As someone without formal experience in STEM higher education, but rather as a self-guided generalist, I should perhaps preface what follows with an explanation of my intentions.
Science involves an experimentally falsifiable thesis, informed by reproducible experimental results. That said, there is also a role to be played by the more purely theoretical side of science, where experimental constraints may be dialed back in favor of greater theoretical maneuverability.
What follows is not only skewed toward the theoretical side of science, but skewed further yet toward philosophy, wherein these values of falsifiability and reproducibility often have even less weight. The intention here is to explore ideas, in case they have downstream consequences of broadening the imagination behind experimental design.
As far as philosophy is concerned, the approach taken here is in the rhizomatic tradition of Deleuze-Guattari, and is something of a rhapsody in terms of toggling between epistemes instead of taking a consistent approach dedicated to any one of them.
This is all to say that the following is not supposing itself to be science, but is still oriented around science in its own way.
Identity vs. Diagnosis
It is also worth noting that, while I was never diagnosed with any Autism Spectrum Disorders, and while I personally have a limited understanding of the clinical bases of these diagnoses, I do identify with some of the defining features of ASDs, especially the extreme systematic-over-empathetic ability ratio and the predisposition toward solitary activities.
In other words, for what self-diagnosis is worth, I would place myself around coordinates (3, 0) in the matrix below, as presented Simon Baron-Cohen at the First Symposium of the Evolutionary Psychiatry Special Interest Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Oct 4th 2016.
As far as my experience is concerned, parsing out other people’s emotions based on their tone and body language is not especially difficult, but this kind of empathy, if it can even be called that, for me relies more on cognition than affection. There is also some residual noise in these considerations, owing to my ongoing exercise around the stoic concept of ataraxia, which is basically an attained state of deep equanimity.
This is worth drawing attention to, because it illustrates the noisy psychological circumstances this text issues from, and how these circumstances, by virtue of their noise not being distilled away, are more conducive to the sort of “schizoanalytic” philosophy mentioned above than to what I consider true science.
In fact, a brief detour into the intersection of clinical psychiatry and the theory of schizoanalysis may bring some interesting flavor here.
Felix Guattari was a Marxist psychoanalyst who studied under Lacan, and devised his own divergence from the Freudian orthodoxy to which Lacan himself ultimately stayed loyal.
Drawing from clinical cases and ancient myths alike, orthodox psychoanalysis attempts to boil the diagnosis down to some central, originary childhood trauma(s), the kernel(s) from which blossoms the current psychopathology of the analysand.
Schizoanalysis take the opposite approach of exploring a plurality of explanations which co-exist and shed different lights on the psyche of the subject. At least, that is my understanding of the key difference.
The analogy used by Guattari, and his symbiotic co-theorizer Gilles Deleuze, to illustrate this difference, is the distinction between the structure of the tree and the structure of the rhizome. The former has a figurative center, from which the rest of the structure emanates, and which the latter lacks.
Unlike Deleuze, Guattari was a clinical practitioner, and even conducted some controversial social experiments among his patients at the La Borde clinic.
While I’m not sure if Guattari himself considered these experiments, and his wider theoretical efforts, to be in the tradition of anti-psychiatry, they nonetheless exemplified a radically unorthodox approach to understanding the psyche, and drew from a profoundly diverse field of discourse. One could even argue this psychological approach was a progenitor to the theory and attitude around neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity and Psychoplasticity
Oh yeah, its neologism time. Although honestly, I’m sure someone else already cobbled this one together.
I’m not familiar with the discourse around this concept of neurodiversity, but I understand that one of the more radical shifts it calls for has to do with the attitude taken toward those diagnosed with certain psychopathologies. Instead of monolithically stigmatizing atypical psyches as pathological, these neuropsychological differences can be seen as each entailing their own set of strengths and weaknesses.
In the presentation referenced above, Baron-Cohen uses the analogy of apples and oranges, and how we don’t judge oranges in terms of how apple-like they are. He also employs the following anecdote attributed to Albert Einstein:
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
This way of thinking is similar to the rhizomatic epistemology proposed by Deleuze-Gautarri, in that a plurality of equally valuable perspectives can be simultaneously recognized and advanced without collapsing them all into a single mode of evaluation which privileges a given standard.
The concept I’d like to introduce now, which is more in the spirit of philosophy and western esoteric discourse than the spirit of science, is that of psychoplasticity.
Minds can change, in ways we can control and in ways we cannot. This, in and of itself, I don’t believe is controversial, but what may be controversial is my claim that the plane of neurodiversity can, to an extent, be willfully navigated - that it is possible to enter and exit states of mind comparable to those which would be diagnosed as mildly to moderately pathological.
There is another quote of interest, also of dubious historical truth, here attributed to Dion Fortune, who was a practicing follower of Aleister Crowley. To paraphrase a statement which may or may not have been uttered:
“Magic is the determination of conscious experience, according to the will.”
The qualia of one’s ongoing conscious experience is determined by a continuously developing array of influences, of which another given conscious agent is only one.
