Saturday, March 18, 2017

In Appreciation of Neuro-Divergent people

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to initiate dialog about mental health awareness. Particularly at a time like this, which sometimes feels like the "Empire Strikes Back" moment of the equity movement. An over-generalization of the cultural conversation we've had thus far concerning the reasonable limits of equity in North America that may be useful for characterizing where we currently are is as follows: the black community and women won the first battles fairly decisively. But these battles were very prolonged - which should really say something about the massive complexity of them. I mean, consider just how much data was being used to make these cases for equity: in the case of women, thousands of years of historical data, cross-corroborating the same recurrent patterns, such as male exclusivity in leadership positions and positions of power, male-centric language (for example, feminine grammatical gender being marked), etc. These data span across the domains of several disciplines. And in many cases, it isn't obvious how to formalize them in a manner that would be "scientifically" kosher. For example, anyone who has at least attempted to create a piece of art understands the difficulty in trying to explain it's "essence" using explicit language - the whole point is that the art, in a sense, speaks for itself. Art is to be interpreted, not Analyzed. And this interpretation includes subjective elements, not just objective. Subjective is almost considered to be a dirty word these days, what with the complete denigration of the humanities. And yet we forget that the original academic discipline - philosophy - is usually considered of the humanities. And that its methodologies - including the subjective elements - are what led to the methodologies of all other frameworks. Also, despite the hard sciences fetish for formalization, the most formal discipline of them all - mathematics - thoroughly indulges itself with the inherently subjective notion of intuition. The relationship between Mathematics and subjective intuition is so deep it even penetrates the disciplines mythos.

Consider the life of Ramanujan, an Indian Mathematician so brilliant that contemporary mathematicians had to work together to interpret his findings after his death. He was known for using a less orthodox approach to mathematics, which was almost certainly a result of his life in what we ought to call poverty. His parents were on the relatively low end of the economic spectrum, minimizing his opportunities for social mobility. He struggled in college as a result of his seeming inability to do anything other than math. This led him to lose his scholarship, run away from home, change schools, and eventually abandon getting a degree. He found it hard to support himself financially, relying heavily on the charity of his community. Understandably, this set of circumstances affected him pervasively. For example, his lack of finances restricted his access to the works and findings of contemporary mathematicians. Which forced him to derive his own analogous concepts, essentially reinventing the wheel. Paper was too expensive for him, so he could only afford to jot down the results of his proofs (leading to a large-scale effort in the 1970's to verify these findings, since they seemed useful for work in number theory). For more information on his life and work, check out this article from Steve Wolfram.

You may be wondering why I would bother bringing up the life of a mathematician in an article like this? Well, if you've been reading my posts, you've probably noticed I have a penchant for structuring my arguments in a non-linear order - often starting with an introduction that has nothing to do with the main point, and then drawing connections to it later. I do this largely because it is reflective of the manner in which I think. And, very probably, the manner in which many other humans think. Now, allow me to indulge where I am coming from with this observation.

We are often inconsistent with which aspects of evolutionary theory we like to appeal to in justifying our cultural, political, and social worldviews. Some people, I would argue, are too quick to dismiss the role of evolutionary processes in the historical development of homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago. Others, however, are too quick to ignore the dynamic psycho-social factors of these processes, and the pervasive effects they can have on groups and communities as well. It's the people who commit this latter fallacy that I am most interested in discussing here. For these are the sorts of people who are most often guilty of degenerating the humanities for its lack of "objectivity". Who most adamantly argue for the "specialist" as our model of the quintessential intellectual (as opposed to the Renaissance Man). And who argue for what my old Cognitive Science teacher called "Interdisciplinary Eclecticism": interdisciplinary communication not much better than small-talk. The most valuable degree, they argue, is the one that specializes most heavily on the findings of a narrow set of deeply related disciplines, each with its own well-defined parameters, and aiming to find clearly delineable solutions with immediately obvious pragmatic applications. This is often coupled with a more pragmatic notion of value - or even truth itself. For, in this uncertain and ever-changing world, what else could we use to ground our notions of truth and meaning but those principles describing and generating the uncertainty and change in the first place? This idea of consistency as truth goes back at least as far as Plato's theory of eternal forms which, as you may remember, were defined by the fact that they were unchanging (which was necessary, he argued, for their being ideal). In a world where a failure to adapt undermines a species survival, how can we afford to tolerate anything less than the absolute best for our species? As you know all too well, the world doesn't give a shit about you.

