NARRATIVE AS DEFENCE AGAINST DISORDER
The human mind occupies a unique status in nature, able to contemplate
the eternal and the absolute, and yet bound within a mortal animal
and a mutable world. This juxtaposition of mental and physical existence
creates a tension fundamental to human psychic development which
Becker  has labelled 'the denial of death.' As Becker describes,
this denial can be more generally construed as an aversion to direct
experience of disorder and impermanence - the death of the self
being an ultimate, personal manifestation of this universal tendency.
Psychic life requires the construction of defences against this
disorder, albeit temporary and in a sense ultimately futile ones.
Both the implicit, mental narrative that implements human perception
and cognition and the explicit, written narrative of literature
can be read as the mechanism of this defence. A fear of death drives
us to become narrators, to transform the disconnected chaos of our
sensorium into representative mental texts whose distinct scenes
contain recognisable characters that act in coherent plots. This
capacity to project the concrete and intractable complexity of direct
experience onto abstract and predictable scripts is fundamental
to human cognition: in this sense there is no thought without narrative,
and in fact a strong argument has been made for the genesis of language
as an externalised representation of the narrative structure of
human thought [Turner 1996]. As long as we're able to keep up this
substitution of perceptual representation for sensory referent,
cognition is maintained and death is forestalled.
This narrative denial of death, though, produces its own reactive
fear which may be described as a denial of life. In projecting particular
elements of sensory experience onto mental representations, the
process of narrative inevitably discards many more elements for
which no projection can be formed. Thus in constructing abstract
or global meaning, the process of narrative destroys (or rather
excludes from higher-order representation) concrete or local detail.
Which details are so elided depends on the narrative frame onto
which experience is being projected, and the authorial decision
as to what frame to apply thus carries life-or-death responsibility.
This responsibility is a heavy burden, and in order to avoid bearing
it humans look to parents, deities, ideologies, or other externalised
authorities. In short, we seek escape from the status of being a
narrator into that of being narrated. In Freud's Oedipal frame,
we want to displace the father who dictates narrative order but
at the same time to be dominated by the mother who protects us from
unnarrated chaos. Or as Szasz (1961: 179) frames this conflict,
`man's [sic] need for rules and his propensity to follow them is
[sic] equaled only by his burning ambition to be free of rules.'
Others too have induced that the human tendency to ritualised behaviour
is a manifestation of the desire to be protected by rules [Werner
1948; Bettelheim 1967: 83], and from this perspective it can be
discerned that ritual operates to relieve not just the pathological
anxieties of psychiatric conditions but also the everyday anxieties
of healthy human living.
These construals in terms of the denial of death (Becker), the
Oedipal conflict (Freud), rule-following (Szasz), and the narrative
nature of human thought (Turner) all are statements of the same
observation, and rather than arguing over which terms should be
treated as primary we may do well, for the moment, to accept that
all these formalisms are theoretical projections of one and the
same phenomenon of narrative organisation - an activity that simultaneously
permits and limits cognitive life. In neuropsychological terms,
narrative organisation is implemented by interacting and not entirely
separable processes of perceptual organisation, attention, and memory.
Perceptual organisation is that process which binds separate stimuli
into coherent higher-order objects, replacing, for example, a horizontal
plane and four perpendicular posts with the single entity of a table.
Attention, a group of many subprocesses, focuses processing on those
parts of a scene judged relevant to the current script or story.
And memory, by holding in mind the higher-order representations
of what one has seen before and what one expects to see next, informs
attention and perceptual organisation with the context of this story.
It is only after treatment by these processes of cognitive organisation
that conscious perception is attained. This distance between sensory
input and narrative consciousness is the root of Proust's insight
that events are most real not when they are experienced, but when
they are remembered or imagined.
