Consciousness and Neurodiversity

The impact of the consciousness-attention dissociation on cognitive diversity

Posted May 31, 2016

Our understanding of psychological conditions that were thought of as abnormal and pathological has greatly improved with research in biology and neuroscience. We now know that many genetic and epigenetic conditions trigger neural and biochemical events that require a very precise balance for cognitive development and function. Such a balance cannot be fully reduced to the simple dichotomy between the “healthy” and the “pathological”—there is much more nuance to the balance than was previously assumed.

We also know that many conditions should not be thought of as odd illnesses that need to be cured because these diseases, including autism, have a systematic presence in the human genome, in varying degrees and on various dimensions. Moreover, since some of these conditions bring with them exceptional skills, and not only disability, it seems that they may actually play a role in diversifying the repertoire of cognitive skills within the human species. For these and other forceful reasons (including moral ones) the term “neurodiversity” has been coined in order to better appreciate neurological differences without stigmatizing them as pathological (e.g., see this blog post on neurodiversity).

The negative implications associated with the term “mental illness” and the body of scientific evidence in favor of neurodiversity should, therefore, transform the ways in which we approach diverse mental abilities through policy or legislation. We believe there are also theoretical reasons to endorse neurodiversity, and it is important to investigate these implications for current debates. Many theories, however, tend to provide overly general categories in order to achieve simplicity. For example, it may be too simplistic to describe “typical” as a single type of consciousness, or a single form of focused attention, or a single kind of rationality. Anything departing from these general categories can be conceived as abnormal, inadequate, irrelevant, or pathological. But there are good reasons to think that in the realm of the mental, flexibility is a virtue and rigid simplicity a vice.

In previous posts, we proposed a framework to conceptualize the dissociation between consciousness and attention, or CAD, partly based on evolutionary considerations (Montemayor & Haladjian, 2015). Could this framework have implications for neurodiversity? This is a likely possibility that should be explored, for several reasons.

Some conditions that produce varying degrees of disability, but which also bring with them remarkable memory and visualization skills, are characterized by specific kinds of attention. Autism and attention deficit disorders are clear cases, but so are repetitive attention routines, as in obsessive compulsive behaviors. Sometimes, specific types of attention seem to dominate other kinds, for example, attention to abstract thoughts could overshadow attention to social or environmental cues, which could potentially lead to forms of delusions. The type of conscious attention experienced by people with these conditions must be different from the type of awareness we consider “typical”. Yet the functions of sensory information processing may be dissociated from an “atypical” awareness of this information. Because of the evolutionary considerations that support CAD (Haladjian & Montemayor, 2015), a related question is when is it that these forms of attention that become atypical evolved and could they possibly have a purpose? These are important areas for future research.

Even with respect to individuals considered “typical”, one may find interesting cases of neurodiversity. First, there is the important issue that these conditions come in degrees and mild forms of them are aspects of usual mental life (e.g., think of rituals and routines that are repeated frequently). Then there are the transitional changes that mark childhood, adolescence, and then adulthood. For example, there are well-known neurogenetic changes that culminate with the maturation of the frontal cortex after adolescence. Some research suggests that children must experience consciousness differently—in a less “frontal” way, with much more attentional flexibility and conscious enjoyment. This different type of conscious awareness that is not dominated by frontal top-down modulation helps children be more flexible learners (Gopnik, et al., 2015). Here there is a similar tradeoff as the one between disability and remarkable skill. Childhood has the disadvantage that one is highly vulnerable, and thus disabled in many contexts when compared with adults. But it is during our long childhoods that we learn the set of complex skills that we later use and take for granted when we are adults—a huge learning advantage that disappears with adulthood. This is obviously a broad and not entirely accurate analogy with genuine cases of neurodiversity, but it helps illustrate our point.

There may be clear advantages to the evolution of neurodiversity. Consider the skilled attention to patterns and mathematical structures characteristic of some autistic individuals or the visual kind of thinking (as opposed to linguistic) that could enhance creative capacities (e.g., see this article on visual thinking). As a species, it is clearly advantageous to have different styles of empathy, thinking, and learning, and different ways of attending to information and being consciously aware of the contents of thoughts. Social disengagement and repetition can be severely disabling, but they are also fundamental for very important styles of reasoning, such as attention to abstract and repetitive patterns—the bread and butter of attention in mathematical reasoning.

Neural lesions indicate that neurodiversity can be advantageous with respect to enhancing phenomenal consciousness, in a way that may resemble early childhood consciousness. Jill Bolte Taylor offers dramatic descriptions of such experiences: after her brain injury the linguistically driven or “chatty” conceptual attention routines were impaired or eliminated, enabling a more pure and intense form of empathic consciousness. There may also be a non-lesion based window to an adult’s childhood-consciousness through dreams. Although dreams can be thought of as a form of psychosis due to their inherent nature of experience, they can also be considered a healthy way of processing thoughts and may serve some sort of cognitive purpose (see our blog post on dreams).

Considering that it is likely that aspects of mental functions dissociated from each other for evolutionarily advantageous reasons, like the dissociation between consciousness and attention, it seems that the presence of human neurodiversity may also have some advantages. That is, there may be some important reasons why we are faced with a spectrum of abilities and challenges related to mental life. This perspective on neurodiversity is one that should be considered more seriously and provides intriguing prospects for future research.

- Carlos Montemayor & Harry Haladjian


Gopnik, A., Griffiths, T. L., & Lucas, C. G. (2015). When younger learners can be better (or at least more open-minded) than older ones. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 87-92.

Haladjian, H. H., & Montemayor, C. (2015). On the evolution of conscious attention. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(3), 595-613.

Montemayor, C., & Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.