Thursday, March 25, 2010

Was the famous poet Emily Dickinson autistic, epileptic, both or neither? One thing is certain, she had the gift of a finely developed sense of smell

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886 An American poet regarded as one of the greatest poets. Her poems were in a number of ways unconventional for their time. Dickinson was a prolific poet but was not well known in her lifetime. She was very reclusive and considered eccentric but she had a good rapport with children. She had a habit of wearing white clothes, but also excelled at domestic work such as gardening and baking. Dickinson had a particular fascination for scented flowers. When she died she was buried in a white coffin and flowers used at her funeral included orchid, heliotrope and violets - flowers which have especially splendid fragrances. It has been written that Dickinson “saw things directly and just as they were”.

Dickinson is one of the writers discussed in the 2010 book Writers on the spectrum: how autism and Asperger syndrome have influenced literary writing by literary academic Julie Brown. Dickinson’s biographer Lyndall Gordon has argued that epilepsy is the explanation for Dickinson’s reclusive life and her single status. Epilepsy had a huge social stigma during the time that Dickinson lived. There was a family history of epilepsy in the Dickinson family. Both explanations offered could be true – autistic people have an increased risk of also having epilepsy, and autism and epilepsy can both run in families.


Brown, Julie (2010) Writers on the spectrum: how autism and Asperger syndrome have influenced literary writing. Jessica Kingsley, 2010.
[writers discussed in this book by a literary academic include Hans Christian Andersen, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, William Butler Yeats, Sherwood Anderson and Opal Whiteley.]

Gilbert, Avery (2008) What the nose knows: the science of scent in everyday life. Crown/Random House, 2008.

[an interesting description of Dickinson's fascination with floral fragrance on pages 137-139]

Gordon, Lyndall (2010) Lives like loaded guns: Emily Dickinson and her family’s feuds. Virago, 2010.

Gordon, Lyndall (2010) A bomb in her bosom: Emily Dickinson's secret life.
February 13th 2010.
[includes discussion of epilepsy]

Koval, Ramona (2010) Lyndall Gordon on Emily Dickinson. The Book Show. ABC Radio National. March 12th 2010.
[an interesting discussion, epilepsy is discussed, audio and transcript available]

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Off That by Baba Brinkman - it's worth a look!

This music clip is great.
The music is rap style, and the message is of an atheist, rationalist, evidence-based philosophy that I have been involuntarily a part of since my late childhood, thirty-odd years ago.

When I was around 12 years old I politely told my Mum that I didn't want to join the girls' club that was attached to the church that she had been taking us to for years, because I did not believe in God. I knew I had been invited to join the club, but in all conscience, I could not join. In hindsight I had probably thrown a spanner into the works of my mother's rather forlorn social life, which was centred around the church, but I couldn't had done otherwise, even if I had realised the social implications back then. In spite of all the Sundays spent at church and all the Sunday School lessons, I was simply unable to buy the stuff I had been taught. I had no intention of trying to live a lie as a member of some church-based girl's club, regardless of the possible benefits, but to be honest, the prospect of joining a social club wasn't that exciting to me.

I wasn't trying to be mean to my Mum or rebellious, I had just thought through all of the logical implications of what we were taught about the world by our faith, and none of it made logical sense, none of it seemed even remotely possible, and it was pretty obvious that this religion thing was just the product of a shitload of wishful thinking. I was mature enough back then to understand that wanting to believe in something is not a logical reason to believe something, and to my way of thinking, logic must always take precedence. I case you've ever wondered how logical and bright autistic younsters come to be social outsiders, I think this story contains more than a few clues. How badly do you want to be a part of the club? You simply can't be a member of many clubs if you think too much.

