Monthly Archives: May 2014

Where is the crack in the mind machine: some insights from Bayesian theory into mental disorders by Pavel Voinov & József Arató

Where is the crack in the mind machine? Some insights from Bayesian theory into mental disorders.

Pavel Voinov and József Arató are PhD students in the Cognitive Sciences Programme at the Central European University, Budapest.

As cognitive scientists we keep asking ourselves what knowledge society expects from us and what the implications of this knowledge are. “Mind as a machine” is a good metaphor, as we feel it captures those expectations: to describe the principles of how the mind works, and, furthermore, to explain its failures and suggest ways to fix it.

In this post we will take the perspective of reverse mind-engineers. We will use one of the most prominent computational theories in contemporary cognitive science –  Continue reading Where is the crack in the mind machine: some insights from Bayesian theory into mental disorders by Pavel Voinov & József Arató

the Bayesian perspective, and show how it contributed to our understanding of two prevalent mental disorders – schizophrenia and autism. A distinctive feature of Bayesian theories of cognition is that they provide a formal description of the mind: it can be grasped with mathematical expressions, and thus be computationally modelled.Fig 1

Bayesian models of cognition can explain how people handle the uncertainty that is constantly present in the world. As we can never be sure what the true state of the world actually is, perception works by hypothesis testing. We continuously guess what we might expect to happen in the world. For these guesses we can use the accumulated knowledge we have acquired through past experience.

In other words, we evaluate newly incoming sensory information in the light of prior experience, and this is how we constantly make fresh predictions of what it is that we are seeing, hearing and feeling. What we actually perceive is not what is out there. Instead we perceive the most likely event out there. The most likely event is what we hypothesise given the new sensory signal (evidence) evaluated on the basis of the probabilities of past events (priors). We continuously update our expectations based on the differences between the predicted and experienced sensory stimuli (prediction error). The same model applies to belief formation: we update our beliefs based on the differences between expected and experienced events (Figure based on Van Boxtel & Lu).

Here’s an example how this works. ImagiFig 2ne you need to read a signboard at a distance. Even if you can’t discriminate individual letters, the context will help you, and you are likely to identify common words like “caution”, “danger”, “exit” etc., just by matching approximate length of a word or its salient features. Even if you can’t see any details at all, you may make a guess: this will be a case of relying solely on your priors. But when the context is not informative, and there are many probable alternatives, you will have to rely more on what your eyes deliver to the brain. Now you can’t guess the word and you need to distinguish the individual letters.

The Bayesian approach has been impressively powerful in modelling various aspects of human cognition: let’s see whether it has been useful for explaining malfunctions of the mind.


The most distinctive features of the schizophrenic mind are the so-called positive symptoms: delusions (abnormal beliefs) and hallucinations (false perceptions). Hence, a Bayesian framework is a promising tool for exploring these features.  After all, it was developed to deal with belief formation and perception – and these are precisely the cognitive functions that are most affected in schizophrenia.

Various experiments have shown that something goes wrong in the combination of prior knowledge and iFig 4ncoming sensory evidence. For example a weaker reliance on prior expectations can explain why schizophrenics are less susceptible to some visual illusion. Not being tricked by an illusion means, that in some situations, they perceive the world more veridically. So why does this not happen in healthy people? Healthy perception is optimally adapted to the environment, with the brain inferring the most likely patterns from raw sensory inputs. In contrast, schizophrenic patients are more influenced by what their eyes see, and less by the higher-level expectations their brain has derived from past experience. Look at the picture with two masks (image from: Grosjean et al., 2012). Our strong perceptual bias (or ‘prior’) for natural convex faces overrides competing information (such as shadows) and makes a concave hollow mask (bottom) perceived as a convex face (top). Schizophrenic patients are generally less susceptible to this illusion.

A weaker influence from higher-level expectations is also shown in tasks which involve uncertainty – for example in playing stone-paper-scissors game. Here schizophrenic patients take less account of the past history of their contestant’s decisions and as a result follow strategies based on only the most recent evidence. Patients were also more confident about their decisions, and raised the stakes after smaller number of sequential winnings than healthy players (Joyce et al, 2013).

