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I’m somewhere on the autism spectrum. So, it was never obvious to me that people with Asperger Syndrome lack empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen thinks that people with Asperger Syndrome have an extreme male brain, which means, they have low ability to empathize.  To begin with, we have a direct, blunt way of speaking. This is not the only reason why he thinks so. But I will not get into all that here.

I think I know what this means. When I was a teen, no one could make a loose statement within my hearing distance without my expressing my disapproval, usually with detailed arguments. I found it hard to believe that people found it offensive because this would not have offended me. For long, I did not even know that this offended people. Continue Reading

Books, Uncategorized

When people ask me why I do not write for the mainstream, it reminds me of an incident that happened over a year ago. I mailed Psychology Today’s editor Hara Estroff Marano, saying that I would like to write on Asperger Syndrome. I am sharing this exchange, to illustrate why—much as I would like to—the effort is often not worth it for me. Contrary to what people believe, editors do respond (This is not true of Indian editors. They have poor personal standards.), and are not prejudiced against unknown writers at all. 

Dear Hara,

May I write an article for Psychology Today on why direct communication is a great virtue, in people with Asperger’s Syndrome? As a man somewhere on the  autistic spectrum, it was never clear to me why the direct communication  style of people with Asperger’s Syndrome is considered harsh and insensitive.  Some psychologists like Simon Baron-Cohen think that the people with  Asperger’s Syndrome communicate directly because they have an extreme male brain, and hence, low ability to empathize. But, if directness makes people  uncomfortable, this is perhaps a problem with people and not with direct  speech. People are indirect when they are not fully comfortable telling you  what they really think. An Aspie can easily claim that he finds it more  exhausting to interpret the indirect demands of people, defend himself  against their implicit accusations, and meet the indirect demands others impose on him.

I often notice that people are unable to put themselves in my shoes and understand that my disagreement does not indicate a conflict, or personal  enmity. This is a classic case of failure of introspection. I suspect that  this means that the neurotypicals are deficient in the cognitive component of  empathy. They are also unable to be nice to Aspies despite the disagreements they might have. I suspect that this means that they are deficient in the  affective component of empathy. Now, is it the people with Asperger’s  Syndrome who lack empathy? If someone is willing to defend true, unpopular  positions even when most of his peers disagree with him, I think he is a  dynamo of self-responsibility. I think literalism and disagreeableness are  the fountainhead of human progress. The triumph of the disagreeable over the agreeable is what the progress of humanity is all about.

Here is a published  work on mine. A book review emphasizing the autistic cognitive traits I noticed in Warren Buffett. And on why people like Buffett thrive in the information age:

Warm Regards,

Shanu Athiparambath

She replied:

Continue Reading

Books, Freedom Of Expression, Uncategorized

Rosalind-Franklin_2581518kI like novelistic autobiographies. James Watson’s “The Double Helix” is one of the most entertaining novelistic autobiographies I have ever read. He does not hesitate to question the motives of other scientists, and expose their pettiness—their manipulativeness. But, of course, a sentimentalist might claim that their motives weren’t as twisted as he claims them to be. Passages like this are typical:

“It was increasingly difficult to take Maurice’s mind off his assistant, Rosalind Franklin. Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called her from a distance. Just the opposite—almost from the moment she arrived in Maurice’s lab, they began to upset each other. Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction work, wanted some professional help and hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the situation this way. She claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice’s assistant. I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfed mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained—she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.”

Now, did you understand this passage? Yes? What was he getting at? No answer? You probably did not, even if you believe you have understood. Let me try to interpret.

“It was increasingly difficult to take Maurice’s mind off his assistant, Rosalind Franklin. Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called her from a distance. Just the opposite—almost from the moment she arrived in Maurice’s lab, they began to upset each other.”