A few years later a sister of mine, who I would categorize as predominantly neurotypical, joined a youth club that required members to swear an oath to God and Her Majesty the Queen. I was profoundly shocked. I asked "You don't really believe in all of that nonsense, do you?" I don't remember what the reply was. Did my sister believe in that stuff, or did she just go along with everything just to join the club? I knew I could never be sure of the answer to that question, because people lie all the time, and I just had to respect my sister's choices. I think this was probably one of the moments in my childhood that made me see that there are some fundamental and important differences between my sibling's type and my type. And the sad thing was that my sibling could meet others of her type anywhere, anytime, but I couldn't be sure that I had ever met anyone of my type, or ever would in the future. Perhaps Dad's engineer friend was my type? He wasn't much use as a friend though, as he was old enough to be my father. At the time I did not understand that cognitively and emotionally I had more in common with boys than I had with other females, even though the vast majority of my friends till then had been boys or old men. I wouldn't discover this "male brain" stuff till after I was forty years old and married.

In time you come to accept being an unusual person who is isolated for reasons that are not understood, and you also come to accept a small collection of freaky or misfit people as friends, even though you know you couldn't ever really have much in common with any of them, except outsider status. That's how life is, when you are young, and no one has even bothered to tell you that you are autistic, and you don't understand why everyone else is so irrational and obsessed with socializing.

Oh, goodness, were did that come from?

Isn't it great that nowdays you can be a member of some group even if you think too much or you are some type of freak? You can meet other atheists or geeks. You can read atheist books. You can read explicitly evidence-based books. You can join an online group for autists. Your kids can go to special classes or schools for the ridiculously bright and studious. You don't need to be a Catholic or an Anglican to be a part of the social scene. That's progress!

Do have a look at this clip at YouTube, but I have to warn people of refined sensibilities that there is some bad language.

Off That (Rationalist Anthem) - Baba Brinkman

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Was W. B. Yeats autistic?

Brown, Julie (2010) Writers on the spectrum: how autism and Asperger syndrome have influenced literary writing. Jessica Kingsley, 2010.
[writers discussed in this book by a literary academic include Hans Christian Andersen, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, William Butler Yeats, Sherwood Anderson and Opal Whiteley.]

Condon, Deborah (2004) Did Yeats and de Valera have autism? 9/1/2004.
[brief review of the book Autism and Creativity by Fitzgerald, many discussion postings follow the review]

Fitzgerald, Michael (2006) Autism, Asperger’s syndrome and creativity. Autism2006: AWARES Conference Centre. October 4th 2006.

[W. B. Yeats and many other famous people discussed]

Fitzgerald, Michael (2005) The genesis of artistic creativity: Asperger’s syndrome and the arts. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
[W. B. Yeats, J. B. Yeats and many other famous people discussed]

Fitzgerald, Michael (2004) Autism and creativity: is there a link between autism in men and exceptional ability? Brunner-Routledge, 2004.
[W. B. Yeats and other famous people discussed, this book is at least partially available to read through Google Book Search]

Royal College of Psychiatrists (2006) Royal College of Psychiatrists Annual Meeting 2006 Glasgow: Thatcherism founder had Asperger's Syndrome. (press release) The Royal College of Psychiatrists. 11th July 2006.

[Sir Keith Joseph, Enoch Powell, Eamon de Valera, W. B. Yeats, Sir Isaac Newton]

Walker, Antionette and Fitzgerald, Michael (2006) Unstoppable brilliance: Irish geniuses and Asperger’s syndrome. Liberties Press. 2006.
[“… many of the most notable people in Irish politics, the arts and sciences may have exhibited traits of Asperger's syndrome …”, Robert Emmet, Pádraig Pearse, Éamon de Valera, Robert Boyle, William Rowan Hamilton, Daisy Bates, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett]

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A list of interesting recently published popular science books that debunk the myth that vaccines cause autism

50 great myths of popular psychology: shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior
by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry L. Beyerstein (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)

Don't Swallow Your Gum!: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health
by Aaron Carroll MD and Rachel Vreeman MD

Bad science
by Dr Ben Goldacre

Defeating autism: a damaging delusion
by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(see also Google Books)

I can’t recommend the first book by Lilienfeld et al without some definite reservations, despite the fact that it is a very detailed, interesting and thought-provoking book, with authors who clearly aspired to present this book as one that is based on research. Without really trying I’ve found a couple of important assertions in this book about autism that are highly questionable.