Another important feature of decision-making under uncertainty in schizophrenic patients is their reduced sensitivity to negative feedback once they have formed their belief. In Bayesian terms they do not use the prediction error correctly to update their models of the world.

These findings are especially intriguing when linked to our knowledge about the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine plays the key role in learning based on the prediction error. Abnormally high levels of dopamine found in the brains of schizophrenic patients may underlie their failures to integrate sensory (and higher order) error signals appropriately.  We are not surprised by outcomes of our actions because our brain foresees them. But absence or distortion of this prediction in the brain of schizophrenic patients may create strange experience and give rise to delusional beliefs about it (Fletcher  & Frith, 2009).

The Bayesian approach is also promising in modelling how this lower-level prediction error could give rise to false beliefs at higher – ’more cognitive’ – levels. In this case corrupted output from lower levels would feed into higher cognitive functions leading to faulty beliefs of a higher order. Altogether, within a Bayesian picture of the mind one can build a coherent story, which would explain positive symptoms of schizophrenia with strong links between neural, cognitive, and behavioural levels.


Autism spectrum disorder has a clinical picture distinctively different from schizophrenia. The characteristic symptoms of this condition are repetitive behaviours and problems in social interaction and communication. Furthermore, autism is usually accompanied by a range of sensory peculiarities. The origin of these differences and its relation to the core symptoms of autism is still a mystery for psychologists. Atypical features of autistic perception include hyper-sensitivity to ordinary incoming stimuli, enhanced focus on details, and more fragmented perception. On the picture with kiwi fruits people with autism would likely see three separate objects rather than a triangle.Fig 3

Recently, Pellicano and Burr (2012) have proposed a Bayesian account of abnormal perception in autism. According to this account, perception in autism is shaped by weak priors. As we remember, a prior basically means accumulated information about the environment, and a weak prior means that less account is taken of this accumulated information. Hence we can say that the brain is not tuned appropriately to the environment. As a consequence, the perceived reality would be dominated by new incoming stimuli, and would be less influenced by internal information (priors). This would explain why autistic children are less susceptible to visual illusions and are often better at accurate copying of unusual images.

On the other hand, weak priors would also explain the phenomenon of sensory overload, that is hyper-sensitivity to ordinary sensory stimuli, like human voices or lamplight. While our sensitivity is modulated by the context, – we would be surprised if we heard a human voice in the middle of a forest, but not in the street. This contextual information does not seem to work for people living with autism. For ordinary people the brain would filter out most of incoming information. For autistic people everything from the sensory stream would be preserved, and this might lead to blurring of the figure with the background in their perception.

However, a theory has low scientific value if it can only incorporate already known facts, but can’t make predictions for new findings. What empirical prediction can the Bayesian theory make? The weak priors hypothesis can be tested against the sensory enhancement hypothesis: while the former suggests reduced influence of contextual information on perception, the latter predicts less noise in the sensory input for autistics. Joshua Skewes and colleagues (2014) tested this prediction in an experiment probing acuity of visual perception in ordinary people. The experiment demonstrated that people with higher scores on a scale measuring autistic traits, the AQ,  were less sensitive to the context information, but were as sensitive to the noise in stimuli as the control group. This result favours the weak priors hypothesis. However, it has not yet been tested with autistic individuals.

Conclusion. If you read the two stories carefully you can see surprising similarities between them: faulty functioning of prior knowledge is suggested as an explanatory cause for both conditions, and this cause is described in almost identical words. This is the weak part of the story: the theory seems to be so unspecified at the moment that it apparently fails to account for qualitative differences between two conditions, which a clinician would never confuse. We seem to be at the stage of trying to embed things in vague and extensively general principles, but small pieces of the big puzzle are yet to be defined. Perhaps this would sound disappointing if you expected a story like “There is a function in the normal brain which checks whether or not our beliefs are realistic. The part of the brain responsible for this function is broken in schizophrenics and that’s why you believe I’m an alien”. Unfortunately, we are not even close to the mechanical description of the “Mind as a machine”. But our first steps indicate that we’re on the right path…






Better judge a book by its cover? by Martin Freundlieb & András Molnar

Better judge a book by its cover? The dubious nature of stereotypes

Martin Freundlieb and András Molnar are PhD students in the Cognitive Sciences Programme at the Central European University Budapest. 