We are taught that the enlightenment stomped out the superstitious thinking of years past. That anything worth studying must be able to be attached to a well-defined, mathematical formalism. Anything less loses it's grounding reality, belonging to the same epistemically dubious category as pseudo-science like Creationism and Flat Earthism. This kind of thinking was especially clear during the behaviorist regime in psychology, in which the Gibsonian school of Ecological Perception, The role of Embodiment, and Connectionism were shafted as they weren't objective enough. However, as anyone with any background in Artificial Intelligence can tell you, this was a big mistake. And now that self-driving cars are on the horizon (and kinda a big deal), you should really pay attention to what their very existence entails. For these are built using the findings from the schools of thought mentioned above. The ones which, prior to the advent of the Cognitive Revolution, were not considered "sciencey" enough.

Consider the fact that the first academic discipline was philosophy. From its methodology and findings, all other disciplines were derived. Many intellectuals engaged in inter-disciplinary activities, hence the concept of the "Renaissance Man"  (or Polymath to use the gender-neutral term). However, in the modern period, it is often assumed that such a phenomenon is either dead or dying. For our modern academic disciplines have spent so much time asking new questions and engaging in discipline-internal conversation that it's no longer feasible to really follow the work of any other ones. As a result, our cultural idea of what constitutes as an "intellectual" changed from the Polymath to the Specialist. For how could one person know more about something than someone who Specializes in it? And, as time has passed by, how can a brain hope to carry all the world's knowledge at the same time. Even if there were enough space to store it all, there wouldn't be enough time to learn it, would there?

However, this whole line of reasoning is riddled with assumptions we can now dismiss as false. It implicitly assumes a "container" model of memory, in which static memory objects are passively stored in static containers. But we know, via tons of controlled experiments in psychology, that memory is fundamentally reconstructive in nature. So, although the mind must certainly have a finite storage capacity, we ought to frame discussion's on memory capacity not in terms of storage size, but in terms of reconstruction heuristics. So under this framework, a little can go a long way: if one's cognitive architecture is optimally preconfigured for learning (AKA they use research verified "learning strategies"), then we would expect them to be able to get more cognitive "bang for their buck", so to speak. Notice how this would not be specific to just memory: for memory is nothing more than attention to the past rather than present, and attention itself is the integration of many other cognitive processes. So assuming an improvement in one implicitly assumes an improvement in all. Which probably explains why so many of the best "study habits" are so holistic in nature. Such as getting enough sleep. And diet and exercise. And following a routine. Including strict timed work-break intervals. It's almost like you are an embodied entity who's physical composition determines your outcome. And we are struggling to adapt to an environment which is foreign to that which we originated from: one in which not going out for a jog meant not having food to eat. Nowadays you can get your groceries shipped to you.

The conventional wisdom is not entirely wrong, in that specialization has undoubtedly played a role in our development as a species. After all, certain tasks simply require a tedious, detail-oriented approach. Anything related to Computer Science, Physics, Engineering, or Mathematics will likely require a lot of symbolic manipulation using formal rule applications. So with that said, it would seem unreasonable to expect anyone to be able to focus on more than a few of these subjects, at least at the same time. And times are different now than in the past. After all, the "problem space" of the world was much less populated in the past than it is today. Clearly it was easier to be a polymath back in the day simply because there was less to learn. Even factoring in the role of reconstructive memory, the fact remains that there is not enough time in the most above average human lifespan to read the works of every discipline? Even learning just their "essentials" seems like a herculean task. So surely there is a role for specialization. And surely the death of the renaissance man isn't all bad.

But what if this whole line of reasoning is committed to a false dichotomy? What if we don't have to pick between pure specialist and pure polymath? This is where the life of Ramanujan comes in. If he demonstrates anything to us, it should be the inherent value of different kinds of thinkers. Thinkers from all sorts of different backgrounds, with different beliefs, opinions, etc. Thinkers that challenge traditional assumptions about the status quo. And can back them up with rigorous, philosophical argumentation. This also ties back nicely with the whole equity theme of many of my posts. For it's easy to see how disagreements arise when we privilege certain notions of truth and knowledge. This isn't to say objective truth, in some form, doesn't exist. But we need to be careful not to confuse the truth of a proposition with the ability for it to be formally proved. For virtually every living organism on the face of the earth bases its survival off of fundamentally non-formal reasoning. Hence why I used the word "rigorous". And I think much of the evidence for the claims of the equity movement are sufficiently rigorous to deserve attention. It may be uncomfortable evaluating claims of an "oppressive patriarchy", which seem to entail so much. But yet, when you look at the undeniable evidence for male supremacy throughout all of human history, across all of our civilizations, embedded in all of our mythologies, religions, cultural norms, etc. God is almost always depicted as a man. Men almost always possess all positions of power. Most marriage traditions disproportionately benefit men. People are surprised when they find out how radical some early feminists were, but they seldom ponder why that is. I guess we're so used to the constant reminders of how bigoted we were in the past that it takes the edge off. And it ignores the systematic damage that such oppression must entail. Effects so pervasive it shouldn't be a surprise we have yet to find a way to fully formalize it: after all, we're not even that good at constructing dynamical weather forecasting models. But surely there's value in discussing hurricane despite being unable to perfectly capture them. There's certainly value in discussing economic models despite their notorious limitations.

