“Never Daydream”? Umm…


The BBC has a story called “Autistic Brains Never Daydream”, that discusses an experiment in which autistic brains and non-autistic brains were different ‘at rest’.

This supposedly shows that autistic people don’t daydream. I don’t know all the details of the experiment, but it involved measuring the brain activity of autistic and non-autistic people, both during a counting task, and while staring at a cross. There was a particular kind of brain activity that occurred in non-autistic people “at rest” (looking at the cross), that did not occur in autistic people “at rest”.

The question I’m asking here is, how do they know the autistic people were “at rest” while looking at the cross? When I’m looking at something, that’s not restful activity, no matter how still the something is sitting. I’ve daydreamed before, though. It seems like they could just as well have been testing the difference between when autistic and non-autistic people are likely to daydream, as the difference between whether autistic and non-autistic people daydream.

I hope the experiment was designed better than the news articles are making it look like, because if it wasn’t, I don’t know how they can claim to know all that based on the experiment as described.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

17 responses »

  1. Just say a bunch of words that only make sense to you, and you too can be an expert

    We speculate that the lack of deactivation in the autism group is indicative of abnormal internally directed processes at rest, which may be an important contribution to the social and emotional deficits of autism.”

    It’s not exactly double negatives, but… an activation of an inactive process contributes to deficits…maybe…they turn on no processes and that is why they aren’t friendly? Too much bullshit for me to wade through…

    Funny you should print this. My son was telling me yesterday about his “secret world” (his name for it) in which he has another name and life, his “daydreams”. I can’t say anything about it because it was the first time he had given me any information about his inner(?) world, in which he is actively engaged (I mean, he talks outloud when he is in it as though his daydreaming surroundings are really in existence in present time.) I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone!

  2. The report really confused me—I’ve often thought Charlie was doing what I would call “daydreaming” when his eyes are looking slantwise and he is, as is said, “not attending.”

    I myself much like daydreaming….

  3. I can’t tell from the newspaper article whether there was any indication that *anybody* was daydreaming during the 21-second “rest periods” between the 30-second counting exercises.

    Maybe it is just safe to assume that non-autistic subjects were taking the opportunity to speculate about what it would be like to have sex while lying in the fMRI thingy, or what the fMRI operator would look like naked. But I’m no psychologist; I don’t know.

    When my son is not outwardly engaged, he is usually smiling. He refuses to say why, other than that he is “thinking of something amusing.” Could be daydreaming.

  4. Wow. And it never occurred to me that Alex didnt daydream… I know he does.

    This experiment looks like they decided on the outcome beforehand, then slotted the findings in to fit. Like its tied in with the old autistics dont have imagination line. All they really found out was autistic brains react differently when looking at a cross. So therefore autistic brains and non autistic brains have differences! What a find!!! (sarcasm!)

  5. This is, I suspect, yet another example of a scientific experiment using dreadful methodology and loaded with all kinds of biases. What they might be I don’t know but I suspect a lot of scientists would love to be able to definitively tell the world what autism is all about and how it can be gotten rid of.

  6. *falls over laughing*

    In the 1950s through the 1980s, daydreaming was supposed to be a “danger sign” indicating incipient autism. Ah, those thrilling days of yesteryear when autism was supposed to mean a kid was “lost in a fantasy”. All that “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” bologna. I still bristle when I read references to “in his own world” about autism.

    Naturally, the Ex-Perts (just like R.B. says) have to stay ahead of the curve, so now we have “extreme male brains” and “lack theory of mind” and are incapable of fantasizing. Which, taken to its logical extreme, means we are incapable of conceiving new ideas, being creative, or uh… gee, independent thought.

    We have a homeworld too… have had all our lives. Only difference is that we no longer talk out loud when interacting with there. (More bologna, about “losing it when you grow up.”)

    R.B., I’m curious about something though — if you promised not to tell anyone about your son’s secret world, why reveal it here?

  7. He didn’t want me to tell the particulars, and he gave me a lot !

    He has always told me he has a secret world, and I had NO idea what he meant. Now, he has given me the particulars of it, and I understand that he has a vivid imagination! The things he shared are sacred to me…the fact that he daydreams is not.

    I felt honored by his trust. I hope I only revealed what was necessary to show his imagination.

  8. That’s a load of crap. I don’t need to analyze it to know it’s wrong. I’m an Aspie and I daydream, so there. No one knows my head better than I do! *sticks out tongue*

  9. You know, I’ve seen a lot of reports that made me go ‘…you’re joking, right?’ but this is the first one that’s got me completely convinced that the people who actually work these things out don’t actually know any autistics, whatsoever.

    I’m not sure my brain knows how NOT to daydream…

  10. Apparently, they assumed for some reason that the cross would be perceived as a neutral or blank pattern. (Considering the number of people for whom some type of cross has religious or symbolic significance, I’m really amazed that they could consider that even for non-autistic people.)

    You can’t determine that someone ‘never’ daydreams based on their reaction to a single non-neutral pattern. This seems to be the kind of junk science that the press is hungry for, however; you see a lot of similar bullshit in regards to male-female differences, conducted under similarly flawed conditions, and all I can conclude is that the media is generally hungry for any kind of study that purports to show how one group of people intrinsically differs from (read: is inferior to/incapable of doing the same things as) “normal people,” and which might justify stereotype-based treatment of them.

  11. that’s a poorly designed test. One could easily flip it, one of the kids I work with daydreams whenever it’s story time. Most of the NT kids don’t though. (I know he’s daydreaming because if I don’t occupy him enough to keep him sitting, he’ll go entertain himself.)

    Or what about a NT expert in christian iconography, would such a person daydream while looking at a cross? Maybe they don’t daydream either!

    weak design. A test like that would have to be done over a larger series of objects. Even the colour of the wall, lighting in the room, time of day, etc. would have to be controlled.

    Scientists think they’re so clever sometimes.

  12. Funny how the BBC and New Scientist draw different conclusions from the PNAS paper (which sadly I can’t access).

    “Autistic brains ‘never daydream’

    People with autism do not daydream, a study has found.”

    New Scientist:
    “Daydreams are different in autistic minds

    PEOPLE with autism seem not to daydream in the way that other people do.”

  13. Pingback: Autism Vox » Daydream Believer

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