Continue reading Better judge a book by its cover? by Martin Freundlieb & András Molnar

Most of us would agree that image 1 © 2010-2014 Payton-Marie payton-marie.deviantart.comstereotypes are often incorrect, that they fuel social discord and promote inequality. But few realize that even the most politically correct people will – unconsciously – show clear patterns of stereotyping. Are social stereotypes almost an indispensable part of the human nature? Are we all helpless victims to their power and influence on our everyday behaviour? Are positive stereotypes a good thing?

Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room.” — William Hazlitt (1903)

As social beings, everyday life requires us to make a multitude of decisions, for example ‘Do I trust this stranger who is offering me a ride?’, or: ‘Whom should I try to sit next to during the math exam tomorrow?’ We are continuously collecting information with all of our senses in order to get a picture of what is happening around us. We are equipped with a marvellous apparatus that soaks up the information we need to navigate the social world. But we are facing a problem of capacity: like any other organ, our brain requires a lot of energy and time to ‘digest’ all available information.

However, in most situations we simply do not have enough time and/or leisure to ponder on a problem or to make a careful judgment. Instead, we then have to rely on shortcuts. This means we base our decisions on very simplified and generalized ‘truths’ that can be more or less accurate. Stereotypes provide a good example of these kinds of shortcuts in social interactions. Now as long as these simplified beliefs or stereotypes are good estimates of the actual state around us, we are doing well. But strongly biased beliefs and extreme prejudices can lead to disastrous outcomes. In some cases, stereotypes harm both the person who holds the stereotypic views by causing unnecessary hatred and fear, and the person who is the target of the stereotypes by causing exclusion and the so-called stereotype threatbox 1

But do stereotypes also exist outside of our conscious awareness?

In the late 1990’s a clever instrument (the IAT) was invented which can in fact reveal the unconscious or implicit forms of stereotyping.

Combining the IAT with questionnaires that measure the extent to which people deem themselves to be prejudiced or not (an explicit measure of stereotyping), Greenwald and colleagues could examine the overlap between these self-judgments and their unconscious behaviour. They found that most people who would verbally disavow any form of prejudice, nevertheless behaved as if they did when taking the IAT test. In other words: there seems to be a gap between what even politically aware people say and how they act.

box 2Now one could easily jump the gun and declare that implicit stereotypes are a dangerous, evolutionary flaw, which we should drop sooner rather than later. But are they always bad?

A more differential view reveals that  stereotypes exist for good reasons and can indeed be advantageous in several ways: they save cognitive resources while helping us to understand the world by providing quick-and-dirty categories.

For the price of being inaccurate sometimes, we get fast and automatic evaluations. Continuously. And if the cost of being inaccurate is marginal then this can actually be a great deal. Stereotypes can also ground our group belonging: they can strengthen our social bonds to people who share our stereotypic beliefs. Furthermore, even if there are no ‘allies’ around, stereotypes could be useful by enhancing learning to avoid unfamiliar and potentially threatening people.

image 2

However, all of these advantages shrink into nothing if the stereotypes are far from reality. That is why responsible governments fight so rigorously against racism or any kind of negative stereotyping. But what happens if somebody is the target of a positive stereotype: is that therefore a good thing? The answer – though it goes against our intuition – is a definite “no”.