On page 195 the authors claim that “three fourths of individuals with autism are mentally retarded”, basing this assertion on the 2000 edition of the DSM. The DSM is a highly respected book, but this respect is not deserved. I would have thought any authors who have tackled the question of autism diagnosis rates would be very aware of the hazards of basing a conclusion about a defined group when the completeness of the sampling of the group is disputable, and the definition of the group is also disputable. In other words – how do we know three quarters of autistic people are retarded when we don’t even know how many autistic people there are in the population? We don’t know how many autistic people are never diagnosed, identified or counted as autistic. There is much debate about where to draw the line between normal and autistic, and there always will be. And if you find my criticism of this book’s assertion unconvincing, I can offer you a study published in an autism journal:

Edelson, Meredyth Goldberg Are the majority of children with autism mentally retarded? : a systematic evaluation of the data. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Vol. 21, no. 2, summer 2006.

If Lilienfeld et al had written a piece specifically about the question of intelligence in autistic people, I’d hope they would have read and cited papers such as this one, and been much more cautious in their conclusion.

Another questionable assertion in this book, on page 200 is that probably no more than 10% of autistic people display savant abilities. This assertion is presented as a debunking, so the authors should have done their best to get this one right. But this smug bit of debunking is contradicted by a study that was recently published in a prestigious scientific journal. A study of autistic people, published in 2009 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B found that 28.5% “met criteria for either a savant skill or an exceptional cognitive skill”. I guess the whole argument revolves around how one defines “savant”. If autistic people generally have any type of superior mental ability, that is important for many reasons. It would be stupid to limit the study of autistic cognitive gifts to the study of freaky sideshow stunts such as calendar calculation or memorizing phone books. Here are links to more information about the 2009 study:

Patricia Howlin, Susan Goode, Jane Hutton and Michael Rutter Savant skills in autism: psychometric approaches and parental reports. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 27 May 2009 vol. 364 no. 1522 1359-1367.

Biever, Celeste Savant skills may be widespread in people with autism. New Scientist. April 14th 2009.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Does Her Majesty know?

Does Her Majesty know what Australian teens and a few very immature Australian adults are doing with her image on the five dollar note? Dear, dear me.

There are actually a couple of interesting things to see on the Australian $5 note. Have a look at the side that has the queen on it. Look at the lines of text that say stuff such as "this note is legal tender...." and that other boring stuff about the reserve bank. Are those lines of text a bit wonky on your five dollar note? Was your note manufactured on a Friday afternoon? Could it be a forgery?

Go fetch a ruler and check if the text is crooked. I think this might be an example of Blackmore's Tilt Orientation Illusion. Apparently some of your neurons in your primary visual cortex (V1) "respond more strongly to differences than to similarities in the visual scene." Its something to do with neural inhibition. Your brain is playing tricks with you! Don't worry, its all completely normal.

If you find psychological and perceptual phenomena such as visual illusions interesting, I couldn't recommend a better book than "Incredible visual illusions" by Al Seckel, (copyright 2003). It is absolutely full of fascinating photos, art works, diagrams and even a photo of an interesting sculpture. This book isn't dumbed-down for kiddies, it gives scientific but readable explanations.

There's another thing to see or not see, as the case may be, on this side of the Australian $5 note, if you are over the age of 16 years. If you fold the note lengthwise so that you can only see Her Majesty's chin and her shoulders, then fold it a number of times so that only this part of the Queen can be seen, then rotate it a quarter turn anti-clockwise, if you are pure of heart and destined for heaven, you will not see anything much.