Thursday, 6 August 2009

RRBI, anoraks, geniuses

The UK-English term 'anorak' (the outergarment of choice of Britain's trainspotters) has come to mean pretty much the same as the US-English word 'nerd'. In both cases, the derogatory word suggests that its subject is a somewhat obsessive person with narrow interests and below-average social skills.

Clincial psychiatrists coming to grips with the spectrum of disorders ranging from mild forms of Asperger syndrome to autism have coined the phrase 'Repetitive and Restricted Behaviours and Interests' (RRBI) to indicate one of the symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder. The spectrum can be extended to milder definitions, such as broader autism phenotype (BAP), and onwards to symptoms so mild as to blend almost undetected into the general population. Also along the spectrum is Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (not to be confused with the similar sounding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Characteristic restricted interests include obsession with numbers, statistics, patterns (and minor deviations from patterns), maps, railways and public transport, cult TV shows; internet forums are driven by people with RRBIs. They form a useful service, bringing detailed answers to questions from the casual internet user who browses a wide range of sites rather than habituating a single forum or two.

Psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrists and historians have in recent years been poring over the biographies of historical figures for evidence of on-spectrum traits, and not surprisingly have applied the label to large numbers of them, in particular to scientists and artists. Reading the biographies of Albert Einstein, Adam Smith, the father of economics, or William Herschel astronomer, not to mention many leading figures in the IT industry, one can spot eccentric behaviours and obsessions that led to leaps in mankind's understanding of those fields.

At the extreme end of the maladjusted genius spectrum lies savant syndrome, where a person with an autism spectrum disorder shows some amazing skill, way above the average, and at odds with his lack of social skills. Savants tend to excel in art (Stephen Wiltshire), music (Derek Paravacini), maths and phenomenal memory (Daniel Tammet).

Autism spectrum disorders affect males four times more than females, while males with savant syndrome are six times more common than females with the same condition, which extrapolated along the entire spectrum, explains the predominance of male scientists, composers, mathematicians, statisticians and indeed trainspotters.

In the old days, the term 'eccentric' would have sufficed. The stereotypical 'absent-minded professor'. Today the so-called normal (for in a spectrum disorder with a long tail blending seamlessly into the rest of the population, what is normal?) person is called neurotypical, while the notion that mankind is composed of people of with a diversity of neurological traits is a good thing. We are neurodiverse as a species; many of the outstanding human beings who have contributed to our understanding of our universe, who have entertained us, who have invented technologies that improve our lives, have lived and created beyond the norm, the average, the typical.

Successul people are by their very nature eccentric, outliers, in the title of Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller. While being in the right place in the right time is important, Gladwell says that the key factor behind human success is putting in your 10,000 hours - a target you'll reach quicker when you do nothing else but that which obsesses you, if your interests are indeed limited.

These interests need to be focused and productive. The Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons - such a perfectly drawn stereotype of RRBI - is wasting his life. Focused, yes, but productive? While genius is often linked autism spectrum disorders, only a small percentage go on to achieve greatness in their fields. The reason is a factor lying entirely outside of the condition - motivation.

Biologists have identified large numbers of genes that determine how we live our lives, that shape our fate. Whether we have a tendency to be religious, whether we dance well, are faithful in a relationship, are prone to laziness - it's all in the genes. And new correlations between our characteristics and our genes are discovered weekly. Yesterday I read about the hPer2 gene, which determines whether we're larks (early risers, who go to bed early) or owls (late risers, who go to bed late); owlism is linked to intelligence (y'reading this at midnight? Good for you!)

But will scientists ever discover a motivation gene?

I hope not. I'd like to believe motivation comes from beyond the biological; something God-given, something metaphysical.


Dyspozytor said...

obsession with numbers, statistics, patterns (and minor deviations from patterns), maps, railways and public transport, cult TV shows; internet forums... Yep, I definitely a RRBI.

Aphelion said...

Me, too! Interesting post, as always, Michal, thanks for the good read!

adthelad said...

Your post is excellent as always and reminded me of part of the Adam Curtus documentaries listed at the bottom regarding the changing of the world. Superb.