Positive stereotypes are nothing but the hotbed for prejudice and almost as harmful as negative stereotypes

“Asians are good at math” is a positive stereotype – and is rarely considered prejudice and politically incorrect. Yet, positive stereotypes can be harmful. For example, they can raise unrealistic expectations. Later, when these expectations are not met – for instance, it turns out that a particular Asian boy has ‘only’ average math skills –, this boy may suffer a loss of self-esteem, and will probably cause disappointment to others in his environment. But the real insidious nature of positive stereotypes is revealed only after a closer look: a research group around Aaron Kay could show that positive stereotypes can facilitate the erroneous assumption of ‘natural’ causes for group differences and, ironically, increase the likelihood of applying also negative stereotypes to the same target group. For this reason responsible governments should also pay attention to positive stereotypes and reduce their 3

Are stereotypes only influencing us or can we also influence our stereotypes?

As profoundly as we seem to be entangled in both positive and negative stereotypes we are not completely helpless and we can overcome them. Research on conflict management has indicated that perspective taking, or understanding of the world from an other’s point of view, seems to be quite an effective tool in order to decrease strongly biased beliefs.

According to a research group around Adam Galinsky the underlying mechanism can be explained: When you put yourself in the shoes of somebody else (taking on her perspective), the target literally becomes more like you. And as most of us carry a decent portion self-esteem, the stereotyped other will be viewed less negatively. Interestingly, positive stereotypes too were mitigated by this method. Basically, it is as if the positively stereotyped other is compared to somebody we deem to be quite normal: ourselves.

Of course, this process is highly simplified and it might only work in the sterile environments of laboratories. But in any case, the method of taking on another’s viewpoint provides an easy step into the right direction – namely, of becoming more aware of the social shortcuts we use every day.

image 3






On Andrassy Ut

This is the Champs-Elysée of Budapest: a grand tree lined avenue, framed by glamorous buildings, and with some famous coffee houses. We are sitting outside the classic Café Müvesz, with a splendid view of the Opera: Ildiko Kiraly, Kata Egyed, Chris and me after a nice open air lunch at Liszt Ferenc Tér, not more than two hundred yards away.
-You used your famous “Head-touch” experiment with autistic children. You found in a new experiment that young autistic children, unlike carefully matched children with Down Syndrome, disregarded the experimenter’s intention as indicated by ostensive gestures. This is a strong indication that we cannot rely on what  Gergely and  Csibra called natural pedagogy when teaching autistic children.

Continue reading On Andrassy Ut

The waitress brought cups of coffee and glasses of water. I took up a previous threat of our conversation:

-Your colleagues made the stunning discovery that the A not B error in young  infants was much reduced if the experimenter did not use ostensive gestures. Let me see if I got this right: It is precisely the communicative setting that makes infants perseverate in their error. It is as if they assume the experimenter has taught them to go to a particular hiding place – and this is what they reach for. If the experimenter does not use ostensive gestures, they don’t learn this and consequently don’t make the error. Instead they go for the new hiding place where the object really is.

-Yes, that’s correct, said Ildiko, -and this was the same in dogs, but not in wolves, as shown in the paper with Topal. So natural pedagogy is something that works for dogs too, probably because they have been social companions of humans for millenia.

Chris and I had been extremely interested in studies testing the theory of ‘Natural pedagogy’, introduced by Gergely and Csibra (aka the rockstar Hungarian developmental psychologists). It is a fascinating theory that suggests that humans have a means to acquire culturally relevant information from each other, that makes learning incredibly fast and powerful. The trick that evolution has provided is ‘ostensive communication’.

Chris: – There are two ways of learning from others.  They can address you ostensively, perhaps call you by your name, look at you directly, flash their eye brows at you. But you can also learn by just observing them.

When  our coffee was almost finished, the conversation strayed towards a Bayesian theme. Chris asked: -Why do we pay so much attention to the information that comes from our own senses? When does this start in development?

Ildiko and Katalin both considered this question. -It seems very possible that at first young infants do not pay so much attention to their own sensory information. Take the A not B error. They follow the object with their eyes, and they therefore know where it has been put. But this information counts for less than the information conveyed by the adult’s communication. So it is another person’s perception that seems to win over their own.

