Sat. Jan 16th, 2021

Most human beings are “on the spectrum” but likewise most are inside the bell curve of unimpaired (normal) neurological function. Autism is a mix of conditions but common to brains “on the spectrum” and those diagnosed autistic share certain characteristics. These grow more extreme as the conditions is more severe. High functioning mild autism or what seems to be referred to as “slightly on the spectrum” exhibit an emotional detachment, a lack of empathy (as a felt response). They’re often “lost in their own world” instead of present in the moment, less compelled by the business of reality than the world inside their brain. Imagination and focused attention creates an experience that’s a match for what’s going on in the real world. In a way this could be classed as a mostly benign obsessive-compulsive episode.

Psychologists and neuroscientists speculate readily about the mystery of consciousness and its elusive nature – how we know how to suspend consciousness (e.g. with general anaesthetic) but not how it comes back, what combination of neurons firing together suddenly switch the lights on. Neural imaging can show coherent patterns playing out across the brain, partly predictable, based on what a subject is told to do e.g. tell a subject to think about picking up an apple then physically pick up an apple, similar but distinct parts of the brain light up on the neural image that’re consistent across all brains doing this experiment. No area of the brain responds to being conscious on the neural imaging. There’s no way to perceive a point of transition from unconscious under general anaesthetic to conscious – lights switched on – on any current brain measuring tool. Surely the awakening of an a entire conscious identity is a bigger event in the brain than apple test, yet it resists all our objective testing. Popular interpretation is this shows how mysterious consciousness is. It’s a dubious conclusion. We are consciousness, when all’s said and done, so of course it seems supremely important. We presume identity should be just as significant to the brain. But what if it’s not? What if consciousness is a mere side show in the busy list of processes running in the brain. Thinking about apples and picking up applies involves a lot of factors working together including fine control of a lot of muscles, tendons, nerves, impulses, spatial manipulation, prediction etc. Maybe this is more complicated, to a working brain, than the mere manifestation of a human personality.

Then we find people doing something that seems incredibly complex almost superhuman, like playing Tetris at mega speed after practicing enough. We know Tetris demands spatial intelligence and playing it at these levels is way beyond anything a novice could to do. Neural images show a seemingly contradictory picture: the slow Tetris player is using much more glucose, thinking harder, then the superfast player performing impressive feats of mental ability. Same applies for all advanced practice of a process versus a novice working slow and steady, or that same advanced player when he was first learning to be expert.

So the brain learns, becomes expert, which is synonymous with mental efficiency. This efficiency shows itself in low glucose usage, less neural image activity by the experts doing superhuman non-predictable feats in real-time. But how can efficiency in the brain engender complex split-second reaction that’s accurate and not impaired by the faster pace of ‘thinking’ despite what looks like neural approximation and short cut and parsimonious expenditure of brain resources: getting more from less, if decisions are heat then it would seem the human brain violates the law of conservation of energy. In fact not only violates but flips it on its head!

Another surprise to current neuroscience was the neural imaging data showing that most of the vast complex of brain glucose/resonant light ended up being attributed not to the things a person did or the thoughts being thought about but – crucially – to the task of inhibition. Not just in the sense of making sure, for example, actions don’t play out anything violent or inappropriate, even if the imagination is playing silly buggers and picturing – say – staple gunning the lips of a tedious windbag together to shut him up. Inhibition is synonymous with intelligent regulation i.e. a hundred things migho some situation, microsecond needed to discard 99, decision to do 100, thus reaction is suitable and manifests the best possible choice of those available. Consider the implications of everything one consciously thinks or everything one decides and does: no matter how fast it’s done or how complex the process of rendering the chosen reaction, there’s still been countless alternatives considered, parsed, deselected, doubtless using far more glucose (thinking energy) than the actual things we do. This modus operandi is omnipresent. Why SHOULD neural imaging know how to sort away this white noise from the light of useful thinking and what parts of the brain direct action over discarded possible actions?

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