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Wittgensteinian problem: How can we know that we're talking about the same thing?

NOT DRAWN: cultural norms, the multiple levels of language production

Note that the information rate of English (entropy / time) is pretty low. This is a tight bottleneck in the communication between our brains.

When faced with the interpretation problem, the default working assumption is: you are like me. (Call this assumption "empathy"?)
Bob has a mechanism for generating English speech. Bob will assume that Alice's mechanism is similar enough to his, because this way it's possible to find a solution, perhaps efficiently.
But this assumption is probably the major culprit in human-human misunderstandings. I suspect that many conflicts between normal adults can be attributed to poor theory-of-mind.

It is said that autistics, by virtue of lacking in empathy, don't make this assumption. By this definition, I am very neurotypical. And I am very often wrong.

OTOH, the assumption "you are like me" sounds like a prepotent response that most people learn to suppress when they are 5 or so. If autistics have an executive dysfunction that impairs suppression of prepotent responses, this would predict that autistics, in effect, make this assumption more often than normals. What does the data tell us?
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Stolen from this comment:

What an awesome idea to think about!

Constrained languages make it easier to standardize communication (think semantic web vs. the free web), minimizing errors of interpretation. A familiar movie-plot-structure or song-rhythm tends to put the viewer at ease and confident. At this point, it's easy to switch into "flow"y automatic mode, focusing on the higher-level structure (i.e. the meaning rather than the words). By constantly demanding your attention (though not necessarily your focus), the task puts you in a trance-like state of consciousness.

This is kinda like how driving on a highway can be relaxing.

When the medium is free-form (at least in the time dimension), one's attention is free to shift around, and one is free to spend time on complex planning, etc... it is precisely this freedom that makes anxiety possible.

I would like to look at frontal lobe activation in structured vs unstructured tasks. If my hypothesis is correct (more frontal activation in unstructured tasks), this would explain autistic impairment in the latter.


Bluegrass seems like a very constrained form. Maybe this is my bias, since it's a style I know very well.

To test this hypothesis using information theory, I would try to show that the relevant features can be compressed quite efficiently.

If we had an MDL program for generating any tune over the space of bluegrass tunes (generating only the relevant features, let's say the kind of information that is in a MIDI file), the input necessary to generate any given tune would be rather small.
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Stichting BAM: Bescherming Akoestisch Milieu (Protection of the Acoustic Environment) for people who are highly sensitive to noise. Their goal is to fight "imposed noise".

They do activism and have information on quiet holiday resorts, and I would suggest make guides to quiet places to go out in the city. Most of the members are musicians, writers or journalists, and it turns out that Pamela Hemelrijk (libertarian journalist) and Paul Vitanyi (who wrote the Kolmogorov Complexity book) are among them.

A high-tech libertarian solution for this might be for each of us to adjust our own sensitivity... i.e. "standardize", but I think our technology isn't good enough to make wearing the appropriate equipment comfortable.

Another solution would be for sound producers to only broadcast to the intended recipients. Directional sound is a big step in the right direction. You-know-who-you-are: you've got your work cut out for you.


What's the difference between The Mute and noise-cancelling earphones? The Mute samples the undesired noise, but they can hardly assume that children screaming makes a constant sound.
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Björne, P., and Balkenius, C. (2003). Autism as an attentional disorder. In Proceedings of the XIth European Conference on Developmental Psychology. (apparently only the abstract is available)


Attention is probably one of the most fundamental abilities for learning. It has been proposed to encompass parts such as disengagement from current focus, orienting to new target, reengagement at the new target, as well as selective and sustained attention. An early attentional deficit will possibly account for many of the impairments associated with autism. Research has not yielded consistent results as to which part of attention is specifically impaired in autism. One way to catch the qualitative attentional impairment is to analyze videotapes of persons with autism performing daily tasks, correlating these results with instruments designed to measure their general cognitive abilities, which display a characteristic, uneven profile. Then it is possible to design experiments that can properly tap the attentional abilities and deficits in persons with autism. We expect to find a deficit in voluntary attentional shift to expected target, perhaps due to a lower level of attentional engagement. We also expect to find difficulties in orienting and reengaging attention, which could in part account for the fragmentized understanding of the world and the difficulties in generalizing knowledge across domains. Besides direct experimental evidence, these hypotheses can be tested in computational simulations of a model of context processing.

