Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Within my list of 130 famous people thought to be or have been autistic you can now find two witty and eccentric musicians who wrote different books both titled "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" (Erik Satie and Oscar Levant), an eccentric genius who had a special love of the colour red (Sir Isaac Newton) and another eccentric genius who had an aversion to the colour red (Glenn Gould), two obsessive Fischers, one deceased and one active in Australian public life, two friends who sadly died from separate cases of medical negligence (Andy Warhol and Nico), an eccentric genius who married a cousin, an eccentric genius who’s parents were cousins, a mother and a daughter who both won Nobel Prizes, a pair of creative brothers, two eminent lady scientists who’s deaths from cancer may have been the result of exposure to radioactivity during their careers, two fascinating and controversial Americans of colour, a pianist who's music was sent into space to entertain our alien friends (Gould again), a mathematician who was apparently so shy that he didn't like to look at his own reflection in a mirror, four brilliant men who were all members of the same secret society, a boy (fictional character?) who was the subject of a “semi-true” case study that became a popular classic book, and to top it all off, a nudist. No, I'm not making this up!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

My argument for generational change in popular science and popular psychology writing

Yesterday I was re-reading a chapter from a fairly old book by Oliver Sacks. It was of interest because it was an unsolved mystery – Sacks didn’t make a definite diagnosis of the unusual case, but he proposed some possible explanations, and I noticed some similarities between this unsolved case and another mysterious case of neurological oddity involving unusual memory that has recently come to prominence in the mass media. Of course, I think I know the answer to the mystery.

I’ve always had reservations about Sacks as a scientist/practitioner, and re-reading this piece has very much clarified what it is that I object to in Sacks’ writing. All the way through this chapter Sacks made reference to the theories and ideas of Freud and his psychoanalyst followers, as he grasped for explanations for this puzzling case. Implausible psychological explanations were given serious consideration in the chapter, and all the while Sacks ignored one neurological condition that could well have been the underlying cause, even though Sacks compared the case he was studying with another famous similar case history that was known to have this neurological condition. It appears to me that Sacks overlooked a neurological solution to the mystery, which was right underneath his nose, because his head was too distracted by Freudian nonsense and impressive-sounding literary references to notice the bleedin’ obvious. And this guy is supposed to be a qualified neurologist! I guess a purely scientific point of view in a writer about neurological case histories might have lead a practitioner to a correct diagnosis with greater efficiency, but we all know that an author who practices scientific efficiency in their writing would never in a million years be found in a list of best-selling authors, and that is really where the problem lies; in all of those credulous readers.

Maybe you are thinking that I’m being too harsh criticizing Sacks because (at the time that he wrote this book and at least one other popular title) he obviously took the theories of Freud at least half-seriously. Many other Americans have had a high regard for the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition/mind control cult. Followers of psychoanalysis have even been recently observed writing letters to the editor of New Scientist defending their beliefs against scientific dismissal in that magazine. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not the type of person who respects an idea simply because many other stylish, passionate or influential people hold it dear. I’d like to remind you of the great harm that has been done by this thoroughly unscientific school of thought. Wasn’t it followers of Freud who came up with the idea that autism is caused by bad parents? According to this myth, autism is a completely psychological reaction in a young child to the knowledge that he/she is unwanted by his/her parents. For many years this refrigerator mother theory of autism was hugely popular and also had currency with many mental health professionals. People are still reading the popular book Dibs, in search for self that is based on this vicious and damaging lie. It’s hard to quantify the psychological and emotional damage that this disproved theory has inflicted on families that have autism within them. We also have the Freud Brigade to thank for the fact that unknown numbers of people who have had purely neurological conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome and Asperger syndrome have in past decades been put through inappropriate, stigmatizing, insulting, ridiculous, misleading, time-wasting and expensive psychoanalytical counselling sessions with “therapists”. People who have had neurological conditions or medical illnesses have gone along to see people who promote themselves as health professionals in good faith, to leave without even being given a correct diagnosis, because the so-called professional had a head full of id, ego and Oedipus nonsense instead of real knowledge. We can fairly point the finger at Mr Freud for popularizing the idea of the professional knowing more about the mind and motives of his patient than the patient knows, an idea that has obvious dangers.

I think Sacks himself deserves much of the blame for the now-common negative attitude towards people who have savant skills. Was it Oliver Sacks who described a pair of autistic savant twins as “moronic and psychotic” in character, “a sort of grotesque Tweedledum and Tweedledee”, who have “the appearance of absurd little professors”? Yes indeed it was, in chapter 23 of Sack’s “classic” best-seller The man who mistook his wife for a hat. Nice, isn’t it? In my wanderings on the internet I have consistently come across comments by members of the public that question the intelligence of people who have savant skills, simply because they have savant skills. I’ve even seen people questioning the intelligence of Daniel Tammet, a high-profile autistic savant who has an impressive list of intellectual and career achievements. His achievements appear to count for nothing with some people, because it appears that it is commonly accepted knowledge that all savants are, at some fundamental level, useless subhuman idiots, to be pitied but not respected. Do we have Mr Sacks to thank for doing his bit to keep the term “idiot savant” in common usage? A Google search on the term “idiot savant” gives 221,000 hits, which is pretty impressive considering that just about everyone must realize that the term is both insulting and politically incorrect. My advice to anyone who has a savant skill; don’t ever, ever mention it in your C.V.

In my opinion, Mr Freud, the psychoanalytic tradition, and it’s followers and well-wishers have lead the mind sciences and the mental health professions down a big, dark, long blind alley for at least half of the last century. They have set back the progress of science in understanding the workings of the human mind at least as much as the disruption resulting from a world war. And I can only assume that Mr Sacks is still a member of this crowd. And he is a qualified neurologist, and he has a list of awards and honours as long as your arm, and his opinions are very highly respected all around the world, and he is still a best-selling author? Come on people! Isn’t it time to leave the past behind and step into the world of reality?