This is a fairly common psychological profile. As a writer put it, “Most people with Asperger’s are fairly ordinary people and are not necessarily either incredibly brilliant or completely socially clueless. However, there is a not infrequent form of high functioning Asperger’s whose hallmarks include various kinds of specialized intelligence in a person who, despite their brilliance, simultaneously lacks the basic ability to read basic social cues and to conform to “normal” social standards and expectations. If you have ever known a person like this, you know that part of their repertoire of survival skills is an uncanny ability to get under your skin, into your thoughts, and win a place in your life, even though they are so supremely difficult and hard to deal with. Lisbeth is just like that in the way she captures Blomkvist emotionally, to the point that he can’t stop thinking about her, even though there is no rational explanation for why he would want to remain involved with her.”

“Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction work, wanted some professional help and hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the situation this way. She claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice’s assistant.”

People with Asperger Syndrome never see any situation quite the same way others do. As Tyler Cowen observes, “A focal point refers to something we all can coordinate around without having to talk about it or plan it in advance. You might say if your boss invites you to present at a meeting of the company’s board of directors, it is focal that you wear a tie, even if no one tells you to. At Google headquarters casual dress usually is expected and thus they have a different focal point. Most generally a focal point is a commonly understood social expectation. The concept of a focal point makes me recall the words of Jim Sinclair, an autistic who writes on the web. He informs us: “DON’T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED. Don’t assume you can interpret the [autistic] person’s behavior by comparing it with your own or other people’s behavior. Don’t assume the person can interpret your behavior.” In other words, many common focal points are harder for autistic people to use and alternatively autistic focal points can be harder for nonautistics to use. When it comes to picking up on commonly understood focal points, the  performance of autistics is below average in many contexts, as they find it harder to pick up on many unstated social conventions. This is one of the most common complaints you will hear or read from autistic people and it stems from the fact autistics perceive the world in different ways. But it would be wrong to conclude that autistics are incapable of having focal points. We are in fact seeing social conventions or focal points evolving among autistics, most of all with the assistance of web communication. For instance there is now a fairly common understanding, or focal point, that a meeting or good-bye among autistics will not be preceded by a handshake. Many autistics do not enjoy this form of contact, and some hate it, so why do it?”

“I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend.”

I think Watson is being charitable here. Passive aggressive people do not pounce on someone the day she walks into an office. This is partly because they would come across as too obvious, and partly because they want to convince themselves that they have done their best they can. Yes. Humbert Humbert tried really hard to be good. Really and truly, he did.

“By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.”

“By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities.” 

Simon Baron-Cohen had speculated that Asperger is perhaps merely an extreme male brain.

“Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not.” 

Simon Baron Cohen observes, “Aside from this, he was not particularly interested in dressing up, or in assuming pretend identities, and so on. Again, little interest in imaginative play, with all its creative variability, is another marker of autistic spectrum conditions in toddlerhood.”

“There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair.” 

141201_SCI_JimWatson.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeAs a recent study noted, female faces have higher contrast. You can appear more feminine by increasing your facial contrast:“In a study published in Perception, Russell demonstrated the existence of a facial contrast difference between the two genders.By measuring photographs of men and women, he found that female faces have greater contrast between eyes, lips, and surrounding skin than do male faces. This difference in facial contrast was also found to influence our perception of the gender of a face. Regardless of race, female skin is known to be lighter than male skin. But Russell found that female eyes and lips are not lighter than those of males, which creates higher contrast of eyes and lips on women’s faces. By experimenting with an androgynous face, Russell learned that faces can be manipulated to appear female by increasing facial contrast or to appear male by decreasing facial contrast. “Though people are not consciously aware of the sex difference in contrast, they unconsciously use contrast as a cue to tell what sex a face is,” Russell said. “We also use the amount of contrast in a face to judge how masculine or feminine the face is, which is related to how attractive we think it is.” Given this sex difference in contrast, Russell found a connection between the application of cosmetics and how it consistently increases facial contrast. Female faces wearing cosmetics have greater facial contrast than the same faces not wearing cosmetics. Russell noted that female facial beauty has been closely linked to sex differences, with femininity considered attractive. His results suggest that cosmetics may function in part by exaggerating a sexually dimorphic attribute to make the face appear more feminine and attractive. “Cosmetics are typically used in precisely the correct way to exaggerate this difference, ” Russell said. “Making the eyes and lips darker without changing the surrounding skin increases the facial contrast. Femininity and attractiveness are highly correlated, so making a face more feminine also makes it more attractive.”