Are autists less able to control what they pay attention to? How much autistic behavior is the consequence of being concentrated all the time?

Are autists similar to absent-minded mathematicians who never stop thinking about a problem, but since birth? I can imagine that an attentional problem in early development would be enough to cause most autistic symptoms.

I wonder if teaching math to young children could cause autistic-like behavior. Just imagine their wild imaginations applied to problems in topology...
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Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh Scientists Discover Biological Basis for Autism

PITTSBURGH—A team of brain scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh have made a groundbreaking discovery into the biological basis for autism, a mysterious brain disorder that impairs verbal and non-verbal communications and social interactions.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, the researchers have found numerous abnormalities in the activity of brains of people with normal IQs who have autism. The new findings indicate a deficiency in the coordination among brain areas. The results converge with previous findings of white matter abnormalities in autism. (White matter consists of the "cables" that connect the various parts of the brain to each other). The new findings led the researchers to propose a new theory of the basis of autism, called underconnectivity theory, which holds that autism is a system-wide brain disorder that limits the coordination and integration among brain areas. This theory helps explain a paradox of autism: Some people with autism have normal or even superior skills in some areas, while many other types of thinking are disordered. The team's study will be published in the August edition of the British journal Brain and is available online at

In explaining the theory, Marcel Just, one of the study's lead authors and director of Carnegie Mellon's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, compared the brain of a normal person to a sports team in which the members cooperate and coordinate their efforts. In an autistic person, though some "players" may be highly skilled, they do not work effectively as a team, thus impairing an autistic's ability to complete broad intellectual tasks. Because this type of coordination is critical to complex thinking and social interaction, a wide range of behaviors are affected in autism.

The research team believes these are the first findings in autism of differences in the brain activation patterns in a cognitive (non-social) task. The study produced two important new findings that help make sense of previous mysteries: The autistic participants had an opposite distribution of activation (compared to the control group) in the brain's two main language areas, known as Broca's and Wernicke's areas. There was also less synchronization of activation among key brain areas in the autistic participants compared to the control group.

To obtain technically acceptable fMRI data from high-functioning autistic participants, the researchers flew in people with autism from all over the eastern United States. High-functioning participants with autism (with IQ scores in the normal range) are rare, accounting for about 10 percent of all people with autism. Using non-invasive fMRIs, the team looked at the brains of 17 people with autism and 17 control subjects as they read and indicated their comprehension of English sentences. In both the healthy brains and in the brains with autism, language functions were carried out by a similar network of brain areas, but in the autism brains the network was less synchronized, and an integrating center in the network, Broca's area, was much less active. However, another center, Wernicke's area, which does the processing of individual words, was more active in the autism brains.

The brain likely adapts to the diminished inter-area communication in autism by developing more independent, free-standing abilities in each brain center. That is, abnormalities in the brain's white matter communication cables could lead to adaptations in the gray matter computing centers. This sometimes translates into enhanced free-standing abilities or superior ability in a localized skill.

These findings provide a new way for scientists and medical researchers to think about the neurological basis of autism, treating it as a distributed system-wide disorder rather than trying to find a localized region or particular place in the brain where autism lives. The theory suggests new research to determine the causes of the underconnectivity and ways to treat it. If underconnectivity is the problem, then a cognitive behavioral therapy might be developed to stimulate the development of connections in these higher order systems, focusing on the emergence of conceptual connections, interpretive language and so on. Eventually, pharmacological or genetic interventions will be developed to stimulate the growth of this circuitry once the developmental neurobiology and genetics of these brain connections are clearly defined by research studies such as these.

The research team is jointly headed by Just, the D.O. Hebb Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon, and Dr. Nancy Minshew, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of its Center for Autism Research. Individuals with High Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome between 10 and 55 years of age who are interested in participating in similar studies can send email to or call Nikole Jones at 412-246-5481.


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