Why the Basic Model of Neuroscience is Inadequate in Understanding the Increase in Autism Rates


While the basic model of neuroscience – that the neurological system works by sending electrochemical messages, is not incorrect for the most part, it is inadequate in that it fails to account for certain evidential capabilities, evidence that has for the most part come out of technology aided observations by neuroscientists themselves. As in many sciences, though, when evidence that cannot be accounted for by the generally accepted model shows up, it is set aside as something that somehow must be missing the requisite additional data in order to “make it fit” the accepted model, since there’s no obvious insight available that might project a “research project” in the area. Research is largely productionist, in that research begets research, but research that uncovers problematics that don’t have any obvious further path along the same lines are ignored in favour of results that provide an obvious path for further research, even if, as in this case, it’s not a merely theoretical concern but an immensely pragmatic one, since the current model fails to account for the growing body of evidence as to what is not occurring in the neurological systems of those with autism.

In order to understand where the model is failing, we need to look at a capability that non-autistic people evidently have, but which appears problematic for those with autism. This capability is known as temporal awareness. The problems in this area for those with autism are of two major types, and while there are autistic people with primarily one or the other, the majority fall somewhere along the continuum between them, having more or less problems with both types.

The two areas of temporal awareness that non-autistic people take for granted are generally referred to as sequencing ability and durational awareness. Sequencing ability is the means by which we determine the sequence of events, thus both understanding simple causality and utilizing that to predict the next event in a given sequence. Durational awareness is simply the inherent ability to “sense”, albeit roughly, that a given amount of time has passed while one is occupied with something. Obviously we all “lose track of time” to one degree or another when extremely engrossed in something, but the extreme lack of durational awareness exhibited by many autistic people can make ordinary functioning in society exceedingly difficult.

I’m going to look at sequencing first in terms of the neurological model in order to show where it fails to account for our ability to sequence, on average, to within approximately a millisecond. This limit on sequencing is, in fact, a benefit, since two events occurring within a millisecond of each other are experienced as simultaneous, and as a result our ability to sequence also involves our ability to recognize two events as being different manifestations of the same event.

First, though, I’ll give a short example of the behaviour of an autistic child whose temporal awareness issue is primarily involved with sequencing, to demonstrate the kinds of effects it has and how that fits with common observed behaviours of autistic people. An autistic child I spent a fair amount of time with was physically extremely sensitive. At one point, as I was trying to teach him how to make a simple lunch for himself, he had to use a can opener to open a can of ravioli. As he squeezed the can opener, having seen it done plenty of times, he suddenly recoiled in apparent pain and dropped both the can and the opener to the floor. This kind of thing is not uncommon from what I’ve seen myself and been told by others who have dealt with autistic children, and is often a source of major frustration by those trying to teach Since it seems like the child is overreacting, misunderstanding what is going on can lead to seeing the child as “weak”, or “too dependent”, as though the child were simply trying to get out of doing something for him or herself.

When I look at what happens when I use a can opener and pay more attention than usual, I find that when I squeeze down I do get a feeling that is fairly uncomfortable. Yet by and large when using one I barely even register this feeling. The reason I can ignore it before I even feel it is, of course, because I’m expecting it and so divert my attention elsewhere. The child in question, though, from other observations has an ability to distinguish events and thus naturally sequence them of over a second. Since that natural, unthinking ability is not especially useful for most sequences of events, he has to actually think through the rational sequence of what initially presents itself as largely simultaneous events. This in turn makes it extremely difficult for him to predict the next event in a sequence unless the he has gone through the identical sequence a fair number of times. Since the can opener squeeze was a new experience, a new set of events, he was taken by surprise in a way that most people are not, when we have to squeeze hard we expect a not altogether pleasant resistance. Rather than being “weak” or wanting to appear helpless, he was simply taken aback by a feeling he was unable to predict would occur as a result of his action. From this it becomes fairly obvious that the repetitious behaviour of many autistics, their desire for strict routine, arises from a severe difficulty in predicting an event sequence unless they have performed it exactly the same way many times.

Obviously neuroscience is not needed in terms of dealing with autistic people, what’s needed is a properly phenomenological understanding of the wide variety of manifestations along the autistic spectrum and a corresponding modification in the way we teach autistic children, to best help them overcome certain delays in development and as far as possible “catch up”. Where neuroscience, and a more adequate neuroscientific model of the way in which the neurological system works is necessary in first accounting for the radical increase in the sheer number of autistic children, and accounting for the wide variations within that overall increase across geographical areas and simultaneously between cultural boundaries, since the two main differentators contain both overlaps and unexpected divergences within both geographical and cultural distributions.

The first question, then, is how are non-autistic people capable of temporal sequencing? Since it appears to be a relatively natural development (although practicing behaviours that require extremely accurate sequencing ability can evidently improve it) the assumption is generally that it is a part of the development of a few different areas of the brain. The initial assumption, as well, since it requires simultaneous and synchronized activity of areas that receive input from the sense organs, the temporal lobes, the frontal lobes, that some sort of synchronizing messaging occurs between the three areas. This is where the evidential problem arises. As neuroscientists have mapped out the usual areas of the brain that are involved to greater degrees of accuracy, the means by which such synchronizing messages could be transferred has become extremely problematic. The problem has three main parts: firstly neurochemical messages are rather slow, and the areas of the brain involved are relatively remote from one another, making millisecond and beyond synchronization difficult to posit; secondly there are no apparent pathways between the specific areas involved,which would mean that any messages would have to take a more circuitous route, slowing things down even further; thirdly, while observations such as those done with functional MRI’s show activity in all three areas as expected, no activity between them via such indirect routes has been observed no matter how accurate the observations have become.

