Have you ever wondered what the future of your autistic child will hold? Most parents do. In this episode of RDIconnect’s podcast series, ASD: A New Perspective, Dr. Steven Gutstein breaks down the future and why dynamic intelligence is imperative to moving our children forward.
Kat Lee: Welcome back to ASD: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child. And we do encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee and for this end of the year podcast Dr. Gutstein talks about going into the future and dynamic intelligence.
Dr. Gutstein: Let’s talk about dynamic intelligence. If you think about the 21st century … Let’s think about the 20th century for a second and the centuries before, before we had computers, before automation, robots and all of those wonderful technological advances. It used to be that things like possessing specialized knowledge was very valuable. If you knew the secrets of your guild or your profession, those weren’t shared in the old days because those gave you the special talents and abilities that allowed you to rise up.
The other thing was if you knew how to do procedural thinking, complex procedural thinking. If you were someone who could be very highly paid because you had the ability to construct flow charts in your head, or even on paper, and you could do that type of very complex conditional; if this happens I need to do this, if this happens I need to do this. We share that with other people and how you did it, but that type of analytic thinking was also very valued.
Again, if you had certain textbooks where you had your procedures in there and you had special content in there, remember pre-Google, those days you were very valued. You could think about all these people and professions. Even into the 20th century, people who did bookkeeping, people who were in secretarial professions, people who were in crafts positions, people who were driving cars. We didn’t have autonomous driving cars.
But I want you to think about that and think about how that for centuries and centuries that type of what we call traditional intelligence, which is what IQ was set up to measure. Remember Binet back in France in the end of the 19th century developed this test, which all the other tests have been based on, because they wanted to distinguish who they should move on, who they should promote, into high school basically and then maybe further on versus who had the potential. That potential was based on what was valued at that time. The ability to retain information, the ability to hold onto things, to rearrange things sequentially, analyze things and construct things.
Those are the types of abilities, rote memory, procedural memory and what we call semantic memory. All those things were the valued things in the world at those times. But what we see ourselves facing now is very different, isn’t it? It’s especially problematic for people with autism and who are on the edge. If you think about autism, autism can be defined in this day and age because we finally got to the point where we can define it as people who have the potential to develop that type of traditional intelligence but are really impaired in the development of a different type of intelligence.
Where we find ourselves today (and if we think about children today) what are they facing? What’s the employment world they’re facing in the world they face, one where the content you have is irrelevant, its content is available to you, and as easy as it is now to get things, thinking about Google searches, in ten years you’re just going to have to talk to your device and say, “I need all the information on this. Go collect research on this.” Your assistant will come back and give it to you. This is in children’s lifetimes now, not just somewhere in science fiction.
There won’t be truck drivers, it’ll be autonomous trucks. There won’t be taxi drivers, there won’t be Uber drivers, it’ll be autonomous, it’ll be done. There won’t be bookkeepers. There won’t be administrative assistants. A lot of very procedural medicine is going to be done by robots. In fact, it’s already starting and it’s going to be more. There’s going to be robotic surgery, yes, it will be overseen by people but it will be less person-intensive.
A lot of sort of mid-level technician jobs are going to be phased out. A lot of customer service jobs are going to be phased out. Things that even now we see a lot of in terms of employment, we’re at the cusp in the next 20 years of losing those things unless labor becomes so cheap that it’s cheaper than those computerized solutions, which is only for a certain period of time and it only means that labor is going to get more and more devalued if you’re on that end of it.
If you think about where we’re headed, and I can give you a lot more examples, whether it’s being a farmer … It’s going to affect every aspect of our lives. What it means is, to be able to succeed in that environment that children are now being born into and raised in, those traditional things that were measured by IQ tests are going to be extremely devalued. They’re not going to be completely devalued because you can’t do some of those things you’re going to be in trouble. They’re still going to be necessary, but they’re no longer going to be sufficient for anything.
The drive to raise IQ points is going to really be meaningless. It already is meaningless frankly, but it’s going to get even more meaningless. It’s just getting better at those types of skills. Only if you have a certain minimum amount of those types of skills, then really you don’t need much more of that because that’s not where your society is moving, that’s not where we’re going.
What you’re going to see is a division in society, and where are we seeing it? We’re seeing that there is a group of people who are able to face these challenges, who are feeling confident in them, who are thriving in all the different challenges and changes. Those who are seeing opportunities, who are learning from the past and adapting or persevering. And then we’re seeing a large group of people who are giving up, who are feeling fear and dread and anger, who are avoiding reflection, don’t want to reflect, don’t want to think about it. They want to close off and they assume what we might call a bunker mentality. We’re seeing that provision, and those people are not going to do well, that latter group of people, we already know that.
