Athena / Asperger female archetype?

A comment: the appropriation of Athena as a “cartoon figure” in contemporary feminist fantasies is not what interests me.

Ivory carving; Richard Cockle Lucas, 1847 

The Unreachable Beloved; How can Athena remain as the prime emotion?

Seyed Eissa Hashemia *, Maryam Tahmasebi a a Center for Peace & Environment,  Tehran Iran

Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 30 (2011) 1091 – 1095
Available online at

This article presents a conceptual discourse based on archetypal Jungian psychology and discusses the emotional features of Athena archetype. Since the Athena type has been defined as one lacking emotions and as a perfectionist, the main issue about this archetype is how could emotions and failures be illustrated and explained in the Athena life span? In order to answer this question, this paper uses several practical counselling experiences and the author’s sessions with volunteer cases. While providing a quick review of the principles and characteristics of Athena types, this paper will investigate the emotional stages in Athena’s life. Finally, this review will study the shadow aspects of this archetype and discuss the apparent facets of the Athena type. In this work we clearly demonstrate what is considered to be analytical psychology rather than a critical judgment or lavish naming. (Thank-you!) In other words, the Athena type has a golden balance in life and this paper does not consider the conscious and best behavior of this type, but in fact, we discuss the shadow features and unconscious behavior of this archetype.

1. Introduction

This analytical paper is based on Jungian psychology as part of deep psychology. In other words, the concepts provided are based upon classical Greek mythology and the collective unconscious as described by C. G. Jung (Jung, 1971). “Jean Shinoda Bolen” is one of the renowned Jungians who provided a profound description of the meaning of deep psychology. She introduced Gods and Goddesses as psychological patterns and symbolic figures, a powerful concept that could strike a spiritual chord in many observers. Women and men who were drawn to particular mythological God(s) and Goddess (es) found that this archetype affected their dream life or waking imagination. Gods and Goddesses sometimes appeared in these dreams as numinous or awesome and mysterious figures. It allowed both women and men to invest and portray personal symbols and sacred objects with archetypal meaning and beauty (Bolen, 1984). This paper aims to discuss certain personality aspects of a Goddess named Athena. Athena was the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and Crafts, known to the Romans as Minerva. Like her sister Artemis (another Greek Goddess), Athena appeared as a virgin Goddess, committed to chastity and celibacy. She was the majestic, beautiful warrior Goddess, protector of her preferred heroes. She was the only Olympian Goddess portrayed wearing armour, the visor of her helmet pushed back to reveal her beauty, a shield over her arm, and a spear in her hand (Hamilton, 1942). (In my view, the “virgin goddess” in mythology is misunderstood as “man-hating”, but this is a seriously flawed interpretation by modern social humans. Virgin goddesses are outside male domination – complete personalities and sentient beings as proper to the place of the female in nature; her character and independence are valued. In modern social environments, females are defined by the dominant male hierarchy as “suppliers” of male needs; sex, reproduction, household labor.) 

As Goddess of Wisdom, Athena was known for her captivating and practical solutions. As an archetype, Athena is the pattern followed by logical women, who are ruled by their minds rather than their hearts. When a woman recognizes the keen way her mind works as a feminine quality related to Athena, she can develop a positive image of herself, instead of fearing that she is manly. (Every psychologist who claims that Asperger women have ‘male brains’ ought to accept the truth; it’s just not true – this conceit is a slander on all females. ) She was most noted for her skills as a weaver, in which hands and mind must work in harmony. As the archetype of ―the father’s daughter, Athena represents the woman who has a quite natural tendency toward powerful men who have authority, responsibility, and powerful men who fit the archetype of the patriarchal father (Bolen, 2004). (A bit overstated; “logical women” may find self-confident males attractive, regardless of social status in the patriarchy)

In a woman who has a strongly activated Athena archetype, there is a natural tendency to do everything in moderation, to live within ―the Golden Mean, which was the Athenian ideal. Extremes are usually the result of intense feelings or needs, or of a fervent, virtuous, fearful, or greedy nature all of which are antithetical to rational Athena. The Golden Mean is also supported by the Athenian tendency to monitor events, note effects, and change a course of action as soon as it appears fruitless (Bolen, 2004).

After defining the Athena archetype and a description about Athena’s characteristics as portrayed in the human psyches, it is necessary to define two important views of each archetype, which can be denoted as an archetype’s rationality. The actions of each archetype could be defined either as an intrinsic act which can be called the ―mature Athena, or it could be termed the ―mask of Athena, in which the acts may be completely identical to intrinsic ones; however the intention may be totally different. That exemplifies what, in Jungian psychology, is termed as the divisions between Ego and Persona (Jung, 1952). In this paper we will focus on emotional reactions of Athena in ego (intrinsic) levels and persona (mask) ones. Since these facets of Athena focus on emotional behaviours, we are going to answer what would enable Athena to become ―The Unreachable Beloved. In the following, initially we will discuss certain characteristics of Athena in emotional behaviors, in two separate sections. One section will deal with being unreachable and the other being beloved. Moreover, we will focus on ego and persona roles. Finally, we will conclude with some solutions and suggestions.

2. The unpredictable variable; What is Athena’s reaction in emotional facets?

Athena is a feminine archetype: she shows that thinking well, keeping one’s head in the heat of an emotional situation, and developing good tactics for conflict resolution in the midst of conflict, are natural traits for some women. Such a woman is being like Athena, not acting ―like a man (Thank-you!)  Her masculine aspect, or animus, is not doing the thinking for her—she is thinking clearly and well for herself (Bolen, 1984). That is, Athena always has a plan for everything. She manages all the programs and presents the best solutions for any practical problem. As a result, we would understand that Athena should have an independent personality (The Virgin Goddess) and in this type of life of which all variables are definable, predictable and controllable, the worst nightmare is an unpredicted variable which could suddenly change every facet of life. x

For instance, imagine a student who needs Athena to help her to prosper in the attainment of knowledge. She allocates her time comprehensively to her education. She has no time for anything out of her studies. All variables of life are under her control, even her health and her recreational times. Suddenly, she meets her ideal man and she feels she is falling in love. In this critical time, in which the golden future is waiting for her, something is going to change her life. The best example of such variables is love and emotions. Indeed, at the first sight, love and emotional feelings act like a giant hurricane approaching our beautiful, calm and reliable castle. In the mentioned example, the castle is her study phase of life and the hurricane is meeting with the ideal man. For Athena, entering the land of emotions is an unforgivable and intolerable fault. In order to prevent such mistakes, Athena will define strict and rigid borders around her castle, demonstrating her unawareness. That is what we term inflexibility and rigidity in emotions. As a result, in this type of behaviour, Athena remains unreachable.

