Category Archives: austism

The factor structure of Religiosity and its neural substrates

A new article in PNAS by Grafman et al, argues that Religiosity can be broken down into three factors and the underlying machinery that these factors use are basic Theory Of Mind (ToM) circuitry, thus substantiating the claim that religion occurred as a byproduct of basic ToM related adaptations, although not ruling out that once established Religion may have provided adaptive advantage.

First a detour. I am more interested in this study as I had once claimed that Schizophrenics were more religious than Autistics and I have been maintaining that Religion is just one aspect of an underlying hyper-mentalizing to hyper-physicalism continuum on which these two spectrum disorders lie on opposite ends. The case for less ToM abilities in ASD seems to be fairly settled; its also becoming apparent that in Schizophrenia spectrum disorders you have excess of ToM abilities; This study by showing the ToM to Religion linkage, fills in the gaps and another puzzle piece falls in place.

On to the study. The authors first show that Religious Belief can be split into three factors. they use a novel (to me) technique of Multi Dimensional Scaling (MDS) to tease out the factors associated with religious belief. I have not checked how MDS works, but I assume it is similar to Factor analysis and can give us reliable factor structure underlying the data. They build on previous research and discovered the following three factors:

  1. God’s perceived level of involvement,
  2. God’s perceived emotion, and
  3. religious knowledge source. 

The first factor refers to endowing intentionality to superantural agents like God; the second factor refers to endowing emotions to God an dthe thierd factor refers to the source of the religious beliefs- whether it is doctrinal or derived from experience. Thus the trinity of intention, emotion and belief – alos the trinity involved in ToM tasks. The authors do a good job of describing the factors, so I’ll let them do it.

Dimension 1 (D1) correlated negatively with God’s perceived level of involvement (–0.994), Dimension 2 (D2) correlated negatively with God’s perceived anger (–0.953) and positively with God’s perceived love (0.953), and Dimension 3 (D3) correlated positively with doctrinal (0.993) and negatively with experiential (–0.993) religious content. D1 represents a quantitative gradient of a single concept and we will be referring to it as ‘‘God’s perceived level of involvement.’’ D2 and D3 represent gradients of contrasting concepts; we will be referring to them as ‘‘God’s perceived emotion’’ (D2) and ‘‘religious knowledge source’’ (D3).

God’s perceived level of involvement (D1) organizes statements so that ‘‘God is removed from the world’’ or ‘‘Life has no higher purpose’’ have high positive coordinate values, while ‘‘God’s will guides my acts,’’ ‘‘God protects one’s life,’’ or ‘‘God is punishing’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lie statements implying the existence of uninvolved supernatural agents, and on the negative end lie statements implying involved supernatural agents.

God’s perceived emotion (D2) ranges from love to anger and organizes statements so that ‘‘God is forgiving’’ and ‘‘God protects all people’’ have high positive-coordinate values, while ‘‘God is wrathful’’ and ‘‘The afterlife will be punishing’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lie statements implying the existence of a loving (and potentially rewarding) supernatural agent, and on the negative end lie statements suggestive of wrathful (and potentially punishing) supernatural agent.

Religious knowledge (D3) ranges from doctrinal to experiential and organizes statements so that ‘‘God is ever-present’’ and ‘‘A source of creation exists’’ have high positive-coordinate values, while ‘‘Religion is directly involved in worldly affairs’’ and ‘‘Religion provides moral guiding’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lies theological content referring to abstract religious concepts, and on the negative end lies theological content with moral, social, or practical implications.

This breakup of religiosity into three factors is itself commendable, but then they go on to show, using fMRI data that these factors activate areas of brain associated with ToM abilities. I don’t really understand all their fMRI data, but the results seem interesting. Here is what they conclude:

The MDS results confirmed the validity of the proposed psychological structure of religious belief. The 2 psychological processes previously implicated in religious belief, assessment of God’s level of involvement and God’s level of anger (11), as well as the hypothesized doctrinal to experiential continuum for religious nowledge, were identifiable dimensions in our MDS analysis. In addition, the neural correlates of these psychological dimensions were revealed to be well-known brain networks, mediating evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.

