Health & Fitness

Autism and the Brain

Kristen Sparrow • November 30, 2012

Tricky business of turning off some parts of the brain to improve performance.  An article from Scientific American about using electrical stimulation to improve creativity.  And an article from NYTimes about using the peculiar and sometimes prodigious skills of autistic individuals for productive enterprise.  We’ve discussed autism a bit here and here.
In the November/December issue of Scientific American Mind “Switching on Creativity”

“The human brain constantly filters thoughts and feelings. Only a small fraction of the stimuli impressed on us by our environment ascends to the level of conscious awareness. Prior learning enforces mental shortcuts that determine which sensations are deemed worthy of our attention. Our laboratory is investigating whether we can weaken these biases and boost openness to new ideas by temporarily diminishing the neural activity in specific brain areas…
Genius, rare as it is, must demand a qualitatively, different view of the world than what most of us experience.  Austrian physician Hans Asberger, whose name is associated with the eponymous condition on the autism spectrum, suggested that a “dash of autism” might set brilliant minds apart. We have been investigating this hypothesis by using weak electric current to modulate brain activity in healthy people in our laboratory.”

My immediate reaction was  to file under “What could possibly go wrong?”  along with many “brainy” schemes like shooting nuclear waste into space.  But according to the scientists, the effect wears off within an hour. The theory is that by targeting specific areas, they reduce the influence of prior knowledge. This could circumvent mental blocks to creativity.

November 29, 2012
The Autism Advantage
To his father, Lars seemed less defined by deficits than by his unusual skills. And those skills, like intense focus and careful execution, were exactly the ones that Sonne, who was the technical director at a spinoff of TDC, Denmark’s largest telecommunications company, often looked for in his own employees. Sonne did not consider himself an entrepreneurial type, but watching Lars — and hearing similar stories from parents he met volunteering with an autism organization — he slowly conceived a business plan: many companies struggle to find workers who can perform specific, often tedious tasks, like data entry or software testing; some autistic people would be exceptionally good at those tasks. So in 2003, Sonne quit his job, mortgaged the family’s home, took a two-day accounting course and started a company called Specialisterne, Danish for “the specialists,” on the theory that, given the right environment, an autistic adult could not just hold down a job but also be the best person for it.

Of course the obvious contradiction is that creativity is not the usual “savant” talent of reproduction.  Savants can remember every number in the phone book, Einstein couldn’t remember his own.