2.1. Fear of dependency or common sense borders; What are differences among ego and persona?

One important reason why Athena remains unreachable lies on the degree of awareness concerning each archetype. If the Athena type appears in a high level of awareness and acts intrinsically in certain situations, the result would be the Golden Mean; the best decisions at the best time. In other words, she will settle confident borders between feelings and practical situations. Besides, she will refrain to make impulsive reactions and will focus on the consequence of each condition. However, Athena and none of the symbolic archetypes could ever be completely realized in human beings. Consequently, people will unconsciously choose mostly Athena as a persona for their life. This is the basis of a concept which is termed the ―Shadow Effect. The question thus arises that why do some people choose Athena as their mask, while they are getting close to emotions? In order to answer this question we should find the shadow archetype of Athena in the Greek Gods. Poseidon, the God of Waters and Emotions could help us in this regard. One of the most important consequences of falling in love is dependency. When you are dependant, every moment of your life relies on the existence of someone else. (Horrors!) You will always have the fear of losing your beloved, all days and nights. (I would add a different consequence; the other person as an obstacle to action: to timing of action; a restriction on intuitive action, out of caring for the other person) As a result, life will be difficult, due to anxiety and fear of losing someone else. Based on counselling experiences of Yalom (2000) for some people, in order to remain independent and keep everything under their control, it becomes necessary to avoid getting close to emotions. That is termed ―Fear of Dependency in the shadow process. Consequently, the best archetype for answering such needs is Athena with her rigid reactions in feelings (Yalom, 2002).

2.2 Seeking for Greener Gardens; Will Athena ever find the ideal Green Garden?

Another reason why Athena remains unreachable is her tendency to anticipate and await the perfect Green Garden, which is the embodiment of ideal conditions or happiness. (You betcha!) The irrational Athena whose persona may appear in the role of Athena, can never stop anticipating and expecting the perfect gardens. One reason might be that she does not know what to do when she ultimately finds the green garden. We can imagine this condition, since in certain circumstances when we have other priorities; we consistently delay our entrance to the Green Garden. For instance, imagine a person, who has dedicated her time for work, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. We could describe her as a workaholic. Obviously, it may be rational to allocate ones time in order to gain experience, prosperity and financial gains. However, the important point for some people in this situation is that they equate the leisure of life and spending time without any particular thing to do, with being lazy, sluggish and useless. (Not my problem; I’m the opposite, having sacrificed “social goals” of career and status to my “garden quest” and to maximizing free time as “the best” time.) Consequently, these people will never make time for enjoying their life or they will never have free time, because if they do so, they may judge themselves as lazy, sluggish, irresponsible and useless persons.

In fact, this could happen in emotional aspects too. In such people’s minds, emotional persons are judged and labelled to be weak, sissy and cowardly; hence they will attempt to distance themselves from their emotions. In addition, before getting angry (an example for emotional anxiety) they will make a logical analysis and completely repress their anger. (Not necessarily: it’s taken a lifetime of work to pre-empt instantaneous expressions of anger-frustration) Moreover, in some cases, in romantic relations, the irrational Athena may lacerate the lover’s emotions by her symbolic spear. (Bolen, 1988) This is what is known as ―closing your heart on emotions. That was another reason why the unaware Athena becomes unreachable. On the contrary, the rational Athena can delineate and distinguish between her brain and heart. She could make a decision to listen either to her heart or mind. (Or both, and to chose action that reflects these variables) This is what is called the Golden Mean. It is necessary to mention that being rude or making the lover disappointed is not bad for Athena, since she needs to protect her ―castle. In this discourse we are focusing on the redundancy of rudeness and hurting people. (Asperger types are judged to be rude…honesty, and consideration for the eventual cost of dishonesty, is considered to be socially inconsiderate.)

3. A companion or a lover, which one will Athena choose to live with?

The Athena woman gravitates toward successful men. She is attracted to power, either seeking it herself, often with the help of a successful older male mentor (this is an obvious strategy in a male-dominated system) or more traditionally, as a companion, wife, executive secretary, or ally. For Athena women (as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted), ―power is the best aphrodisiac. (Bolen, 2004) This is one side of the story. What is seen on the other side is the masculine view of Athena. The question is what would men see in a relationship with Athena? (Too often, a competitor rather than a partner) A perfectionist woman, a collector of golden medals, a strategist warrior and the best of bests, is usually what men will see from Athena. (So unrealistic! The “perfect statue” expectation is ridiculous, confining and destructive to relationships) Regardless of the intentions behind their tendencies, whether being the need to have Athena for projecting their personal deficiencies, or the need for romantic and sexual relationships, Athena types are mostly in the centre of attention and attraction for certain types of men. That is why we named her ―The Unreachable Beloved.

3.1. The powerful man or the wanderer; who would be attracted to Athena?

Before approaching the conclusion, it is necessary to answer to the following question: Which type of men will be attracted to Athena? In order to answer this question we should take a closer look at the attractive characteristics of Athena. When we fall in love, we will find what we did not have in our pocket (Johnson, 2008). The armoured Goddess who conceals her beauty under the shield, the strategist who can think, analyze and decide like a man is perfect for those men who have decision making problems; whether they are empowered, like the boss man or powerless. Therefore, men who are seeking for independent and responsible women will be attracted to Athena. Moreover, the perfect woman, the ―Father’s Daughter, the wise craft woman, will be expected by most men, to have strong feelings and be emotional. However, in practice they might find a completely different story (Bolen, 1988).

4. Conclusion

The conclusion section contains two parts: three revisiting points and some suggestions for Athena possessed types. The important concept of Jungian psychology is that when one realizes ones ―personal journey and the significant archetypes in ego and persona levels, one should not necessarily regulate and get rid of the strong archetype. Quite the reverse, one might need to devote time to improve the weak archetypes. Deliberately, this is the concept of the ―Golden Mean which is the significant attribute of the ―aware Athena. Athena, as it can be understood, concentrates mostly on “Doing” patterns of life rather than “Being” ones. ―Doing acts are similar to the “Extravert” personality; as ―Being acts are close to the “Introvert”. Based on the intention involved, “Doing” patterns are those actions which are done in order to attain a specific result, While, “Being” patterns are those actions in which being in the moments of that action is much important than attaining results. For instance, eating could be a ―Doing pattern when the intention is consuming some carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins and maintaining ones health. Instead, it can be a “Being” pattern when the eating is joyful for the person. Consequently, the unaware Athena fully concentrates on “Doing” patterns in order to achieve the ―Green Garden. While, in reality, what the unaware Athena needs is concentration on “Being” patterns and maintaining a “Golden Mean” between “Doings” and “Beings”. (Or another possibility exists: the person is aware that the Golden Mean is an ongoing struggle / negotiation that supplies a type of energy-curiosity to daily life.)

