Thursday, August 23, 2012


Though I took the honors Biology course in tenth grade, as an adult my understanding of genetics is borderline ignorant.  My interest does not extend to fruit flies or for that matter to other animal species.  It is restricted to homo sapiens.  And in practice I tend to think of genetics like Neapolitan ice cream.  Each of us is a package of separate flavors.  So you look for a trait in one of your parents and then see if that trait exists in you or in your offspring.  Here's a benign example.  My wife's family is known for having odd shaped calves below the knee - wider than on other persons of their size.  Sure enough, one of my kids has those type of calves.  You can do that sort of thing with other physical characteristics as well - hair color, size and shape of the ears, height, etc.

If you reflect on this view, even for just a little while, you'll come to realize it has severe deficiencies.  One is that the flavors have to be limited in number and sufficiently macroscopic that each can be readily detected when it is realized.  But, for example, consider a painting done in the style of Pointillism.  At a sufficient distance from the painting to recognize the full image it may be impossible to pick out individual dots at all, let alone to determine the color of one.  Might that also be the way it is with traits, the child a very complex amalgam of the parents but with only a few distinctive markings of the parents as individuals?

Another is that it entirely abstracts from nurture.  The idiosyncrasies in the way kids are raised may be as variegated as their genetic composition.  How should one account for that?  As a young man I put in considerable time at the card table along with some additional time studying in my apartment and by doing so was able to get an intuitive feel for determining which way to play a finesse in bridge.  I don't know what analogous experience would provide a similar sort of feel for what happens when the genetics Neapolitan gets combined with the child rearing Rocky Road.  I suspect the possibilities are so numerous as to defy an ability to count them, even approximately.  Contemplating it this way, it seems especially ignorant to try to identify the causality of one parent's genes when looking at the behavior of the child.

The third deficiency regards mutation, which we typically don't detect till we see abnormality in the offspring.  (To me the word abnormal carries a negative connotation, though potentially the mutation could be beneficial rather than deleterious, presumably the driver behind evolution.)  It's hard to know which parent is responsible for the mutation. I'm writing this piece partially as commentary on a NY Times piece, which itself is about a recent article in Nature to the effect that the dad's age matters for whether the child has autism.  (This result is surprising.  It's already well known that the mom's age matters too.)  The critical cutoff seems to be 40 years old.  Dads above 40 face an increasing risk that their child will be autistic.  My dad was 41 when he had me, 43 when he had my younger brother.  I'm the middle child.  My dad was 36 when my sister was born.  I was 37 when my first son was born, so even more of a slowpoke than my dad.  But my wife and I didn't space out the births as much and we were content to stop with two kids.

Let me hold off before discussing my own behavior that is in the autism family and mention the other source that got me thinking about this.  The Charlie Rose show has been doing reruns of their Brain Series and they had a full show devoted to autism.  I had watched it in its entirety when it first aired and watched a good chunk of it again this week.  One thing you get in a second viewing is to focus on some particulars; I noticed that when Asperger's Syndrome came up Eric Kandel made a point of saying it was part of a larger spectrum of ways that autism manifests rather than its own separate syndrome.  That seems to be the current conclusion and I'm fine with that, though when I first learned about Asperger's when my kids were little I was pleased with the diagnosis because a big part of it seemed to be a failure to understand visual/spatial cues the way most people do and the normal response by the person with it is to become very controlling so as to keep the environment stable in a way it can be readily managed.  This diagnosis seemed to fit my mother extremely well.  Most of my life I had thought my mother's domineering behavior a consequence of her having grown up Jewish in Nazi Germany, the need to survive in that environment warping her personality substantially.  So it was something of a revelation that there might be a different explanation, one steeped in family history, one that seemingly connects my children to my parents.