This study defines a psychological and neuroanatomical framework for the (predominately explicit) processing of religious belief. Within this framework, religious belief engages well-known brain networks performing abstract semantic processing, imagery, and intent-related and emotional ToM, processes known to occur at both implicit and explicit levels (36, 39, 50). Moreover, the process of adopting religious beliefs depends on cognitive-emotional interactions within the anterior insulae, particularly among religious subjects. The findings support the view that religiosity is integrated in cognitive processes and brain networks used in social cognition, rather than being sui generis (2–4). The evolution of these networks was likely driven by their primary roles in social cognition, language, and logical reasoning (1, 3, 4, 51). Religious cognition likely emerged as a unique combination of these several evolutionarily important cognitive processes (52). Measurable individual differences in these core competencies (ToM, imagination, and so forth) may predict specific patterns of brain activation in response to religious stimuli.

As always I am excited and would like to see some field work being carried out to determine religiosity in ASD and Schizophrenia spectrum groups and see if we get the same results (less religiosity in autism and more religiosity in schizophrenics) as predicted, based on their baseline ToM abilities.

PS: I was not able to use the DOI lookup fetaure of Research Blogging, but the DOI of article is
* Dimitrios Kapogiannis,, * Aron K. Barbey,, * Michael Su,, * Giovanna Zamboni,, * Frank Krueger,, * and Jordan Grafman (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief PNAS

Autism, the middle cingulate and reputation management

There was an article on which I had wanted to comment earlier. the study by Chiu et al shows that in autistic individuals the middle cingulate cortex is hypofunctional during the self phase of the iterated Trust game, wherein one has to infer the mind of another, decide whether to trust him or her and accordingly decide what money to give to the trustee and what to keep for oneself.

Recent work using the multiround trust game has identified activations along human
cingulate cortex consistent with agent-specific response patterns generated during interpersonal exchange with another human. These patterns differentiate outcomes following revelation of the partner’s decision (‘‘not self’’ or ‘‘other’’ response) from those following submission of one’s own decision (‘‘self’’ response). Remarkably, the patterns are spatially complementary , and almost no manipulation perturbs them except one: the removal of the interactive partner . Removal of the social partner causes the cingulate response patterns to disappear even though the sensory, motor, and reward elements of the task remain intact. These results from the trust game are consistent with agent specific cingulate responses observed in a range of other experiments. Anterior and posterior cingulate activation occurs in response to the revelation of decisions of others in two-person games like the Ultimatum and Prisoner’s Dilemma games. Furthermore, increased middle cingulate activation is commonly observed in response to one’s own social decisions or emotions.

Chris and Uta Frith do an excellent job of putting these findings in perspective and argue that the autistic is less concerned with reputation management (as it has inability to infer others mind states it does not care hat they think) and suggest a simple experiment that could elucidate the point.

Our speculation is that this process of reputation management is impaired in autistic individuals, because it depends on the ability to read the minds of others. This hypothesis can be tested experimentally. If we are concerned with our reputation then our behavior will be strongly affected by whether or not an audience is present to observe our actions. Consider, for instance, another sharing game known as the dictator game. One player is given $100 and is allowed to share any amount he or she chooses with the other player. In this situation, the rational thing to do would be to give the other player no money at all, because the second player is powerless to respond. Even “dictators” will typically dole out a small proportion of the money, however. When there is an audience for the transaction, dictators give away even more money. Presumably, they do not want to have a reputation for meanness or for acting unfairly. If autistic people are not concerned with their own reputation, then their behaviour should not be affected by the presence of an audience.

I would like to extend their experiment and suggest one for those susceptible to psychosis. I have argued that Autism and Schizophrenia/ psychosis are extreme ends of a continuum and would thus conclude that in the iterated trust game, psychotics/ those susceptible to psychosis would show hyperfunctioning of middle cingulate cortex. I have elsewhere already argued that Psychotics have an enhanced ToM or mind reading ability. I would also hypothesize that psychotics would also show enhanced reputation management and an enhanced donation of money in the trust game when an audience is present as compared to controls or the autistics.

While an experiment is the best to settle such conjectures, it is tempting to see how this adds up and can explain certain symptoms of psychosis/ mania. If one is overly concerned with reputation management one can end up being a spendthrift / show irresponsible financial behavior as one tries to build a hypothetical reputation in the minds of the audience. Taken with the fact that psychosis comes clubbed with a belief in supernatural agents, magical thinking and super agency detection etc, one may not even need an actual audience – a make-believe audience may suffice to make one get overly concerned with reputation management and thus trusting too much the others -even with their money. when reality proves otherwise and people prove to be not worthy of the trust, one may dissociate with reality altogether and become paranoid on the other extreme. We know that the ACC is dysfunctional in schizophrenics, what about the middle cingulate? is it hypoactive during trust games in the self condition? Only a hypothesis, but worth investigating!

cortex maturation: found the references

In my earlier post on cortex maturation, I was unable to find the references for the claims that in Autism cortex matures earlier during toddler phase and that even in adulthood, it may be thicker.