The tension between self and environment that gives rise to narrative
structure, scripts, and rituals is particularly close to the surface
of the psyche during the early years of human development, and indeed
children's rituals bear great similarity to behaviours which in
older individuals would qualify as pathologically obsessive-compulsive
[Evans 2000]. Lacking as yet a large and flexible repertoire of
scripts onto which phenomena can be projected, and lacking efficient
cognitive mechanisms with which to implement such projections, children
attempt the converse solution to the problem of psychic life: they
try, through ritualised behaviour, to constrain experience to fit
their limited repertoire of scripts. A clue to this origin of such
rituals as a consequence of the denial of death (or more generally
as a consequence of narrative organisation) can be glimpsed in the
trait-based correlation of normally developing children's fear of
death with their repetitive behaviours and compulsive arrangement
of objects [Evans et al. 1999]. A crucial corrollary for autism
research is that repetitive behaviours, despite their diagnostic
validity, are aetiologically not a primary symptom and should not
be studied as though they were. They are, rather, an adaptive strategy
aimed at rendering the environment tractable enough to be modelled
by a pathologically restricted process of narrative organisation.
AUTISM AS A PHYSIOLOGICAL IMPAIRMENT OF NARRATIVE
In addition to their role in normal child development, ritualistic
and compulsive behaviours are one of the three broad diagnostic
symptoms of autism. This similarity between autistic and normal
development becomes comprehensible in light of recent evidence that
autistic neurophysiology may impair the processes subserving narrative
organisation. Autism's other two diagnostic symptoms, impairment
in communication and impairment in social interaction, can be even
more immediately construed as consequences of disrupted narrative.
To understand this relationship between autistic behaviour and narrative
disruption, we need to know something about autism's abnormal neurobiology,
and about the abnormal psychology that develops around it.
Rather than a single mutated gene or a single abnormal region of
the brain, recent theoretical syntheses of the neurobiology of autism
have focused on abnormalities in the ways in which many genes interact
to produce abnormal neural connectivity within and between many
brain regions [Belmonte et al. 2004a, 2004b; Courchesne & Pierce
2005]. A synergy of genetic and environmental factors may produce
either abnormally strong or abnormally weak connections within local
groups of neurones, sabotaging a network's ability to represent
information. In the case of abnormally weak connectivity, incoming
signals do not activate the network. In the case of abnormally strong
connectivity, the entire network activates in response to input
noise within which the signal is lost. The former case is analogous
to that of a blackboard that cannot be written on, the latter to
that of a blackboard that turns completely white at the first touch
of the chalk. Either situation impoverishes representational capacity
within local networks, and may prevent long-range transfer of information
between networks [Belmonte et al. 2004a]. The end result would be
a collection of brain regions each of which may be more or less
intact when considered by itself but in which regional activities
are not coordinated or modulated in response to cognitive demands.
This pattern is, in fact, exactly what is observed in neurophysiological
studies of autism [Belmonte & Yurgelun-Todd 2003].
This deficit at the network level impairs the associative processes
essential to narrative thought, those that automatically and fluidly
extract structural similarities and draw attention to those features
most relevant to the scene and the story. Since there is no neuroanatomical
'Cartesian theatre' wherein all the separate elements of the perceptual
scene are integrated, narrative organisation must depend on coordination
of activity amongst widely separated brain regions [Tononi et al.
1992] - exactly the capacity that seems impaired in autism. Narrative
connectivity therefore depends on corresponding functional connectivity
between all the brain regions and subsystems that participate in
perceptual and cognitive experience, and disrupted neural organisation
implies disrupted narrative organisation. Autism's characteristic
pattern of impairment in cognitive tasks that demand contextual
processing and superiority at tasks that demand piecemeal processing
of individual features has been described as 'weak central coherence'
[Frith 1989; Happé 1996], that is, an abnormally weak tendency
to bind local details into global percepts. An ostensibly competing
neuropsychological theory of autism is that of executive dysfunction
[Ozonoff et al. 1991; Pennington et al. 1997; Russell 1997], an
impairment in coordinating and sequencing cognitive activities.
