Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Of Aspergers and Robots (They Just Might Both be Capable of Emotions)

I ended my previous post with a word in about the importance of emotions and a sense of humor even in seemingly strictly rational endeavors and I thought that the topic deserved some further discussion. As with most Aspergers, I struggle against a public perception that we are simply rational automatons, robots without emotions. Anyone who has ever spent time with Aspergers knows that this is false. Asperger syndrome is not the lack of emotions; it is the inability to effectively display emotion in a manner understandable to others. In other words, it is the "disability" of neurotypicals, who cannot understand our emotions to the same extent that we seem to be hopeless at deciphering their emotions. By emotions I mean in the positive sense of being able to desire, hope and even find joy and in the negative sense to be able to have one's feelings hurt, to be afraid and even at times to fall into despair. The hallmark of all of these things is that in of themselves they are not rational, not subject to rational control (in terms of feelings, not actions) and have no directly Utilitarian value.

There are a number of reasons why Aspergers come across as lacking emotions. The first is that we relate to the world primarily in terms of information and not social connections. So Aspergers have an affinity for strings of information, in my case primarily history, but also politics and even the lyrics of Broadway musicals (I can remember lyrics, I just cannot sing them). The obvious conclusion from seeing someone spouting information is that such a person is precisely that, just information without emotion; what a robot would do. This is only enhanced by the fact that most Aspergers do not convey facial expressions in the same way and to the same extent as neurotypicals. Just as Aspergers have trouble reading neurotypical body language, neurotypicals have trouble reading Asperger body language. (I will leave it as an open question as to whether Aspergers fail to read body language due to not having developed one of their own or whether they do not develop conventional body language due to their inability to read the body language of others.)

What should strike one as odd about this seemingly common sense view of Aspergers as information spewing robots is that it fails to explain why an Asperger would bother going through the effort of learning the information and passing it along? Might I suggest that the reason why Aspergers do this is that it makes them happy in the same irrational way that neurotypicals find happiness in the mere presence of friends and in having a relationship with them? The very act of being a "robot" it turns out is only possible for one with emotions.

One has to understand that the Asperger experience is profoundly one not of lacking emotions, but of having emotions and not having them being understood while at the same time being held hostage to the emotional demands of others. Is it any wonder that one might wish from time to time to cut away one's heart and be just pure reason? Aspergers learn from early on to attempt to distinguish between emotions and reason. Reason is that which you have some hope of being able to convey to others so that they will listen. Recently I was sitting in a lounge when I overheard a meeting for a planned student trip to Germany. What struck me was the leader's continuous emphasis on the need to distinguish between reason and emotions. It is well and good for these students to find Germany and setting foot on German soil to be emotionally trying. No one is asking them to ever become comfortable with Germany or ever wish to live there. That being said, it would not be appropriate to take these emotions out on Germans they meet, the vast majority of them being born after World War II and in no way responsible for the Holocaust. Possibly for the first time in their lives, these students were being asked to do what I do every day, recognize that their emotions have no validity outside of their own heads and cannot be used to gain moral leverage over others.

Probably the greatest proof that Aspergers have emotions is that, unfortunately, so many of us suffer from depression. It makes sense; you would also be depressed if you had to live your life cut off from other people in a world distinctively not made with you in mind. To be depressed means that you can be bothered by these things, something only possible with deep emotions. For this reason, I strongly relate to Marvin, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's depressed robot. With the exception of the Arthur Dent, Marvin is the most poignantly human character in the series. If I am going to be stuck as a robot, I would hope to transcend my depressive existence by becoming Wall-E, a trash can robot, who says almost nothing but manages to be the fictional humanist hero of the decade.


Clarissa said...

Great post! I linked back to it here: http://clarissasbox.blogspot.com/2010/06/do-people-with-aspergers-have-emotions.html

A lot of work will be required to change the weird preconceived notions that people glean about us from popular culture.

eric said...

Of course us aspies have emotions...we just express them differently. Thankfully, my wife (who is NOT an aspie) realizes this, and tolerates my deep interest in guitars and philosophy.
The notion that there is some a priori disjunction between reason and emotion is very deeply embedded in Western culture, and nowhere more than here in the US, unfortunately, where "gut feeling" is mistaken for a profound political stance, and any degree of non-utilitarian intellectual curiosity smacks of dryness, snobbery, and other-worldliness.

cringe-all said...

Hi Izgad, I came here through clarissa's link. It was a very interesting and educational read, thank you. What particularly intrigues me is that I certainly share some of the features you describe. I am mostly unsocial, do not attach much significance to superficial human relationships, and love facts and figures more than anything else, and struggle . People also think I am very rational, sometimes at the cost of personal happiness. However nobody has diagnosed me or suggested that I am an aspie so far (I've been to a shrink once), and I guess my childhood behavior patterns were not very symptomatic. I am just wondering
whether it might not be that what you are saying is more general, and there is a certain broad personality type (including aspies) that likes logic and order better than emotion and human company, and consequently faces social problems and depression. That, or that I am indeed a closet aspie. :)

Izgad said...


I recognize that there are no hard lines between Aspergers and the rest of society. On the contrary, pretty much everything we associate with Aspergers can be found in parts of the general society even if it is in a more moderate form. That is the limitation of using the term “Asperger.” Simon Baron Cohen actually argues that Aspergers is really just an extreme version of the “male” brain. (Probably one of the reasons why I have such trouble dating. :P)
If, as expected, in a few years the diagnostic manual drops the term for simply Autism spectrum, it might make sense to resurrect Aspergers in a general non-autistic sense as an Asperger personality, which likely would include people like you. The purpose of this would be to advocate for people with our mental orientation purely as a minority group no different from blacks or gays.

IS said...

You & Clarissa have given me a great gift in sharing your thoughts on Aspergers. I have charm which attracts people to me - still - I feel best in social situations where I can discuss ideas and theories and all kinds of what if scenarios. Emotional interactions with others are extremely hard for me. I've never heard about Aspergers in any detail until I took the quiz from Clarissa's blog. I scored relatively high - 144.
Your gift to me is the idea that I don't have to be fixed.
Thank you -
What shall I do with my free time?
And, could you fix "their's" [sic] in the first paragraph? It's already possessive - no need for an apostrophe.

Izgad said...

Thank you Iris.

I view being an Asperger much like being gay. No one asks homosexuals to take a test to prove they are gay. You are gay if you wish to identify yourself as such and join the gay community. If you wish to call yourself an Asperger welcome to the club. There is likely an Asperger group in your city that you can join with people you should be able to relate very easily to. Best of luck.

IS said...


A group where I would feel comfortable - a novel yet welcome idea.