What is dynamic intelligence? Dynamic intelligence is this other group of abilities that is based on what I call our experience management system. Our ability to use our personal experience and shared experience in a way that provides mastery for us. What’s interesting about this, when you’re thinking about what I call the EMS or the experience management system, is it’s also the thing that has evolved in our brains, the latest evolutionary development of our brains.
It developed over the last maybe hundred thousands of years where it allowed homo sapiens basically to have enormous advantages in the world that was, at the time, during certain periods of time, were going through environmentally a lot of upheavals, a lot of volatility in terms of ice ages, heat and environmental changes that were going on. And also during that period there was a lot of competition between humanoid species really, Neanderthals, homo sapiens and other species as well. It allowed us to basically come out on top or allowed us to basically thrive, where other species couldn’t.
When you think about traditional intelligence, all those abilities, other species have that but to a limited degree. They don’t have as much of it, they have much less of it. What’s interesting about humans or our species is that when we talk about our experience management system, which I’ll describe in a minute, that’s something that’s qualitatively different than other species. Yes, there may be others that can do that but it’s very, very different the way we are able to use our intelligence, our dynamic intelligence.
Let me just talk about what that means. Let me give you some examples of that. What’s the advantages of being able to make sense of your own experience, to represent? And also, think about what is experience, what do we mean by experience? For human beings we have to talk about it in a number of different ways. First of all, we have our own personal experience, how we interpret what’s going on in the world. How we interpret our own internal experience. And then we have the ability to share experiences with others to benefit from them, to collaborate and share experiences, to co-construct.
We’re going to do constructing experiences in a second, but we have our personal experiences and then we have our shared experiences. We have our internal experiences at any moment; what are we feeling, what’s our body doing, what is our mental state. Is it alert? Is it inattentive? Is it excited? Is it bored? Where are we in our mental state? We have our own internal experience and then we have our experiences of what’s going on around us with other people and what’s happening in our environment.
Then we have the ability to move in time. We have what we call mental time travel, the ability to move and to re-experience our past. We call that remembering but it’s not memory in terms of rote memory, it’s a reconstruction or a simulation of elements of what we experienced in the past that we have decided to often unconsciously save and to organize. But we can call upon that, whether individually or in joint reminiscing and share that.
We have the incredible ability to use that private experience along with our imagination to project into potential futures. We have the ability, of all species, we don’t know of any other species that can look into multiple futures, which is really an advantage. Looking into one future gives you almost nothing because the only way that has any value is if you’re going to expect that the past and the future are going to be the same. What happened there, I can use my past and say it’s going to happen there.
Sometimes that’s right, but in any kind of complex dynamic environment you’re really screwed if that’s what you do because the future is not likely to turn out exactly like the past. To some degree, yes, but you have to be able to understand that there’s divergence points where there are futures. If you look at quantum theory you could say there’s infinite number of futures, but that doesn’t have any value. What has value is realizing that from your experience that there are several that are probably most likely and if you can figure that out from the past and say based on this it could be anything, but most likely it’s going to either be this, this or this, then you can plan scenarios, then you can create simulations and then you can play them out, get ready for them. Test out different things you could do in them, always being aware that it’s likely that another scenario might emerge which is a bit different, but by and large most of the time it’s going to be extremely useful for them.
We can engage in mental time travel. The other thing we can do on the task is, there’s two other things: One is, we can extract knowledge about ourselves from the past. Not just knowledge that we call generic or cultural knowledge, things you get in books, things that people tell you or teach you, but from our own experience we can say, “What does that mean about me? What does that mean about how I should do something differently in the future given my own strengths, my own limitations, my own needs?” We can use our personal knowledge.
We can also try to make sense of the experiences. We can reflect and say, “Why did it happen that way? That’s surprising” or, “That didn’t work out. What was that about?” We can sit and reflect on that prior experience. We can go what we call offline and not be always online. Remember, other species we think are just basically online all the time dealing with the world or they’re asleep. We can go offline. We can say I’m tuning out what’s happening around me right now, mostly, or keep vigilance. I’m not going to deal with the present and I’m just going to reflect on the past.
We go offline, which is by the way a default state for human beings. What neuroscientists found is that when they stopped giving people traditional tasks to do in their brain scanners and they just stop that for moments and periods of time in between the tests that they were giving, what they found was that human beings defaulted to a state where they looked into their past and their future and the imagination and they became more creative. During those times when initially scientists thought they were just resting from the tasks they were going to get.
They created this term, called a default network, which is pretty ill-timed but what it does mean is that human beings by nature, our species by nature, when we are not having to deal with traditional types of tasks, getting the garbage taken out, studying a book for a test, we don’t just … Our brain is not empty, our brain is very active but it’s active in a more imaginative, creative, past and future experiential way, goes offline from dealing with the immediacy of the environment that goes online in terms of being very, very active in these other areas of experiencing.