And this is where I (finally) get to the topic of this blog post: that the recent denigration of equity-minded persons - especially with regards to Neuro-Atypical people - isn't doing anything but holding us back. It seems to me that the pursuit of equity is one of the most important endeavors one can engage in. And I mention the life of Ramanujan because it exemplifies many of the reasons why. For one thing, Ramanujan's poverty undoubtedly hindered his productivity and potential, as he was chronically sickly and likely malnourished, dying at the age of 33. Not to mention the very high probability that he was unable to afford enough paper to fully lay out his proofs, leading to the aforementioned need for mathematicians to posthumously verify his findings. Combined with the racism he experienced, it's hard not to conclude that his potential was wasted.

As mentioned by some, these factors weren't all bad: his lack of formal training in mathematics likely gave him a fresh perspective, granting him a unique perspective from which to enter the problem space from. So, rather than have to go over all of the work of leading intellectuals at the time, he could focus on specializing on that which his mind was most adept at thinking about. Which, interestingly enough, is more in line with the kind of reasoning Plato used in the Republic when defending societies need for specialization. So we want thinkers that can at least sufficiently cohere with the "mainstream", as they have the highest probability of contributing something useful to the conversation. However, we don't want to attract too much of the same sort of thinker. For their work has a significantly higher probability of just agreeing with what has already been said, ultimately being redundant. So we want thinkers that are, in different senses, the same and different, from those currently in academia. Otherwise, the academic torch runs the risk of staying lit eternally but following the same linear path - parasitically surviving on the underbelly of society while not contributing anything to it.

Both Progressive and Conservative minded persons ought to at least agree with the sentiment that you can't do wrong with more knowledge. Which, in my mind, is the best possible case one can make for something like universal college. As has been argued, it's theoretically the only investment that can always pay for itself in some way or another. Although there are some economists that staunchly believe that a perfectly free market will always lead to the best (or rather, least bad) outcomes, this "market fundamentalism" is far from infallible. And although I don't have the time or space to deal with this worldview here and now, I'll just point out that most economists are fairly open about the shortcomings of their discipline. Of course, this isn't to say there is no value to studying economics and economic thought; for example - I think it should be mandatorily taught in high school. But I'm suspicious of any argument heavily or solely relying on it. At the very least, there must be corroboration with the works of other disciplines. Anything less implicitly undermines the sheer complexity of the universe we find ourselves in. As well as trivializes the herculean task the human mind performs - on a moment to moment basis - of actually managing to make sense of that world in spite of this complexity.

Okay, now to get to my main point: why are we okay with the blatant hostility we are seeing towards people who are Neuro-Atypical? Why is "triggered" now considered funny? How is this any different than saying slurs? Are we giving preferential treatment to visible minority groups (like blacks, women, etc) over those who's condition is less obviously ascertainable? This kind of thinking strikes me as odd, since we have little reason to think that the thoughts of such groups would be that foundationally different than that of those already in power. Don't get me wrong - discrimination against persons who are visibly different is very likely an old and primitive part of our cognitive processing architecture. However, conversations on this subject often get carried away with pointless debates over whether this is caused more by "nurture" or "nature" based factors. The former of which is apparently considered more tolerable than the latter. It also doesn't help that a lot of statisticians and psychologists are either products of their time or bad at communicating precisely what they mean, providing dangerous firepower to persons who aren't quite as nuanced.