Now let me talk about my own situation in this dimension.  I definitely had the problem of extreme shyness in my teens and early adulthood.  I had a lot of trouble making eye contact, particularly with adults who had some position of authority and whom I otherwise didn't know well.   Without elaborating on the details, as a teen I ended up getting some professional counseling and in those sessions we made a big deal of the eye contact issue.  I was forced to stare at the counselor's eyes as we had our conversation.  Initially this was unnerving.  Eventually I got used to it, which I suppose was the goal of the activity.  However, to this day I don't know whether the discomfort actually went away or if, like Gordon Liddy, the discomfort was still there but I stopped minding.  I do know that while I don't always choose this approach, at an unpleasant committee meeting I can make eye contact with the speaker and lock into that so the speaker soon turns to somebody else who isn't so intently gazing on him.  I also know that I can do this when in the audience of a presentation where in this case the eye contact is meant to be helpful to the speaker to show that I'm paying attention.

For somebody with some aspects of extreme shyness/autism, the eye contact thing really isn't that important.  All it is, in the language we learned from the movie Rounders, is a certain type of tell; it shows the emotional cards the shy person is holding.  The shy person might not even be trying to conceal those cards.  Concealment comes because of shame.  Sometimes the situation warrants that, other times not.  The eye contact thing really matters more to others, who are making some judgment about the person.  It then becomes part of a bigger picture.  Consider this paragraph from a book review about the new biography of Joe Paterno.

What people admired about Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State football coach, was that he communicated a code of behavior that felt as immaculate and timeless as the plain blue and white uniforms his teams wore. He taught his players the kind of Dale Carnegie values that are easy to mock: hustle, discipline, academic achievement, charity, looking people in the eye, showing up on time, making the extra effort. 

What the shy person cares about is that sense of utter dread that arises because the situation seems like it is more than the person can handle.  If the coaching on the eye contact that I received is only a way to mask one of the symptoms, nothing more, shouldn't we consider the root cause?  My question, the one that prompted the title of this post, is what should be done about the dread itself?  Should the person confront his fears, square on, because that's the only way to overcome them?   Or should the person not take on more than he can chew and only very gradually let general maturity help in overcoming the shyness, so as not to become too stressed out and then go over the deep end by taking it on quickly?  Does the shyness disappear entirely when the person has reached a sufficiently mature stage? 

I don't know the answer as to what should be done about the shyness.  Ideally we confront our own fears on our own terms.  Unfortunately, life falls far short of our ideals all too often.  I do know, however, that the shyness doesn't go away entirely.  It may very well be that the dread ceases to be a big problem, but that's because the current situation sufficiently mimics prior experience that there is nothing new to dread.  As we learned in doing hard math proofs, it is sufficient to reduce the situation down to a previously solved problem.  As you get older, more and more of what we do lacks novelty.  Just this week, however, I had one of those new experiences and I was in a complete dread about it.  It regarded my mother's pension in Austria.  I don't speak the language.  Nor do I understand the culture of the people who work for the pension authority or the other people who work for the bank where the pension is on deposit.  A couple of years ago I remember going with my son to the Motor Vehicle Bureau because there was something wrong with his driver's license and he needed to get that adjusted.  He seemed in a panic about having to deal with the people at the DMV, the mindless civil servant who has power over us because we give it to him.  I was exactly the same way with having to deal with the people in Austria.  If I hadn't had my friend Jim with me to make the calls (he speaks German and has spent some time in Austria), I wouldn't have been able to make any progress whatsoever. 

In preparing to write this piece I did a Google search on "shyness introversion autism" (without the quotes).  In common use shyness and introversion are often treated as synonyms, though they are not the same, as this piece from Psychology Today makes abundantly clear.  But the labeling is ultimately not that interesting and for my taste too much of this stuff is written from the vantage of a third party observer.  The real interesting issues are about coping, regardless of the labels.  What works?   We need stories from insiders who have tried things and benefited from their experiments.  Anybody who does social experiments of this sort knows it isn't one success after another.  So we need stories about the failures too.  This is the ought-ism we should have.

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