The final point is that in dealing with different personalities we do not need to question and criticize all likely persons who display the same backgrounds and same endings like Athena types. Indeed, the best and deepest part of Jungian Psychology is to refrain from quick judgments or sensational reactions. In this article, we have endeavoured to explain some of the challenges and disorders of these archetypes with a neutral perspective so as not to offend other personality traits. We have refrained from any judgemental approach in this work. We have also endeavoured to shed light on some of the more obscure aspects of this personality. It is however evident that our work has been limited to certain aspects of the Athena archetype and this area of research requires more study and investigation. (Yes!)

Acknowledgements The authors wish to thank the supporters and participants of workshops convened in the Life and Culture Institute in Tehran , and those who stimulated our thoughts to initiate the basic concepts of this paper.


The Brains Blog / Philosophy and Science of Mind


The Brains blog is a leading forum for work in the philosophy and science of mind. It was founded in 2005 by Gualtiero Piccinini, and has been administered by John Schwenkler since late 2011, with Robert Briscoe, Cameron Buckner, Daniel Burnston, Nick Byrd, Aaron Henry, Kristina Musholt, and Katrina Sifferd as contributing editors.

Regarding visual attention

Montemayor and Haladjian: Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention Click here for access to posts

Attempting to understand the ‘hard problem’ of conscious experience through the lens of attention requires a discussion of what we mean by visual attention. This can be challenging since there are many forms of attention that work on several levels, both within and outside of our conscious experience.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘visual attention’? Visual attention is a mechanism (or group of mechanisms) that selectively filters visual information and serves the purpose of helping an organism perform actions, such as navigating through space, finding food, finding mates, avoiding predators, and more complex things such as using tools. We need not be aware of this selective visual information processing—in fact, most of it happens outside of conscious awareness and there are many studies that provide support for that claim, at least in humans (there’s a good review by van Boxtel et al., 2010). [Note that this discussion of attention implicitly needs to address how it interacts with memory systems, but we can simply focus on attention for our purposes here. And while we only focus on visual attention, since it has been studied extensively, our claims also apply to other modalities and conceptual forms of attention.]

Visual attention comes in various forms. It can be feature-based (attention to specific features such as color, segment orientation, or motion), spatial (attention to the layout of features), or object-based (attention to things that display object-like properties, such as cohesive set of features with a ‘common fate’). This is a rudimentary way to categorize the types of information that visual attention can process and operate upon. It becomes more complicated when you look at cross-modal attention (information from auditory, visual, or haptic sources), as this requires a ‘workspace’ where the different forms of attention within and across modalities can be unified as belonging to the same object or event.

Another way to talk about attention is that it can be deployed automatically (bottom-up) or more deliberately (top-down). But this distinction isn’t always so clear cut—some tasks that require a lot of top-down attention at first can become automatic and ‘effortless’. Think about when first learning to type or play the piano—eventually those complex and deliberate tasks can become effortless to perform and can produce a sense of ‘flow’ that requires very little conscious visual information processing (or other forms of focused attention). Such cases further complicate our understanding of attention, since its relationship to conscious experience seems to change over time, and this change over time might be especially interesting to examine (see Bruya, 2010, for more on effortless attention).

Another characteristic of attention worth mentioning now (which we will describe in more detail in a subsequent post) is that attention can be described functionally—it serves the purpose of assisting an organism in its interactions with its environment, a function that is crucial for survival. Consequently, we can give an evolutionary story to the development of attentional systems, from basic feature processing mechanisms to more complex object-based representations. This evolutionary story is reflected by the organization of the visual system in the brain from more basic processing areas near the brain stem (like attention to features), to higher-level modulation of attention occurring in the cortex (like object-based attention). Surprisingly, there isn’t much work on elucidating the evolution of attention specifically, which is worthy of detailed study (but see Cosmides & Tooby, 2013, as they are some of the few researchers that address this topic). Important for this evolutionary story is the research on attentional systems present in the basic neural structures of insects. For example, some studies have identified the neural mechanisms of feature-based selective attention in dragonflies (e.g., Wiederman & O’Carroll, 2013). Furthermore, one can speculate that animals with capacities for episodic-like memory (like scrub jays) may enjoy feature recognition and event-based attention, but further empirical work is required to support such claims about attention.

This description of visual attention—as mechanisms that modulate visual information processing either automatically or deliberately—is the starting point for our understanding of attention’s relationship to consciousness. Given that attention can occur either with or without conscious awareness is what makes its study so difficult… and also so interesting. What are the decisive factors that determine what information enters awareness? Clearly, we often are aware of perceptual (and conceptual) information that is not helpful to the task at hand, so it seems attention is not a perfect system. Nevertheless, a better understanding of how attention works and how it is related to conscious awareness can ultimately lead to a better understanding of consciousness in general.

Our upcoming posts will describe what we mean by ‘consciousness’, evolutionary considerations for both attention and consciousness, and finally more discussion on the relationship between the two under the framework of conscious attention.


Bonus: Greg Dunn, who received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011, explores that connection, painting images of the hippocampus, cortex, and neurons. But the result is not purely scientific – it is instead a stunning amalgamation of traditional Japanese Sumi-e ink wash painting and modern interpretation.

Read more:



Bruya, B. (2010). Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2013). Evolutionary psychology: New perspectives on cognition and motivation. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 201-229. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.121208.131628

van Boxtel, J., Tsuchiya, N., & Koch, C. (2010). Consciousness and attention: On sufficiency and necessity. Frontiers in Psychology, 1(217). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00217

Wiederman, S., & O’Carroll, D. (2013). Selective attention in an insect visual neuron. Current Biology, 23(2), 156-161. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.048

School Social Rules / ASD kids Confused? Gee Whiz!

From a “stupid rules at our school” chat site: 

If a bully beats you up, you are suspended: I actually like this rule. It’s better than the “If you fight back….” rule most schools follow. At least that way, I know I’m in trouble either way, so of course I can fight back.

When recess ends the school bell rings two times. The first ring you have to stop whatever you were doing and just stand still, then there is a pause of 5-10 seconds and the teachers check to see if anyone is moving, then there is the second ring and we can line up to go back to our classrooms.