The idea of impaired neural connectivity and disrupted narrative
organisation reveals weak central coherence and executive dysfunction
as two sides of the same coin, describing the impacts of narrative
disruption on perception and on action, respectively.
When narrative is so disrupted, what fallback cognitive strategies
can be substituted as ways of finding learnable associations in
one's environment? One possible understudy for narrative organisation
is the simpler sort of associative learning that underlies behavioural
conditioning. Indeed, a learning style founded on statistical association
rather than on instructive focus on relevant stimuli well describes
autistic cognition and behaviour [Belmonte & Baron-Cohen 2004],
in which both essential and incidental correlations amongst perceptual
inputs are learnt equally strongly. Others have noted that ritualised
behaviour is associated with an excessively perceptual (rather than
conceptual) style of interaction with one's environment [Evans 2000]
- another indication of poor narrative organisation.
Although autism is not the only neuropsychiatric disorder featuring
repetitive and ritualistic behaviour, autistic rituals and preoccupations
are distinguished by their frequent focus on mechanical or other
deterministic systems [Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright 1999]. This
cognitive style in which mechanistic details are elaborated into
complex preoccupations contrasts with schizophrenia, in which preoccupations
are most often founded on social stimuli such as gaze or voice.
Schizophrenic ritual is centred on elaborate beliefs about other
minds that conspire against one, whereas autistic ritual centres
on elaborate beliefs about impersonal systems. Schizophrenic ritual
is mentalism run amok, whereas autism is mechanistic explanation
run amok [Badcock 2003]. Or, if in Werner's  terms schizophrenia
is an animistic de-differentiation of self and other, autism is
if anything a solipsistic hyper-differentiation of self and other
[Belmonte in press]: precisely because the narrative defence against
sensory chaos is so impaired in autism, people with autism are unusually
sensitive to the problem of constructing this defence, and their
solutions to this problem tend to be more deliberate and explicit
than those implemented by the rest of us.
In understanding the role of ritual in the autistic defence against
disorder, we find useful the metaphor of film [Belmonte in press].
Imagine that your life is a film, being screened in some Cartesian
cinema (a metaphorical one, to be sure, since no such Cartesian
representation exists neuroanatomically). The trouble is that this
film is being screened by an incompetent projectionist. Perhaps
the aperture is wrong, so that you can see only a small corner of
the image at a time, or perhaps the sound track is absent, or distorted,
or out of synchrony with the picture. In any case, you can glean
only disconnected fragments. Everyone around you is talking about
this film, and you'd very much like to understand it. So you ask
the projectionist to rewind the film and to play it again and again.
Keeping this one film in the Cartesian projector serves two purposes:
it allows you to build an understanding of the story by picking
up new fragments each time the film is screened, and, perhaps even
more importantly, by monopolising the projector it prevents any
new, unpredictable and incomprehensible film from being screened.
When people with autism replay films in the Cartesian cinema, we
say that they are engaging in repetitive or ritualistic behaviours.
We have seen how repetitive and ritualised behaviour in autism
can be understood as an adaptive response secondary to a neurobiologically
based impairment in narrative organisation. Szasz  contended
that all abnormal behaviours are best understood in this way, as
rational responses to abnormal experience. Szasz took as his example
the case of hysteria, a socially constructed disorder which was
not supposed to have any concrete and definite biological foundations.
However, his reframing of abnormal behaviour as a product of rationality
applies equally to disorders involving psychological response to
abnormal neurobiology. Szasz [1961: 11] wrote that 'The sociohistorical
context of the learning experience must not be confused with the
history of the subject.' This insight can be extended: the perceptual
and cognitive context of the learning experience must not be confused
with the (rest of) the history of the subject. This realisation
is crucial to understanding the abnormal psychology of autism, and
of developmental disorders in general: much of autism's abnormal
psychology arises not directly from abnormal neurobiology but rather
in the interaction of a normal human mind with an abnormal perceptual
and cognitive environment. Such psycho-biological interactions can
produce developmental outcomes as deterministic as those produced
by direct biological causation. Thus autism's core symptoms of repetitive
and ritualised behaviours, impaired communication, and impaired
socialisation, though diagnostically valid, clinically significant,
and psychologically informative, are unlikely to be aetiologically
primary [Belmonte 2004b].
