Autism and Asperger Syndrome have been in the news this week linked to a high profile case of computer hacking. Hackers are believed to be generally further along the so-called 'autism spectrum' than the general population. Hackers, and those in computing, as well as engineering, physics and maths, also tend to be men. Are the two phenomena linked?
The paediatrician Hans Asperger, after whom Asperger Syndrome is named, argued for autism and Asperger Syndrome as an extreme of typical male psychology. So comprehending autism and its spectrum better, might assist in understanding men. But if we want to better understand women, there is now new research which suggests their brains are more prone to the dangers of paranoia and conspiracy theories.
Autism and Asperger Syndrome share difficulties in social skills and communication plus unusually strong but narrow interests with repetitive behaviour.
Typically, girls score better than boys at psychological tests of empathy, like the 'faux pas test', recognising when someone has said something hurtful. Those with autistic spectrum problems don't do as well as the general population on this test. On reading what facial expressions might reveal about emotional states, women do better in these assessments than men, plus those with autistic spectrum problems also perform poorer than the general population.
On the other hand, men tend to out-perform women on tests which measure something called 'systemising' which might be what hackers, engineers, physicists and mathematicians tend towards. For example, in 'intuitive physics' tasks, predicting the outcome position of a series of pulleys and levers, men generally score higher than women.
So men are worse than women at working out what a person intends behind a comment or facial expression. But now new research recently published from the University of Bath, suggests 'hyper-empathising', which is what women are more prone to, may lead them to see intentionality when it is not there. How often have women made the mistake of assuming something more meaningful behind a male gesture?
While seeming less good at reading minds and therefore empathising compared to women, men do more 'systemizing'. This means they prefer systems that change in highly lawful or predictable ways. This explains why they appear handicapped when faced with systems characterized by less lawful change (like other people). Those with autistic spectrum problems appear to 'hyper-systemetize'.
Classic autism is diagnosed four times more in men than women, and Asperger Syndrome nine times more in men than women. So men are much more likely to receive the diagnosis, which is one clue that the male brain is linked to autism in some way.
Exactly what is going on inside the brain of those suffering from autism remains a mystery but one theory is that a phenomenon referred to as 'mindblindness' partly explains the symptoms.
When we interact, particularly if we have goals such as we want to seduce, negotiate or persuade, then we have to 'mind-read' or 'mentalize'. Making sense of other's behaviour involves imagining their mental states.
Everyone is an amateur mind reader, trying to predict what others might do next. The so-called 'mindblindness' theory proposes those with autism suffer from not being able to get inside other minds's so easily, explaining why they find other people confusing and unpredictable. This might apply to men as well.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University, argues that empathy problems explain the social and communication difficulties of those with autism (and therefore maybe in general men), but also another factor - average or even above average 'systemizing' explains the narrow interests, repetitive behaviour, and resistance to change or need for sameness of autism (and also possibly men).
Baron-Cohen, in a paper entitled 'Empathizing, systemizing, and the extreme male brain theory of autism', explains that systemizing is the drive to analyze or construct systems. Systems follow rules, and systemizing means trying to identify rules in order to understand and predict how things work. Scoring high on 'systemizing' now explains many feature of the autistic spectrum and male behaviour.
For example, men tend to collect things - collectible systems involves distinguishing between types. Mechanical systems involve understanding how your DVD player or computer works. Numerical systems include train timetables, calendars and stock markets.
Porfessor Simon Baron-Cohen argues in his paper published in 'Progress in Brain Research' that while 'systemizing' delivers truths in the form of laws, it can only do so in domains that are ultimately lawful. Baron-Cohen contends that one reason why hyper-systemizers struggle with empathy, and, for example, are less interested in fiction, is that these are not truth oriented in the same way that physics is. Emotions and human behavior are not 100% lawful.
So someone might gossip about another person having an affair - the affair may never have happened, but the gossiper might believe it's true nonetheless. Understanding human affairs (literally) is about keeping track of not just what is reality, but other's beliefs, even if they are not accurate. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen wonders if empathy might be impossible without the ability to play with and even suspend the truth in our minds.
Women appear better at this than men, but does that open them up to a contrasting gamut of different psychological problems?
If there is an autism theory around the Extreme Male Brain - what about the Extreme Female Brain? The 'Female Brain' appears at the opposite end of this continuum to the 'autism extreme male brain' and is characterised by empathising abilities that are much better than systemising abilities. Up until now this looked like nothing but good news for women.
Psychologists Mark Brosnan, Chris Ashwin, Ian Walker, Joseph Donaghue from the University of Bath have recently published some new research which supports the idea that the 'hyper-empathising' which women are more prone to than men, might underpin paranoia.
Their argument is the gaze deﬁcits seen in autism, when men can't work out what emotions lie behind eye expression, may be the exact opposite to paranoid delusions of being watched or spied upon. The autistic inability to grasp the social dynamics of groups, might be the antithesis of paranoid delusions of conspiracy. Conspiracy theories involve imagining group activity elsewhere and everywhere.
Entitled 'Can an 'Extreme Female Brain' be characterised in terms of psychosis?' and published in the academic journal 'Personality and Individual Differences', the study of 70 healthy female undergraduates, showed a hyper-empathising proﬁle was related to psychosis, and speciﬁcally paranoia.
If men and women want to understand each other more, and get along better, they might need to better grasp key differences in their brains, and make neurological allowances.