At 81 and with millions of things I really should do, reading carefully a long book is not what I do anymore. Except for NeuroTribes. I was attracted to the book by its title, as I have been promoting the concept of Cognitive Diversity for decades and NeuroDiversity resonated. My initial intent was to see if there was a useful connection. I started reading and became engrossed in Steve Silberman’s story telling and was learning what I should have known long ago. His introduction told me there was much good to come from reading on. After reading the introduction, I read the last chapter and epilogue and realized that I must give the whole book a careful read.
Each chapter was a revelation. Steve is not a scientist, but a journalist with strong interest in the history of science and ideas. This book is a masterpiece of reporting scientific, medical, and social misadventures – and was becoming an exemplar for my new thesis that the Sci/Tech of systems with humans as primary components hasn’t progressed much in millennia. This is contrasted to the exponential growth of the Sci/Tech of systems without humans as components. I explicate on this elsewhere.
The multiple ventures in the treatment (social and medical) of persons with so-called Autism is the astonishing tale of the stupidity and arrogance of modern humankind – when it comes to trying to understand ourselves. Yet, it is also a story of eventual success in human grit, creativity, and intelligence. Some of those persons who would fit the new “autism spectrum”, described in the book, are certainly far better off today than they were in the not too distant past. It is ironic that Asperger, working in Nazi controlled Austria, had the core insight that took five decades to see the light – and that yet by only a minority of humans today.
By chapter 3 I knew I had to read the whole book, and eventually buy it. Having to rush with this library book, I abandoned many of the activities I had planned. Unfortunately, I now tend to get sleepy when reading books, and had to chunk it during many sessions. I returned it to the library today. I rushed reading without taking notes, and with my poor memory I will need to get a Kindle copy for details. I have the LOOK INSIDE from Amazon up now, to review the Table of Contents.
While reading Chapter 6, strangely titled: PRINCES OF THE AIR, I speculated that this was much more than the detailed narrative of the emergence of the “autism spectrum” conceptual scheme. Without coming out and directly saying it, Steve Silberman was midwifing a fundamental paradigm shift in how we humans conceptualize ourselves. This is clear in his use of the terms NeuroTribes and NeuroDiversity. In Chapter 6, the sharp focus of “autistics” gave them an advantage in the early radio (air) of both Morse Code and later voice dialog – and on into The Internet. These new media enabled social activity within the spectrum.
The book also implies that the extraordinary development of modern Sci/Tech was possibly dependent on persons from the “autism spectrum”, as many (if not a majority) of innovators in the communication/radio/computer technologies were able to maintain focus on task because of their special abilities. These “abilities” had been viewed as disabilities until very recently. These persons weren’t diseased, needing a cure; they were a very essential subpopulation in the Cognitive/Neural-Diversity of Humankind. More on this below.
I digressed from reading at this point and searched for and skimmed 16 reviews of the book, 12 positive and 4 negative. These reviews need to be studied carefully; but from my brief skimming I failed to find any reviews that reported on this deeper aspect – the paradigm shift. Some reviews did mention a few details about the special skills of those on the autism spectrum, but didn’t generalize. Most reviews appeared to be outlining the medical/scientific story. Many of the positive reviews complained about the length of the book and the many details that weren’t “necessary”. I wonder how many of the reviewers actually read the book (and how many reviewers of most books actually read the books). One reviewer explicitly complained about Chapter 6 and said it should have been eliminated. The negative reviews were by those who still pushed the negative views of autism as had existed in the past: from parents wanting to cure their children to those believing still that autism is caused by vaccinations. Many reviewers strongly objected to what they called “unfounded speculations” – what I found as the core essentials of the book, the history of autism being the surface.
Two negative statements in the reviews:
“His affection for detail can get in the way, as in a chapter on the development of radio and electronic bulletin boards.”
“It’s full of long stories and blah blah blah, rather than getting to the point.”
URL links to the reviews can be found at NEUROTRIBES REVIEWS.
One objection has merit. The perspective of disability
does have relevance for those seriously disabled.
We must always bow to complementarity,
no single perspective is universally dominant.
With wide diversity, there will always be populations
that require assistance and compassion.
However, in many cases,
disability couples with ability.
Narrow Focus vs Broad Scans.
A moment ago, while searching for the TOC, I discovered a companion book: Key Takeaways, Analysis & Review (of Neurotribes by Steve Silberman) by Eureka Books. Reading the reviews of this book, most reported being tricked into believing it was Silberman’s book, and only a few said it was a useful CliffNotes-type summary. I expect that it totally missed what I wrote about above. It appears that Eureka Books is an author of a great many short digests of popular books.
I had hoped that it would have been a depth analysis, as I found in a book by Slater on Eddington‘s posthumous Fundamental Theory.
Each chapter was filled with rich detail on historical happenings that I hadn’t known and which were enlightening. I won’t report on the exciting detail in this essay. For one, with my poor memory, I don’t remember them and will need to consult back with the book. Also, I don’t want you not to read this book because I summarized all the choice parts.
