Tyler Cowen – The Autistic Cognitive Profile

A black and white, profile photo of Colin Marshal

The podcast The Marketplace of Ideas is a very reliable source for innovative thinking. About every fourth show the host, Colin Marshall, interviews someone who shines light in a dark corner, or on something ordinary that yields exciting new information.

In 2009 (08/06/09 to be exact) on the Marketplace of Ideas podcast, Colin Marshall conducted a conversation with Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University and founding blogger of Marginal Revolution.

They discussed Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.

I have not read Cowen’s book, so I cannot recommend it. And I have not yet discovered how to create my own economy.

However, the interview was so good I have revisited it many times.

Cowen, in his book and on that podcast, makes a case for what he calls “The Autistic Cognitive Profile.” Brief personal interlude:

I have never been diagnosed with autism. Truthfully the only long-term maladies I have ever been officially diagnosed with are (as of 2010): depression, Periformis Syndrome, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, an allergy to mold and dry skin. This is most unsatisfying considering the symptoms I have to work around on a daily basis.

Various online self-quizzes tell me that, although I score normally on social and communication tendencies, I have an Aspergian relationship to information and ideas. And, as you know from everything you have read on this website, I live with the sensory challenges that are most often associated with autism. Also, I find Aspies to be the most fascinating and satisfying people to hang out with.

Thus, I may, or may not, be qualified to write about autism as an insider. But I believe I see the inside as clearly as if I resided there.

Brief personal interlude concluded.

Cowen suggests that it is time humanity stop thinking of autism as a broken brain.

Autism is a different way of perceiving the world. Autistics are not broken. They are complex and unique.

The Autistic Cognitive Profile, as Cowen calls it, has a huge diversity of traits. And the information Cowen put forward acknowledged that no single trait will fit every autistic and there are many exceptions to the descriptions that follow.

Having a place within the ACP has advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage: A general interpretation of many studies suggests that autistics often do better than non-autistics in:

  • pattern recognition
  • not being fooled by optical illusions
  • solving certain economic problems with greater rationality

 Autistics tend to display a stick-to-it quality about things that interest them. They self-educate with extreme focus and persistence (in their interests of preference).

Disadvantage: Autistics quite often have difficulty in a traditional educational setting with its annoying bullies, peer pressures and environmental issues.

Higher education, Cowen implies, is the attempt to teach non-autistic people to have more autistic qualities.

Unfortunately, for autistics, self-education lacks the social credentials of real life degrees from accredited universities. That can put a self-educated autistic at a disadvantage when competing for status.

None the less, autistics are the “infovores” of our society, tirelessly consuming, ordering and collecting information.

In regard to music (and other art), they may connect with it more deeply. They may diverge from mainstream tastes. Cowen asserts that the arguments made for what is and isn’t beautiful are tedious and irrelevant. What an individual finds beautiful may be an aspect of her cognitive profile. Autistics are often in a position to act as cultural filters interpreting and ordering for normals aspects of music, cinema or the internet in general.

The normal mind has a tendency to organize information into a story form. There are negative aspects of organizing information regarding politics and religion in the easy to digest dramatic narrative which appeals to the normal brain.

  • Stories tend to over-simplify the complex.
  • They may encode bias and cause one to fall victim to misleading information.

Autistics, on average, have a greater capacity to encode information more objectively. They are likely to pick the details and inconsistencies out of a dramatic narrative. They are more likely to remember sight and sound details in a dramatic scene, whereas normals are more likely to remember the overall narrative.

The autistic brain, on average, is less likely to make false attachments to things or ideas just because they are “ours”: our team, our forefathers, our brand or our system.

Generally, us vs. them mentalities make less sense to autistics and in that spirit, Cowen makes the case for refusing to assume the non-autistic way is automatically better. Society at large would benefit by learning to appreciate diverse intelligences.

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