In a recent PNAS commentary, reagarding the delay rather than deviance theory of ADHD, I came across the appropriate references to back the above observations, as well as the accelerated pruning in child-onset schizophrenia. Passing that along.

An important question is whether the delay of brain maturation is a specific characteristic of ADHD or is shared by other child psychiatric disorders. So far, none of the other major psychiatric disorders have been associated with a maturational delay of brain structure. However, to my knowledge, longitudinal structural studies have been conducted only in patients with ADHD, childhood-onset schizophrenia (COS), and autism, finding maturational deviance rather than delay. Adolescents with COS are characterized by a striking nonlinear, progressive acceleration of the normal gray matter and volume decrease in cortical regions that levels off in adulthood (22). In autism, there is an early left hemispheric overgrowth of gray and white matter at young toddler age with conflicting findings of either arrested growth or remaining brain enlargement in adolescence and adulthood (23). The findings of delayed structural brain maturation seem, thus far, to be specific to ADHD and may be an important neuroanatomic trait. However, further exploration of the developmental trajectories in other child psychiatric disorders is needed to establish the importance of a delay of brain maturation as a specific neuroanatomic marker for ADHD.
(emphasis mine, references below)
22. Greenstein D, Lerch J, Shaw P, Clasen L, Giedd J, Gochman P, Rapoport J, Gogtay N (2006) J Child Psychol Psychiatry 47:1003–1012.
23. Bashat DB, Kronfeld-Duenias V, Zachor DA, Ekstein PM, Hendler T, Tarrasch R, Even A, Levy Y, Sira LB (2007) NeuroImage 37:40–47.

cortex maturation: lag, span and thickness: ADHD, Schizophrenia, autism , IQ

There is an article making waves regarding the delayed maturation of the cortex of children with ADHD and so I thought I will throw in my two cents and try to simplify things.

First what is cortex maturation- the cortex of normal children first increases in size (as presumably new connections are made) , reaches a peak around 8 years of age and then the cortex thins (as spurious connections are pruned). We normally think of more connections being more beneficial, so it stands to reason why pruning should happen- but more connections do not translate into better connections- we only need to retain the right connections – the spurious connections need to be mercilessly pruned, if we are to function correctly. A theory based on this logic also asserts that we are born synaesthetes, but the spurious connections get pruned under normal development.

Now there are several things that can go wrong with this wiring and pruning process. Too much wiring can leave you with a thicker than normal cortex , too much pruning can leave you with lesser connections than required for normal functioning. Also the achievement of normal thickness, and subsequent thinnness can be developmentally shifted or lag from the normal developmental plan. Finally the thickening and thinnening may be squeezed in time and may happen at a faster rate for some individuals. Conversely, this may be spread over a broader time period and o9ccur at a relatively slower rate for other individuals. Considering the three factors of Size ( peak thichkness/ thinnness achieved), Lag (start and end of thickening and thinning process) and Rate (faster development over small time frame or longer span with slow rate of pruning/ initial connection formation) one gets 6 combinations (if we treat them as independent of each other) . Also considering that Thickening (initial connection formation) and Thinning (subsequent pruning) may also be independent one gets 12 combinations. these are sufficiently complex for me to abstain from making any sweeping generalizations. So I’ll go to data:
1. In ADHD, new research (as also highlighted above) reveals, that the development (thickening and thinning ) of cortex is similar to normal individuals- only it is slightly shifted and starts later. this explains why ADHD disappears after teenage and is a problem only in childhood.

2. Children with higher IQ have faster rate of thickening and thinning of cortex as seen from graphic below.

3. Research from Paul Thomsaon’s lab at UCLA has shown that in schizophrenia the normal pruning process does not stop in teenage as in normal adults, but continues beyond the early teenage resulting in more pruning than is normal.
4. I’ve read claims that in Autism the cortex is thicker and that it matures early. I’m tempted to posit Autism as a reverse trend of schizophrenic maturation, but need more accurate refernces and would be highly obliged if someone points me to appropriate resources.

All this seems very promising and I would be watching ne23s related to these developments more closely in future , considering that some of these are comorbid – like autism and IQ in high functioning ASDers and Creativity and Schizophrenia.

True Lies: More thoughts on Autism and Schizophrenia

There is a fantastical article by Simon Baron-Cohen about how autistic children are more honest than the rest of us and how the neurotypical human brain is characterized by an ability to deceive.