Since delays in neurological development are a known factor in autism, a further assumption was that since areas that were delayed initially often “catch up”, at least to some degree, and in some cases completely, these types of problems should diminish as autistic children get older. Although autistic children do develop better coping mechanisms, better workarounds for the basic limitations, as they get older, the root ability to sequence (or in the other case to assess duration) doesn’t noticeably improve. Nothing in the basic neurological model is useful for any hypothesis as to how non-autistic people can sequence events relatively easily, and so it becomes impossible to determine what, if anything, might be different for those with autism; nothing in the model is useful for understanding why even after those who fully catch up in neurological development with non-autistic people show no improvement in their temporal awareness abilities.

As neuroscience has shown, the “messages” that were initially thought of as simple binary messages, looked at from a more comprehensive view, can actually be extremely complex since large patterns of neuronal activity appear to be used repetitively in different sequences, generating a type of algorithmic complexity even in the basic neuronal messaging system. From observations of people with damage to their neurological system, these complex messages are crucial in terms of the functioning of the system. But something as simple as synchronization between different areas of the neurological system would not require such complex message types. While there has been a small amount of research (and a fair amount of speculation) about the possibility that the neurological system uses quantum effects in some way, there hasn’t been much in the way of concrete ideas in terms of how the neurological system might accomplish such a feat, or even what it would accomplish by such means. The difficulty with quantum phenomena in terms of the neurological system is the simplicity and unpredictability of quantum phenomena versus the problems inherent in something like the neurological system, which among other things needs to be complex, reliable, and predictable.

Synchronization, though, is exceedingly simple. It’s also something that can easily be idempotent, i.e. whether a synchronization message is received once or twelve times, as long as the twelve are within the range that synchronization needs them to occur within the eleven extras can be safely ignored. This makes it a reasonable candidate as a capability that could be accomplished reliably enough via quantum phenomena. Since quantum operations that affect one particle of an entangled pair affect the other instantaneously, it would solve the problems listed above in terms of speed and lack of requisite neuronal pathways.

The next task in furthering such a line of inquiry would be to come to some understanding of how the neurological system could use such quantum phenomena. What would the prerequisite conditions be for such a system to actually work? A hypothetical system that used action on one particle of an entangled pair in order to pass a message through its other would need to work on the assumption that its other would have a reasonable probability of existing in the requisite area. From that probability the number of particles that need to be affected might be more or less but would be within a range that trial and error over the evolutionary development of the neurological system could guarantee a fairly high likelihood of the synchronization in fact occurring. But the likelihood of each of a pair being in the appropriate areas, however they might be understood to have initially arose together, would be dependent on the early growth of the brain and the maintenance of a fairly coordinated growth rate of each of the areas involved with the other areas. And this is precisely what appears to be problematic for autistic people: different areas, while they may develop fully, do not do so at anything close to a correlated rate.

While this may seem like wild hypothesizing to many, given that we don’t know, for instance, how entangled pairs would come to be present initially other than by chance, or how the neurological system could trigger quantum effects on entangled particles specifically, the recent discovery that plants appear to use such quantum effects to transfer photoelectric energy from where it is produced to where it is needed with virtually zero loss en route indicates that life, in a general sense, may have the capability to utilize such quantum effects to get around otherwise intractable problems on the more complex molecular level.  This discovery, while it requires more work for full confirmation, and certainly more investigation as to precisely how plants are able to do this, answers a long standing question in biology that was similarly pushed aside:  given that transfer of electrical energy is extremely lossy even in so called “superconductive” materials, how do plants, comprised of anything but superconductive material, manage to transfer tiny amounts of energy generated by photoelectric cells across relatively large distances.  The usual half explanation is that it is converted to electro-chemical energy, but we’ve known for over 50 years that any such conversion would itself cause close to 100% loss of such energy, and so biologists, having no ready alternative, simply ignored the issue for a half century.

Whether the solution to the synchronization necessary for temporal awareness turns out to be something like an entangled particle effect or some other mechanism that is completely outside the electrochemical messaging model, taking a first stab at thinking outside that model in terms of accounting for evidential behaviours of the system that simply don’t work within the model can only assist in arriving at insights into other potential means by which the system can work around the limitations of the more usual approaches it takes to accomplish various behaviours.

Given that it’s not unlikely that a solution would, in some related way, require a basic synchrony in development between different areas of the system, and that autistic people are lacking that developmental synchrony, it then makes sense to look for a factor that could delay such development in a variable and, given the degree of differences within the autistic spectrum, somewhat unpredictable way. The rate of increase in autism overall would indicate that an environmental factor is the most likely culprit, since genetic changes don’t generally occur that quickly. The overlaps and divergences indicate that such an environmental factor needs to be significantly more prevalent in some locales versus others, and to affect certain cultures significantly more than others. The overlaps and divergences rule out genetic factors, but a major differentiator of cultures is of course culinary habits, and as a result a good place to start would be to look at something heavily used in the culinary habits of those cultures heavily affected (primarily asian cultures), less heavily used but still used to a reasonable degree among caucasian cultures, and used very little among hispanic American cultures, since the divergences within the continental U.S. are largely between those groups, and are not significantly geographical. This could then be compared to the with geographical divergences in autism prevalence within asian cultures in their original locales (for instance, while it is very common in China, it is extremely prevalent in certain areas and drastically less so in others, while it is common in Korea, it is unknown in Cambodia). The most obvious candidate, as it happens, should be more than obvious.

Neuroscience hasn’t looked at the problem from this perspective because it is so tightly wedded to the idea of electrochemical messages as the only means by which the neurological system might function, and so it is failing to see that a neurotoxin exists that meets those criteria rather well, I’ll leave it up to neuroscientists to do a bit of useful work and figure out what it might be.

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