The Autism of Rodin’s Thinker

Autistic reasoning is slower, more reasoned, and less prejudiced than the norm.

Posted Mar 17, 2016

Wikimedia commons
Source: Wikimedia commons

Of course, statues can’t be diagnosed with autism, but recent research suggests that what Rodin’s famous statue, The Thinker, depicts is in fact an autistic mode of cognition

As  Mark Brosnan, Marcus Lewton, and Chris Ashwin point out in a new study, so-called Dual Process Theory proposes two distinct reasoning processes in humans, an intuitive style that is rapid and automatic and a deliberative style that is more effortful. No study to date has specifically examined these reasoning styles in relation to the autism spectrum, but this one remedies the situation by investigating deliberative and intuitive reasoning profiles in a non-clinical sample of 95 subjects from the general population with varying degrees of autistic traits. Additionally, 17 male participants with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) attending a University Summer School for students were compared with 18 controls (and were therefore high-functioning cases like those described by Asperger and discussed in a recent post).

J Autism Dev Disord DOI 10.1007/s10803-016-2742-4
Source: J Autism Dev Disord DOI 10.1007/s10803-016-2742-4

As the authors’ figure above illustrates,

People with high autism traits and those diagnosed with ASD showed a pattern of having a combination of lower intuitive and greater deliberative reasoning styles. Both those with high autism traits and those with a diagnosis of ASD consistently responded less intuitively and more deliberatively, when compared to those with low autism traits and without a diagnosis of ASD, on behavioural and self-report assessments of reasoning. Taken together, the results suggest that Dual Process Theory provides a useful framework for considering the strengths and weaknesses in reasoning on the autism spectrum.

Indeed, they add that “A propensity to engage in deliberative reasoning within a context that typically triggers erroneous intuitive reasoning can be seen as an advantage associated with ASD (and potentially higher autism traits)"—just as Asperger himself argued in his original paper describing autism.

The fact that there are strengths as well as weaknesses in autistic cognition is exactly what you would expect if normal cognition were inherently dualistic, as the diametric model (below) proposes and as the discovery of “anti-correlated” default mode versus task positive networks in the cortex implies.

C. Badcock
Source: C. Badcock

The authors also comment that those with high levels of so-called schizotypy (or high-functioning psychotic spectrum disorder) have also been found to have a bias towards making decisions rapidly or “jumping to conclusions,” as discussed in previous posts. They go on to comment that

Interestingly, the present findings are the opposite results to that reported … for schizotypy traits in the general population, where higher levels of schizotypy traits were associated with high levels of intuition combined with low levels of deliberation. This opposing reasoning profile is consistent with the diametrical model of Crespi and Badcock (2008), who propose that ASD and schizotypy represent opposing poles of a cognitive continuum.

Indeed, the authors of this study also confirm Asperger’s observation that high-functioning autistics can often succeed in tasks that demand slow, un-intuitive reasoning:

The present study is consistent with the idea that those with ASD do not have the balance of reasoning styles but have a bias towards deliberative reasoning and away from intuitive reasoning across contexts. There may be contexts where this is beneficial (e.g. mathematics) and contexts where this is detrimental (e.g. social).

But as the diametric model predicts, even in social contexts, knee-jerk, intuitive, unthinking responses can catch you out if the issue is one of mechanistic, rather than mentalistic, cognition, as I recounted in a previous post. And as I showed in another, the social, political, and economic costs of mistaking mechanistic for mentalistic modes of thinking can be disastrous for entire societies. 

All this suggests to me that you could add a further dichotomy to the diametric model set out above: namely a quick, intuitive, unreasoning versus slow, un-intuitive, reasoning one. As these authors observe, looked at this way ASD is in no way associated with "being cognitively miserly” or with “lazy thinking”—what I called cloud cognition (aka group-think) in a previous post. On the contrary, where autism is concerned, “the proposed reasoning bias is best characterised as being unbiased.” And what’s wrong with that?

At the very least, findings such as these reveal just how right Asperger was in his original characterization of autism and how nicely Dual Process Theory fits the diametric model—not to mention why you might think that Rodin's Thinker was indeed autistic in this respect.