-Interesting! So it is not so obvious that we first and foremost regard our own sensory perceptions when making any inferences about the world. Perhaps we are taught that the evidence of our own eyes is the best.

Chris added: – I have just seen a paper by Jaswal who studied children’s trust in information provided by adults. Toddlers believe what an adult says even though they have just seen something different.

My thoughts strayed to “nullius in verba” -take nobody’s word for it- the motto of the Royal Society.

– So is it only since the enlightenment that we feel we must see for ourselves to believe? It was clearly a huge cultural change that brought about the attitude that we should not put our trust in the evidence transmitted to us by others.

-But then aren’t there lots of pitfalls when we put all our trust into our own senses? And by implication, our own experiments?

– Hmmm, we have a conundrum and this relates to our earlier and rather controversial post “Not to be found in any methods section.”



Under the Markov Blanket

I mentioned Markov blankets to Uta and she immediately was intrigued, as was my intention. We talked about it again when we were having lunch on a sunny Saturday in the Angelica Café next to St. Anna church.

Over a nourishing beef broth and a chicken salad, we were sitting under a tree that was just bursting into leaf. We could look across the Danube. Opposite us, in filigree splendour, was the Parliament building. In the distance, to the left, we could see the island in the river that is connected to both sides of the town via Margit bridge. Yellow trams were constantly moving along it in both directions. Toylike.


Continue reading Under the Markov Blanket

Uta felt despondent despite the glittering river view, despite the magnificent scenic backdrop, despite the delicious beef broth. She was complaining about people not liking boundaries in diagnostic categories, like autism and dyslexia. They were forever talking about grey areas and one thing shading into another.

“Actually, it’s just the point of Markov blankets that there must be boundaries” – I said to cheer her up.

“Please say more.”

From this point on she couldn’t get a word in edgeways.

How I discovered Markov blankets

I went to a lecture by Pierre Jacob the other day, where I learned that people who believe in embodied and extended cognition hate boundaries. So there is no boundary between the brain and the body – hence embodied cognition – and there is no boundary between the brain and sophisticated tools such as iPhones – hence extended cognition.

Boundaries play such a critical role in biological systems, that it was strange for me to find that some people should hate them. Take for example the cell membrane.

The cell membrane surrounds the cytoplasm of living cells. Very complicated transmembrane proteins span from one side of a membrane the other. These function as gateways to control what enters and exits the cell. Without the membrane, the cell ceases to exist and its components are absorbed back into the environment.

In mammals, the skin acts as a protective barrier. The outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis, forms a protective barrier over the body’s surface, responsible for keeping water in the body and preventing pathogens from entering. Here again complicated mechanical devices are found, such as the ears, mouth and anus, which function as gateways to control what enters and exits the body.

So I started wondering, ‘Is there a cognitive boundary defending and defining that bundle of psychological abilities that we call the mind’?

Fortunately, I had just been reading Karl Friston’s paper on ‘Life as we know it’. This paper introduced me to the concept of the Markov Blanket.

“So, at last – what is a Markov blanket?” Uta asked, looking up from her plate expectantly.

Markov blanketA Markov blanket separates states in a Bayesian network into internal states and external states that are hidden (insulated) from the internal states. In other words, the external states can only be seen indirectly by the internal states, through the Markov blanket.

In response to Uta’s frown, I said,

“The blanket is like a cognitive version of a cell membrane, shielding states inside the blanket from states outside.”

I just had an e-mail exchange with Karl Friston to find out more about these cognitive membranes, I told her, opening my laptop.

CDF: Boundaries play such a critical role in biological systems, that it was strange to find that some philosophers hate them.

KJF: This is interesting – I got an e-mail from Jakob Hohwy a few days ago – he just got a paper accepted in “Noûs”. He was also addressing these strange philosophers by talking about “evidential boundaries”. He framed the issue in terms of radical embodiment but clearly wanted to use Markov blankets to bring the boundaries centre stage.