Ironically and tragically, this psychological nature of certain
aspects of autistic development was touched on by the person whose
work did the most damage to autism research and to autism families:
Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim's  utterly false description
of autistic social withdrawal as a reaction to the mother's rejection
of her infant was responsible for a generation of suffering during
which medical authority focused blame on parents for supposedly
causing their children's autism. As with so many arguments within
the autism research community, Bettelheim's error lay in setting
his own theory and opposing theories against each other, instead
of seeking synthesis. Bettelheim actually was correct in characterising
autistic withdrawal as a consequence of rejection, but wrong in
assuming that this rejection was a social phenomenon originating
with the parent. Combining part of Bettelheim's autistic psychology
with what we now know about autistic neurobiology reveals autistic
withdrawal as a response to rejection by one's own internal cognitive
and perceptual environment, an environment whose limited capacity
for narrative modelling often cannot encompass the complex and not
concretely scripted phenomena of social interaction.
Social interaction depends on the ability rapidly to update and
to apply one's mental representations of others' beliefs and intentions,
to place oneself within the context of a developing social story.
This capacity is known as 'theory of mind.' Although impairment
in theory-of-mind has been read as a cardinal or even a primary
cognitive symptom of autism [Baron-Cohen et al. 1985], the framework
of narrative organisation supplies a deeper interpretation, one
that more effectively unifies autism's social and non-social abnormalities.
In this view, impaired theory-of-mind (or, as it has been more recently
and more generally construed, impaired empathising [Baron-Cohen
2002]) is but one of many specific abnormalities that arise from
a general disruption of narrative organisation (or, in alternate
terms, executive function [Russell 1997]), and stands out as an
especial deficit only because it is so frequently applied during
normal social interaction.
As for the autistic impairment in communication, although the relationship
between communication and narrative may seem trivial there is some
complexity to be explored because of the great variability in autistic
communicative impairment. At one extreme is the person with high-functioning
autism or Asperger syndrome, in whom the mechanics of vocabulary
and syntax are intact (and often superior) but the pragmatic application
of language is impaired [Bishop & Baird 2001], and at the other
extreme is the person with low-functioning autism who may entirely
lack the ability to speak. Pragmatic language, like social interaction,
depends on rapidly updating mental models and translating those
models into external speech. Although the vocabulary and syntax
are scripted and static, the pragmatic application of these capacities
can overwhelm a pathologically limited mechanism of narrative organisation,
leaving the person with autism to fall back into a strategy of cobbling
together rote phrases. Pragmatic language impairment in high-functioning
autism thus can be explained straightforwardly as a consequence
of disrupted narrative organisation. The low-functioning case of
impaired speech production seems, on the face of it, a more difficult
nut to crack. Speech articulation demands complex and rapid translation
of sequences of words into sequences of movements of the vocal tract.
Though long ignored in favour of autism's more socially debilitating,
cognitive symptoms, motor impairment seems a general feature of
autism and is perhaps its earliest behavioural sign in the developing
infant [Teitelbaum et al. 1998]. The sequencing of movements shares
structure with the sequencing of words and concepts, and thus motor
function can be viewed computationally as a narrative activity.
In responding psychologically to the constraints of abnormal neurobiology,
the developing autistic mind makes virtue of necessity. Social interactions
are difficult, so the child replaces them with self-directed activities
such as 'parallel play,' in which (s)he stands at the edge of a
group and mimics its activities without engaging in its social give-and-take.