My school wouldn’t allow you to turn your back on a cheerleader. I thought that was pretty weird. A few years before that, a kid wore a Pepsi shirt on “Coke Day” and they suspended him. It caused a pretty big hubbub.

At my school you need to have a signed doctors note to bring a water bottle to school. You can get suspended for bringing it.

No reading during lunch. Lunch is for talking to friends so you don’t talk in class. We  have to take books away from students who are reading. It was awful for the loner kids.

My school has “mix it up day” where you weren’t allowed to sit with your friends – you had to sit with a random mix of new people. Nice idea in theory, but in reality it was an entire lunch period of awkward silences and introverts having panic attacks. 

My middle school had a system where all the tables were numbered and everyone would draw a number out of a jar before lunch. I made a slip of paper for each number and pulled it out of my sleeve before I picked one out of the jar.

My middle school daughter has to sit with her class at lunch and they cannot talk to other people who are not at their tables, or turn around and talk to people behind them. Sometimes they have silent lunch where no talking can happen at all. She asked the vice principal why it was like that, saying she feels like she’s in jail, and he just said because I said so, now sit down and be quiet.

One day, my middle-school French teacher told us to write at the top of the test how long we’d studied for the test. I didn’t study, so I wrote “I didn’t study”. I got every question on the test correct, because it was just something simple like ER verbs. It turned out that the amount of studying was worth half the mark. So I got every question right, and got only 50% on the test because I hadn’t studied.

And that’s how I learned how to lie to my teachers.

Not a rule but I knew a guy who wore a deep v-neck shirt and he got written up for cross-dressing.

No high fives or fist bumps. Safety reasons and makes people feel left out.

No sharing food…










Powerful Ideas from a Supernatural Mirage


Asperger individuals are accused of being rigid, habitual and averse to change. That is an “idea” fraught with misunderstanding, because observers take their superficial judgment to be absolute: that’s what I see, therefore it’s true. And the “symptom” of “liking or preferring” sameness shows up  in lists of symptoms that supposedly are diagnostic of Asperger’s. Reasons, causes and explanations are ignored (Aspies are rarely asked for information about our behavior) Environmental conditions are rarely brought into discussions about human thought and behavior, despite intensive research into all things human, animal, plant and geologic; researchers believe in supernatural origins – despite working in disciplines that utilize advanced technology.

It’s a confounding and difficult topic: WORDS and the use of word language create a mirage – a shimmering belief that word concepts are “retrieved from or sent by” a super reality (stocked with superhuman know-it-alls) – that rules physical reality; a super library of the universe from which we draw “ideas” that are True. Unfortunately, human preference, selfishness and instability usually “select” ideas that are selfish, not “True”.

The best indicator that this “supernatural” domain exists solely as a state of confusion within the brain, is the fact that groups of people (geographic, ethnic, religious, or other) somehow get extremely different pieces of information from this supernatural source, and differ about what must be done to please one or more supernatural beings that occupy a non-existent domain from which our “physical environment” is nevertheless believed to be created and controlled.

The population of the supernatural domain (powerful, interfering, comforting, unstable, prone to violence; givers of knowledge, luck, favoritism and plenty of death to one’s enemies) points to its origin in the child brain at its most helpless. Deities begin as ancestors that are compressed into single beings over the centuries; one’s own parents present a personal model of giants who must be controlled, at first with gestures, cries and smiles, but soon with magic words.

Ideas hatched in the supernatural domain of the human brain are some of the most negative, destructive and misery-causing ideas that drive humanity.

Magic words: we tend to see language as a simple process that is mechanical and memory driven, because that is how it’s taught schools, but how amazing the power of  words must seem to a helpless infant; words that cause food to “appear” out of nowhere; words that gain attention, warmth, comfort – or terror. Language works a bit like gravity – “spooky action at a distance”.  Adults simply forget this phase, because “we” as the manifestation of the adult brain didn’t exist. “Who we are” is a river shaped by environment and experience. Our brains are highly vulnerable to physical abuse!

The widespread presence of the “supernatural effect” in all types of modern social humans, even scientists and those with advanced education, points to a persistence of the “magic word” syndrome into adulthood and old age. It is fundamental to modern beliefs and social organization, as well as to personal and mass communication. If we think about it, why not? Magic words and supernatural ideas are common to all neurotypical humans and become the basis for identification within groups.

For a minority of humans (notably Asperger individuals) supernatural thinking is tremendously irritating and incomprehensible. My question is; Why is this early stage of “supernatural mirage” absent in Aspergers and various other individuals? I know that for me, this “mirage world” never existed, and I know of many Aspergers who say the same. It’s an extremely important difference because the types of ideas produced by supernatural thinking and factual thinking are radically different. So different that one might potentially see separate “brain species”.

Zero to

Which plays a more important role in brain development, nature (genes) or nurture (environment)?

Does experience change the actual structure of the brain?

Yes. Brain development is “activity-dependent,” meaning that the electrical activity in every circuit—sensory, motor, emotional, cognitive–shapes the way that circuit gets put together. Like computer circuits, neural circuits process information through the flow of electricity. Unlike computer circuits, however, the circuits in our brains are not fixed structures. Every experience–whether it is seeing one’s first rainbow, riding a bicycle, reading a book, sharing a joke–excites certain neural circuits and leaves others inactive. Those that are consistently turned on over time will be strengthened, while those that are rarely excited may be dropped away. Or, as neuroscientists sometimes say, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The elimination of unused neural circuits, also referred to as “pruning,” may sound harsh, but it is generally a good thing. It streamlines children’s neural processing, making the remaining circuits work more quickly and efficiently. Without synaptic pruning, children wouldn’t be able to walk, talk, or even see properly.

What is a “critical period” in brain development?

Pruning or selection of active neural circuits takes place throughout life, but is far more common in early childhood. Animal studies have shown that there are certain windows of time during which the young are especially sensitive to their environment: newborn mice must experience normal whisker sensation in the first few days of life or they will develop abnormal tactile sensitivity in the face region; cats must be allowed normal visual input during the first three months or their vision will be permanently impaired; and monkeys need consistent social contact during the first six months or they will end up extremely emotionally disturbed. Many of the same critical periods appear to hold for human development, although we are less certain about their exact length. Thus, babies also require normal visual input or they may suffer permanent impairment; children born with crossed or “lazy” eyes will fail to develop full acuity and depth perception if the problem is not promptly corrected. Language skills depend critically on verbal input (or sign language, for babies with hearing impairments) in the first few years or certain skills, particularly grammar and pronunciation, may be permanently impacted. The critical period for language-learning begins to close around five years of age and ends around puberty. This is why individuals who learn a new language after puberty almost always speak it with a foreign accent.