“At the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfed mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained—she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.”

Mothers have an uneasy relationship with their attractive and brighter daughters. They cannot stand them growing up in a more affluent, enlightened world. Their daughters are everything they couldn’t have been. A man of Watson’s intelligence could not have missed this. Observe that Watson speculated that the unsatisfied mother “unduly stressed”, not that she “stressed”. Why would a mother do this? Sexism was supposedly in its heyday in the 50s and 60s of the US. Wouldn’t a mother stress the desirability of following her into the jaws of monogamy? An unsatisfied mother would do this only if a professional career would NOT have made her daughter happy. Watson, a broad-minded scientist who urges everyone to understand individual differences could not have missed this. And if Rosalind Franklin had Asperger Syndrome, if she had an extreme male mind, she would have seen things differently, and would have gotten there without an unsatisfied mother’s prodding.

So, What was he getting at, without even knowing it? Rosalind Franklin had Asperger Syndrome.

As he later said in an interview:

He smiles. “Rosalind is my cross,” he says slowly. “I’ll bear it. I think she was partially autistic.” He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. “I’d never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind’s behaviour. “She showed great insensitivity to Wilkins. DNA  was his problem and she just thought she could take it from him. She was clueless. John Randall [the British physicist who led the King’s College team that included Wilkins and Franklin] told her DNA was going to be her thing and she took it from Maurice. But fair play should never have allowed Rosalind to do it. So she was either not a nice person, or just clueless. I think clueless. When you knew her, she wasn’t nasty; just awkward. Francis didn’t think Rosalind was a great scientist. That was Francis at his most honest. The truth was she couldn’t think in three dimensions very well.”

Now, tell me. Do you understand Watson? When you read this passage, did everything that crossed his mind cross yours? If it didn’t, do you really understand him? While you claim that Watson should be punished for his “racist” views, remember: Everything you enjoy is a gift from geniuses like Watson—An unintended consequence of everything they accomplished. What else could they have accomplished if you had let them reach what they wanted, if you could understand them? If only you could understand them. Remember, You are not so smart. It is a very valuable form of humility, to see this. Perhaps, the only one there is.

Books, Uncategorized

Anton Chekhov once said that civilized human beings have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats. Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye. I think Ayn Rand fits this description. If her analysis of the human society is so perceptive, this is why. Even her most competent admirers do not really understand her controversial arguments because they do not even notice cruelty and fraud. They are not genuinely pained by it. Someone has to point it out to them. This is not a very productive way to learn.

I believe it is a lot like people not being able to read social cues intuitively. Someone has to point this out to them. That is an uphill struggle in which they might never really succeed because their direct introspective knowledge of their own mind is not much of a guide here. They have to use their intelligence and not their intuition. They might eventually understand why people act the way they do, but in a slightly different context, they will still not be able to apply what they had learned. The people with Asperger Syndrome are a good example.

For instance, rational people are surprised again and again when people do not respond to logical arguments. They are surprised again and again because they are deeply moved by logical arguments. They probably will never understand why others are not moved by them. To fully understand why, they will have to get inside others minds and read them. But, this is impossible to do.  Continue Reading

Books, Uncategorized

18dczzw3crv48jpgMe: Do you have Asperger Syndrome?

Krishnapriya: Ummm….I don’t think I have it.

Me: It is a gift. A cat, not a defective dog.

Krishnapriya: Actually, I am not really sure.

Me: So, if I tell you that it is a gift, you will change your position from “I don’t have it” to “Actually, I am not very sure”? 

Krishnapriya: Lol. You think I did not see that coming?

******

Krishnapriya: I am reading up on sins and atonement.

Me: Why do you do that, my dearest child? Did you do anything wrong?

Krishnapriya: I think I have done quite a few wrong things. And I guess I am not one of those people who can forgive or forget quite so easily.

Me: Is that a warning? What wrong thing did you (I) do?

Krishnapriya: Lol. I will read it in your book someday if I tell you. Continue Reading