However, with all that said, I still think it's a poor idea to privilege the status of visible minorities over that of the non-visible. For it reinforces that original sin we committed during the enlightenment - the assumption that everything needs to be completely and elegantly formalizable. Which often begs the question of which "formalization schema" we end up needing to use. Combined with the (largely) arbitrary process we use to confirm whether someone is "qualified" (which itself implicitly assumes the faulty passive storage model of memory), it should come as a surprise to no one that disciplines end up hitting theoretical brick walls. Just like Psychology did before the Cognitive Revolution. The only antidote to this poisonous feedback loop is to critically re-evaluate what it means to be an "expert" in something, and adjust society accordingly. If there is any one thing the many theories of education seem to agree on, it's that passively reading a textbook and doing a few really long multiple choice tests isn't really learning. Testing must be frequent, and its purpose is for long term encoding of propositions. Similarly, although a textbook can be a great way to transmit certain kinds of information, it's obvious that other systems (like 3D models) are more useful in certain contexts (like biology). This paper is a good example of what I mean. The researchers found that cell-biology students using 3D models (both tactile or visual) strongly preferred their use over that of the textbook, particularly when answering questions about complex, "higher level" relationships. Although the results didn't necessarily translate into higher grades in this particular study, the probability that it boosted the efficiency of learning for these students cannot be ruled out.

So, to go back to my original argument, we ought to celebrate the neuro-diverse, for their potential contributions to academia could be great. Which is why I'm disappointed by the appalling levels of ignorance concerning neuro-atypical folk that's been going around. Every time I hear someone josh about getting triggered, I can't help but think that person simply doesn't care enough to educate themselves on what triggering actually entails. It seems like a phenomenon deeply associated with the cognitive mechanisms commonly associated with memory and attention. It's commonly considered the result of an overactive "fight for flight" response mechanism, in which the person's brain, on some level, cannot psychologically comprehend that the trauma is truly over. Which could give us many clues about the mechanisms behind relevance realization (which is kinda an important question for Cognitive Scientists here at UofT). However, even if the condition itself weren't so theoretically useful because of what it says about the mind, I would still posit that it makes sense to protect persons with this condition; and this is because, as they say, everyone is good at something. We've long suspected that the mechanisms behind anxiety play an evolutionary role in our survival - after all, sometimes we gotta get up and run like there's no tomorrow. So having an anxiety disorder - although likely having a net negative benefit (hence the need for accommodations) - likely has a positive impact on certain, specific mechanisms. And it's been shown that, in the very least, PTSD is associated with a better ability to learn the "gist" of something with "negative" information, as well as "enhanced perceptual priming" for "threat-cues". In other words, they are better at "danger avoidance" based survival reasoning). This would appear to be corroborated by the phenomenon of Post Traumatic growth, in which survivors of Trauma are observed to undergo positive change as a result of overcoming their affliction. Ironically, one could say that it "builds character". In fact, it's been argued that The Hobbit was essentially the byproduct of the Post-Traumatic growth of Tolkien.

To be clear, this isn't to undermine the struggles that persons with PTSD face on a daily basis - but to point out the potential intellectual value of people who think differently than us. A potential which can expand quite a bit more if we loosen our idea of what kinds of intelligence are considered... well... intelligent. For example, the observation that there must be a relationship between great art and madness may be more than a stereotype. An observation which, once again, coheres well with what we know about the cognitive science: that some of those factors associated with creative thinking are linked to the phenomena of insight. Which is also kinda a big question Cognitive Scientists here at UofT ask. And of which it's notoriously hard to quantify (after all, what *is* an insight problem?)

And now to cash in on my mentioning of Ramajunan one last time. Believe it or not, he is commonly posthumously diagnosed with autism. A condition which, unlike PTSD, is really hard to determine whether or not the net payoff in cognitive ability is a net positive or negative. I'm not sure if there is a single condition more associated with the stereotypical genius than autism. An association of which, although we currently lack the data to conclusively prove or disprove, seems biologically plausible nonetheless.

Now, to be clear, this argument is not intended to be of the same logical form as the "great Beethoven Fallacy". For, in that case, the argument is that it is "better safe than sorry" to preserve a life which is currently a fetus, on the basis that it may potentially overcome the great handicaps it will face when it is born in order to achieve greatness. However, my argument deals with things that are - I would argue - more alive than the fetus. Additionally, my argument also provides an account for why some equity may be advantageous - because there is an inherent value in people who think differently. By most pro-lifers admissions, this doesn't extend to a fetus at a sufficiently low developmental stage (such as a Zygote). The fact of the matter is that we have these persons who can contribute something novel to society if given a chance, and I think it best to try and give it to them. Unlike a more mainstream thinker, the neurodivergent begin solving problems from a different, novel places in the "problem space". They frame the parameters in potentially different ways, reflective of the different ways they even begin to think about problems. We can also optimistically speculate that cultivating neurodivergent talent could increase our chances to ensure we don't squander the talents of the next Ramanujan; for there is a chance that the next Ramanujan necessarily must be neurodivergent, for their neuro divergence is the basis of their advanced abilities, at least with respect to solving the kinds of problems they solve (remember, Ramanujan was shit at everything but Math). And even in the worst case scenario, neurodivergent people are useful for being lab rats to be studied under a microscope. For, as abnormal psychology has made abundantly clear, it's hard to know anything about "normal" brains without actually studying the "abnormal" ones. I think, with all said and done, that there is great reason to at least take seriously the supposition that neurodivergent persons ought to be afforded a certain amount of equitable protections.