As we all know, Autistic children have troubles with meta-representation, or believing that there could be two versions of reality- one that is factually correct, and which they themselves may hold; and another that is incorrect, but exists in the mind of another human being. Thus, they may not have any problem with knowing some fact about the world, but are greatly disadvantaged when it comes to knowing facts about other people’s mind- as they cannot conceive that somebody can have beliefs that are different from the Reality- in other words that someone has ‘false beliefs’.

As per Simon, the capacity to deceive involves the ability to know that one can have false beliefs; and also that one can manipulate the beliefs of another person, so that the person ends up with a false belief. I doubt whether the first ability is necessarily compromised in people with Autism. After all, they themselves may have had false beliefs about the world (say thinking that sun revolves around the earth) and thus may similarly conjecture that others can also have false beliefs. The trouble may lie elsewhere- they may lack the ability to discern that whatever beliefs they have (whether true or false), the other person might not necessarily have the same beliefs. That is they may confuse their own beliefs with that of another and would not have a higher level meta-representation, that someone can have a different belief set. Thus, the trouble is not with having beliefs- but with the ability to say and understand that “I believe that john believes this”. They may not comprehend such a sentence or thought- as it is superfluous in their world, where their beliefs are consistent with Reality (or are false) and the other person’s beliefs also being consistent with Reality are one and the same. Thus they never require , or are able to use, this recursive ability. I believe this deficit in recursive ability may to some extent explain their language difficulties too. coming back to point, as they themselves cannot comprehend that “I believe john believes X.”, so also they are unable to comprehend that ‘john believes I believe X”. thus, in their innocent and simplistic world, their is no room for either manipulating others via deception; nor of not trusting and always being on their guard against what someone says or does. Thus, they would take sentences at their face value.

I came across this article via The Thinking Blog and there Mary makes some interesting points about whether all deception is bad and all honesty is good; and I concur fully with her that sometimes deception is needed and can be put to good purpose and sometimes truth is not desirable or even moral as per the situation. What is more instrumental is the motive with which the truth or lie is chosen. Thus, I personally am of the opinion that we do need an ability to deceive, but the character to keep the trait in check and to put in good use only.

Simon also makes a point that we treat Autistic traits like honesty as traits on a continuum and not as deficits and I agree with him there too. He treats the normal , social brain as the extreme end of the this trait on which the autistic are the other end; and here I differ. I have already made some strong cases for Schizophrenia to be at the other end; and I would like to support that position by drawing on Simon’s analysis.

If we believe that one trait that Autistic lack is deception and meta-representation or ability to read minds, then the Schizophrenics are bound to be too good at it (as per my thinking they are two ends of a creativity spectrum).

  • The Schizophrenics may use so much meta-representation (thinking that goes ‘I think he thinks that I think that Mary thinks ….’) that they may not only get confused, but sound disoriented and disorganized as they may assume too much about what the other person believes. Much of the incoherence in a psychotic speech may be due to too much of shared context – or too much of’ he-knows-what-she-knows-that-I-know’ sort of thinking. Also keeping multiple perspectives or belief sets may tax their normal working memory capacities, making them sound incoherent.
  • Also as opposed to Autistics , who think people do not have an ability to mind-read- as they themselves lack it- the Schizophrenics may be marked by an increased propensity to consider that people can mind read and that too to a very great extent. This may underlie the frequently found delusion in schizophrenia that their thoughts are being broadcasted– that other can read their mind–or at least they want to read their minds using Gizmo’s like satellites, headphones etc. The schizophrenic, after all, knows the advantages that can be obtained if one can mind read.
  • In its extreme, as the Schizophrenics have too much obsession with mind reading abilities- and the corollary ability to deceive- , they may think that people , in general, are deceptive and manipulators. This may explain why other people would like to insert thoughts or tamper with their thoughts/ memories etc. This may easily give rise to delusions of control.
  • the ability and propensity to deceive, would also explain the paranoia they feel- after all in their warped world view , all, like them, have immense capacity to deceive/ manipulate- and thus is a potential threat- an untrustable person. This gives rise to the paranoid delusions of schizophrenia.
  • Lastly, the obsession of schizophrenics with modeling other minds may lead to multiple personality syndrome (although I know this is not recognized by Psychiatry).

I , like Mary, am not taking sides on whether naive honesty is better or tendency to deceive/camouflage is better; I believe both have their utilities and one should be flexible enough to use both capacities at will. But as we know that much of Human evolution is driven by our capacity to deceive , I would classify schizophrenia as the cost we pay for human Evolution; and Autism as a developmental disorder- We humans are meant to be social and are meant to hide all our raw feelings/ beliefs / thoughts from other persons. Let us deceive, but let us keep that in check- or else be prepared for insanity.

