Learning in the blink of an eye

Last time I posted about trying to analyze all my data: how frequent meltdowns occurred, how severe they were, possible triggers… and I often feel like I’m not so much navigating all these numbers but drowning in data.

And recently, I read a book about how that might be exactly how Logan feels.

In Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (which, by the way, I chose to read as a break from autism research … but it seems to find me no matter where I turn), there’s an anecdote about a man named Silvan Tomkins.  Tomkins could look at faces on the Most Wanted Posters from the FBI and know just from the mug shot what crimes the person had committed—because he could read faces so well.

Psychologist Paul Ekman decided that if Tomkins could read people that well, others could learn to, too.  He and his partner identified every single facial muscle and each movement those muscles could make; turns out, there are 43 different moves each of those muscles can make individually.   When facial muscles start moving in combination with each other, things get more complicated. “There are three hundred combinations of two muscles,” Gladwell quotes Ekman as saying.  “If you add in a third, you get over four thousand.”

Five muscles?  More than 10,000 different facial expressions.  Calculating how many facial expressions we could make using different combinations of all 43 muscles is definitely beyond my abilities.  And only about 3,000 convey any real meaning, anyway.

And these muscles make meaning.  The facial expression that, universally, people understand as happiness is made by contracting the muscles that raise the cheek in combination with the muscle that pulls the lips.  I can follow that.  It’s a fancy way of describing a smile.

Then Gladwell raises the stakes.  The expression of fear, he describes, is made by moving muscles “one, two, and four, or, more fully, one, two, four, five, and twenty, with or without action units twenty-five, twenty-six, or twenty-seven.  That is: the inner brow raiser (frontalis, pars medialis) plus the outer brow raiser (frontalis, pars lateralis) plus the brow-lowering depressor supercilii plus the risorius (which stretches the lips) plus the parting of the lips (depressor labii) plus the maseter (which drops the jaw).”

Did you follow that?  I can’t.  I can’t picture that face no matter how hard I try—and I certainly would never come to the conclusion that this must signal fear.

Is this what Logan’s brain is like?  Is he trying to constantly decode all of this information literally while the rest of us simply know without analyzing what faces say?  My god, I’d be tired if I went through that every time I looked into someone’s face.  And if I had to do all that, I’d be sidetracked from my instinctual knowledge.

As it turns out, Gladwell also address autism in his book.  He references a study that tracks eye movement and how people with autism do not focus on faces. And because of that, they miss social cues (duh, every parent of an autistic child is now saying).  They are, he says, “mind-blind.”

Theory has always been that people with autism simply didn’t care about emotions.  But another article I read recently suggests the opposite might be true: it might be functioning too well, working too hard to decode all possible inputs of information.  And when we work too hard at trying to break down data, our instinctual brain can’t take over—what Gladwell says is behind the “locked door” remains locked, hidden.

I don’t think Gladwell believes he is breaking new ground when he mentions facial avoidance; his point is rather that in high-stress situations, neurotypical people can become mind-blind and fail to read faces, too.  He writes about a team of policemen, as an example, involved in a chase who end up shooting an unarmed suspect – the “unimaginable stress,” he says, of believing you saw a gun could reasonably cause temporary autism, an inability to correctly read a suspect’s face.

If neurotypical people can become temporarily autistic and forget to rely on instincts, could people with autism learn to forget about decoding every bit of data?  If only there were a way to remove the stress of information overload for Logan when he looked at someone’s face.  I suppose we’ll find out if a combination of diet and therapy will do just that.

Now I know what a jicama is!

Now I know what a jicama is!

Jicama Hash Browns:

  •  1 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • 4 oz. diced meat (I used turkey)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups cubed jicama
  • Seasonings (1 tbsp each paprika, garlic powder; 2 tsps oregano; 1 tsp each pepper, onion powder, thyme; 1/2 tsp each sea salt, sage, cayenne)
  • Water

Cook coconut oil and onions in frying pan on medium-high heat for five minutes.  Add diced meat and garlic; cook for 3 minutes.  Drop in jicama and seasoning.  Cook for a total of 10 minutes, adding a tablespoon of water every couple of minutes or so and stirring to avoid burning.  

I served with sunny-side up eggs (or “goopy eggs, as my kids call them”).  As always, they didn’t love this new dish, but I thought it was fantastic.

Feeling: Frazzled.  But well fed.


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