We have this online and offline experience and we can go back and forth between those. It gives us the ability to do that, it gives us the ability to imagine experiences that have never occurred and never will occur. We can create whole worlds like Tolkien did with The Hobbit or many, many authors do or many of you do. These things are never going to happen but they serve as sort of metaphors, if you will, to help us to think about our species, ourselves, in relationship to them.
We are also able to move from being very present, very aware in our experience of now, what’s happening in our bodies, to being more distanced, to taking a step back. That’s what we mean by going offline. We can take a step … We can face a problem and get very frustrated about it and very upset and experience that, “Ugh I can’t figure it out. It’s a problem, it’s an obstacle.” And then we can say, “You know what? I need to take a step back. I need to look at this from a bigger perspective. Is this really so important?” Or, “I need to stop getting so upset about this so I can think about it. I need to take a break.” We can distance. We can go from being very present to being a little bit more distant as we need to.
That’s another thing we can do with our experience. We can engage in intersubjectivity. We can try to simulate what another person might be experiencing, either in relationship to us or away from us. When you think about what empathy means, what theory of mind is, what perspective-taking is, they’re all three basically the same thing, they’re all based on our ability to try to simulate other people’s experiences. Whether it’s their feelings, whether it’s their intentions, whether it’s their mental state. It’s all about being able to use our own experience but to infer and simulate what other people might be experiencing.
All of those things are part of the experience management system. What neuroscientists found, as I sort of hinted to a couple of minutes ago, was that there is a neurological equivalent of our experience management system called the experience management network. That’s actually equivalent of what I’ve been talking about at a mental level that allows us, that gives us the ability to function in this way. That’s a very dynamic system, so it’s composed of three networks and if you don’t study neuroscience they won’t mean much to you: The executive control network, the default network which is that original discovery, and what we call the salience network.
These three networks can operate separately and they can operate together. They can also operate in conjunction with a more traditional intelligence network. Neuroscientists use the term task positive network, I call it the task management network, which is just another way of talking about more traditional intelligence. We can function with those or without those. You can function in a much more effortless, sort of creative way where you do much more mind wandering, or it can be in a more focused way where you’re using creativity and imagination and you’re using future projection to actually help create a plan and prepare for something.
Neuroscientists have found, “Hey, guess what? That type of functioning is …” They’ve become very excited about it. In fact, the initial paper, looking at that, was only published in 2007 so if you think about it, it was just in the last ten years where we understand the sort of tripartite or triple network which is so critical and so powerful. By the way, we’re also still impaired in autism. If you look at the research on the one research area where we’ve really found significant differences in that function, the tripartite network and specifically in how it integrates together.
Not only just how it works together, but what neuroscientists have begun to realize is that our brain is an incredibly complex dynamic organ. It is able to operate on a moment-to-moment basis in many different ways. If you think about something, like I said, the default network, and by the way these networks are not physically adjacent to one another, they’re functional networks, they’re areas of the brain that are activated at the same time for certain tasks, certain functions. They’re basically a large number or several different sort of scattered different areas of the cervical cortex and also some subcortical connections, but they’re richly connected to one another in typical development and intra-connected as well.
But we’ve found that even those networks have subareas that have certain different functions and can team up and form momentary coalitions with other sub-networks of other networks. Moment-to-moment we can form different little coalitions of these areas for different functions, different tasks, and our brain does that. They develop what we call brain states and we can move from one to the other to the other to the other. If we have the repertoire, if we could develop that repertoire of brain states which occurs over periods of years and years and years. We’re not born with those, those are things that are very sophisticated that really take years and years to develop that level of flexibility and agility.
It allows us to adapt to all kinds of situations and to develop throughout our lives new coalitions, new formations of brain states based on the situations that we’re having to deal with in our lives. It’s an amazing thing. If you think about dynamic intelligence and the term dynamic intelligence, it’s the ability to function in complex dynamic environments and dynamic systems. By the way, the neurologists use the term dynamic functional connectivity, so they really got to the dynamic first, so I’m just taking that and moving into the intelligence, which is the type of intelligence that we are developing based on that dynamic functional connectivity of the experience management network.
The educators are starting to think about this and I don’t know what terms they’re using, experience based learning I think they’re talking about, and they are starting to look at the neuroscience more to help think about what education should be. How much that’s being done is another question. Hopefully that gives you a real sense of how amazing dynamic intelligence is. The thing about it is, is that it’s something that we’ve until very recently taken for granted or just something that happens.