Terms I use / Asperger Human Re-Post

Definition of terms that I use throughout Asperger Human (Better late than never!)


NATURAL: Having a real or physical existence as opposed to one that is spiritual, intellectual, or fictitious. 

SUPERNATURAL: A being, location, object, or event that exists outside physical law, and which exists solely within human belief and culture.

MAGIC: A fundamental language of human thought, which seeks to control physical reality through ritual and formulae (spells). Homeopathic magic imitates the desired outcome. Contagious magic uses the “power” of objects that have been in contact with a supernatural source.

ANIMISM: The attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena. The belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.

I believe that the understanding of animism is incorrect, and that the common definition is itself an act of anthropomorphism. Modern conceptions such as “soul” reference human “specialness” and division from nature. “Supernatural power” references a mind-state created by humans (word concepts) that stands outside and above natural law and overrides nature’s ways. These are divisive concepts that do not reflect the profound continuity of early humans with the environment and everything in it. “Spirit” is existence  in all its permutations; humans are but one expression of interchangeable matter and energy. “Shape-shifting” is the belief in the ability (of certain people) to connect to other forms through this underlying energy. See Therianthropy.

RELIGION: The ritual presentation of the culture myth. (Joseph Campbell) Magic is basic to the myth and presentation of belief. Modern “-isms” such as Nazism, Socialism, Capitalism, New Age-ism, Patriotism, and Consumerism fit the definition.

MIND: The sum of an organism’s or group’s reactions to the environment. Instinct is the source of automatic reactions; other reactions are learned. Emotions are part of the mind. 

CULTURE: The sum of an organism’s or group’s interactions with the environment. These may be instinctual, learned, or invented. All living things have mind and culture; mind and culture aren’t exclusive to humans. A bacterium both reacts to, and interacts with its environment. 

CONSCIOUSNESS: A term that is defined and used so broadly that it has become all but useless, due to numerous and contradictory meanings. (See posts on co-consciousness and supernatural consciousness.) 

HYPOTHESIS: A rational explanation of an event or observation which must be supported or rejected through further observation and experimentation, which lead to confirmation by other scientists.

 SCIENTIFIC LAW: A statement of fact that explains an action or set of actions, often expressed as a mathematical equation. Scientific laws must be simple, true, universal, and essential to science. Familiar scientific laws of nature are Newton’s Laws of motion.

THEORY: A scientific theory is founded on proven hypotheses and explains a group of related phenomena. It must be verified by independent research. The popular phrase “just a theory” suggests that a theory is no more than a guess. This falsehood adds to the confusion among the public as to the value of scientific knowledge.

PRIMATE: Compared to other mammals of similar size, primates have large brains, are slow to mature,  have long life spans, and their offspring have a high survival rate. Lemurs, monkeys, and great apes (man) are primates; in total there are 349 primate species. 

HOMINID: Any of various primates of the family Hominidae, whose only living members (supposedly) are contemporary social humans. Hominids are characterized by an upright gait, increased brain size and intelligence compared with other primates, a flattened face, and reduction in the size of the teeth and jaw. Besides the modern species Homo sapiens, hominids also include extinct species of Homo (such as H. erectus) and the extinct genus Australopithecus. The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2002.

In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.

Gautama Buddha c. 556-480 BCE

Intuition is a matter of trust, but in what?/ Re-Post

My morning cognitive ritual is a matter of sorting through mail from the unconscious. What news is there from sleep, from the dream dimension? I wake abruptly – no gentle transition: I pop awake like one of those red and white fishing bobbers, which has been briefly pulled underwater by a snag – or was it a fish toying with the bait? Up it pops, righting itself on the surface. Rarely can I go back to sleep, but jump out of bed and head straight for the kitchen and coffee. I revive the computer and quickly begin writing: the fish are biting.

Words begin to arrive, almost telegraphically, and a message unfolds. Can an Asperger write interestingly, when we are supposedly unable to venture beyond stilted and boring language? One likens intuition to mail or telegrams – words, but the other, deeper source is visual: the pond or lake. And fish as food, creative nourishment, and carriers of messages from the depths.


Painting by Balletstar

A visual that I used when I was a child, and into young adulthood, was a compass, or the Arrow. My Arrow. It didn’t really have much to do with navigating the environment like a magnetic compass or GPS. The Arrow was a built-in “clue pointer” that led me on, as if life is a treasure hunt. The Arrow created boundaries that let me know what actions were proper to me; a restriction, yes – but simultaneously it served as a pathfinder that allowed for discovery and experimentation. And I can identify that the episodes in my life that have taken me “off the correct path” coincided with The Arrow having  disappeared; it was terrifying. Did I somehow loose my connection to the Arrow, or had it been a silly conceit?

Of course, as an adult, I’ve had “reasoning functions” available in addition to intuition, but often reason has yielded poor results; reason doesn’t take one very far in modern social contexts, and indeed, seems to make matters worse.

Reason needs a reasonable partner – healthy human interaction requires a “reasonableness” that sets aside impulses such as control, anger, aggressiveness, and selfish intent, dressed up in insincere language.  

“Empathy” (so touted by psychologists as “missing” in Asperger individuals) is different in Asperger types, and has everything to do with reasonableness as “the doorway” into sympathetic interaction with another.

I think also that we “sense” and intuit human states of mind, which curiously is “painful” – this pain is energy depleting, disturbing, and drives withdrawal; in a secure and quiet place we may then begin to contemplate the “other person’s” particular circumstances and reactions (emotions) to events in his or her life. This can’t be rushed, and unfortunately, in the fleeting and superficial social world, immediate emotional gestures are required with claims of “developmental disability” thrown at those who need time for a considered response. Immediate “emotional” responses are dictated; social humans are not free to be themselves.

In the inevitable “What have I learned?” department peculiar to modern society, I would say that I trusted intuition blindly when young and thought it (the Arrow) had failed me when things went wrong, and blamed myself. Why didn’t it work anymore? Where had it gone and was it my “fault” that I’d lost it? What I didn’t understand was that I had “grown up” and was tasked with negotiating The Real World with the tools I had (logic, patterns, strategies and logistics; critical analysis) which simply had little to no application to surviving modern social contexts, except when applied directly to projects on my desk. Intuition was still “there” but my “gut feelings” also transgressed the Social Order. A large number of the posts in this blog address why – The Social Order is harmful to natural human beings. Activity driven by a hierarchy of privilege in wealth, dishonesty, exploitation, cruelty, injustice and the disposability of living beings goes against everything I intuit as necessary to human fulfillment.