In other words, we exert an influence on the conscious experiences of others, but our agency in this regard is quite narrow within the wider context. Moreover, even what influence one ultimately does manage to exert upon another is not comprehensively guided by one’s conscious will. We do not always deliberately and willfully steer the influence we have on the conscious experience of another person, but when we do, we are practicing what Fortune allegedly considered magic.
I would stipulate that, because of how frequently our interactions would qualify as magic under this definition, an additional criterion should be met before the term is warranted. Namely, I think self-awareness is essential here.
Wanting to make a friend happy, and telling them a joke which makes them laugh, would qualify as magic in this regard only if the person telling the joke was self-aware of the scenario from a second-order perspective. Wanting to make your partner existentially dependent on you, and manipulating their self-image accordingly, and doing so with a similar self-awareness, would also qualify as magic, arguably even as black magic.
Here I admit that I am not familiar with almost any of Fortune’s discourse, so I cannot be certain of the degree to which these ideas align with hers. In any event, this is not an exegesis, but rather an extrapolation.
While using the term ‘magic” to describe this field of technique is interesting in light of the body of esoteric discourse it may render actionable and tangible, the whole attitude and lexicon of esoterica can just as easily be dispensed with, in favor of a more palatable and less unnerving diction.
What is also interesting, is that this concept of willful determination of conscious experience can just as easily be turned inward. One can attempt to steer their own consciousness, that fuzzy vehicle in which one’s own will is embedded, to yield some deep insights.
As I mentioned before, I believe one can willfully navigate the plane of neurodiversity, albeit primarily on a psychological level, a level quite limited compared to the level of one’s engrammatic architecture, the willful reengineering of which I think can, at best, be fragmentary and highly clumsy.
That said, one can, to a limited extent, steer through what could be called mindspace, or a figurative n-dimensional field of the various states the human mind may occupy, with actual minds being vector-like instances, or actualizations of certain coordinate paths. I’ve done it myself, albeit in a manner only slightly dictated by my will.
What follows is an imperfect and abridged documentation of my probe into an extremely systematic and mildly psychotic mindspace, in the interest of cultivating a generalist curiosity which, in turn, was intended to lubricate my processing of vast amounts of technical discourse.
During the time I spent designing and utilizing what I called the Modular Generalist Program, my state of mind was characterized by an obsession with unifying theories, codification systems, and extremely compact data visualization methods. I effectively lived in the following graphs for several months, essentially attempting to systematize my own mind.
During this period of time, I experienced and exhibited a borderline disability in terms of social skills, largely because my subjective world had become so singularly removed from the intersubjective world inhabited by those around me. I also exhibited at times a mild neurasthenia, which I gather is an archaic term but which means a psychosomatic exhaustion induced by sheer cognitive exertion.
One way to understand the social alienation experienced by someone in such a state of mind, is actually quite simple: this was all I cared about for months, and almost nobody else understood it or was interested in understanding it. The cognitive hyperactivity also culminated into a mild social anxiety, which reinforced the existing predisposition toward solitary and intensive activities.
This experience may or may not have phenotypic correlates such as the prefrontal overgrowth exhibited by certain subjects diagnosed with ASDs, as referenced by Baron-Cohen in the Royal College presentation. That said, while I am unfamiliar with this study, it does seem to describe phenomena at an earlier developmental stage than I was at, being 21-23 years old during this period.
As I persisted deeper into the Modular Generalist Program, I gradually became more and more involved in DAOs. This involvement demanded mental bandwidth, at the expense of watching lectures all day, and also demanded better people skills than those which I had let atrophy over the course of this deeply solitary experiment.
Consciously observing my psychological development as I transitioned from this hermetic and hyperintellectual mode of existence, back into a more socially-integrated and well-adjusted state, has been one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.
As my information diet shifted away from consisting almost exclusively of lectures on YouTube, and toward a much more typical diet of social interactions and television shows, it felt as if I was retracting the probe back into relative normalcy, albeit with a whole new acumen of insight which I was lacking before the excursion.
In a sense, I temporarily lost touch with the common sense of reality, which is more or less how I understand psychosis: as the spectrum of degrees to which one’s subjective sense of reality is divorced from the aggregate, or intersubjective, common reality which constitutes their local social world.
While I was at the apogee of this development, farthest removed from what could be considered the center of gravity of normal reality, I exhibited, and more importantly I subjectively experienced, both a greater degree of social difficulty and a greater compulsion toward systematic thinking. In the empathizing-systematizing matrix, it was as if I moved from the middle-right, down to the bottom-right, and back up to the middle-right.
What is also interesting, and the reason why I believe neurodiversity can be understood as a plane or a space which can be willfully navigated to some extent, is that I viewed this excursion as a two-way trip from the start. And despite not nearly having full, willful control over my conscious experience throughout this transformation, it always felt like I was on a track which would eventually bring me back to a more typical state of mind, a state of mind wherefrom I could more easily communicate with other people and connect with our shared reality.
What, if any, light this sheds on clinical psychiatry I know not, for want of expertise in that area. While I do suspect that certain “syndromic” ASDs and other extreme neuropsychological disorders may well reside beyond the realm of willful navigability described here, perhaps less extreme cases, or cases more characterized by environmental influences than genetic influences, may be more conducive to therapies derived from the ideas explored above. This article was first published on Clinamenic's personal Mirror account.