Autism is an obviously rich subject for scientific inquiry given just how little is known about what causes it, how to treat it, and what the condition can tell us about fundamental aspects of human development and the way we form social bonds and take cues from others.
One area of autism research that hasn’t been fully explored, it’s safe to say, is whether the condition might be cured by an autistic child’s mother making a series of rumbling noises at her child, and how this ties into the idea of creating a mythological elephant who teaches humanity how to be more human.
Until now. As highlighted by Neuroskeptic (via Michelle Dawson), there is a very, very, very strange article in the latest edition of the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. The lead author is University of Tübingen biochemist Otto Rossler, who was part of a failed attempt to prevent scientists from flipping the CERN particle accelerators on switch because he and others said it could create a black hole that would swallow the world (most physicists disagreed).
The idea of a black hole swallowing the world is pedestrian compared to what’s on offer in this paper, whose authors include a number of artists who don’t appear to have any expertise in biology or autism. Even the first two sentences of the abstract are amazing: “Forty years ago a causal therapy of autism was offered which has never been tried out by the therapeutic profession. It predictably is so effective that even members of other mirror-competent bonding species can be healed from their ‘physiological autism.’”
You got that? There was this theory of autism that was proposed once, decades ago. It’s never been tried, but it “predictably is so effective” it not only works on humans, but animals, too.
To the extent I (or anyone?) can figure out what the hell is going on here, the article proceeds along approximately these lines:
1. One time, someone proposed a theory of autism. A sociologist and anthropologist thought it made sense. Plus, “Noam Chomsky showed interest in a long phone conversation. Konrad Lorenz said he appreciated it but it was ‘too difficult’ for him to fully understand. No professional ever tried the therapy out or quoted it.”
2. Recently, at a philosophy talk, a student mentioned that elephant moms will make an “infrasound rumble” as a means of bonding with their infants. This casts the aforementioned autism theory in a new light. “With this added piece of information about an inaudible bonding signal waiting to be employed, now a young (preferably white) elephant can predictably be healed interactively from her or his physiological autism by the adopted human caretaker.” (It’s never entirely clear why the elephant has to be white.)
3. Oh, and there’s a theory called AAAA, or “all animals are autistic.” That’s why the aforementioned hypothetical elephant has “physiological autism.”
4. In the course of a toddler playing and acting silly and smiling and being smiled at, a thing called “personogenesis” occurs. That’s when they become a fully formed person, or something (the article doesn’t fully define it).
5. Okay, so also there’s this thing called smile blindness, which is when someone doesn’t react to a smile by smiling back, feeling warm, etc. Some smile-blind people are just regular blind — which makes sense, since they can’t see it when someone smiles at them. But other smile-blind people are sighted. They’re autistic. “It is the sighted smile-blind children that can remain fully ‘autistic’ for a long time, or even permanently. This predictable implication of smile-blindness is not generally known to the therapeutic profession.”
6. “The above described mechanism if correct, automatically implies that these smile-blind individuals can be healed causally. Namely: by the ‘acoustic smile therapy.’” That is, a mom or other caretaker can make a sound instead of a smile, and this will cure autism. “This is the acoustic smile therapy of autism. It was never tried out deliberately, perhaps because it never came to the ears or eyes of an active member of the therapeutic profession.” Perhaps.
7. Well, actually, this one time it totally worked, probably:
A smile-blind person — a professional hairdresser who saw faces only as a splintered mosaic — was once featured in a “Stern TV” documentary, aired on January 28, 2008. He reported there vividly that as a young child walking with his parents on the beach, he was only interested in the moving shadows on the sand. Then when he was 7, sitting on the lap of his mother before a table to scribble on paper given to him, his autism flew away. He learned to write in this way. But it was more than that. Apparently, his mother expressed her joy, at every little success he made in writing, by uttering a gentle little bonding sound into his ear which amplified the joy in his own success.
8. Taking as a given that autism can be cured with acoustic smiling, and that elephants do a thing that is sorta like acoustic smiling, “It goes without saying” that if you carried around a loudspeaker and rewarded an elephant calf with enough acoustic smiling, “The consequence is bound to be the same as it was described for the human playroom above: Interactional personogenesis.”
9. Obviously, this brings with it ethical concerns: “Imagine: a superhumanly wise elephant who talks to the more child-like humanity — a Hindu story revived by modern science. Humankind would find itself in an ancient Abraham-Isaac-like situation, one could say.” One could say that, indeed, and one would follow up saying that by asking some prickly questions: “Is it ethically allowed to tinker with this holiest side of humanity? Was Steven Spielberg not already going too far with his ingenious A.I.? The endeavor proposed here would be ‘more daring’ than A.I. because of the superior mental competence of the lovingly awoken new personal intelligence.”
10. Remember CERN? Man, it’s so dangerous! When will humanity learn?
11. Okay, back to the elephant for a sec:
Eventually, the nonhuman partner might become the advisor of a planet in need of outside help. But this will be possible only if the adoptee is never confronted with deliberate malevolence, as Jesus demanded for the holy souls of children.
The new partner of humankind would — it was argued — bring back the spirit of Mandela who was an equally foreign intelligence. The first author met Mandela’s personal friend Neville Alexander as a youth. And Mandela likewise lost a child at age seven when they are still elephants — foreign intelligences — to later build a mausoleum for him. Bringing a nation of a minority of perpetrators and a majority of victims together to confess and repent and forgive, under a promise of slow convergence in wealth but immediate convergence in dignity, was the feat of a superhuman intelligence based on the instrument of the smile. Madela [sic] was humankind’s greatest smile specialist so far.
12. In conclusion, “Being human in the sense of humane is a much bigger thing than society is aware of.”
Well, there you have it: a journal article that points not only to a potential cure for autism, but also a means of creating mystical, all-wise elephants. It’s quite a coup for Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, which Neuroskeptic notes is “published by Elsevier and has Denis Noble of Oxford University, one of the fathers of systems biology, as editor-in-chief.” The co-EIC is Tom Blundell, a biochemist at the University of Cambridge. I emailed both about the article and will update this post if they respond.