logic Mode and into Feeling Mode, and then the whole business is flushed down the toilet because someone goes into a screaming fit because you hurt their feelings with your data.

Earlier this morning, I happened across this “Systematizing Quotient” Quiz that HBD Chick linked to. Obviously the quiz has certain drawbacks, like user bias and the difficulty of comparing oneself to others (do I know more or less about car engines than other people? I probably know less about them than most men, but since I can diagram how an engine works and explain it, do I know more than the average woman? Where do I fall on a population scale? And what if I wouldn’t research something before buying it because I already know all about it, or because I think the brands available on the market are similar enough that the time spent resourcing would not be cost-effective?) but I thought I’d try it, anyway.

I scored in the 61-80 range, which is not terribly surprising. What’s weird is just how low everyone else scores, since the averages are 24 and 30 for women and men, respectively, and it’s not like the scale goes down to -50 or anything.

At any rate, when Delta started talking about how much she hates the Common Core math, well, I was curious. I did some digging and came up with problems like the one at the top of the screen, generally accompanied by a bunch of comments from parents like, “What are they even doing?” and “I have no idea what that is!” and “That makes no sense!” And I just look at them all like, Wow, you can’t figure out that 5+2+10+10+10=37?

Sure, math is a recently evolved trait and all, but those sorts of comments still vaguely surprise me.

IQ probably intersects the two modes via a separate axis. That is, a high-IQ Feelings Person might be able to concentrate enough of their mental resources to out-math a low-IQ Logic person, and vice versa, a high-IQ Logic Person might be able to concentrate enough mental resources to out-feel a Feeling Person. (For example, by reading a book about what various facial expressions mean and then using that knowledge in real life.) Delta, for example, could probably figure out the problem after a while, but would still say it’s a terrible problem.

There was a conversation around here somewhere about a recent paper that came out claiming that the discrepancy between the number of men and women in high-end mathematics was due to not enough girls taking rigorous math courses in middle school. Well, I don’t know about the middle schools where the paper was published, but my middle school only had one math class, and we all took it, so I don’t think that’s exactly the problem. More likely, cognitive differences just happen to be manifesting themselves in Middle School, and the math geniuses are starting to outshine people who are smart and hard working but not geniuses.

In the conversation, someone remarked that while women (or in this case, girls,) they’ve known can do math perfectly well, they tend not to enjoy it, and prefer doing other things, whereas the men they know are more or less forced to do it because their brains just happen to automatically look for patterns. This was the original inspiration for this post; the idea that someone might be able to switch back and forth between two modes, but would generally prefer one, while someone else might generally prefer the other. I might call it “Logic Mode” and The Guardian might call it “Systematizing Mode”, but they’re both basically the same.

If this is true, most people may not operate in Feeling Mode, but most women do. On the other hand, it may be that only a small sub-set of men operate primarily in Logic Mode, either, but they happen to be a larger sub-set than the sub-set of women who operate primarily in Logic Mode. Since I don’t talk to most people (no one possibly could,) and my real-life conversations are largely limited to other women, I am curious about your personal observations.



Somali Autism

Approximately one in 88 children has been diagnosed with autism, but in Minnesota, one in 32 Somali children and one in 36 white children have the condition.

A recent study–the Minneapolis Somali Autism Spectrum Disorder Project–reviewed the diagnosis paperwork to make sure the autism diagnoses were accurate, and concluded that they are. They did not go interviewing kids in search of symptoms, just looked at the records of people who’d already been diagnosed.

According to the NY Times, “But the Somali children were less likely than the whites to be “high-functioning” and more likely to have I.Q.s below 70. (The average I.Q. score is 100.) The study offered no explanation of the statistics.”

Well that one seems obvious: average Somali IQ is probably below 70.

Supply your own map if you feel like it
Average IQ by Country, from Memolition

Also, “While some children back home had the same problems children everywhere do, parents said, autism was so unfamiliar that there was no Somali word for it until “otismo” was coined in Minnesota.”

You might think it’s just something in the Minneapolis water supply, but another study, this one from Sweden, found something similar:

Children of migrant parents were at increased risk of low-functioning autism (odds ratio (OR) = 1.5, 95% CI 1.3-1.7); this risk was highest when parents migrated from regions with a low human development index, and peaked when migration occurred around pregnancy (OR = 2.3, 95% CI 1.7-3.0). A decreased risk of high-functioning autism was observed in children of migrant parents, regardless of area of origin or timing of migration. … Environmental factors associated with migration may contribute to the development of autism presenting with comorbid intellectual disability, especially when acting in utero. High- and low-functioning autism may have partly different aetiologies, and should be studied separately.

So what’s up with white kids with autism? Did they get screwed by migration, too?

There is one thing that Minneapolis and Sweden do have in common: lack of sunlight. Somalis may be particularly at risk of Vitamin D deficit, or some other disorder caused by differences in the night-day cycle at different latitudes.

But again, whites have similar rates of autism despite having had thousands of years to adjust to high-latitude winters, while African Americans, who ought to be more similar to the Somalis in their winter/light adaptions, have much lower rates.

In fact, I can’t really think of anything that whites in Minnesota and Somalis in Minnesota might have in common that they wouldn’t also have in common with African Americans in Minnesota. Or Sweden.

The obvious solution is that Somali autism might just be caused by totally different stuff than white autism. Perhaps migration itself caused the high Somali autism rates, or the stress and trauma of war and dislocation. Or it could have something to do with the Somali preference for cousin marriage, but perhaps the autistic kids never got noticed back in Somalia because of high infant mortality rates.