Pragmatic communication is difficult, so the child replaces it with
rote phrases and with self-directed discourses on topics that (s)he
knows well. Unscripted phenomena are difficult, so the child replaces
them with ritual. In general, the cognitive capacities that remain
intact are developmentally redirected towards non-social (and therefore
more easily scriptable) phenomena [Gerrans 1998], rather than being
applied in a narratively coordinated and flexible manner. People
with cases of high-functioning autism, Asperger syndrome, and the
Broader Autism Phenotype which occurs in many autism families [Piven
et al. 1997] are of particular interest in this regard because,
although their impairment in the narrative organisation of experience
requires them to work harder at defending against perceptual disorder,
their intact language skills allow them in the end to succeed in
rendering such defences explicit. This abnormally effortful, abnormally
intense, and abnormally deliberate process of narrative organisation
can produce abnormally deep insights, as exemplified in the developing
genre of autistic memoir. The narrator who is more conscious of
the effort of narration can, almost paradoxically, in the end achieve
a deeper understanding of the characters and events around him or
her precisely because (s)he is so impaired at automatic social perception
and must concentrate harder to construct a theory of reality, to
piece it together from perceptual fragments. (A case in point is
the work of Sean Barron , who writes retrospectively and introspectively
about his mental life before he developed speech.) In this regard,
people with autism can be described as "human, but more so"--
they are confronted by the same fundamental problem of organising
perceptual experience into coherent stories that confronts all of
us, but must overcome greater fragmentation of perceptual and cognitive
experience in order to solve this problem.
This description of autistic cognition as "human, but more
so" may seem contradictory to Grandin's  view of autistic
cognition as similar to animal cognition - in a way "human,
but less so." The contradiction evaporates when one examines
the specific comparisons on which these ideas are based: Grandin's
view takes its impetus from the piecemeal and fragmented nature
of autistic perception and cognition, an absence of narrative order
which she argues is part of what distinguishes human cognition from
animal cognition. It is precisely this narrative disruption that
elicits an abnormally deliberate effort to construct reality. Thus
although absence of narrative organisation may seem to make people
with autism neurobiologically "human, but less so," the
deliberate ordering strategies and the consciousness of representation
that are evoked by this absence make people with autism neuropsychologically
"human, but more so."
Support for this concept of autism as in some sense an exaggerated
state of humanity comes from psychometric findings of autistic traits
within the normal population. Autistic social traits are in fact
continuously distributed within the normal population [Constantino
et al. 2005], making the exact point of discrimination between normal
and autism-spectrum behaviour somewhat arbitrary. (This is not to
diminish the validity of autism spectrum conditions as a diagnostic
category; it is, rather, only to state that the exact, quantitative
boundary of the diagnosis is open to some interpretation.) Especially
at the ages of 2 through 4 years, normal children often manifest
repetitive behaviours, sensory preoccupations, and particular sensitivity
to environmental change [Evans et al. 1997]. They are upset when
their routines are disrupted or when their environments are rearranged
- behaviours common in kind albeit not in degree to autism (and
to other neuropsychiatric disorders with obsessive-compulsive features).
The very fact that such sensitivities are overlooked as normal childish
behaviour says a great deal about the psychological continuity between
some aspects of normal child development and disordered development.
Indeed, the developmental timing with which such behaviours resolve
in normal children correlates strongly with the development of frontal
white matter and the refinement of synaptic connectivity [Gogtay
et al. 2004], neurobiological hardware essential to theory-of-mind
[Giedd 2003] and to mature narrative organisation in general. Further
support for this relationship between autism and normality arises
from the observation that compulsive-like behaviours in normal children
correlate positively with performance on measures of perceptual
coherence such as the Embedded Figures Task [Evans et al. 2001],
at which people with autism are superior, and negatively with measures
of executive function [Evans et al. 2004], at which people with
autism are impaired. Even in adults, the content of culturally normative
rituals resembles that of childhood rituals, suggesting that all
such behaviours may be manifestations, pathological or not, of a
human disposition to perform socially meaningful rituals [Fiske
& Haslam 1997] - a disposition which in autism is redirected
away from social phenomena [Gerrans 1998].
