Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Autism - what lies beneath

I first heard about autism in a computer science class, Computer Processing of Pictorial Information, that I took at UMD. It's true that the professor, Yiannis Aloimonos, was quite unconventional and was telling us lots of stories about human and computer vision, and left us to decipher the equations used there by ourselves. One of his main ideas was that in order to make progress in computer vision was to understand as much as possible how the human brain processes the visual stimulus that results in human vision. But apart from recommending us books on human vision research he told us about a book of a different kind: clinical tales of a neurologist (The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat). In this book Oliver Sacks describes various cases of conditions or accidents that lead to an abnormal functioning of the brain and how people cope in these situations. One of the chapters in this book is about autism. This is a born condition that affects some children and which impairs social interaction and communication (a less severe form is the Asperger syndrome). But a good number of these people show some remarkable abilities: superior skills in perception (e.g. the ability to draw very accurate texture details), attention and computing (e.g. the ability to tell in an instant is a fairly big number is prime or not). This lead to a theory that somehow there is a trade-off in our brain: the computing power there is sufficient to be able to do instant computation of prime numbers but most of the time is shut down and the brain is wired for things much more useful to us like the ability to communicate and interact socially with other people.
Now I'm sure you'll have a different view on some piece of news like this one: A twelve year old rewrites Einstein's theory of relativity.

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