Here's the clip

When I was young I was too intelligent and too shy. I couldn't bear the attention of doing things well and being made to perform - it seemed people were only happy with me when I lived up to or exceeded their expectations - but that had a very negative effect on me because it is a double edged sword of course. It caused me to eventually to mantra "I will not learn, I will not remember'. The effect was I could only perform when fear was instilled in me. Fear of punishment. I knew there was something wrong. I loved everyone but was too afraid because noone else seemed to be doing it as much as I thought they should (well almost noone). The only 'person' I found who lived up to my expectatons of what love was, was Christ. And in the end I let him down because I couldn't cope with keeping forgiving myself for falling into the trap of Ego.

This first film below, a short one unlike the others, describes exactly what I felt then and know now to be absolutely true. I only wish I could have had someone to help me through - but my loved ones were too distracted by depression and events in their lives that had traumatised them - a trauma which my extra sensitivity felt but couldn't help.

I bet that cheered you up, LOL.

The first clip might however, unlike the others. Peace be with you.
p.s. it's not religious.

Some links to Adam Curtis documentaries. These might not improve your mood.


I heartily recommend finding the rest of his work on you tube.

Michael Dembinski said...

There are several other categories of mental illness that also operate on a spectrum - schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression/anxiety disorders. I do not wish to comment on these as I have no first hand experience of any of them.

Bartek - larks are innately better organised than owls, but owls can use their superior intelligence to learn organisational skills :-)

Adam - thanks for a most insightful comment - the Freudian stuff about the ego needs reassessment on the basis of modern evolutionary biology and genetics.

The Adam Curtis documentary was excellent!

adthelad said...

Thanks for your response Michał. For those who didn't yet go past the initial clip (which is from the start of part 5 of the "What happened to our Dreams Of Freedom"), the connection to Michał's post is that the documentary goes on to say ... R.D Lang they (those in 'charge' of American psychiatry) turned to the obejective purity of mathematical analysis. ...They gave up the idea that they could understand the human mind and cure it. Instead American Psychiatry created a new set of measurable categories that wre only based on the surface behaviour of human beings. Many were given new names, like attention deficit disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder...'"Psychiatry says 'we don't know tha causes of any of these conditions', and then just said 'This is what they look like. This is what depression looks like. This is what ADHD looks like. This is what PDSD looks like. This is what muliple personaly looks like. Whether they exist in any particular way or they exist in the same way, or if they are the same kinds of things, didn't matter, this is just what they look like"

Using the new criteria they discovered that over 50% of all Americans suffered from some form of 'mental disorder'. OOOps.

However, as you note Michał, the term eccentric used to suffice. So people did not neccesarily feel they had to fit some norm. The documentary shows how the norm of number/ game theory was to be considered the answer - where human mistrust rather than human trust was to be set as the norm for 'society' - or should I say the 'Brave New World'?

On a lighter note, with respect to theories and eccentricities,(with thanks for tollerating my eccentic posts)...The Monty Python Theory on Brontosaurus

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I am glad to read that owlism is related to intelligence. There is hope for me yet! let's hope, the more owlish, the more intelligent! (Well, circumstantial evidence is better than none.)

Back in college, we had an absent-minded professor. He'd ride his bike to college, take the bus home, then next morning report his bike stolen (and find it later chained up at the college). But we did like him, such a nice man and so human, even if his lectures could be hard for us dullards to follow.

adthelad said...

I'm an owl as were both my parents, especially my mum. My wife on the other hand is a lark. Great at organising. I wonder if her lark persona is due to being a countryside dweller, waking to the farm clock, or perhaps the old commuist system of gettng everyone to work as early as possible (even the school kids) was responsible for this. One think I do know is that there is a lot more absent mindedness in me but that's usually due to my being concentrated on something else.
Larks I find tend to be very impatient as a result :) Ooops.

Anonymous said...

Classic Dembinski - A very mature articulation of the delineated complexity of our consciousness and how we interact with the world and our interests. The overwhelming metaphysical is central to this complexity of condition as are the manifold idiosyncrasies of these conditions that turn base metal into gold. I don’t think we embrace the understanding of these things as infinitely as we should – tourettes, autism, RRBI.

Rare books, cult films, continual ticker-tape in the mind of lines from films, tv shows, posters, theatre bills, ephemera, places, residual memory that can play back pitch-perfect rewinds of incidents and conversations, moments in time, journeys, internal conversations in the head, sensitivities divine and dangerous, bibliography of the soul ........