Such comparisons between autistic and normal behaviour raise the
possibility that a liability to autism may be inevitable in a species
whose brain is complex enough to implement narrative organisation.
In contexts in which attention to detail rather than to theme confers
cognitive advantages, people with autism-spectrum conditions and
people with the Broader Autism Phenotype tend to excel [Belmonte
et al. 2004b], suggesting that pseudo-autistic qualities in moderate
measure may be adaptive. It is hardly surprising, given autism's
cognitive profile, that first-degree relatives of people with autism
are over-represented in engineering occupations [Baron-Cohen et
al. 1997] (and, conversely, the incidence of autism is heightened
in family members of engineers, mathematicians, and physicists [Baron-Cohen
et al. 1998]). The genetic influence on autism is multifactorial,
arising not from any single gene but rather from interactions amongst
a large number of genes [Veenstra-VanderWeele et al. 2004] whose
point of convergence may consist in their effect on neural connectivity
[Belmonte et al. 2004b]. This multifactorial convergence could not
but produce within the population a continuous distribution of abnormal
neural connectivity, and therefore a continuous distribution of
narrative organisation. From a genetic perspective as well as from
behavioural and neurophysiological perspectives, autism seems an
extreme case of normality.
AUTISM AND SELF-CONSCIOUS NARRATIVE
If we accept, as argued above, that autism is an exaggeration of
humanity, and if we accept that human thought is essentially a narrative
activity [Turner 1996], then literature ought to contain reflections
of autistic thinking. Indeed, the externalisation of thought into
text is a particularly deliberate and self-conscious case of narrative,
and therefore ought to have in common with autism an attention to
ritual and an awareness of its role as a defence against disorder.
This is, of course, all true. The examples are too many to enumerate,
but it may suffice here to cite some representative cases. In the
Judeo-Christian creation myth, the first action of Adam and Eve
after eating from the Tree of Knowledge is to clothe themselves
against the impermanence of flesh, a move that can be read as a
metaphor for narrative defence against disorder. In the Anglo-Saxon
poem 'The Battle of Maldon,' Englishmen are celebrated as dying
in a necessary but ultimately futile defence against the Viking
personification of disorder, fighting for not only for their physical
lives but also, metaphorically, for their psychic lives (and ultimately
for their culture and their very language). In Woolf's To the
Lighthouse, artistic representation functions as a defence against
the war, weather, and decay that rage just outside. In Pynchon's
Gravity's Rainbow, arbitrary boundaries signified by race,
geography, clothing, mathematics, and script or predestination seem
all that stand between life and chaos. The same desperation for
narrative order that drives autistic psychological development also
drives the creation of literature.
In autism, when failures of neural connectivity impede narrative
linkage, when each element of a scene or a story exists in isolation,
the surrounding world can seem threateningly intractable. Autistic
withdrawal into repetitive behaviours and scripted interactions
can be read as an effort to gain control over such arbitrariness
and unpredictability. In this regard, people with autism differ
from other human beings only in the degree of concreteness with
which this problem of control is approached: the tension between
our mortal nature and our capacity to contemplate the eternal makes
us desperate to impute narrative order and authorial intent in a
universe where there may be only chaos and arbitrariness, and is
what drives us as artists and scientists to construct themes within
which our observations and experiences can be represented, and therefore
realised. In this regard, people with autism can be described as
"human, but more so" - for we all are driven by the same
desperation to control or at least to predict what is going to happen
to us, to keep chaos, entropy, and death at bay. The study of autism
has much to tell us about theories of normal neural and psychological
development, and about the nature of human cognition and literary
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