CDF: In cognitive terms, the brain/mind is shielded by a Markov blanket with sensory inputs and motor outputs as the only way of interacting with external states. Does this provide us with a cognitive definition of the mind?

KJF: To my mind (sic) yes. This is because (being completely ignorant of philosophy) I can equate consciousness with inference. Inference is only defined in relation to (sensory) evidence – that necessarily induces a Markov blanket (that separates the stuff that is being inferred from the stuff that is doing the inferencing)

CDF: 3. Are iPhones, laptops, &c. protected by their own Markov blankets? If so, this is an argument against the extended mind.

KJF: Yes it is – this would be Jakob’s position. As I understand it, we still have an internal representation of an iPhone and make active inferences about how we expect ourselves to use it. (But the iPhone itself is outside the blanket and may be making inferences about us.)

CDF: Can Markov blankets form and dissolve over a short time (e.g. during selective attention or joint attention)?

KJF: Yes – I have not thought about this but the Markov blanket is itself an dynamic process and, over time, will visit many different states. I can imagine the sleep-wake cycle being an example of formation and dissolution of a Markov blanket through sensory gating. I will have to think about attention!

Uta has cheered up. “Now we have defined the mind. Next time we can use a Markov blanket to define dyslexia and autism.”

Some more technical stuff

The Markov blanket for a node A in a Bayesian network is the set of nodes composed of A’s parents, its children, and its children’s other parents. The Markov blanket of a node contains all the variables that shield the node from the rest of the network. This means that the Markov blanket of a node is the only knowledge needed to predict the behaviour of that node. The term was coined by Pearl in 1988. (Pearl, J (1988). Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems: Networks of Plausible Inference. Representation and Reasoning Series. San Mateo CA: Morgan Kaufmann.


There can be hierarchies of Markov blankets. For example, the Markov blanket of an animal encloses the Markov blankets of its organs, which enclose Markov blankets of cells, which enclose Markov blankets of nuclei and so on.



Not to be found in any Methods section

On 27th April Ernö Teglas, Chris, Agnes Melinda Kovacs and I met up at the most OTT coffeehouse in Budapest, the New York. The décor puts you into Rococo mood, but the pianist on the upper level suggests a 1920s jazz feeling. Continue reading Not to be found in any Methods section

NYCafe Erno TeglasWe are having outrageous layered coffee Melange with Chili, extravagant New York ice cream cups, pistachio cake, but Chris asks a glass of Furmint and a plate of Mangalica ham.

The conversation quickly turned to how to do experiments with babies. Why do such experiments take forever to complete? What to do with non-replications?

– “But this is the same with any experiments we have ever done!” – Chris quips.  “But why do you think your experiments take a long time to complete? Why are you skeptical about non-replications?”

ET: Here is my claim: The success of a baby experiment is decided by how you instruct the parents, how and where they hold their baby.

Instruction is particularly relevant because it is the parents who coordinate the data acquisition. Without them these experiments simply cannot happen and they are very willing to help. The problem is that they have no experience with such situations. So, in a short session we have to turn them into “experimenters”. Every detail matters. It may seem surprising, but we really have long debates about how to hold the baby during tests, and what is the optimal position. The way a baby is held makes all the difference to their freedom to move. For example when held just under the arms, the mother may exert more influence on the baby than necessary. Also, the baby can easily slip down just slightly. And then eye gaze slides too. It may no longer be on the target you display on the screen. The hold has to be on the hips of the baby.

CF: Experiments stand and fall by how the experimenter instructs the subject.

UF: But isn’t this against the idea that scientific experimentation has to be independent of the experimenter. The whole point is that they can be replicated by somebody else.

CF: Ah, there are critical aspects of instructions, which often don’t get spelled out in methods sections.

ET: The pity is that if a student doing a first experiment fails to replicate a previous result then this throws doubt on the previous finding, when in fact it throws doubt on the student who is still learning and doesn’t yet know how to do the experiment. Only once the student has succeeded in replicating a well known robust finding, can he or she be trusted to do a good job.

