Monday, 25 June 2012

Alan Turing, Autism & Ice Cream

On 28th May 2012 my ice-cream obsessed affectionate musical happy empathetic party-loving mischievous expressive easy-going popular curious and undeniably quizzical three year old son (let’s call him Joseph K) was assessed by a trio of clip-board wielding psychosomethings. After one hour of observation and a short break for deliberation they reconvened and pronounced the sentence. “Autism”. On the 29th May I visited Bletchley Park with a small group including my  85 year old father who had trained as a radio operator there during the second world war when it was the centre of British code-breaking operations. He was keen to visit the hut where he had worked, and was excited to discover that the adjacent  building had held the spartan office of an athletic playful romantic thoughtful witty humane driven and undeniably eccentric mathematician and cryptanalyst named Alan Turing. During and shortly after the war, Turing’s name was almost unknown outside the worlds of mathematics, cryptanalysis and long-distance running. But in mathematics he had achieved distinction in his early 20s by showing 1) why the world was predictable in its unpredictability; and 2) that its unknowability could be known. The former required proving the central limit theorem, which explains why many traits, such as IQs, tend to follow a bell-shaped or Gaussian curve (Turing later discovered that a Finnish mathematician, Jarl Lindeberg,  had proved the result 13 years earlier). The latter involved solving the meaty Entscheidungsproblem, the decision problem, by showing (decisively) that there was no solution: no algorithm exists for deciding whether a statement of first order logic is valid based on the axioms and rules of logic. This time he was pipped by just a few weeks by the American logician Alonzo Church. Some people (I’m not one of them) think this work has major implications for understanding consciousness. Turing also had trials for a place in the British marathon team for the 1948 London Olympics, but failed to  qualify by just a few minutes.

Exactly 100 years after his birth, Turing is now (of course) recognised to have made some of the most original and far-reaching contributions to mathematics, computing,  theoretical biology, logic and cryptanalysis. In his own time the mind that made these contributions was thought by the psychiatric profession to be diseased. Turing enjoyed having sex with other men.  Until 1973 homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder  in  the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual (DSM). A related diagnosis “ego-dystonic homosexuality” (the impressive sounding name for “persistent distress from a sustained pattern of unwanted homosexual arousal” or “a persistent lack of heterosexual arousal, which the patient experienced as interfering with initiation or maintenance of wanted heterosexual relationships”) didn’t get kicked out until 1986.  Which is a roundabout way of saying there might be one or two  reasons for not taking the DSM too seriously.

Strawberry deprivation

We live in enlightened times. Turing, following his conviction for homosexual conduct in 1952, was given a choice between prison and forced injections of female hormones. My “autistic” son can, theoretically, choose from a smorgasbord of non-pharamaceutical  “early intervention” programs and  (on the paediatrician’s recommendations) between a gluten-free diet and strawberry deprivation therapy. One or two of these interventions might even be supported by evidence of their effectiveness. But how enlightened will 2012 look in 60 years time?  I would be surprised if we will be able to look back without being slightly appalled both by the crudity of our classifications of different types of mind, and at the inhumanity we  still tolerate towards those whose minds work differently.  For many classed has having mental disorders, such as Turing, the only suffering the "disorder" has caused is due to the bullying or thoughtlessness of others.  But what kind of disorder is that? If it’s the bullies who are causing the suffering why don’t we decide that they are they are the group with the mental disorder and treat them appropriately?

Thinking machines

Alan Turing thought that brains were matter and could be studied and understood just as  machines can be studied and understood. I agree. As the neurologically-intriguing nature of my son has revealed itself an exploration of various areas of brain science research has become something of a hobby. In a sense, this research is a global  attempt to decipher the ultimate cryptogram, and is as exciting and glamorous an enterprise as the code-cracking at Bletchley. I plan to blog intermittently about aspects of this research - and in particular about language, music, dreams, autism, Williams Syndrome, and other brain-related subjects from the perspective of a curious and  interested outsider. I am a practicing scientist and work in the fields of epidemiology and mathematical biology,  another area where Alan Turing made a wonderful contribution [1].  I know next to nothing about brains,   but I do know something about how to read a scientific paper, and I hope this will help me to make some interesting research accessible to a wider public.  There are also some great experiments the brain hobbyist can do at home, both on his or her own brain or on the brains of friends, lovers, parents, children. I'll try to collect some of those here.

On the visit to Bletchley my son became fascinated by the working model of a bombe, Turing’s stupendously complex  code-breaking machine. Turing's bombe had evolved from a machine developed by Polish cryptanalysts which was whimsically named after the ice cream sundae - bomba or bombe - they were eating when they came up with the idea for the machine (some obsessions are universal). Stupendously complex, that is, until you see the working model of the Colossus round the corner, and then realise that that monster contains only a tiny fraction of the computing power of the phone in your pocket, which in turn is a computational  nematode compared to cognitive leviathan that has just finished decoding this sentence.

[1] The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis (1952). Turing AM. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 237, No. 641,  pp. 37-72.


  1. The misguided bid to turn Alan Turing into an Asperger’s martyr

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. That article/link was a joke, and nothing short of "opinion", and like assholes, everyone has one. The simple fact is, Turing displayed "traits" of autism. But no one is saying he ":is" autistic, that can never be substantiated, he's dead. But the theory is no less real then the theory that he displayed signs of autism, therefor the possibility exists that he was autistic? The world would be a very different place without autism. I find it strange as too "why" people would want to have a difference of opinion on Turing's Autistic traits? Evidence was seen, the out come may be autism? Where is the evidence, against it? All this poorly informative link spewed out was an opinion! That its become, "standard" for eccentrics to be classed as autistic? Daft. Please, give me some good argument, not this dribble.