NeuroTribes is of a type that I find absolutely necessary to read fully, amd in detail, to experience what the author is opening you up to. It is more than the sum of information on different pages, that many persons jump around seeking the “gist” of a book. If you permit it, Silberman will lead you to the edge of a paradigm shliff.
Another example of this type of book is Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, Doug Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander It took me well over a year to read this book – but it was worth every moment.
A very personal outcome of my reading NeuroTribes was the confirmed discovery that I am on the “autism spectrum”. I knew I was a far outlier in the diversity field, but had not seriously considered myself “autistic”. This primarily because, when talking to Temple Grandin, whose visual mental imagery her medium of thought – and I have no visual mental imagery.
I just discovered that I have a thread of autism among my other profiles. I have “stimmed” since when very young. Not flapping my arms in public, but picking the skin off my fingers. When trying to go to sleep, I do flap my arms and feet – which I had called “restless legs syndrome”. About two years ago I peeled off some fingernails and had to start using those little rubber tips for turning paper, to let my fingers heal. I am now addicted to using them. I must have many on reserve, some in each pocket. I move them about with my other fingers. Sometimes one on each hand. When my beard was long I was known as a constant beard twirler – as I lectured to students. I would also stroke my cheeks, saying I was only proving to myself that I was still here – as my proprioceptive sense are weak. It was only after reading NeuroTribes that I learned the term “stimming” and that I have stimmed all my life.
My poor social skills also can be attributed to the spectrum. I would like to be liked – as do almost all on the autism spectrum. What they fear is how to handle popularity. This, also, has been me all my life. POPULARITY DEMANDS RESPONSIBILITY. I don’t want to be responsible for those who seek my attention. Yet, I do – I am usually over responsible when other persons are involved. My email inbox is too full for me to keep up – but they are there calling. Long ago I invented a concept: The Screen of Renown. When a person gets so popular than they can’t process requests, they must create a screen/filter. I would feel obligated to everyone – which is impossible. Before the Internet, almost every person of renown I attempted to contact I was turned back by their Screen of Renown. Erich Fromm was the only exception.
However, I have some other features in my personal Cognitive/Neural-Diversity that make me not a usual representative on the spectrum. Most significant is that I lack mental imagery in all sensory modalities, thus having no sensory remembrances or imagination, no experiential past. I am also conative dysfunctional (by the Kolbe test and an adaptor ( by Kossyln’s Top/Bottom Brain test .
TWO THEMES SUPPORTED BY NEUROTRIBES
These two themes have been emergent within nuet for a long time, gaining significance and support yearly. Below, I only summarize them and merely point out how Silberman’s book supports these themes. It is not my priority to show this in detail here, as I don’t expect many others to read this at this time. I highly encourage the book be read in its entirety, attending to the details.
These two themes are closely related, the first contributing to the second. When these themes mature they will have impact on par with those of Newton, Darwin, or Einstein.
Cognitive/Neural-Diversity of Humankind is Vast
That our scientific and technological advancements may have been dependent on persons on the autism spectrum is sobering. Their roles may be more than quirky exceptions. We may find that teams of persons with complementary attributes and competencies may result in a much healthier and viable humankind.
There is much more than humor in the atypical’s characterization of the typical/normal: “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity. There is no known cure.” Much of our Crisis-of-Crises can be attributed to a societal dominance of a narrow and warped view of who we humans “really” are. Finding a viable path to survival/thrival may require a broadening of who we view as human – which will be difficult in this critical time of enhanced racism and ethnic discrimination.
Our cognitive/neural-diversity goes well beyond the traits on the autism spectrum. We vary vastly in our use of mental imagery, memory, attention, creativity, various intelligences, etc. I propose that the cognitive/neural-diversity of humankind would be better represented by a higher taxonomy, beyond species, as genus, family, or order. Within the cognitive/neural domain, there are no “normal” humans – any more than there are “normal” mammals or insects.
The Sci/Tech of Human Systems is Inadequate
The many failures of science and medicine, during the decades of attention to those experiencing what we now call the “autism spectrum”, typifies how the Sci/Tech of human systems has failed to compare with the exponentially emergence Sci/Tech of non-human systems. These tragedies can be added to the many others in the history of medicine and human sciences. On top of these failures is the cover up of this history and the perpetual continuation of the illusion that our knowledge of ourselves is great, let alone adequate.
To make matters much worse, the “best” of our (inadequate) Sci/Tech knowledge/competencies of human systems is only known or used by a small fraction of the human population. Even in the case of the “autism spectrum”, if you search online today you will find most of the information still the outmoded and dangerous views supposedly supplanted by the advances cited by Silberman. It is still viewed as a disease to be cured and the conspiracy theory about vaccinations causing autism is still very active.
I recommend we transcend any anger about this, nor attempt to assign blame. As I “argue” elsewhere, everyone’s behavior tries to be consistent with their experienced wrld. Yet, we need to accept this important distinction between the Sci/Tech of human and non-human systems and begin working immediately to bring the Sci/Tech of human system to a level required for our taking appropriate actions to ensure our survival/thrival in the face of our Crisis-of-Crises.