Autism and Brain Timing: A Quantum Analogy
Article By: Robert DePaolo
Article Date: 02/20/2007
The child sits at a table, trying to work
a puzzle. His eyes are askew and his focus
tentative. His hands reach weakly and
awkwardly for a piece of the puzzle.
There is no synthesis, no conductor to
coordinate the instruments of eye and hand.
Then he begins to rock in his chair. He makes
a few sounds and his head sways from left to
right. A smile comes on his face, and then he
picks up the piece more firmly and
begins his work.
The brain researcher’s attempt to find a cause, or set of causes, for autism is reminiscent of the physicist’s quest for a Grand Unified Theory by which to describe in one law, the vast and complex operations of our universe. Both are faced with a duality; on one hand convinced that nature and mind function in a cause and effect manner,on the other, unable to explain their findings in that context.
The physicist’s problem is the quantum particle, surely the most stubborn of all forms of matter. Try to measure both its location and its path to a specific destination and it will fool you with a magic act. If you are able to pin point where it is now, you won’t be able to pin point where it will end up – and vice versa. Thus far, no one has ben able to solve this riddle, which the great physicist Werner Heisenberg called “The Uncertainty Principle.”
The particle’s mystery does not stop there. Try to split it in half and regather both halves in a way station and presto! It submits yet another magic act by reintegrating immediately and automatically – the one aspect of nature that apparently cannot be broken down further. Neither has anyone solved this puzzle, which has come to be known as “quantum weirdness.”
Physicists have come to realize that the traditional, cause-effect view of the world might not be quite accurate. Yet, being a persistent lot, they have not given up the chase. In fact the quantum conundrums have given rise to a new breed of thinkers who believe they can solve the problem. As a prelude to a new Grand Unified Theory, they propose that the cosmos is most fundamentally made up of super strings, a vast array of tiny vitrating loops that, even in the absence of densely packed matter. can convey influence by what amounts to a rhythmic orchestration process. In effect, they believe the universe is a kind of symphony, governed not by a random dispersion of matter but by a communication process encoded in the grammar of string vibrations.
Brain researchers seeking a cause of autism face a similar problem. Like the traditional physicist, they have thus far employed a cause and effect approach to studies on autism. Whether using electrodes, MRI and/or PET methods they have not been able to find the locus of autistic causation. What they have found is vague, inconsistent and often contraidctory. Some studies point to the frontal cortex as the culprit – sounds good, since this is ostensibly the site of judgement, self awareness and planning ability. Yet other studies do not support this. Some even show abnormalities in this area for subjects who are not autistic. Similar results have emenated from research on other brain sites, with no closure or correlation between brain deficiency and autistic symptomatology.
The one common finding garnered through research is that many autistic individuals appear to have cellular immaturity (hypoplasia) in an ancient brain site known as the cerebellum. This was originally thought to be a motor control circuit but has recently been discovered to provide timing, estimation, computational functions, which it disperses all around the brain, including in areas devoted to language and cognition. This finding is changing the way neuro-scientists look at the brain. It would appear brain researchers have, by analogy, found their quantum.
Taking string theory to it logical endpoint requires considering the possibility that there is more than one universe. Can a comparison be made between that and brain function? While we can only fit one brain inside the human skull case, we can, in light of Information Theory, presume there are at least two separate processes responsible for the operations of the brain. In fact, all systems of information – particularly complex systems require that. With respect to the brain, there must be not only neuro-chemical interactions but an orchestration function that can oversee the entire process, and provide timing functions so as to inhibit, excite, pool together and exclude in groupings, the overall activity in the brain, especially since with new learning, the brain tends to first become globally aroused during any given activity before whittling down its options in the response selection process.
That pertains to autism. If its neurological roots can’t be found in local, deficient brain sites, and if the symptoms associated ith autism can all be considered compensatory attempts to self-create a timing mechanism that is inherently faulty, then is becomes possible to develop a unified understanding of the disorder by focusing on on a timing/ compting deficiency.
What might that mechanism be? One intruiging possibility comes from the work of renowned neurobiologist Karl Pribram, who, a few decades ago, suggested that a slow potential microstructure – an arrangement of fibers hooked up to various brain sites in a cross-grid manner, and with no specific function or connective purpose provides wave function computations of what is going on in the brain as a whole.
This idea has both appeal and a drawback. The drawback is that one cannot assess this structure other than by an analysis of wave frequencies, and how they correspond to the timing and inhibtion-excitation processes in the brain. Its appeal lies in the fact that if one could come to understand its patterns, codes or mathematical algorithms, these might be duplicated and introduced from without,thereby creating a more effective version of handflapping, finger play, and other rhythm-enhancing activities to enhance the learning and attention capacities of the autistic child.