Did Einstein originate all the quotes attributed to him?

Modern social humans have set up a false either / or relationship between intuition and reason – and in the extreme, have made the two into enemies.





Lack of Sensory Stimulation / 1954 Paper

The activities of the sensory system are crucial to understanding the non-typical Asperger experience of the environment, so I’m going back to look at some of the basics. 

YIKES! The incomprehensible need on the part of certain humans to destroy human happiness! 


Effects of Decreased Variation in the Sensory Environment


This study began with a practical problem: the lapses of attention that may occur when a man must give close and prolonged attention to some aspect of an environment in which nothing is happening, or in which the changes are very regular. Watching a radar screen hour after hour is a prime example. As Mackworth (5) and others have shown, when at last something does happen in such circumstances the watcher may fail to respond. Such monotonous conditions exist in civilian occupations as well as in military ones (marine pilotage by radar, piloting aircraft on long flights), and here too lapses of attention may have extremely serious consequences. For example, such lapses may explain some otherwise inexplicable railroad and highway accidents.

Besides its practical significance this problem has theoretical implications of great interest. [There is much evidence from recent neurophysiological studies to indicate that the normal functioning of the waking brain depends on its being constantly exposed to sensory bombardment, which produces a continuing “arousal reaction.”] Work now being done by S. K. Sharpless at McGill indicates, further, that when stimulation does not change, it rapidly loses its power to cause the arousal reaction. Thus, although one function of a stimulus is to evoke or guide a specific bit of behaviour, it also has a non-specific function, that of maintaining “arousal,” probably through the brain-stem reticular formation.

In other words, the maintenance of normal, intelligent, adaptive behaviour probably requires a continually varied sensory input. The brain is not like a calculating machine operated by an electric motor which is able to respond at once to specific cues after lying idle indefinitely. Instead it is like one that must be kept warmed up and working. It seemed, therefore, worth while to examine cognitive functioning during prolonged perceptual isolation, as far as this was practicable. Bremer (2) has achieved such isolation by cutting the brain stem; college students, however, are reluctant to undergo brain operations for experimental purposes, so we had to be satisfied with less extreme isolation from the environment.


The subjects, 22 male college students, were paid to lie on a comfortable bed in a lighted cubicle 24 hours a day, with time out for eating and going to the toilet. During the whole experimental period they wore translucent goggles which transmitted diffuse light but prevented pattern vision. Except when eating or at the toilet, the subject wore gloves and cardboard cuffs, the latter extending from below the elbow to beyond the fingertips. These permitted free joint movement but limited tactual perception. Communication between subject and experimenters was provided by a small speaker system, and was kept to a minimum. Auditory stimulation was limited by the partially sound-proof cubicle and by a U-shaped foam-rubber pillow in which the subject kept his head while in the cubicle. Moreover, the continuous hum provided by fans, air-conditioner, and the amplifier leading to earphones in the pillow produced fairly efficient masking noise.

General Effects

As might be expected from the evidence reviewed by Kleitman (3) for onset of sleep following reduced stimulation in man and other animals, the subjects tended to spend the earlier part of the experimental session in sleep. Later they slept less, became bored, and appeared eager for stimulation. They would sing, whistle, talk to themselves, tap the cuffs together, or explore the cubicle with them. (Stimming?)This boredom seemed to be partly due to deterioration in the capacity to think systematically and productively–an effect described below. The subjects also became very restless, displaying constant random movement, and they described the restlessness as unpleasant. Hence it was difficult to keep subjects for more than two or three days, despite the fact that the pay ($20 for a 24-hour day) was more than double what they could normally earn. Some subjects, in fact, left before testing could be completed.

There seemed to be unusual emotional lability during the experimental period. When doing tests, for instance, the subjects would seem very pleased when they did well, and upset if they had difficulty. They commented more freely about test items than when they were tested outside. While many reported that they felt elated during the first part of their stay in the cubicle, there was a marked increase in irritability toward the end of the experimental period.

On coming out of the cubicle after the experimental session, when goggles, cuffs, and gloves had been removed, the subjects seemed at first dazed. There also appeared to be some disturbance in visual perception, usually lasting no longer than one or two minutes. Subjects reported difficulty in focussing; objects appeared fuzzy and did not stand out from their backgrounds. There was a tendency for the environment to appear two-dimensional and colours seemed more saturated than usual. The subjects also reported feelings of confusion, headaches, a mild nausea, and fatigue; these conditions persisted in some cases for 24 hours after the session.

Effects on Cognitive Processes

Our present concern is primarily with cognitive disturbances during the period of isolation and immediately afterwards. The subjects reported that they were unable to concentrate on any topic for long while in the cubicle. Those who tried to review their studies or solve self-initiated intellectual problems found it difficult to do so. As a result they lapsed into day-dreaming, abandoned attempts at organized thinking, and let their thoughts wander. There were also reports of “blank periods,” during which they seemed unable to think of anything at all.

In an attempt to measure some of the effects on cognitive processes, various tests were given to the subjects before, during, and after the period of isolation.

First, the tests given during isolation. Twelve subjects were given the following types of problems to do in their heads: multiplying two and three-digit numbers; arithmetical problems (such as “how many times greater is twice than one-half ?”); completion of number series; making a word from jumbled letters; making as many words as possible from the letters of a given word. Each subject was tested on problems of this type before going into the cubicle, after he had been in for 12, 24, and 48 hours, and three days after coming out of the cubicle. Twelve control subjects were given the same series of tasks at the same intervals. The average performance of the experimental subjects was inferior to that of the controls on all tests performed during the cubicle session. With our present small number of subjects the differences are significant only for the error scores on the second anagram task (p5.01, see Figure 1). The groups are now being enlarged.

Secondly, tests given before entering the cubicle and immediately after leaving it. On the Kohs Block Test and the Wechsler Digit Symbol Test the experimental subjects were inferior to the controls on leaving the cubicle (p5.01). They also tended to be slower in copying a prose paragraph (p5.10). Figure 2 gives samples of handwriting before and after the experiment. The first is from one of the subjects showing the greatest effect, the second illustrates the average effect. As the third sample shows, some subjects were not affected. This disturbance in handwriting, though perhaps due to some sensori-motor disturbance, might also reflect cognitive or motivational changes.

Hallucinatory Activity

Finally there were the hallucinations reported by the subjects while in the experimental apparatus. Among our early subjects there were several references, rather puzzling at first, to what one of them called “having a dream while awake.” Then one of us, while serving as a subject, observed the phenomenon and realized its peculiarity and extent.

