when gender studies go mental
Since the mid 1980s theory of mind account of autism (here‘s the landmark paper), this condition was thought to be the most informative when it came to the study of social cognition. Things have changed since then. In the early 1990s, Chris Frith’s book on schizophrenia proposed a model that put an impairment in mindreading at the roots of both autism and schizophrenia. The idea has been debated ever since, but the available evidence doesn’t seem clear enough to settle the issue. Other pathologies also made it to the social cognition scene, depression among them.
Sometime in the mid 1990s, Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the authors of the 1985 paper on autism linked above, began to think of autism as a result of a defect in the structure of the brain which consists in the hyper-development of specific male traits. This is the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism. Extreme male brains track and categorize stimuli into structures; they are natural organizers; and they don’t give a damn about the fact that some objects are special – i.e. people.
In the relevant context, ‘male’ and ‘female’ refer to features that are statistically characteristic, not necessarily to traits recognizable in individuals. Female autistics have extreme male brains too. Politically sensitive, the idea made it into a book only in 2004. (I began reading it a month or so ago, but my patience evaporated after the first two chapters. Next summer maybe.)
Now – and this is where I’ve been trying to get – something related to what Frith and Baron-Cohen have been doing made it to NY Times Science, in a not too well written, not very informative article. Here’s the core:
[…] autism and schizophrenia represent opposite ends of a spectrum that includes most, if not all, psychiatric and developmental brain disorders. The theory has no use for psychiatry’s many separate categories for disorders, and it would give genetic findings an entirely new dimension.
Since the main articles of this week’s NYT Science are dedicated to genetics, there is talk about genes in this case too. But one gets little or worse from pop science metaphors that have one thank one’s father for one’s autism and one’s mother for one’s schizophrenia. Better see the original papers.