Moulton Lava

Moultonic Musings

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Location: New England, United States

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Loss of Traction, and Intractability

I've been thinking lately about a problem posed by a fellow researcher at MIT regarding an AS (Asperger's Syndrome) chap whose visit to his residence hall reportedly made others 'uncomfortable'.

I hope he's made some progress singling out what dimension of his behavior people are reacting negatively to, and what their reaction is, in more specific terms. My guess is that they are 'baffled' by him and don't quite know how to react.

Generalizing from that anecdotal case, it occurs to me that relationships between NT (Neuro-Typical) and AS (Asperger's Syndrome) populations often suffer from a 'lack of traction' — it's hard to get them (sociable relationships) to go anywhere. It often feels like one is 'spinning their wheels' — unable to find firm common ground or bridges across the chasm to make a meaningful connection.

My current diagnosis is that the parties are communicating in largely non-overlapping channels. The AS party is largely ignoring affective cues signaled in facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc. The NT parties are similarly confounded by unfamiliar non-verbal gestures of the AS chap, and perhaps also overwhelmed and bewildered by the density and pace of English language verbal streams coming from the more loquacious AS types.

Although I am fairly hard to read in terms of non-verbal signals, I've also been told that some of my more prominent gestures lie outside the 'gestural vocabulary' that most NTs routinely learn to recognize and interpret. Most people who are good at reading facial expressions tell me they cannot read 'perplexity' on my countenance, even though it's my most common baseline affective state. But more to the point, I've also been told that my verbal communication content is often too dense, too complex, and too fast-paced for most people to follow in real time. That is, listening to me has been likened to drinking from a fire hose. Another correspondent tells me his daughter would be unable to read any of my essays.

The flip side of 'lack of traction' is the notion of banging one's head on intractable problems — something that MIT researchers spend a lot of time doing. Most of the problems I work on are nigh-intractable.

In the case at hand, I think a lot of progress could be made if the NTs learned to better express their affective states in more precise vocabulary terms by jointly solving the problem of alexithymia — developing the vocabulary terms to accurately and precisely name their transient affective states, instead of relying so much on erratic non-verbal signaling cues. At the root of the problem, as I see it, is the challenge of constructing a map linking dimensions of one's patterns of behavior to nameable affective states produced in others with whom one is struggling to establish a comfortable relationship. This is the same problem that affect-sensing computers are struggling to solve. Since a lot of smart people at MIT are working hard to solve it, that's evidence it's a hard problem.

The problem of alexithymia is related to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — namely that our thinking is constrained by the languages we learn. The AS population and the NT population seem to be working in largely non-overlapping languages.

It occurs to me that one way to fix this is to rely more on stories and anecdotes, which seem to bridge the gap better than most other channels of communication. I've struggled all my life to learn how to tell stories and anecdotes. It's a skill that doesn't come easy.

It doesn't come easy for affective computers to construct context-appropriate stories, either.

We need more traction if we are going to make better progress on intractable problems.

I dunno if we are gonna stumble onto a 'magic bullet' here. We may just have to puzzle it out.