The visual phenomena were actually quite similar to what have been described for mescal intoxication, and to what Grey Walter (6) has recently produced by exposure to flickering light. There have also been rare cases of hallucinations in aged persons without psychosis (1), which, like ours, involved no special chemical or visual stimulation. As we did not ask our first subjects specifically about these phenomena we do not know the frequency among them. The last 14 subjects, however, were asked to report any “visual imagery” they observed, and our report is based on them. In general, where more “formed” (i.e., more complex) hallucinations occurred they were usually preceded by simpler forms of the phenomenon. Levels of complexity could be differentiated as follows: In the simplest form the visual field, with the eyes closed, changed from dark to light colour; next in complexity were dots of light, lines, or simple geometrical patterns. All 14 subjects reported such imagery, and said it was a new experience to them. Still more complex forms consisted in “wall-paper patterns,” reported by 11 subjects, and isolated figures or objects, without background (e.g., a row of little yellow men with black caps on and their mouths open; a German helmet), reported by seven subjects. Finally, there were integrated scenes (e.g., a procession of squirrels with sacks over their shoulders marching “purposefully” across a snow field and out of the field of “vision”; prehistoric animals walking about in a jungle). Three of the 14 subjects reported such scenes, frequently including dreamlike distortions, with the figures often being described as “like cartoons.” One curious fact is that some of the hallucinations were reported as being inverted or tilted at an angle.

In general, the subjects were first surprised by these phenomena, and then amused or interested, waiting for what they would see next. Later, some subjects found them irritating, and complained that their vividness interfered with sleep. There was some control over content; by “trying,” the subject might see certain objects suggested by the experimenter, but not always as he intended. Thus one subject, trying to “get” a pen, saw first an inkblot, then a pencil, a green horse, and finally a pen; trying to “get” a shoe, he saw first a ski boot, then a moccasin. The imagery usually disappeared when the subject was doing a complex task, such as multiplying three-place numbers in his head, but not if he did physical exercises, or talked to the experimenter.

There were also reports of hallucinations involving other senses. One subject could hear the people speaking in his visual hallucinations, and another repeatedly heard the playing of a music box. Four subjects described kinesthetic and somesthetic phenomena. One reported seeing a miniature rocket ship discharging pellets that kept striking his arm, and one reported reaching out to touch a doorknob he saw before him and feeling an electric shock. The other two subjects reported a phenomenon which they found difficult to describe. They said it was as if there were two bodies side by side in the cubicle; in one case the two bodies overlapped, partly occupying the same space. Figure 3 shows this subject’s subsequent drawing, made in an attempt to show what he meant.

In addition, there were reports of feelings of “otherness” and bodily “strangeness” in which it was hard to know exactly what the subject meant. One subject said “my mind seemed to be a ball of cotton-wool floating above my body”; another reported that his head felt detached from his body. These are familiar phenomena in certain cases of migraine, as described recently by Lippman (4), and earlier by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonder-land. As Lippman points out, Lewis Carroll was a sufferer from migraine, and it is suggested that Alice’s bodily distortions are actually descriptions of Carroll’s (i.e., Charles Dodgson’s) own experiences.

In summary, both the changes in intelligence-test performance and the hallucinatory activity, induced merely by limiting the variability of sensory input, provide direct evidence of a kind of dependence on the environment that has not been previously recognized. Further experimental study will be needed to elucidate the details of this relationship.

Note: It is possible that “sensory overload” is not exactly that; meaning that variation and type of sensory input received from the environment is key to the Asperger reaction. Lack of “needed” stimulation (boredom) may be a significant contributor to Asperger negative responses to specific environments.

Typical social environments may supply both “assaults” to the senses AND deprive the senses of “proper” varied stimulation as found in natural environments, causing disruption to Asperger sensory clarity and harmony. 

Autism in Nature / Collecting as Communication

Autistic people are “trashed” for having “obsessive” relations with objects: for arranging collections based on color, materials, size and shape, or any physical property they choose. But isn’t “collecting” a type of communication? It certainly is for visual thinkers,  human or animal! 

Nature’s Collectors

by Elissa MacDonald

When we think of collectors, we tend to think of people who focus on building a group of items, based around a commonality. This commonality may be the type of item, its  colour, the material it is made from, or even a person, and it is this which forms the basis for the collection. Collectors usually take great pride in their collections, displaying them both for personal enjoyment, and to show to others. Some collectors even use their collections as a way to socialise and meet people.

The Ptilonorhynchidae family well and truly outstrip humans when it comes to collecting. Indeed, they have perfected the art, and many males of the family repeatedly and successfully use their extraordinary collections to attract a mate. Nothing tacky or superficial about these collections though. The males take great pride in their collections, going to great lengths to add to them and often obsessively organising and reorganising them.

The Ptilonorhynchidae family is a group of twenty or so bird species found in Australia and Papua New Guinea. They are the family of bird to which bowerbirds and catbirds belong. Many, though not all, species in the family build elaborate bowers as part of their mating rituals, decorating them with various collections.

Bowerbirds are almost obsessive in their collecting. They think nothing of ‘borrowing’ items from their surroundings to add to their collections, often stealing items from backyards, bins and even other birds’ bowers. The birds with the biggest and best bowers are most likely to find a mate. (This is a human interpretation; we  don’t know what criteria female birds use. It could be an aesthetic choice!) Female bowerbirds will check out the bowers of their prospective mates, often multiple times before actually choosing a mate.

Video: Juvenile male learns behavior from adult male, but individual birds develop personal preferences – their own “style”. Note how bird “pairs” blue and yellow items.

The most famous of the bowerbirds is probably the Satin Bowerbird, an Australian species, famous for its collections of ‘blue’ (items). They are the bowerbirds famous for stealing blue pegs, drinking straws and pen lids. However, they don’t only collect blue items, anything else particularly shiny or yellow will also do, though as they get older they become more and more likely to choose blue things for their bowers. Ironically, although the blue collections of the Satin Bowerbird have become most famous, several species of bowerbird, including the Golden Bowerbird, Western Bowerbird and Spotted Bowerbird actually focus on green and white instead.

Bowerbirds are actually quite discriminating when it comes to their collections.  We may assume that, for a bowerbird ‘anything is fair game’, but this is not really the case and their collections are far from indiscriminate.

