Okay, I’m Superman

It pains me to write these comments, critical of one of my favorite neuroscience writers, but it must be done.

V.S. Ramachandran has just published an online article that has taken an enormous amount of flak on Twitter, some of that from me. Also, the very first comment to the article cites a study that seems to indicate his claims are questionable at best.

UPDATE 4/19: One of my tweeps told me that the link just given was a transcript of an old interview, so he had complained. Evidently, the editor took it down. I’m not sure why, since as far as I know, it still represents Ramachandran’s point of view. The text of the interview appears here, but seems also to have generated some controversy on that site, so it could be removed from there as well, I suppose.

UPDATE 12/9/14: I notice it was indeed taken down, so I’ve put a copy on my own site, of the original post I saw and also a plain text version (not edited, so it may be a bit confusing, but it has all the words).

His punchline is

So if you make a list of all the properties, emotional empathy, imitation, pretend play and you look at all those functions of mirror neurons and make a tabular column of the functions that are deficient in autism, there’s almost a perfect fit.  This is what led us to suggest over 10 years ago that mirror neuron dysfunction might be the basis of autism, it might be one of the major causes of autism.

Really? A “cause” of autism? Based on my own experience, I can see that, having an autistic brain, my mirror neuron functioning might be impaired much in the same way many other brain functions are hindered. Sensory overload. But “dysfunctional” — I don’t think so. And, I think he has his causality backwards.

He then modestly claims that his speculation that “mirror neuron dysfunction might be the basis of autism” is

better than any other theory that’s around regarding autism

Really? Really?

Perhaps he also has a theory regarding lefthandedness.

Based on his descriptions of autism, it seems to me he doesn’t understand what it is like to be autistic. In the article, he says that autistic people

are lacking in empathy, … unable to adopt somebody else’s point of view … [and there is] also a lack of pretend play

These things are all completely untrue, in my experience.

I wrote a post a month or so ago about empathy. There is also a huge catalog of writings on this topic. I don’t know a single autistic person who doesn’t experience empathy (aside, perhaps, from those who are also alexithymic). As I noted in my post, autistic people may have trouble expressing their empathy, and so give the appearance of not being empathic, but that is a communication issue, not one of empathy.

And then there’s the old “theory of mind deficit” myth — these things are pretty much of the same piece.

And lack of pretend play? Not for me, I can assure you! Growing up, I was the oldest of five siblings, and was often the oldest in a group of kids eager to play. They would look to me to decide what we would play that day — would it be Cowboys and Indians? (and who would be which?) or would it be building a fort? or digging a hole to China? I got to decide. And I didn’t need playmates, either. I had plenty of imaginary friends.

According to Ramachandran,

Pretend play by definition in normal children or non-autistic children requires that you put yourself in the shoes of that doll or that action figure.  Pretend you are Superman.  Suspend reality for a short while and pretend you are Superman.  This autistic children are incapable of doing…

Superman was my favorite comic book and TV show when I was young. I didn’t have to pretend to be Superman. I was Superman. I even had a Superman costume, including the cape. I could fly.

All of these myths about autism may have been believed ten years ago, when Ramachandran devised his theory. But, he should know better than anyone that science evolves rapidly, and there are fewer and fewer people who believe them to be so.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that what is in the common wisdom surrounding autism is based in some large measure on ancient studies that were done in the days when autism diagnoses were rare. Only children were diagnosed, and only those who exhibited very noticeable behavioral differences. Kids who couldn’t speak, or who were  aggressive or self-injurious. Many of these children also had intellectual impairment.

It was thought, not too many years ago, that 70% to 80% of autistic kids were also intellectually impaired. Over time, researchers came to realize that the number was probably the reverse of that, and even more recently it has become clear that there is no connection between autism and intellectual or functional capacity.

This, in my opinion, is why we have seen the “explosion” of autism diagnoses. We have been here all along, but there was little awareness that most autistic people had learned to “fit in” and adapt.

I have a lot more to say about all of these things, including mirror neurons, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I simply felt a need to protest the appearance of this antiquated speculation that seems not to be based on our current understanding of autism.

The Ramachandran article, by the way, appears to be a transcript of a video which appears on the same site.


Skip to comment form

    • Clare on April 17, 2013 at 4:35 PM
    • Reply

    What you have said here is brilliant and refreshing to hear!

  1. I’m alexithymic and still experience empathy. But quite possibly because I’m alexithymic, I THOUGHT for a long time that I wasn’t experiencing empathy, because the experience of it didn’t match up to the words that other people used for it, and I couldn’t connect any language of my own to the physical/emotional experience of empathy. I think there’s a good chance that alexithymia causes impairment of cognitive empathy, but not of emotional empathy–it just leaves you without any language for identifying or mapping the experience of empathy.

    I also went through a lot of experiencing empathy for the wrong people, in other people’s view of who I should and shouldn’t have empathy for. And so told over and over again that I didn’t have empathy because I didn’t have it for the right people, I was convinced that I didn’t.

    I tried to follow the link to Ramachandran’s article again and got a 404–do you know if the post was taken down due to the criticism it received?

  2. Interesting comments on alexithymia. I’m still trying to sort out what it means, but now that I am aware it is very distinct from autism (or maybe anything else), I realize that I encounter it in all kinds of people. I would say that in my couples support groups, it is far more common among the neuroexceptional partners than in the neurotypicals, but that may be because it’s a very self-selected sample of couples. In any case, I’ve seen more than my fair share, and am still sorting out how to address the issues of alexithymia as distinct from autism.

    And, it’s clear to me that it’s mostly unrelated to empathic capacity (how’s that for a statement that leaves some wiggle room?). You speculate “that alexithymia causes impairment of cognitive empathy, but not of emotional empathy” but my own experience (both personal and observed) tells me that’s a false dichotomy. See my post on the topic at http://www.mfw.us/blog/2013/03/22/empathy-as-a-form-of-communication/ where I describe a different way to think about empathy.

    The Ramachandran article was evidently taken down in response to a complaint that it was old. Still, I have no reason to believe he has disavowed it. Quite the opposite. See my 4/19 “update” at the beginning of this post for a link to the text. If that disappears, I have saved it in a text file and can post it here.

    • A. Gallaher on June 17, 2013 at 8:01 PM
    • Reply

    Your points about Ramachandran are well taken. He is a master of creating headline grabbing theories that have virtually no credibility among other scientists. As you point out, he often assumes that his ideas are self-evident and that there is no need to bother with the petty work of producing actual scientific data. Worse yet, many of the highly educated people who have written pop-sci accounts of Ramachandran’s work have not bothered to read the published literature. They simply work off of vague impressions they have formed from watching videos of Ramachandran’s public lectures.

    For example; many people have the impression that mirror box therapy has revolutionized the field of pain management for amputees. Unfortunately, it has not. Like many other approaches that have been tried, mirror box therapy is unpredictable and limited in its effectiveness. But that does not stop companies in the UK from using the legend of Ramachandran to market mirror boxes to the public.

  3. Superman is Best Super hero Ever!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.