The Two Cultures continued

While my original post regarding the two cultures of Schizophrenia and Autism was a reference to the Arts and Science cultures of CP Snow, this post is about the cultures in the traditional sense- the American culture pitted against the East Asian culture.

To recap the differences in Autism and Schizophrenia, the difference could be summarized as a linear, literal, realistic, detail-oriented and routine -bound thinking style in Autism and a non-linear(parallel), metaphorical, imaginative, meaning-oriented and novelty preferring thinking style associated with schizophrenia. One of the prime reasons for these differences was hypothesized to be a central coherence tendency in autism (too much focus on foreground and piece-meal perception/ conception) on the one hand and a contextual, broad and loose association tendency in schizophrenia (too much focus on background and a gestalt and holistic sort of perception/ conception) on the other hand.

One can even go a step ahead and characterize the autistic cognitive style as Analytical and the schizophrenic style as Holistic in nature.

That brings us to an interesting hypothesis. It is well known that cultures differ in their cognitive thinking style and it has been demonstrated in a number of studies that the American culture is characterized by an analytical thinking style, while the East Asian cultures are characterized by a holistic cognitive style.

This cross-cultural differences in cognitive style, as popularized by Richard Nisbett’?s book The Geography of Thought, has been found to be displayed in perception ( differences exist in change-blindness based on foreground/background salience and this also correlates with the differential patterns of eye fixations on background/foreground in the two cultures) , in categorization and representations(with either a style based on ecological or habitat-based thinking dominant or a one based on narrow self focus and goal-directed thinking dominant), in thinking (analytic vs holistic thinking), in reasoning about causes ( limited, direct causes vs. a large number of indirect causes) and recently in reasoning about consequences ( with western culture favoring a more direct consequence on an immediately succeeding event and the eastern cultures favoring more indirect consequences on more futuristic events and event effects on the the ultimate outcome).

Various theories have been proposed for these differences including a fear of isolation theory that posits that difference in dialectical vs analytical thinking or the reliance on context for memory recognition is due to the fear of social ostracizing, which causes one to focus more on context; a complex and ambiguous physical environment theory which in a roundabout (and in my view in a flawed) way argues that differences in complexity and ambiguity of towns and city scenes of the two cultures cause the different thinking styles rather than it being the other way round; to this being due to linguistic effects (just like this study which shows that linguistic differences cause changes in spatial cognition, I’m sure there are studies that attribute the different cognitive styles to linguistic effect) or due to genetic differences.

While I will not address the reasons for the differences, I will take as granted the fact that there are reasonable differences in the cognitive style on the figure-ground, details-gestalt and analytical-holistic dimensions and these dimensions are more or less the same sort of cognitive style differences that one sees in schizophrenia and autism.

Consistent with this cultural trend, one can predict that in cultures which favor divergent, contextual and holistic thinking , a schizotypal subject would be less susceptible to be labeled as a mentally ill person. These cultures would be more tolerant of this form of thinking and more accommodating of the extreme manifestation. consequently one can hypothesize that in East Asian cultures the incidence and prevalence of Schizophrenia would be way below that in American cultures. This is actually the case with lifetime prevalence in Asian countries being 0.25 as opposed to 0.88 for non-Asian countries.

A reverse trend would be expected in Autism, with American children being diagnosed with autism lesser than the Asian cultures. The results for this prediction are not that optimistic as data on autism prevalence in china is not readily available; but Japanese show an upward trend, while American incidence levels seem to have actually decreased over the years.

Thus, it may actually be the case that autism and schizophrenia signify the Two Cultures.

Before I part, just a parting note on the recently discovered Television and Autism linkage. John Hawks, had commented on the eye movement cultural differences study and in its context had hypothesized that the reason for differences in cognitive style with Americans focusing on the foreground object may be due to the high prevalence in America of cartoon TV viewing which causes one to focus on a one moving object, against a static background.

But let’s consider what some of those cultural reasons might be. For example, have American graduate students watched cheaply-animated cartoons for a greater proportion of their lives. You know, the kind of cartoon where the only moving object is the main character, and the background is entirely static for minutes? For that matter, does television viewing in general affect attention.

To me this hypothesis of TV-cartoon viewing and the consequent figure-focus or central coherence seems very promising and might be the reason as to why Autism is rising with increased TV viewings.