Most bowerbirds prefer specific colours and species also have preferred items which they collect. When away from human settlement bowerbirds focus on fruits, berries, flowers, leaves, shells and feathers, often having favourite items amongst these to collect and sticking to their preferred colour range. These natural objects are the bowerbirds favoured items and are found in their bowers whether they are in the middle of the wilderness or close to human settlement. Manmade items are usually only found in bowers close to human settlement (or picnic areas), but even when the more novel manmade items are available, bowerbirds tend to still choose items within their preferred colour range.  Human settlement may broaden the range of items available, but it doesn’t make bowerbirds any less focussed in their collecting. They don’t simply choose any new item they come across.

Bowerbirds who have broadened their collections to include items not naturally available to them may seem at first glance rather indiscriminate but a closer look reveals they are still carefully selecting what to collect, simply making use of whatever is available within the parameters of their collection focus.


Love dolls
Wacky couple Bob and Lizzie Gibbons share their home with their rather unusual collection of 240 love dolls. According to the couple, they like dressing the dolls up and even take them on shopping trips.

And an excerpt from: 

Even Animals Collect Things

The impulse to accumulate is instinctual. Even animals collect things. Magpies adorn their nests with bright and gaudy objects. The brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, hoards small gadgets and coins: Joseph Mitchell, in one of the essays collected in The Bottom of the Harbor, describes rats’ nests found on post-demolition construction sites containing such artifacts as “an empty lipstick tube, a religious medal, a skate key, a celluloid teething ring, a belt buckle, a shoehorn, a penny, a dime, and three quarters.” James Roy King, in Remaking the World, argues that the urge to collect is as firmly rooted as the erotic drive, perhaps stemming from “some primitive determination to squirrel away supplies for bad times and amass trophies indicative of one’s valor.”

Others might argue that the objects have a certain numinous quality. In Michael Flanagan’s novel, Stations, the narrator, surveying a junk sale, ruminates, “I suppose it’s like archaeology, to go digging around through books and papers and other people’s things.” He goes on: “The shards of life. You handle these used objects and you realize there’s no one to shelter them anymore, objects that might have been sacred to somebody once.”

I think of this when considering a handful of worn Roman bronze coins, part of an army payroll buried in the North African desert to keep it from invaders’ hands and lost for nearly 2000 years, recovered long after the men for whom they were meant and the institution that had authorized their issue had vanished with yesterday’s sunset. The odds are on objects.



Why don’t Neurotypical obsessions count as symptomatic of  ASD / Asperger’s?





Western Academic Narcissism

This article supports what I’ve been posting: bias against Asperger individuals and other people who exist outside rigid and dictatorial social expectations, restrictions and fantasies, is entrenched in the narcissistic world view of Western elites.


We Aren’t the World

Ethan Waters Feb 25, 2013, in Pacific Standard Magazine

_________Joe Henrich and his colleagues are shaking the foundations of psychology and economics—and hoping to change the way social scientists think about human behavior and culture.

IN THE SUMMER of 1995, a young graduate student in anthropology at UCLA named Joe Henrich traveled to Peru to carry out some fieldwork among the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live north of Machu Picchu in the Amazon basin. The Machiguenga had traditionally been horticulturalists who lived in single-family, thatch-roofed houses in small hamlets composed of clusters of extended families. For sustenance, they relied on local game and produce from small-scale farming. They shared with their kin but rarely traded with outside groups.

While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemmato see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness.

Are you joking? “Instinctive fairness” is just one of the arrogant and delusional assumptions made by American elites about themselves, a conceit which is easily demolished by casual observation of American social structure, in which inequality and predation rule.

The test that Henrich introduced to the Machiguenga was called the ultimatum game. The rules are simple: in each game there are two players who remain anonymous to each other. The first player is given an amount of money, say $100, and told that he has to offer some of the cash, in an amount of his choosing, to the other subject. The second player can accept or refuse the split. But there’s a hitch: players know that if the recipient refuses the offer, both leave empty-handed. North Americans, who are the most common subjects for such experiments, usually offer a 50-50 split when on the giving end. When on the receiving end, they show an eagerness to punish the other player for uneven splits at their own expense. In short, Americans show the tendency to be equitable with strangers—and to punish those who are not.

Among the Machiguenga, word quickly spread of the young, square-jawed visitor from America giving away money. The stakes Henrich used in the game with the Machiguenga were not insubstantial—roughly equivalent to the few days’ wages they sometimes earned from episodic work with logging or oil companies. So Henrich had no problem finding volunteers.

The soundtrack is in Spanish, but the story is obvious: the same tragic invasion by “resource rapers” and the exploitation and degradation of Indigenous people. 

What he had great difficulty with, however, was explaining the rules, as the game struck the Machiguenga as deeply odd.

When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.

Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He began to wonder: What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?

Henrich soon landed a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to take his fairness games on the road. With the help of a dozen other colleagues he led a study of 14 other small-scale societies, in locales from Tanzania to Indonesia. Differences abounded in the behavior of both players in the ultimatum game. In no society did he find people who were purely selfish (that is, who always offered the lowest amount, and never refused a split), but average offers from place to place varied widely and, in some societies—ones where gift-giving is heavily used to curry favor or gain allegiance—the first player would often make overly generous offers in excess of 60 percent, and the second player would often reject them, behaviors almost never observed among Americans.

The research established Henrich as an up-and-coming scholar. In 2004, he was given the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for young scientists at the White House. But his work also made him a controversial figure. When he presented his research to the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia during a job interview a year later, he recalls a hostile reception. Anthropology is the social science most interested in cultural differences, but the young scholar’s methods of using games and statistics to test and compare cultures with the West seemed heavy-handed and invasive to some. “Professors from the anthropology department suggested it was a bad thing that I was doing,” Henrich remembers. “The word ‘unethical’ came up.”

So instead of toeing the line, he switched teams. A few well-placed people at the University of British Columbia saw great promise in Henrich’s work and created a position for him, split between the economics department and the psychology department. It was in the psychology department that he found two kindred spirits in Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan. Together the three set about writing a paper that they hoped would fundamentally challenge the way social scientists thought about human behavior, cognition, and culture.

A MODERN LIBERAL ARTS education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike.

If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so unmoored. The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game was an example of a small but growing countertrend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition. His new colleagues in the psychology department, Heine and Norenzayan, were also part of this trend. Heine focused on the different ways people in Western and Eastern cultures perceived the world, reasoned, and understood themselves in relationship to others. Norenzayan’s research focused on the ways religious belief influenced bonding and behavior. The three began to compile examples of cross-cultural research that, like Henrich’s work with the Machiguenga, challenged long-held assumptions of human psychological universality.