Thursday, March 7, 2013


One of the cool things about models is that, well, they're just models. Models ways to think about things that make it easier to understand context and implication. Models can be built upon and extended to accommodate new ways of thinking. A model can be discarded when it's no longer the most useful way to think about something.

The problem with models is that they often cease to be seen as such. Models have this uncanny ability to morph into truths. Models that become truths often draw adherents and proponents, morphing from truth to religion (secular and spiritual). In some instances, pervasive adherence to a model makes it nearly impossible to see that it's just a model, even for those who don't particularly like or believe in the model.

All this doesn't doesn't change the fact that a model is just a model. A model is a way of thinking about something, not a replacement for thinking about something. A model is a means, not an end; it's a process, not a purpose.

The ADHD Model
For example, autism and ADHD are models. They're ways of thinking about patterns of behavior, what causes them and how to change them. Autism and ADHD don't exist per se; they're models.

In many instances these models are quite useful. However, like any model, they can be limiting, specially when applied by those who've learned them second and third hand.

From a model perspective, people with ADHD have sensory systems that are nominally under-stimulated and people with autism have sensory systems that are easily over-stimulated. Someone who's bought into the models might point out that the stimulus-response patterns of someone with ADHD or someone with autism are consistent with this model.

This belief would have two challenges. First, the observed stimulus-response patterns are likely to have led to the diagnosis or classification. So it's not that people with ADHD are under-stimulated; it's that people who are nominally under-stimulated are tagged as having ADHD.

Second, the patterns of under- and over-stimulation are not consistently displayed. Someone with ADHD (nominally under-stimulated) may encounter situations that are over-stimulating. Someone with autism may find relief in strong-stimulation. Further, the forms of under- and over-stimulation may seem bizarre to someone from outside the pattern.

Blinded by Models
For example, a child with autism may flap his fingers in front of his eyes or rock back and forth or bang his head against a wall. To many adherents to the model, these activities lack any reason or function. They're wrong. These activities serve a purpose. They're ways for a child to help himself feel better, ways to drown out the noise of an over-stimulated sensory system by actively stimulating an under-stimulated one.

Sometimes the methods of feeling better become self-injurious. Because of the model, people see the self-injury as unrelated to the overstimulation of another sensory system. Abandoning the model, one can see that the degree of self-stimulation is proportional to the degree of discomfort a child is experiencing due to stimulation of some other system; they miss the opportunity to calibrate and understand what a child is experiencing internally.

Yesterday while driving home, I recognized where my buy-in to the ADHD model had precluded my seeing a pattern in myself. I'm nominally under-stimulated, which is to say that I don't feel comfortable unless something's going on. On the flip-side I feel quite comfortable in situations where so much is happening that others feel out of control. All this is consistent with the model.

Nonetheless, for years I've found myself in situations that are overstimulating and leave me with a mild sense of anxiety. Yesterday, I figured it out. I do really well with complex, rapid-paced visual stimuli racing by me. I thrive on dynamic, visual noise. However, if that noise becomes static, I begin to feel really uncomfortable. For me, racing down a mountain trail on a bike or zigzagging down Fifth Avenue are soothing experiences. However, seeing every horizontal surface of my office cluttered with stuff that Iris might have left here or there can be pure torture.

Feeling tortured, my responses to what others would see as nothing at all are often perceived as, well, disproportionate to the situation. Fortunately for me, the person to whom I'm most likely responding really understands kids with autism and knows that even people with ADHD may also have autism-like experiences.

Happy Friday,


  1. Among the latest developments in quantum physics, cosmology and neuroscience is the proposal of a new field called qualia science, which postulates that the model (at its most fundamental level) actually creates the reality it claims to observe. Hmmm.

  2. Wow, Sree. Are they just figuring that out?

  3. Actually, 'they' aren't, Tef; there's maybe one or two guys who are just *proposing* this at the moment. The rest have a severe case of digging-in-itis. I read a story the other day about how the Higgs boson was discovered in Geneva, involving big money (m/billions), thousands of scientists, over many years, and the comments featured more than a few science-types highlighting the 'dogma' prevalent in science, and how the current models were being verified by others using ... the same model.


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