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  1. Introduction
  2. Brain and context »
  3. Other theories
  4. Examples
  5. Chaotic emotions
  6. Left and right
  7. The observing self
  8. Organising idea
  9. References

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Caetextia and CFS

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The brain and context

To see context, we need to be able to attach events and see them from different viewpoints. The early behaviourists believed that mammals and birds simply responded mechanically to stimuli, but more sophisticated experiments revealed that there is a cognitive component involved in their response, which relates to prior experience. One significant experiment demonstrated that there is a mammalian intelligence that searches for and assesses relationships between different events — some part of the brain has reviewed the history of past experiences of a similar kind.3 Many subsequent experiments have substantiated this finding. So, millions of years ago, mammals evolved, in effect, a biological form of what computer buffs today call ‘parallel processing’: a mechanism capable of gauging risk by processing multiple streams of current information, at the same time as unconsciously comparing similar, previous experiences with each new one. It is something we take completely for granted today but, millions of years ago, it was the key to surviving and thriving.

When we say that the profoundly disabling impairment that runs across the whole autistic spectrum is the inability to perceive context, we mean this mammalian ability to maintain separate streams of attention and switch effortlessly between them to assess the relevance of each to what is currently happening. This can be done only if the brain can dissociate: review what it knows about something it has come across before, while still paying attention to that something in the here and now. Modern brain scientists have ascribed this function to the anterior cingulate gyrus. As one neuroscientist puts it, “This region is active when we need controlled, distributed attention, such as listening to our friend at the party while also watching our colleague dance. It also tells us to forget both of those people and pay close attention to the other side of the room when we sense that potential combatants may start a fight.”4

‘Context blindness’ — the inability to switch easily between several foci of attention and track them — is clearly seen in autism (the child transfixed by spinning the wheels on a toy car has no sense of a car’s real purpose, for instance) but is the most dominant manifestation of autistic behaviour in high-achieving people with Asperger’s syndrome. We have therefore named it ‘caetextia’, from the Latin caecus, meaning ‘blind’ and contextus, meaning ‘context’. We are suggesting that caetextia is a more accurate and descriptive term for this inability to see how one variable influences another, particularly at the higher end of the spectrum, than the label of ‘Asperger’s syndrome’.

If you can read context, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. You might be talking to Maggie about something, for example, but another part of your attention is aware that Jill is listening as well and could read implications into what you are saying that you didn’t intend. So, straight away, because you have this awareness, you are able to alter the way you speak and detach attention from different objects to take into account Jill’s possible reactions too. When you can do this easily, it is difficult to imagine not being able to do it. But caetextic people can’t. As a consequence, they also have difficulties understanding complex metaphors because they mainly rely on logical thinking and random associations.

Other theories »