Which brings me to my final point: why are we treating mental illness as a joke? I mean, we've gotten to a point where we're using the word "triggered" as a slur. Because... according to some, some college students use it too much? Is this really that high priority? Have these critics ever met someone who actually gets triggered, in the strict psychological sense? They are fully aware of the existence of exposure therapy. To suggest otherwise is just condescending at best. And at worse, does nothing but drag the rest of humanity down into the mud of primitive, bigoted thinking. Understand that this isn't just about PTSD and triggering. I'm including Transgender persons in my description of neurodivergent too. And people with learning disabilities. You think the cultural crusade is going to end with the trans community? Professors like Jordan Peterson have already argued against the notion of accommodations, on the basis that society shouldn't have to be bothered with improving the well-being of certain kinds of people. Even if the actions taken to do so would be minute in comparison. Apparently, if you hand in an assignment late as a result of intrusive flashbacks caused by involuntary triggering, you deserve the late mark penalty. In the eyes of our system, your performance outcomes are all that matter.

All I can say is this: there are certain trends in beliefs among professors in Academia. Which, I think, can be partially accounted for by the simple fact that disciplines use, by an large, the same kinds of standardized testing criteria and the same method of information transference. So why should we be surprised by the probability that academia is, in some sense, self-selecting? It's hard not to notice the cognitive feedback loop. And then people wonder why there is intellectual homogeneity in certain key personal beliefs, opinions, etc of scholars, both in academia in general and in each discipline in particular. So I'll end this article by posting this: if one thinks that the problem with Academia is a prevalent Marxism, then it would seem the marketplace of ideas didn't do its job. But if it did, then I suppose that the academic vetting process did its job and there's something worth looking at in Marxist doctrine after all. Which would kinda undermine his characterization of Marxist doctrine as being dangerous because it necessarily leads to mass murder due to its possession of certain essential inalienable principles, which the Gulag Archipelago deductively proves, and apparent counter-examples of successful moderate left-leaning states like Sweden don't count because they got problems you just don't understand since it's the "rape capital of the world". So all variants of Socialism like Social Democracy must be icky.

I belittle this line of argumentation in my writings because, in case you haven't noticed, it's the main line of argumentation being used to force neurodivergent folks to conform to a more neurotypical way of thinking. Because that's what happens when you equate the ability to rote memorizing facts for multiple choice tests and forgetting them the next day with actually understanding something. With conflating the process by which we confirm knowledge with that of knowing itself. This is the reasoning that leads them to, for lack of a better word, deny accommodations to legitimately disabled people. Because unless your injury is explicit and visible, apparently it doesn't deserve attention. Which just makes our lives more difficult than they need to be. It's also the kind of empty reasoning behind statements concerning the "uselessness" of the humanities. Because, as many on the alt-right love to argue, they have become "safe spaces" for "triggered" college students to hide in, so their "feelings" don't get hurt. When the triggered college students are neurodivergent folks (like Transgender persons), no one gives a shit. This criticism is bipartisan, for a lot of left leaning thinkers hold a similar attitude: That, Uulike visible minorities and women, the "condition" of neurodivergent persons is invisible to the naked eye, which apparently means it can be ignored. On a related note, since we have great reason to suppose that women, blacks, etc are intellectually equivalent to white cis hetero males (since evolution doesn't work that quickly), we can understand why they would be deserving of "special treatment" - after all, they are equal. So many of the left consider these differences in outcomes to be unfair; a symptom of a greater disease. But when it comes to, say, learning disabilities.. those are, by definition, disabilities. Disabilities involving learning. Which is kinda a big part of what it means to be intelligent. So yeah, consider this a warning that enabling the current attitude against Transgender persons is enabling a similar attitude towards all neurodivergent people. Which could have pretty lousy consequences in the long term for everyone. And although I'm an optimist when it comes to the "nobility of intentions" that human nature allows, I am a deep pessimist about it's rationality. Anyways, that's all for now.

EDIT: mild edits, added a reference to Tolkien, and made font corrections