Think about intuitive judgment, think about how you make a judgment. I’ll give you another example, there are so many. You’re trying to hang a painting or a picture on your wall. How do you judge when it’s straight enough? What is it that you do? Based on the context, if you were an art curator in a museum you’d probably be very precise about it. If you’re just hanging it up, a college kid in a dorm room, you’re not going to be, you don’t need to be. Your judgments are based on the context and we make that so effortless, we don’t even think about that. There’s a million examples like that using our intuitive judgment.
Again, that is based on that experience management system. It’s based on a prior experience in our ability to develop this type of situational matching that immediately allows us to then move into this context and match it up with prior context and then develop our responses and our judgments based on that, as well as looking at what’s novel and what’s different in the current situation, we’re able to do both of those.
This recent evolutionary advance, and when I say recent over the last couple hundred thousand years, is what allows homo sapiens to have thrived, but it’s been sort of hidden away, it’s never been … We don’t educate it, we don’t try to develop it, we just sort of take it for granted. I think one of the crises we face right now as a species by the way if we’re going to survive, thrive, is whether we’re going to acknowledge it and put it at the forefront, and there’s a lot of debate about that.
When we look at autism, it’s not even a question of that because what we see with autism is those are exactly … If you’ve been listening to what I’ve been saying, those are exactly the impairments that researchers have found with people with autism. One of the reasons that researchers have been so confused is they tend to take these dynamic tasks, if you will, or situations, and put them in a laboratory and make them static.
They take something like theory of mind, which is about moment-to-moment sort of intersubjectivity and thinking about … As you’re moving along, as you’re having a conversation, as you’re being with someone how you might stop and consider what they’re thinking or what they’re feeling or take their perspective or whatever, and they turned it into something like a salient test, they turned it into a static test and lo and behold a lot of people with autism could do it because they were able to use their traditional skills, their IQ skills which were not impaired, to be able to solve the problem. But then they looked and realized they couldn’t do it, they just couldn’t do it at all.
For years, unfortunately, researchers have muddied that process up because they don’t like to observe, they like to put things in a lab, they just … They’re addicted to lab. They’re not like Piaget, remember Piaget developed this entire theory by watching these kids grow up. Probably the most powerful influence of all … By the way, Vygotsky did the same, he didn’t run lab experiments. Two people, maybe Jerome Bruner could be a third. You think about the people who have had the most influence on our developmental psychology, our understanding of development, they didn’t do it with lab experiments.
Unfortunately we now train generations of people, that’s all they do, and in autism it’s even worse. They take people with autism and they don’t want to observe them in the world, they want to test them in these little rigid environments. In the last few years they finally realized, “Oh, we have to throw all that out because what we’re doing is testing the things that people with autism can do.” No wonder we’re getting … This researcher comes up with this result and this one comes up with this result.
There’s now finally in the last couple of years been somewhat of the beginnings of a backlash of saying, “Wait a minute. We have to look at the real world and we have to start looking …” Research doesn’t mean putting somebody in a lab, in fact it distorts everything. Research means you’re going out in the world and you see what’s happening and then you try to understand it. You observe and you find regularities and then you can test those out and see if it’s true over different people in different situations. But you don’t screw up … Your evidence base can’t be based on artificial situations because you won’t see what’s going on.
But anyway, the research that has done that is very clear that the deficits in mental time travel, the differences in self, experiencing your own feelings, experiencing intersubjectivity, as we all know, major deficits in autism. Everything fits with the … And also the neuroscience, which is so powerful, is a perfect fit with failure of development of the experience management system, whether that’s psychological, it’s the same thing. Whether you see it in a psychological sphere or on a scanner you’re seeing the same thing, you’re just seeing the equivalent of that.
What’s fascinating about that is that gives us an enormous, if we can understand that, if we can put that together it gives us an enormous place to think about how to intervene. We have to develop and remediate that impairment and then we have to ask the question, “Why is that impaired?” It’s not that hard to answer why it’s that impaired because what we know from studying infants and toddlers who go on to have autism is that by the time they’re at 18 months of age they’re not able to actively participate in what I call a mind-guiding relationship, the type of relationship where parents get to guide the development of their minds.
We know from our research which has been done that that relationship, even though people use different terms to talk about it, it’s the same thing, is where things like theory of mind come from and intersubjectivity. It’s where mental time travel comes from. It’s the source, that type of experience based learning with a mindful guide, if you will, who has helped to develop your mind, is the source of those abilities. It’s how we develop our experience management system through experiential learning, not through instruction, not through accumulation, not through repetition. Yes, you have to have mastery but mastery does not mean rote stuff or repetition between things.
We also know that through those experiences of mind guiding that the brain develops as well. We have studies now that show how critical that is for neural development. You can see why dynamic intelligence then becomes such a critical thing for us to be talking about and thinking about because it gets to really the essence not just of autism but really most of all of our human species, I think.
Kat Lee: Thanks for joining us for ASD: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child. And we do encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.