CF: When I first worked at the long disbanded MRC Clinical Research Centre, the biochemists (who, mysteriously, later turned into molecular biologists) often said things like: today the reaction just didn’t work. We have to try again.

UF: So it’s not necessarily the sign of an immature and still soft science that you have to be pernickety on exactly how an experiment is carried out. If an experiment doesn’t replicate, there are many possible reasons and does not necessarily mean the previous results are not true.

ET: With infants we basically rely on measuring what they are looking at, and for how long they look at it: they look longer at something that surprises them; they get bored and look away when something is highly predictable to them. However, they also look away when something else attracts their attention; when there is some noise, when they feel uncomfortable for some reason. All this makes us extremely careful to have completely soundproof labs, very relaxed mothers, and babies who have only recently woken up and have been fed before we even start the experiment.

NYCafe+3– This was the moment when we found out that the coffee Melange with Chili is actually rather spicy, but the honey that served as a bottom layer softened this feeling. “Overall each ingredient plays a role if their interaction is orchestrated by a hand sensitive to details” says Ernö

UF: Is it true that you often don’t get results that you know we should get?

ET: True! Then we go over every step of the procedure and find possible reasons.

UF: Is it okay to eliminate data when you believe there was a slip in the procedure for one particular baby?

ET: Actually you have to do it. You have to eliminate data all the time. If you don’t you include complete nonsense, when for example an infant no longer looks at the target. You need him/her to look to take notice of the scenario you have devised. We have to eliminate usually 20% of the data, if not more. …of course it depends on the experimental protocol: In habituation studies rejection rate can be as high as 50%. The procedure only lasts a few minutes because babies soon tire of watching a simple scenario on video. Sometimes we can only use a fraction of these few minutes.

UF: It makes me marvel not only at the fact that you are so incredibly scrupulous in your procedure but also that you have so many successes with your ingenious experiments.





An autism walk in Budapest

On 5th April we all met up in front of the National Academy of Sciences, about 400 people, friends and parents and children, holding blue balloons. The light rain soon stopped as we walked along the river bank, the famous Duna Corso. It was a leisurely walk and I could talk to a number of parents involved in the Hungarian autism association. Like parents everywhere they talked about good times and bad, worries and expectations about their children, all mixed with funny anecdotes. Continue reading An autism walk in Budapest

Uta, Eustacia and Connie BudapestOne of the participants was Eustacia Cutler, mother of Temple Grandin, to the left of the photo, looking absolutely regal aged 89 years. She  had given an inspiring talk the day before. So had Connie Kasari from UCLA, who is in the middle of the photo.  I am on the right holding a biscuit made in the shape of a puzzle piece with blue icing made by a parent.

It was a delight to be in the company of these great women. Many people might be surprised to learn that Temple Grandin’s mother is a Grande Dame of the old school, a one-time actress and still a star performer, and above all a sparklingly intelligent advocate for autism. But it is not so surprising, if you consider that fiercely intelligent Temple too has the quality of a performer. However, it is only Eustacia  – [oh what an apt name] – who has the recognizable charm that radiates from great performers.

What is charm? An intangible quality, far beyond the reach of research in social cognition.

I found only one paper in a Social Psychology journal with reference to charm in the title: Feminine charm: An experimental analysis of its cost and benefits in negotiations. By Laura Kray, Connson C. Locke and Alex B. van Zant.  I was struck by something in the abstract:

…[The authors] expected that the degree to which females were perceived as flirtatious (signaling a concern for self), rather than merely friendly (signaling a concern for other), would predict better economic deals for females.

So it could be that charm is ‘signaling a concern for self’,  while friendliness is ‘signaling a concern for other. What an interesting idea! It seemed to speak to the difference between charming Eustacia on the one side, and friendly Connie and me on the other. It also seemed to hint at an explanation of why autistic children so often strike us as simply charming. But, of course you can be autistic without being charming, just as much as you can be charming without being autistic.